Tuesday, 1 May 2012

A Song of Blah and Something: Wherefore Fantasy's Fixation on Merrie England?

Beautifully typical conversation with Straight Best Friend:

"Have you finished watching Game of Thrones yet?"

"YES I HAVE, and I therefore need to borrow your Edward Said collection."

"Brilliant! My housemate's been watching it and all he wants to talk about are the swords and dragons, LET'S TALK ORIENTALISM!"

So! Skimming over the Mysterious And Savage Eastern Others, the Child-Ladies Who Love Their Rapists, and the Girls Who Are Good Because They Disdain Girly Things in A Song Of Rape And Rapists (not that this would not be fun! But because it has been covered with far more incisive hilarity than I could hope to attain, here), I have one question for you, and it is this: why is absolutely all fantasy fiction set in a dragon-enhanced version of the West European high middle ages?

1. The Social Justice Blogger's Answer: Because of the misogyny
It is indeed a "fundamentally conservative yearning for a time when (white) men brandished swords for their King, (white) women stayed in the castle and made babies, marriage was a beautiful sacrament between a consenting adult and whichever fourteen-year-old girl he could manage to buy off her Dad, and poor people and people of color were mostly invisible" (from the Sady Doyle article), BUT, as A Person With A History Degree, I can safely inform you that Ye Merrie Myddle Ages are far from unique in this regard: pick an era, any era, and you're pretty sure to find a whole bunch of lady-hating, and other-races-hating, and poor-people-hating.

2. The TV History Answer: Everyone Loves Henry VIII
Much as it pains me to say it, most people aren't interested in the long duree, wider social forces, let's talk about the rise of the industrial bourgeoisie kind of history. They want the entertaining soap operas, and no soap opera is more ridiculous and engrossing than that of Big Henry's Quest For A Son. That, and the fact that mandatory UK education in history dies with Elizabeth I, means that the most familiar image we have for The Past in general is a bawdy, boisterous Tudor court, all flagons of ale and busty maidens and beheading. (It's probably got something to do with our cultural obsession with Shakespeare too, although technically he was early modern. [Yeah, I AM that fucking cool.])

3. The I Also Have A Sociology A-level Answer: Close Enough
Making up an entirely new fictional universe is pretty hard work: it's a lot easier to take something that already exists and tack on bits you like, chop out bits you don't, and stick a dragon on top. Plus, your audience needs to be able to relate, on some level, to what's going on: you could invent a magical consciousness monster that hovers in the shadows between this world and the next, and tell your entire story from its point of view, but unless it has an emotional life that is somewhat similar to that of humans? Very few people are going to care. SO, you start with your humanoids, you grab the tropes lying closest to hand (again: dragons! Because everyone else who's ever written a fantasy story is basically building on the whole Arthur legend thingy), you pick a historical epoch which is familiar enough to be relatable but distant enough to be romantic, and voila! Close enough - but weird enough - but weird in a familiar way.

Veering off into sci-fi for a second: while there are lots of jokes about how the Doctor is a million billion years old (okay, okay, I admit it, I know he's 909), his character is basically that of a human who just happens to be dead old yet youthful. The most moving moments (particularly in David Tennant's reign) were when you caught a glimpse of how it would actually feel to be this preposterously old person forced to watch history unfold while believing that you shouldn't do anything to alter its course: when a genuinely not-human character was properly drawn in a way that was entirely relatable to human feelings. Sci-fi and fantasy alike are meant to hold a mirror up to humanity: to use a world entirely different from our own to tell us something about the world we're stuck with.

But why this has to be the world of early 1500s England is still, 700 words later, something of a mystery to me.


  1. Well, the Song of Ice and Fire books are set in a pseudo English setting, because they're a response and takedown of the traditional fantasy setting. Dany has the role of "white person who is better at X than the native culture", to show that she ends up being terrible at it. The girl who hates girl things and the girl who loves them are sisters with parallel arcs.

    Also, you want some fantasy in other settings? Go read some N. K. Jemison and Guy Gavriel Kay (but not the Fionavar tapestry books) for a good start.

  2. Thanks for the recommendations!

  3. I'd also love to hear more on your reading of the series as a takedown of traditional fantasy if you'd like to expand?

  4. Martin has a large platform with this series, and while he initially focused on medieval England, he has been able to expand his vision to include a fantasy rending of all Eurasia. Another goal of the series is the deconstruction of traditional fantasy. The winners don't have to be good or moral, and magic users aren't all powerful Merlins. With what he's doing in mind, I think the question becomes more subtle. Even if the series is a deconstruction of traditional fantasy tropes, do we really need another fantasy series set in medieval England?

  5. Lovely article, and something that's bothered me a lot, too!

    Alternative culture fantasies... I'd second Amanda's rec of Guy Kay (except for Fionavar and Arbonne, he covers Nordic, Spanish, Chinese and Byzantine cultures). Also Raymond Feist and Janny Wurts' Empire series (AU Japan), David Eddings' Malloreon (European and Asian-type cultures). ^__^

  6. Because all High Fantasy derives ultimately from Tolkien.

  7. hlynn117 - thanks for expanding on that point. I've only watched the series, not read the books, so maybe this deconstruction thing is more obvious to readers, but while I can see some aspects of what you're saying - the 'being good doesn't mean you win' point, for example - for the most part it seems like the story perpetuates tropes rather than deconstructing them.

    macavitykitsune - thank you, for the recs and the compliment!

    Anonymous - fair point but then you might as well go back to the Arthurian legends.