Mark Charan Newton: Questions of Aesthetics in Fantasy

Author Mark Charan Newton came up with an interesting blog spot regarding the aesthetics in the fantasy genre. Here's an extract:

Why are the aesthetics of most secondary world fantasy novels quasi-medieval?

Why that approximate period more than any other? Sure there are Roman-tinged fantasies, those with Viking flavours and whatnot, but even those are rarities in the modern genre. I’m sure it’s not even particularly a conscious thing, but it just so happens that many – if not most – secondary world fantasy novels are set in a quasi-medieval Europe, something vaguely reminiscent of the Middle Ages, in terms of technology, culture, architecture, even in terms of political arrangements


There are some broad, sweeping answers to this, none of which quite satisfy me:

1. It’s all Tolkien’s fault.

2. It’s all George R.R. Martin’s fault.

3. Fantasy is pastoral, romantic – a symptom of yearning to escape from complex technological times.

4. We’re preoccupied with history, with re-imagining the past; an opposite, in some ways, of science fiction, that imagines the future.

5. We’ve all got a castle/power/wizard fetish. We dream of surroundings and opportunities that are way beyond quotidian life, because most of us will never be able to afford such luxuries/status/power. It is a yearning for capital.

6. Magic doesn’t seem as impressive when modern technology has an equal wow factor (or, iPads are better than spells).

7. Publishers won’t publish anything else, goddammit, so let’s blame them. It’s a conspiracy.

8. Something to do with swords and Freud.

I wonder about all of these points since, as a writer, I’m looking to exploit the reason people are interested in various forms of literature, and I like to look for ways to have my fun with it. But I can’t really find a satisfactory answer to why a good chunk of the genre is made up of a Middle Age Dreamland

Follow this link for Newton's full article.

Don't forget to check out the comment section, where Tobias S. Buckell and Hal Duncan offered their two cents!

24 commentaires:

Ted Cross said...

My feeling is that D&D played a role, but also that there is an enchanting mystery to the Dark Ages, since the Roman Empire period before that was generally well documented, and the period following the DA was also. We are left with this mysterious gap in knowledge, and from this we get legends such as King Arthur. I find that period of knights, whether unrealitically chivalric or the grim, bloody versions, to be utterly fascinating.

Bill said...

Interesting discussion. Thanks for the link, Pat.

Anonymous said...

A mixture of 3 and 5.
Anything is possible, or things seem meaningful, larger than life. And life feels purer (a bit of 6). Then, our fantasy and storytelling as a whole is to a large chunk medieval, and I guess the medieval times always held a strange fascination of horror and awe. So, when you go on, you end up with all those points of him, basically.

Brett said...

I think part of it is a legacy of the romanticist era, and from prior fantasy novels set in a medievalesque setting. It's easy to write similar stories to what came before, and publishers like stories with existing audiences that will sell.

I think it's also because guns are seen as too modern and "un-heroic" in much of fantasy. It doesn't help that high-quality guns (with bayonets) make all those cool pre-gun weapons ranging from spears to cross-bows obsolete, along with cool-looking fantasy armor.*

*Unless you explicitly interject magic into the setting to preserve the use of these weapons and armor.

Personally, I'd love to see a fantasy setting with high-quality guns and magic-enhanced plate armor, that isn't Steam Punk.

machinery said...

what bs is this ?
the reason is simple :
in a midevil setting wonders exist, because ignorance or lack of scientific methods prevail.
you know the line from arthur c clarke, and even in a modern world with "real magic" like in urban fantasy, people ignore it.
the only way magic can exst openly is in a non scientifi research era.
i'm sure many can elaborate on what i say much more succesfully.
this was a bs post.
i now disregard this author.

Anonymous said...

My take: Because the English-language readership is within a culture that is most heavily influenced by England and western Europe, so medieval Europe is just "other" and fantastical enough to us while remaining somewhat familiar as our cultural ancestor.

But the #1 reason is still probably because that's what Tolkien used. Same reason every decently-selling fantasy includes an introductory map.

Grack21 said...

The Dark Ages weren't as scientifically ignorant as everyone thinks. There's been a ton of research done on this, but the myth that every one in the middle ages lived in shacks and thought the world was flat is just that, a myth. Before people go spouting off about "the wonders of the middle ages" maybe they should do some research first.

Daniel Abraham said...


The thing is that the actual middle ages are almost beside the point. What matters, as far as being a source and setting for epic fantasy, is the narrative we have about that time.

The dark ages were a time of superstition, irrationality and magic not because they actually were, but because culturally we've hijacked them into being that. What Mark is (I think) asking is why we've hijacked that particular period and not something else. I don't think there is a functional reason so much as a set of fairly arbitrary conventions that set the expectations of folks picking up the books.

Anonymous said...

Depends on the period, region, subject and has nothing to do with the question.

Jamie Gibbs said...

You had me at "Castle/power/wizard" fetish :P

I blame the Arthurian legend; it seems to be an archetype of the 'romantic/escapist' side of fantasy, so subsequent fantasy takes reference from that. Plus it is also Tolkien's fault :P

machinery said...

grack21 :
where do you think vampires and succubi come from ?
from science or fantasy of a midevil mindset ?
people were being burned for witchcraft for my sake (and my sake only).
so take it easy, in a time when most of the people were unable to read and write, you can't expect people to think rationaly of everything.
now YOU have hijacked 21st century into the middle ages.

Daniel Abraham said...


People are being killed as witches now too. And there were stories and superstitions about supernatural beings long before Rome fell. Irrationality and anti-science sentiment aren't exclusive to any time period. I read Grack21 as saying that the dark ages were more complicated and unevenly distributed than we give them credit for.

machinery said...

daniel abraham :
don't confuse religious fantaticism with ignorance that gives crazy a believable basis.
if people out of ideology do crazy things, it's not neccesarily that they are ignorant, more like willfully ignorant.
in the dark ages people from the neigbouring country barely knew what is what on the other side of the border.
if wild stories circulated, they became real partly because there wasn't a recognized authority to make sense of events.
witches were burned because of ignorance.
and one thing a dark ages settings definitly breeds is ignorance.

Grack21 said...

Oh wow, Daniel Abraham replied to me! (*runs around in circles for a few minutes*). -Ahem

I apologize if I came of sounding like a bit of a prick. Misconceptions about the dark/middle ages is a pet peeve of mine, and yesterday was not a good day.

Daniel restated what i was trying to say better then I could. The dark ages were very complicated and uneven. I think a lot of the ignorance about it has to do with how little records there are, so historians have to do a lot of guess work and inference. And there was certainly ignorance about a lot of things, but the idea that villages sat around in huts and thought that a giant had eaten the moon whenever there was an eclipse is just false. People may not have been "educated" but they were not as ignorant and superstitious as many believe.

And to get back to the topic at hand, I think one of the reasons you see that time period used in fantasy so much is because of all the political upheaval the period. They may not have been ignorant, but they sure did like to kill each other. The War of The Roses and The crusades alone have left a noticeable mark on fantasy. And there was that whole thing with some sort of plague.

It also depends what region we're talking about. Dark Age England was a lot different then Dark age Spain which was a lot different then dark age Russia.

It's like that ancient Chinese curse - "May you live in interesting times"

Jebus said...

machinery: midevil? Really? It's not even pronounced that way let alone with that spelling.

Haters, they be hatin'. Trollers, they be trollin'.

Grack21 said...

All praise to Jebus!

Yona said...

it's not just the aesthetics that come from a "pseudo-medieval" time.

think about the depiction of cardinal directions in fantasy.
the south is dangerous and hot, with wild creatures living the (Southrons in LOTR). Christian european agenda in the middle ages depicted the south in colours and attitudes that we find in many "secondary fantasy worlds".
look at the maps in fantasy books. the west of the map is usually an ocean. the west is leading to a land of promise and wonder, or even paradise. and if not that, that it is the place people go when they die. (this is a common narrative about the west. the utopian west.. again look at LOTR, look at the map of Forgotten Realms...)
the east is often a vast land, where huge numbers of enemies hide and are thought to invade the western world. this eastern narrative can be found in many christian european texts from the middle ages...

why this is so, is a difficult question that i can only guess at. and i think it has to do with the idea of fantasy being a fight of good against evil. and evil needs stereotypes and 'othering' to be accepted as pure evil. the 'quest' motif is also a very christian motif.

Cecrow said...

I'd be fascintated to read a good fantasy series of Martin/Tolkien quality that moves the setting to something based on medieval China or Japan instead, but apparently no one's tried that yet, or at least hasn't had it embraced by the market - which I think is what everything ultimately comes down to. The market feels most comfortable with the medieval Europe varieties. That's what they buy, so that's what gets published, so that's what people write.

machinery said...

jebus : go have fun in your imaginary circle.

Kirshy said...

I think it has been said before, but the vast majority of the audience reading this blog, and the original post as well, are people born, raised, and familiar with Modern Western Civilization. You can't escape that. And the origins of our current culture is the old European nation system. We're all familiar with it, and in a lot of ways that aids us when we read fantasy novels based in those worlds. It becomes easy to fill in the blanks and imagine those worlds.

I'm less familiar with ancient Asian cultures, and I'm likewise unfamiliar with ancient South American cultures. But these lands had their own vast empires and 'feudal' systems which would make interesting settings for fantasy literature, it just doesn't seem happen very often. We're creatures of habit and we like what is familiar to us.

It's possible that lots of books have been written in those settings but because of how different and strange they seem have had trouble finding publication. I would like to think that if a book is well written with a great story and characters it will find its way to the market, but who knows?

If we want to see something new, perhaps the market will provide, or someone should just go out and write it.

Jebus said...

Cecrow - try Daniel Abraham's THE LONG PRICE or Lian Hearn's TALES OF THE OTORI series' and there are plenty more. CHUNG KUO, hasn't Kylie Chan also had some series' set in China-esque settings?

There are plenty out there, you're just not looking.

Machinery - keep to your industry, I'll stick with my fellow circle jerkers thank you very much.

Grack21 said...

I'm confused now. We have a magic circle that's not real?

Sina said...

Barry Hughart - A Bridge of Birds
Guy Gavriel Kay - Under Heaven
Alma Alexander - The Secrets of Jin-shei
Liz Williams - Snake Agent

Those are some titles I've collected - I'm a fantasy nut and student of Chinese history, so I've been looking around myself. As of now, I've only read A Bridge of Birds, and it quickly became one of my most favorite novels.

Thanks, Jebus, for suggesting some more! :)

TLW2-NR said...

I agree with Kirshy. Tolkien merely built upon this and inadvertantly set the template. As an American Indian engaged in studying for a PhD in Indigenous Studies, the issue of non-Indian depictions of Indians in different genre is a common area of discussion. I find it strange, for example, that when creatures from the lands of myth and legend almost always come from Europe in North America. Would not such beings be from the land in which the story is set? It seems that colonization of Indigenous Peoples does not only occur in the real world. I'd like to see some of our cultural mythology properly utilized in the fantasy genre. How about Wendigo taking on some transplanted trolls or our little people taking on fairies. That would be fun. We all know who will win, too. Indians are tougher than the newcomers.