Fantasy and Sci-fi often get lumped together, and while there’s a lot of cross over between the two genres, both in terms readers and concepts, there is one vital difference. Sci-fi is representation of how we think of the future, while fantasy is often about how we view the past.
Fantasy novels are clearly not history books or even historical fiction (though they do share some DNA). Fantasy isn’t a verbatim retelling of past events, but rather seeks to capture the overall ‘feel of the past’, that’s why so many have magic and fantastical creatures, those things feel realer, or were believed to be realer, in pre-modern times. And while magic and fantastic beasts appear in almost every fantasy novel, they are not the defining element of those worlds. The setting of a fantasy novel is not so much a magical place, but an old one.
One of the reasons Game of Thrones became so popular was that people thought it was a more ‘realistic’ fantasy story. Most of its seasons don’t deal with magic at all, but rather brutal medieval combat and court intrigue. It shows a Hobbesian past where life was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. In part we watch it because of all the nastiness, it intrigues us even though we wouldn’t want to live through it ourselves. It’s a past that we’re grateful to have move beyond.
In contrast Tolkien envisioned a gentler past, his hobbits live simple, pleasant lives, suffering only village gossip and British passive-aggressiveness. War comes, and it is brutal and requires sacrifice, but the lines are clearly drawn: good and evil. The enemy are literal inhuman creations, spurred on by an evil god. Men are mythical heroes, taller and stronger than the simple hobbits who themselves have more in common with the reader than the mankind of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Tolkien’s past is both idyllic and epic, it’s something we feel we’ve lost.
Both Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings speak to the way we view history rather than to any particular period of history itself. And while it’s true that both Middle Earth and Westros invoke some of the more exciting elements of Medieval Britain: knights in full plate, maidens in long gowns, the remnants of a more advance people (the Romans), barbarian invaders, etc. They have as much to do with actual Medieval Britain as Blade Runner’s 2019 Los Angles has to do with modern LA.
Outside of the hobbits, dragons and white walkers Medieval Britain also didn’t have taverns, smoking pipes, sewers, full plate armor (until the very end), banks, or large population centers. Medieval combat rarely involved pitched battles on the field and was mostly castle sieges. Trial by combat was exceedingly rare.
Tolkien’s Hobbits have a lot more in common with 18th and early 19th century British farmers than they do with Medieval peasants. Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law series has Norse style Northmen raiders, but they’re duking it out with Union soldiers who use fencing foils, a technology appearing more than five hundred years after the Vikings. Michael J. Sullivan’s Heir of Novron series takes place in a world of knights and a tyrannical church, but also has early 19th century style ships, with sailors that would have fit in during the Napoleonic wars.
The British Empire itself looms large in most of our Fantasy. The attitudes, manner of speaking and social economics of a great deal of supposedly medieval fantasy worlds instead come from late 19th, and early 20th century Britain. Medieval Britain was poor and splintered, with dozens of ethnic groups and a ruling caste that considered itself more French, or Norman at least, than English. The arrogant western like kingdoms in fantasy who refer to other people as savages and who think of themselves as more advance come from our living memory not our distance past.
None of this is to belittle or attack these works, I’ve enjoyed every series I mentioned here. None of these writers are trying to create a historical place. Their worlds are constructed from a hodgepodge of myth, different historical periods, and imagination. But all of them are trying to conjure the past and when they do so they are speaking to our comprehension of it. The use of so much British empire in our fantasy works shows the impact that the British empire has had on us and how we distinguish our modern selves as people distinctly different than the Imperialist of old.
And as the fantasy genre has spread out it has begun to leave behind both the trappings of Medieval Europe and the attitudes of the British Empire. Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty series takes its inspiration from early Chinese history (as well as the Odyssey, and the Vikings again). S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass and Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon both focus on myth and history from the Muslim world, while Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti brings in influence from African history and culture. The expansion of Fantasy genre is an expansion of our understanding of the past, of who’s past has value, and who’s past deserves to be mythologized and critiqued.
As we grow, becoming more multi-culture our fantasy will as well. The genre will ask us to explore new pasts, new combinations, new understandings of where we come from, who we are and who we are not. The past might be the past, but that doesn’t mean it can’t change.