History as the Mother of Fantasy Literature

Česky: Obléhání Avignonu 1226
History and Fantasy: Česky: Obléhání Avignonu 1226 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My eternal fascination with fantasy fiction has at its root wonder: what would it really be like to live in a world of magic, dragons, and elves; a world of ancient secrets, of manifest gods and spirits. Perhaps curiously for some, my sense of wonder is very much founded in Earth history and lore, not because what has happened on Earth sets the limits of what can be but because from solid foundations soar our greatest wonders: cathedrals, skyscrapers, great endeavors like the moon-landings.

For that reason, I’d like to start a series on military history and related topics. My thoughts are to touch on a range of items of interest to world-builders and writers (and hopefully readers as well)- from specific items like siege weapons to economic questions (how much iron could an early European Middle Ages foundry produce) to crunchy military science questions of army composition, effectiveness of heavy cavalry and so on. I’ll confess this will be very Euro-centric, mostly because that aligns with my interests and reading but that’s not to say there aren’t other fascinating historical resources out there.

As some of you may recall from other posts, I am not a big fan of fantasy settings that are “Earth plus a little bit of magic”. So this series is absolutely not about understanding every last little bit of Earth military history so that we writers can faithfully and dutifully re-produce it in a fantasy story. Instead, this is about using the data we have (Earth history) to understand how things could be very different in a fantasy setting.

For example, some have described the early Middle Ages as a period very much defined by limited communication, limited central authority and marginal productivity. Understanding what affect this had on fortifications (i.e. manorial castles) and warfare can not just help a writer avoid some glaring discordances in their world but better yet, create a setting that really sings, something that is new and solid, something that appeals at the gut level to both the casual reader and the seasoned reader.

Put another way: if your fantasy setting has instant communication via magical communication and teleportation, than a setting based on 900s Europe where every lord is master of his own little pocket may not be very appropriate. And it might be inappropriate for every lord to have massive castles. Communication has always tended to centralize authority, which does not tolerate petty lords. That’s not to say you can’t mix them in your story. You can simply ignore the question, just as we fans of dragons sometimes ignore the physics of dragonflight.

BEnglish: illustration intended for the mid-nin...ut you can also turn the problem around: okay, in general instant communication causes centralization but in my story, I want fast communication and distributed authority, what else do I need to add to the world to make this happen? From these questions can come wonderful settings.

Knowing what questions to ask and where to look is what this series is about. History gives us lots of data. Some of these things we may just want to slot into a story for some verisimilitude. Or historical facts might serve as the launching point of fantastical flights that resonate precisely because the author knew what history she was flaunting.

One thing I do want to touch on early in the series is the suitability of the European Middle Ages as a model for fantasy worlds. It can work and has done so for decades but it can be useful to look at what made the Middle Ages as it was because there are many other historical models (think Seven Kingdoms China or the European Ancient world) that might be a more suitable starting point for many stories.

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7 thoughts on “History as the Mother of Fantasy Literature

  1. Oh, this sounds like a wonderful series and I intend to participate (read and comment). I fear my own historically-based fantastical setting flounders for the reasons you allude to in this article – I didn’t think it all the way through. Or, rather, I didn’t really think of what the wider implications of certain abilities would have on my characters. Looking forward to your posts!

    1. Glad you like the concept 🙂 Let me know if there are any topics of special interest. At the moment, near the top of my list (not necessarily in that order) are:
      * Nature of the Middle Ages- how it changed from early to late, role of Church and nature of government in shaping it
      * Siege weapons
      * Scale: some items I’ve gleened on size of armors, productivity of forges, castle garrisons, etc.
      * Castles: their role & evolution in the Middle Ages, how they relate to fortifications and castles in other periods

    1. That’s a good idea- I’ll add to the list but this one will take some extra research. In general, wounds would certainly be sutured in most eras. In the Roman period, gladiators and soldiers were attended to be by quite sophisticated doctors and surgeons who could clamp veins, set complex factures, and repair many physical injuries. In the Middle Ages, surgical removal of bladder stones, cateract surgey (a silver needle inserted to push aside the clouded lens), repair of a missing nose from an arm-skin graft and a surprising array of other items could be dealt with. Herbal rememdies were quite common in the ancient world, including a plant driven to extinction used for either contraception or abortion (can’t quite recall which). In the Middle Ages, herbal remedies suffered some suprression through the church. THe main shortcomings of medicine into the Renaissance were poor physical models of human bodies (the 4 humors model) and a lack of understanding of contagions and pathogens. There were some anesthetics (includiong opium). Church prohibitions on human dissections also hampered understanding. Medicine is clearly one place where a specific religious institution (the Catholic Church) had notable impact on science, something that might not be appropriate to most fantasy settings that also don’t have a monolithic church with similar strictures.

      1. Interesting! You could get several posts out of that.

        I agree that the Catholic Church would be a challenging entity to replicate in a fantasy setting, but one might imagine a similar religious organization, I guess. Still, a fascinating subject.

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