Dark Ages as a Setting

Arthurian knight
Arthurian knight (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a healthy near-future apocalyptic genre but it’s more rare to find this as a fantasy setting. This is unfortunate because a Dark Age scenario has a lot to offer the fantasy worldbuilder: the struggle to preserve the old, or just to survive, small warbands with plenty of scope for heroes, limited world knowledge that means your readers learn about the world as the characters explore it.

The term is out of favor with historians. Before more modern research and archaeology, the post-Roman to early Middle Ages period was very little known, thus the appellation “dark.” It is still a poorly documented era but between more thorough archaeology and review of existing documents, it doesn’t appear quite as unknowable as it used to be. Lesser known (and still much more ‘dark’) are other periods following a collapse of civilization, especially the famous one at the end of the east Mediterranean Bronze Age.

Interestingly, historical Dark Ages give rise to some of the greatest stories of all: in a time of decay and hard-scrabble existence, people seem to need heroes more than ever. Thus, out of the British Dark Ages, we get the Arthurian stories. And from the Bronze Age collapse, we get the Iliad and the Odyssey. Although, it’s rather curious that the Bronze Age heroes are the very pirates who probably played a role in the collapse whereas King Arthur, of course, is cast as a defender against the darkness. Odysseus wasn’t called “sacker of cities” for nothing: the Greek kings were raiders.

There are two sub-genres for a Dark Age setting: the onset and the aftermath. Both offer rich opportunities for writers but let’s treat them separately.

Keuninck (Coninck) Kerstiaen de - Fire of Troy
Keuninck (Coninck) Kerstiaen de – Fire of Troy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Collapse of Civilization

The details of this situation depend on the cause of the collapse. In most fictional cases, it is the clash of civilization and barbarians, although in a fantasy world the latter could be anything from orc hordes to undead to a witch-queen and her evil minions. However, it could also be the result of some sort of environmental or magical catastrophe. In the event of the latter, you lose the opportunity for a stark, sentient foe but depending on the cause of the catastrophe, this might provide a great premise, for instance: what happens when magic is overused? Or, what if the gods disappeared? Or, what if magic ceased to function?

In both cases, you still have characters dealing with their world falling apart: how do they protect their own, how do they even find food, where can they find safety and shelter. This is the story of people who have everything suddenly having to deal with the most basic needs in a world made exceptionally harsh by too many people fighting over the scraps. This basic premise of what happens to the civilized person thrown into the uncivilized world is at the root of many stories from Lord of the Flies to Mad Max but it is not as common in the fantasy world.

In the case of a foe of some sort causing the collapse, now you have the chance to have your protagonist face a horrible, alien foe. There’s a lot of drama potential in the clash of two incompatible forces, wonderful scope for sacrifice and heroes, loss and despair.

While King Arthur is more commonly depicted in modern fiction as occurring in the Dark Ages, rather than at its start, the sources are actually about a warleader (in the earlier records, not even a King) at the collapse of Roman civilization in Britain trying to hold back Saxon invaders.

In the Dark Age

The second type of story occurs after the collapse. The old world is gone, except for ruins and stories of ancient glories. A fraction of the old population remains, barely able to scratch an existence. In the struggle for survival, with the loss of so many books and scholars, knowledge and literacy are either gone or remembered by a very few. Order has broken down and people turn to local strongmen for protection. These strongmen will in time become petty kings but early in the period they are simply men (and possibly women) violent and ruthless enough to hold off other strongmen who would plunder and murder. For this protection, the bulk of the population offers food and services, usually willingly at first but in time, often coerced. Of course, these strongmen cloak themselves in the mantle of old heroes and new gods to give themselves legitimacy.

The advantages for this setting is that populations are low so armies are tiny, probably just warbands. This means your heroes are much more significant: a god-touched warrior at the head of a troop of 80 will have a lot more impact than at the fore of an army of 80,000. There are also lots of these strong men in close proximity: grounds for incessant conflict, such as you find in Beowulf. The characters also know little of their world, which makes it easy for you to explain your world as the characters discover it.

In this setting, you have the option of the other type of Arthurian story: the beacon of hope, honor, civilization arising from a morass of despair. Or you can have the “travel” story: your characters set out into the big, unknown world, discovering all the different ways in a fantasy setting that pockets of people might deal with the collapse of civilization: theocracies and undead kings, elven enclaves, amazon queens, the list is endless because in this setting, you have the equivalent of endless islands with limited contact with each other.

For those of you who don’t like overarching premises, or aren’t comfortable creating a big world, the travel-in-a-dark-age-world setting provides an excellent setting: you need only describe the next bit that the characters visit and when they move on, there’s not much need to worry about what they left behind.

You may recognize this type of story: both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings can be considered travel stories where the characters go from island to island, figuratively. I’m pretty sure when Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, that’s really all he had in mind: you go from the shire pocket to the elven hidden realm, to the goblin mountains, the bear-man’s dwelling, the enchanted forest, the forest elves, the lake people, the dragon mountain. Except for the last few, there really isn’t that much connectedness to it all. These are mostly just independent discoveries until they are tied together in the last battle. (Just last night, I finished reading The Hobbit to my son for the second time 🙂 )

LOTR has a firmer history to it but it also has strong elements of characters traveling in the ruins of a once greater world visiting little pockets of this and that: Tom Bombadil and the Barrow Wights, Rivendell again, Moria, Loth Lorien, Fangorn, Minas Tirith, Rohan, Mordor. These are all places with mostly minimal interaction with their neighbors, let alone a larger world. The story even has a strong element of these neighbors discovering each other: the Ents are essentially forgotten until their attack on Isenguard. So little is known of Loth Lorien that Galadriel is more of a witch-in-the-woods to outsiders. Rohan and Minas Tirith seem to have little to do with each other until one needs the other for help against a greater foe. The Shire is very much a quant English shire plopped down in the middle of a harsh wilderness.

This isn’t a criticism of LOTR, it’s one of the things I and probably many people like: the sense of adventure and discovery as you get to each new place tied together by a world-shattering quest. Just think: you can do the same with your own Dark Age setting, whether or not you end the book (or lucrative multi-volume series!) with a new golden age.

As a personal note, my first novel was set in a near-future apocalypse but I have to confess my appetite for such settings has evaporated now that I have children. A real fall of civilization is horrible; the resulting population collapse would be heartbreaking on a truly mind-numbing scale. But a fantasy world is far enough from reality that I don’t mind writing Dark Age settings there.

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2 thoughts on “Dark Ages as a Setting

  1. And yet LOTR is just a few pages at the end of The Silmarillion. If you read the latter first, you have all the history you could crave from the LOTR! But I agree, Dark Age settings can provide plenty of rich conflict and adventure.

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