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Fantasy: medieval European influences and alternatives

Krystalia Karamihou discusses diverse global influences on fantasy literature.

Faeries, elves, centaurs, wizards, dragons. In its purest form, fantasy is one of the most ancient literary genres, and fantastical elements can be found in myths and folktales around the world. It is in fantasy that humankind encapsulated its need for escapism and wonder for the unknown. Despite the fantastical elements in those tales, fantasy in the form we all know differs and is much more recent. It has evolved in a more self-conscious way, encouraging individual interpretations of novelised narratives based in complex worlds. One of the most popular subgenres is what is known as “medieval fantasy” and is recognisable by its influences from the medieval European period, typically from western Europe. These influences include resemblances to western medieval monarchy, feudal system, warfare, and social structure, which are often permeated with a blend of magic and European folklore. But why is this Medieval European setting so common in modern fantasy?

The main reasons are the legacy of the fathers of modern fantasy and cultural familiarity. The most obvious precursor to modern fantasy and its medieval subgenre is none other than J.R.R. Tolkien. Although he is called the father of modern fantasy, a well-deserved title, it would be unfair to ignore his predecessors. Writers such as William Morris (The Well at the World’s End), Lord Dunsany (The King of Elfland’s Daughter), George MacDonald (Phantastes), and E.R. Eddison (The Worm Ouroboros), among others, borrowed heavily from the European mythical past and they had a major impact on Tolkien as well as his friend, another fantasy writer, C.S. Lewis. 

It was Tolkien, though, who massively popularised the genre. The Lord of the Rings can be described as a consciously pseudo-medieval work given that Tolkien, a medievalist scholar at Oxford, drew heavily from a rich heritage of quest and adventure narratives found in north-western European literary traditions. He combined his own imagination with elements from literature in Old English, Welsh, Irish, Norse and, more indirectly, Middle French and German. Tolkien undoubtedly had the academic knowledge and status to elevate fantasy, a genre often not taken seriously by academic elitists. This is largely manifested in the twelve-volumed History of Middle-earth, compiled by his son, Christopher Tolkien, which tracks the meticulous literary and linguistic skill that his father employed. Taking, for instance, the tale of Ælfwine, a fictional Anglo-Saxon credited for finding the Elven lands and telling of his adventures. Tolkien wrote Ælfwine’s accounts in Old English:

“Fela bið on Westwegum werum uncúðra,
wundra and wihta, wlitescéne land,
eardgeard ælfa and ésa bliss.
Lýt ǽnig wát hwylc his langoð síe
þám þe eftsíðes eldo getwǽfeð.”

― Þus cwæð Ælfwine Wídlást Éadwines sunu

Meanwhile, Tolkien’s Lays of Beleriand were written in poetic metres found in medieval heroic and romance poems, such as alliterative verse and rhyming couplets.

The importance of all this is apparent in the influence that Tolkien had on later authors in turn. Given the widespread success of his works, many others consequently incorporated various elements into their own books, by either employing a well-tried recipe or adding their own touches to it. So, this new generation of writers also became a link in the chain that reproduced, reworked, and consolidated certain conventions. We should also not underestimate the fact that the vast majority of those authors wrote in the English language, which certainly helped their works reach a wider readership. Since the most famous of those fathers of fantasy came predominantly from the British Isles, they tended to focus on cultural context which they were familiar with.

Many of the successful authors that appeared towards the end of the twentieth century – including those from the USA – were familiar with old fantasy works, especially Tolkien’s. Although many attempted to deviate from his style, the resemblance to western medieval settings often remained. But this is more likely because the authors were also exposed more to the Western European medieval heritage than any other in Europe. Indeed, even Eastern Europe had been quite underrepresented in fantasy (and remains so in pop culture) until Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher rose to popularity. On the other hand, Mediterranean Europe tends to be the focus of historical fiction or classical fantasy that reworks the myths of antiquity.

So, the authors’ as well as the readers’ familiarity and continuous exposition to Western European cultural heritage over others has fuelled the popularity of this particular medieval setting in the fantasy genre.

Although a popular setting, it nevertheless overshadows other ones which deserve more recognition. It might come as a surprise to those not  familiar with fantasy to see that the genre is actually vast and divided into many subgenres. This means that readers who wish to diversify their reading habits have a plethora of options to choose from. 

It would be impossible to mention everything from each subgenre, but below are some worthy recommendations that focus on non-Western medieval European settings. Note that original Chinese fantasy literature is very different from Western. For example, in Western fantasy there are often creatures like elves, dwarves, gnomes, and goblins. The most common fantasy tropes include the battle of good versus evil, a mentor figure (usually an old man or wizard), and the “reluctant” hero who is the Chosen One and usually starts from humble origins but is secretly of royal blood. He is called to fulfill either world-endangering prophecies and grandiose battles (high fantasy), or embark on a personal quest. These goals often elevate the character to heroic status, but there are many novels that have anti-heroes as protagonists.

In contrast, Chinese fantasy revolves around the major genres of wuxia, xianxia and xuanhuan. Wuxia is often historical fiction but also contains supernatural elements of warriors possessing superhuman martial arts skills and acting within a world of martial code called jianghu. There are narratives that mix some wuxia conventions with Chinese deities, Taoism, Buddhism, martial arts, and other traditional Chinese elements which result in the popular xianxia genre. The typical xianxia protagonists have extraordinary martial arts skills and seek to become immortal beings called Xian by “cultivating” energy. Xuanhuan is somewhat similar to xianxia, but it may incorporate foreign settings and does not include Taoist elements or quests for immortality. Overall, Chinese fantasy focuses on human characters, although there might be other creatures, such as yaoguai (usually malevolent animal or plant spirits), monsters, and ghosts. Finally, there is a larger amount of love stories compared to Western fantasy. There is also the shenmo xiaoshuo subgenre (“gods and demons” fiction) which is much older — as early as the 14th century — and has its roots in traditional folktales and legends. Important plot elements are the use of medicine and alchemy while characters include Chinese deities, immortals, and monsters of Chinese mythology.

If you wish to explore fantasy more widely, here are some recommendations:

Chinese settings

Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en (shenmo xiaoshuo subgenre): One of China’s Four Classic Novels, this long work is an account of a Chinese Buddhist monk and his three disciples who travel west to Central Asia to retrieve Buddhist scriptures and their return home after many adventures and trials.

Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart: A modern take on traditional Chinese myths which take place in a fantastical version of imperial China.

Coiling Dragon by Ren Wo Xing (xianxia genre): A young noble born into a world of powerful magic wishes to save his declining clan and finds a ring he can use to trigger the dragon heritage in his blood.

Crane-Iron Series by Wang Dulu (wuxia): An epic pentalogy of various storylines set in ancient China involving love, revenge, intrigues and a lot of action. One of the novels is the famous Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which has been adopted into a film by Ang Lee.


Various settings

American Gods by Neil Gailman (urban fantasy): Different pantheons of gods in modern America.

Borderland by Terri Windling (urban fantasy): Dystopian novel where the worlds of elves and men merge.

The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher (urban fantasy/occult detective): A detective and wizard investigates supernatural cases involving various creatures in Chicago.

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (YA fantasy): A witch transforms a girl into an old woman who finds herself inside a sorcerer’s ever-moving castle.

Mistborn: The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson (science fantasy/steampunk): Individuals harness magical abilities through metals and it is set in a modern dystopian world.

The Black Prism by Brent Weeks (flintlock fantasy): Set in a pre-industrial world with a quasi-Middle Eastern form of government and a magical system based on light.

The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin: The author reconstructs African elements and a social system within which dream assassinations take place.

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (fantasy classic): To escape from a malevolent shadow, a young wizard travels across the world of Earthsea: a vast archipelago of hundreds of islands and uncharted sea.

Elric of Melniboné by Michael Moorcock (sword-and-sorcery fantasy): An albino sorcerer-emperor of a dying race embarks on a personal quest to slay his rival and retrieve his beloved.

Illustration by Gbenga Chesterman

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