Posted by: kshayes513 | May 6, 2012

A Writer’s Rant on Overdone Medieval Fantasy

If you’re building a new fantasy world, and especially if it involves castles, sword and sorcery, elves, dragons or other mainstream fantasy elements, author John Wiswell has some great advice for you. On his blog The Bathroom Monologues, Wiswell posted an argument in favor of non-traditional fantasy, that starts like this:

“…When it comes to taking a real culture and only tweaking a few things, I have simple advice:


“Put more elaborately: please, for the love of God, don’t write another redundant piece of pseudo-history, especially not another sword-and-sorcery monomyth in an imagined England.

“…If you’re not fascinated with it, if castles and rolling hills are simply all you’ve seen lately, if you’ve watched the Lord of the Rings flicks and want to make your own – then don’t write another Medieval Fantasy. Fantasy ought to be a non-denominational cathedral to the imagination, where any idea, no matter how impossible in reality, can flourish and enliven us.”

He goes on, at some length, about China Mieville, fantasy gaming tie-in novels, and the importance of writing what you love. Read the rest on his blog; he’s taken the words right out of my mouth – and expressed them much better than I would have.

What’s your approach to making sure your fantasy isn’t another redundant piece of pseudo-history?


  1. Hey, he mentioned hay bales. I say, use all those old overdone stereotypical tropey whatevers and don’t just create a mirror image; twist them em up like a wet towel and smack someone on the butt.

  2. Do hay bales have a particular significance to you, Liker of Humans?

  3. I don’t know about Cynthia (Liker of Humans) but they do to me; I’ve shifted thousands of ’em! Which reminds me to say, all the links in John’s original post are worth following, too. For example, the link on “bale hay” leads to a wonderful blog post by K. V. Johansen: “Five Things You Should Never Do in Epic Fantasy” on avoiding anachronisms like having hay bales (which require a mechanical baler) in a barn in a pre-industrial society.

  4. This leads to one of my favorite pondering topics: why did “fantasy” wind up landing on pseudo-medieval as its favorite flavor? Was it simply Tolkien’s uberinfluence, or are there other forces at play?

  5. I know hay bales are one of Karen’s pet peeves and I also spent lots of my childhood in a barn.–more corn shuckin’ then hay balin’. My personal pet peeve is going on a long journey and never feeding the horses or picking out their hooves etc. My second favorite peeve is people who either never get hurt or heal too fast. I think I’ll buy a farm and raise purebred racing peeves.

  6. People who heal too quickly bother me quite a bit. It’s possible to have magic or biology that causes such fortunate healing, but even when it’s explicit, it leaches drama and consequence, which begs the writer to at least instill secondary consequences. Typically, though, it’s just bad writing and the desire to make a character seem tough when really you’re just explaining that you don’t know what concussions do to someone or how broken bones feel. That’s less forgivable to me than apparent anachronisms, which could just be the result of the world operating a little differently, because those tend to be more secondary to the characters’ experiences and stakes.

  7. Also horses who never go lame or need new shoes! As for healing too quickly, I think you’re right, John, that most people have no idea how long an injury can affect the body, unless they have direct experience of some kind. You wouldn’t think that losing some patches of skin off butt, knees and feet would put a person in severe pain for a week and out of work for 3, but that’s what happened to my son after a fall with his motorcyle.
    I suspect current writers are also influenced at least partly by the complete lack of realistic consequences for injuries in current action TV and movies. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen an action character with no superpowers get up from an impact that should leave them dead or at least crippled or unconscious.
    Marilyn, that is a great question! May I steal it for a future post? Or perhaps you’d like to share your ruminations in a guest post?

  8. I’m currently working on a piece involving “spirits” relocating people, houses and all, from various time periods, to another planet. I have Neanderthals, Upper Paleolithic Europeans, a WWII Bomber crew, pirates and a 22nd Century equipment repair platoon who were on their way to Mars. The people I have to research the most is a Civil War doctor and his daughter abducted from Virginia in 1870. It’s a time many people know about so I worry about getting things wrong. Besides knowing about medical practices of the period, I need to know if they would have a screen door? Nope. Could they have read Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon? Possibly. I’ve reaserched how to make soap, vinegar, carbolic acid, and baking powder. And I get to read such interesting works as Lydia Pinkham’s Treatise on the Diseases of Women. I’m having so much fun!

  9. I believe the Olde Euro influence is the result of multiple dominant writers drawing from it. J.R.R. Tolkien is the most famous, but Robert Howard’s Conan and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, the other formative works of contemporary Fantasy, are also both set in recognizably D&D-like worlds. The pulps already had plenty of Fantasy set in similar periods, but with the masters all doing it, you’d see a generation shaped by their influences.

  10. Actually, I suspect Robin Hood and King Arthur, or more likely their 19th century interpreters, along with fairy tale collectors like Andrew Lang and the Grimms. Dunsany, McDonald, Tolkien, Howard, Peake and others would all have been steeped in these medieval fairy tales as children, and they are so much a part of western culture, that when these writers drew on them, they probably seemed the natural landscape of fantasy to the rest of us.

    Cynthia, re: screen doors in 1870, I distinctly remember a description of screen doors in Wilder’s Little Town on the Prairie. I have a mental image of an open frame wooden door with a pink, muslin-like cloth called “mosquito bar” nailed tightly across the opening.

  11. “Mosquito bar.” Why, thank you! That will make a nice touch. They didn’t have the kind with wire mesh type yet.

  12. Thanks for your great rant, John: I’ve been stewing because I wrote a whole trilogy in an invented world I love and adore and now can’t seem to figure out what genre it is in in order to seek an agent and traditional publisher. There you go – it’s my invented world, not somebody else’s. Or, as dear old Billy Blake Used to say, “I must invent a system, and not be enslaved by somebody else’s; I must not reason and compare, my business is to create.”

  13. Annis, the little peek I’ve had into your trilogy tells me that you’ve done exactly what John suggested that writers should do: you started with a historical setting that you love, and use it to spin an original world. And it helps a lot that your starting point, the draining of the Fens, has nothing to do with any “game of thrones” or other aristocratic power struggles; it’s about an economic conflict where ordinary folks are being deprived of their land and their way of life, so that someone else can get rich. I can’t wait to read these!

  14. I fell like this is why recently I’ve been overlooking most stories in a medieval European fantasy setting. Having a theme to follow is helpful but if you restrict to only certain conventions, that undermines part of the point of reading fantasy.

    For one of my stories,Arcane Realm , the world focuses on the personal stories non-human sapient beings in another world. Instead of the might-as-well-be-funny-looking-human fantasy races like elves,dwarfs, orcs and the like, I used other fantastic species from various mythologies. From merpeople, to yokai, to djinn, winged fairies, tiny plant people and biological androids. Although I want to setting to mainly be contemporary times with a few near future aspects, wanted to do some historical pieces that show the differences in technological and social development in the world.

  15. Thanks for joining us, JT. Yes, I also like to see mythologies drawn from non Grimm Brothers sources. One of my favorites is Greg Keyes first fantasy novels, the 2 book Children of the Changeling series, which draws on northeast Asian mythologies. Greg’s degree is in cultural anthropology, so he knows a lot of great sources to draw on.

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