Trope Discussion #3: (Medieval) Europe as a Fantasy Setting

“If I had to do it all over again, I would not have chosen this life.”

First line in The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen

I’m back with another discussion about tropes after a slightly longer break since my first two posts about the strong female character and the chosen one. Since both of those are character tropes, I wanted to go a different route this time and went for a setting, specifically medieval Europe as a fantasy setting. And I would like to clarify here that while I will take a special interest in Europe in the Middle Ages, this discussion will not be limited to that time period. Whenever I see criticism of the trope, it’s more a criticism of anything European inspired rather than the medieval part, so I want to consider all aspects of European inspired fantasy books.

But we’re starting with medieval times and trying to figure out: What do we mean by a medieval Europe-inspired fantasy setting? Well, it can mean a lot and it can mean very little. One of the signs can be a hereditary monarchy (with the titles of European monarchs) that also includes influential nobles and farming peasants, creating something like a feudal system of government. When wars are fought, it’s with swords and shields, and not with guns and explosives. If any folklore elements appear, it’ll often be mythological creatures such as elves, goblins and trolls.
Those are the primary aspects of a medieval Europe setting, although not all of them need to be present for a setting to be considered that, and some concrete examples include The Seven Realms by Cinda Williams Chima, The Realm of the Elderlings by Robin Hobb, Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, The Ascendance Trilogy by Jennifer A. Nielsen, The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss and Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson.

Why is this setting so popular? Well, we definitely need to look to Tolkien, who by no means was the first author to use such a setting but he was the one who popularized it as he’s the influence behind so many modern works. I think this is also why so many people would claim that the setting isn’t European-inspired but rather British-inspired and they use that as a reason for why the trope needs to be seen less. And believe me, I’m always ready to jump on the let’s-hate-the-English train, but I’m not sure it’s all that fair in this case, for a few reasons actually.

Firstly, looking at the characteristics of a European fantasy setting from above, they’re rather vague and by no means exclusive to Britain or even Europe for that matter. Most people are familiar with feudal Japan, and hereditary monarchies aren’t hard to find in other cultures’ history. Yes, you can find different cultural details within them, but we’re talking about secondary fantasy worlds here and those don’t represent a real-world culture to an exact degree. It’s not like the books I mentioned above are an exact copy of Britain in the Middle Ages because the authors add their magic and specific twists to each setting.

That leads me to my second point which is that these so-called British inspired fantasy books disregard a large part of British culture and history, so by framing the narrative in that “there is so much British-inspired fantasy, we don’t need more”, we kind of miss out on that. I understand it’s great seeing other cultures represented, but I’m not of the opinion that we need to exclude any for that to happen.

Moving on to include the fantasy books inspired by anything within Europe and therefore not limited to secondary-world stories. Like I mentioned earlier, these tend to be included in people’s hatred for the medieval Europe trope because it’s so popular to hate on Europe. The problem is that there are so many possible fantasy stories based in Europe that are yet to be told, at least to an international audience; stories based on historic events, folklore and retellings of popular stories (just because it’s fantasy doesn’t mean it needs to be based on mythology!). To take an example from my own experiences with Danish/Scandinavian-based fantasy books, I can tell you it’s quite frustrating to see your culture reduced to Vikings and Norse mythology (often in combination). If you ask anyone for Norse fantasy recs, that is what you’ll get, and I actually had to check if there was a specific definition for the sub-genre that said you can’t categorize a book as Norse fantasy unless it has at least two Vikings and eight references to Odin (I couldn’t find any such definition). Is it because people think we’re still Vikings? Or do they just assume Scandinavians have been twiddling their thumbs for a thousand years? This is just the example I know about but I’m sure so many other European readers can recognize the issue. Their stories aren’t being told either.

Although I don’t want to go too far off-topic, I want to add a comment on the discussion about who should write these stories because while I appreciate the sentiment of letting people from the culture write about that culture, it’s also a tough dream to realize. Again speaking about my own experiences, there are so incredibly few Danish fantasy authors and if you want to read adult fantasy, they’re practically non-existent and the quality isn’t very high as a result. I spend a lot of time in bookstores here, but not once have I seen an adult fantasy book written by a Danish author on the shelves. All the space is taken up by the Nordic Noir genre and international (read: English speaking) authors so how is any Danish author ever going to reach an international audience when they can’t even reach the Danish one? It’s possible, of course, but also difficult enough that I’m not opposed to people with other nationalities writing a fantasy book based on something Danish, at least not on principle (although, could Brits stop writing about Vikings, please?).

I guess this has been a defense of the European-inspired fantasy books, but that is also because I felt the discourse around the trope has been lacking these perspectives I’ve covered. There’s a tendency among the internet people to want to see everything as black-and-white because it’s always easier when you know who to root for. I just think that this particular topic has a lot of gray areas so dismissing anything about Europe or even Britain is counter-productive. And then, of course, there’s also the ever-present argument: If there are people who want to read a trope and authors who want to write it then it should exist.

I would love to know your thoughts on this! Do you like fantasy books inspired by Europe? Do you think the criticism of them is fair? Also, if you want to tell me about a specific thing from your country (doesn’t have to be in Europe) that you’d love to see a fantasy book inspired by, I’m all ears and immensely curious.

8 thoughts on “Trope Discussion #3: (Medieval) Europe as a Fantasy Setting

  1. You’re not all Vikings in Denmark? How did I never know this? 😱 I suppose I was too preoccupied with taste testing all the sausages we have in this country…

    Still, thank you for making my morning by including that meme! πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚πŸ˜‚ I had never seen it before and cracked up, although I must say that I’m also kind of permanently traumatized now because after not knowing what this “dancing cow song” was, I went and googled it πŸ˜…

    And I pretty much agree with everything you said in this post, so I’m afraid to say my opinions on this matter aren’t the most exciting… I do like not seeing the same things over and over again in every single fantasy book I read, but like you said, you can also give the more traditionally European settings an interesting spin, and I don’t think also wanting to have other types of settings means we should just exclude them. In fact, unique plots, characters, and magic systems probably matter a whole lot more to me in terms of how much I enjoy a book – just look at Children of Blood and Bone, which had a cool setting but such a stereotypical YA fantasy plot that I ended up hating it, or The Jasmine Throne, whose boring characters, rushed story, and “special” writing style permanently traumatized me πŸ˜… So I’m all for authors writing in whichever settings they want to, as long as they make things interesting! In fact, I think a lot of the books you mentioned as examples actually twist their settings in an interesting way – like how The Seven Realms series also includes Native American influences or Mistborn is just this super dark world covered in ash.

    Also, seeing that the fantasy sections in bookstores here are also very devoid of local authors – with the huge exception of Cornelia Funke (πŸ₯°), Kerstin Gier (πŸ€·β€β™€οΈ) and Kai Meyer (πŸ˜•), who mostly write in the middle-grade and YA range – I am very much with you that we need to let other people do the writing about our cultures for us! For my part, I am kind of hoping for anything that is not either a Grimm fairytale retelling or about World War II, because that seems to be the only literature worthy things other nations see in us πŸ˜… Like, how about something Germanic tribe, crusades, industrialization, or GDR inspired? Or something based on a folktale that wasn’t collected by the brothers Grimm and then watered down into a more child-friendly version by Disney?

    Anyway, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this, Line, and am glad you’re not telling me I can never read A Robin Hobb or Brandon Sanderson book again πŸ˜‚

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    1. Yes, I know it’s surprising that we don’t sail off to pillage English monasteries every other day, but there are so many laws now that complicate matters so we have to suppress the urge πŸ˜‚ I hope the sausages are tasty, though, when you eat so many of them.

      I’m also not that into a book’s setting which also made me doubt whether I should even write this. I feel like a lot of books nowadays are pitched with their setting first and they always fail to draw me in because instead, I’m trying to identify the types of characters the book is about. Some synopsis never get to that because it’s all about the setting, and so I’m not reading the book πŸ˜… But yes, I’m glad you agree that these worlds use interesting twists, because yes, they might have a basic foundation that looks like Europe, but does it matter when they add so much to it? I doubt people are picking these books up because they want to read about Europe.

      And I’m kinda relieved that you agree about the author-thing! Because yes, there are also quite a few YA fantasy books written by Danish authors, although every synopsis sounds the same and they are very 2012-YA.
      I think it’s kind of interesting though, that you don’t want anything inspired by Grimm because I actually really want there to be more books inspired by Hans Christian Andersen fairytales. The only one I know/can think of is Sea Witch by Sarah Henning (which I haven’t read because the reviews weren’t very good), but other than that there are just the Disney movies, and they set one of those (Frozen) in Norway (it’s fine, the mountains are pretty, I get it). I’m missing the retellings that have a specific connection to Denmark. And while I don’t think I would mind fantasy books based on World War II, there are so many other historical events that haven’t been adapted to a degree of pointlessness πŸ˜„

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      1. Funnily enough, synopses with interesting settings do often draw me in! I suppose that’s because I never feel like synopses tell me a lot about the characters anyway, and I don’t like when they spoil too much of the plot beforehand, either, so setting is kind of the only thing left… πŸ˜… However, I also don’t pick out books just based on their synopsis a lot anymore – having a book blog really is a godsend as far as recommendations are concerned!

        And I just feel like the Grimm’s fairytale thing is so overdone! Especially the popular ones, like Cinderella or Rapunzel πŸ˜… Also, I often don’t end up liking them because they either stick so closely to the original that I start to wonder why we even needed a retelling, or because I don’t think they’re dark enough. (I’m evil, I know πŸ˜‚) The only one I’ve really loved recently is Spinning Silver, and that was because I thought – even though I know you don’t agree 😭 – it added some really cool twists to the story πŸ₯° I would also love to see some Andersen retellings, though! Especially of The Wild Swans or whatever that story with the princess and her eleven brothers and those nettle shirts is called in English – I was absolutely obsessed with that fairytale as a kid!!😍

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      2. You’re right, synopses don’t always tell a lot about the characters, but I take that as a sign that the book isn’t enough about the characters to fit my taste. My method usually works and I do actually still mostly add books to my TBR based on their synopsis, so it’s kind of important that my method works πŸ˜…

        Right, I also think the world has experienced every possible kind of retelling of Cinderella so I think we’re done with that πŸ˜‚ You could add Snow White to that, too. But I’m sure there are some lesser-known ones that are still waiting to be retold? I think they always must be easier to retell as well because people don’t know the stories and don’t have specific expectations. I definitely feel there is a lot there to play with in terms of Andersen’s fairytales. Maybe about ten of them are truly well-known but he wrote over a hundred, so I feel there must be something there. And I haven’t actually read The Wild Swans (which must be its English name), but I could definitely see that happening. My own favorite was GrantrΓ¦et (which I believe is The Christmas Tree in English?), maybe because it was Christmas and immense sadness combined πŸ˜„ But that one is a bit more difficult to retell, I imagine.

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      3. Yeah, definitely no more Snow White retellings, please!! πŸ™ˆ Though I suppose you’re right in saying that I wouldn’t mind seeing authors take inspiration from some of the lesser-known ones πŸ€” I’m still desperately waiting for someone to give me Allerleirauh or Godfather Death (my favorite Grimm’s fairytales πŸ₯°) retellings, but since the first one has a rather problematic incestous start where the princess runs away because her father wants to marry and rape her because she looks like her dead mother and the second one is, well, about a ton of death, I’m not sure my chances are that great πŸ˜…
        People might actually prefer to have the Christmas tree one (reading from a plant’s POV is kind of a novelty, after all πŸ˜‰), although you’re right, it is horribly sad, too. I vividly remember there being this illustrated edition at my Kindergarten where the tree had a face and everything, and the look of shock, hurt, betrayal, and sadness when the family threw the tree out after Christmas was over always made me tear up a little, too 😭

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      4. I knew the Grimm fairytales were a lot darker than Andersen’s but Jesus πŸ˜‚ I think if you ever get retellings of those stories, they’re probably going to be very loose ones.
        So yes, a retelling of the Christmas Tree would probably be more in demand but I’m also not sure how of much story you can write about a plant…

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