“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.