Does Fantasy Have to Be Medieval?

Joan of Arc

Various questions come up when someone wants to write high fantasy and many of them are completely understandable.  They may deal with magic, various races, and creating a world that isn’t Earth.  Yet, there are other questions that you can see why they are asked, but they come off as shocking.  It makes one wonder about the entire genre and how it might not have evolved as much as many believe.  I’m going to touch on one of those questions here:

Does a fantasy story have to take place in a medieval Europe/Dark Ages setting?

The obvious answer is ‘No’.

As long as the genre doesn’t require a specific setting type like Westerns and WWII dramas, you can do whatever you want.  Even those ‘restrictive’ areas have some wiggle room, so nothing is set in stone.  The rules are incredibly flexible with fantasy, which really only requires that there be a magical, mystical element that can’t be chalked up to science.  This means you can do the traditional medieval setting or take inspiration from any time period.  You can also ignore that and try to make something entirely from scratch.  It is much more important to make the world work than to follow what you believe is a genre trend.

It isn’t hard to see why people think it should be medieval worlds or expect them to run the way our history did.  Tolkien and Lewis set that standard, which tends to go along without many changes when you look at the big ones.  ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘Dungeons & Dragons’, and even series that take place on a future Earth that has magic seem to go for the European aesthetic.  Castles with kings and knights traveling in search of adventure or a dragon to rescue from a fire-breathing princess.  You’re going to find more series that follow this tradition than blatantly go against it.  So, new authors get the feeling that this is a requirement instead of a suggestion that most people take.  Although, can you really blame them?

I’ve seen many readers go after a fantasy book because it isn’t historically accurate.  A suit of platemail isn’t correct or rules of etiquette don’t meant with medieval standards.  You can have a reader complain that the heroes are bathing regularly or that there are indoor bathrooms.  Had those tossed my way a few times.  As soon as you have the set pieces of medieval Europe, you’re bound to have people assuming that it will be Earth history accurate.  This doesn’t make much sense to me when it’s a place like Windemere, which isn’t Earth.  Yes, they have settings similar to the traditional, but they also have more modern things like the emergence of indoor plumbing.  This means you can’t suddenly say that something isn’t supposed to be that way because it could very well be right since it isn’t Earth.

Well, that’s my opinion and statement on this.  I’m going to be playing more with the idea when I finally get to the fantasy tip book.  What do you think about the belief that fantasy stories need to be in medieval Europe?

About Charles Yallowitz

Charles E. Yallowitz was born, raised, and educated in New York. Then he spent a few years in Florida, realized his fear of alligators, and moved back to the Empire State. When he isn't working hard on his epic fantasy stories, Charles can be found cooking or going on whatever adventure his son has planned for the day. 'Legends of Windemere' is his first series, but it certainly won't be his last.
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80 Responses to Does Fantasy Have to Be Medieval?

  1. CP Bialois says:

    I agree. They can be set anywhere we want. Exploring and creating new worlds are some of the perks when writing.

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  2. Pingback: Does Fantasy Have to Be Medieval? — Legends of Windemere | The BiaLog

  3. Sue Vincent says:

    It is an extremely limiting idea… If magic exists in mediaeval Europe, why would it have disappeared today? And in stories set in other worlds or realities, pretty much anything goes. I don;t see why you can’t have cleanliness just because you happen to have dragons 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  4. L. Marie says:

    I enjoy fantasy series of all kinds–medieval or otherwise. Like Sue I don’t see why complaints are made about a made-up world. It’s fantasy!! Why does a fantasy series have to be so “realistic”?

    Years ago, I enjoyed how magic and dragons were inserted in books about the Napoleonic era (Naomi Novik’s series and also Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell). Such a fun idea. But I wonder if people complained about them too.

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  5. Well, as Pearseus belongs to the sci-fi fantasy subgenre, I obviously agree with you! Indeed, it’s why I love fantasy: it can be part of pretty much any genre. Although you may then call it magical realism, of course.

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  6. I love this post. In the general public’s mind fantasy is set in a medieval world. You almost have to be a fanatic reader or an author to understand the variation. I wrote one that was Greco-Roman, and my Lanternfish stuff has gunpowder in it. I wish more readers would take a chance on something that’s a bit beyond their usual thought process.

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  7. Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog and commented:
    Let Charles know what YOU think, in the comments under his original blog post 😃

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Unchaptered says:

    Fantasy is define as “the faculty or activity of imagining impossible or improbable things”. So, using this definition as your guide, you can understand why many books from a variety of genres can be labelled as fantasy. Ray Bradbury famously said he considered himself a fantasy writer, not a sci-fi writer as many called him:
    “First of all, I don’t write science fiction. I’ve only done one science fiction book and that’s Fahrenheit 451, based on reality. Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it’s fantasy. It couldn’t happen, you see?.”

    And I have to second Sue’s statement about not questioning the rites and habits of a world created by a writer. Many authors write to express in words these worlds they’ve created in their minds. They’re not always based on reality, so I think it’s okay for them to stray from fact for the sake of the story they’d like to tell.

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    • I’ll admit that I differ a bit on Bradbury’s view, but that’s me not liking everything getting tossed into fantasy like it’s a catch all genre. I think fantasy really needs to stray from reality since it involves so many unrealistic things. Yet, it creates its own reality within the boundaries of its world. We spend years crafting the structure of these worlds, which brings them to a solid point. The actions in a story don’t stray from those facts even if they don’t match reality.

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  9. Unchaptered says:

    I agree that fantasy needs to stray from reality and you’ve really captured the essence of what fantasy is when you say “it creates its own reality within the boundaries of the world” – this is a beautiful way you’ve put it. When I mentioned straying from fact I meant the facts of reality, but I also understand your point about created worlds having facts that maintain their structure, its a very valid point. I think Mr Bradbury was trying to highlight the differences between science fiction and fantasy, and focus attention on the fact that fantasy authors write about things that couldn’t possibly happen: the unreal (just as you’ve mentioned).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Guess this shows facts are what one makes of them in fiction. With Bradbury, I do get what he was trying to say. The tough thing about anything that works with science is that we never really know if it’s truly impossible. With the magic and monsters that tend to be in fantasy, we definitely know those aren’t going to join our real world. I keep thinking about how many things in Star Trek have entered the real world.

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      • Unchaptered says:

        ☺️ That’s a good point but I guess it goes back to the definition of fantasy: things which are impossible or improbable. Science usually deals with the probable so this is may be why you can distinguish between the two genres.
        But I understand there can be times when the line between the two is a little blurred.

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      • Okay. I see what you’re saying. I think it’s the definition of fantasy the mental action that you’re using. The genre has actually been defined as ‘imaginative fiction involving magic and adventure, especially in a setting that is not the real world’. Going by the latter, there is a big difference between it and science fiction. Personally, I hate when the two are combined under one category because they have such big differences.

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      • Unchaptered says:

        Ah! I get it! I was looking at the technical definition rather than the genre definition of fantasy. When looking at it from that point of view there is a big difference between the two 😅

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      • Yeah. Though many people use the technical to get their books on Amazon lists.

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      • Unchaptered says:

        I guess it comes down to which definition you agree with the most. I would say they’re both valid, although I lean more towards the technical

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      • And I’m on the opposite end. As you said, they’re both valid and come down to preferences.

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      • Unchaptered says:

        Thank you for this discussion, it’s given me food for thought ☺️

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      • Thank you. I enjoyed it. Made me realize that people may look at fantasy from the other direction.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Why would someone want Eart History accurate? It is fantasy for heaven’s sake. Time to get out of the comfort zone. good post, Charles.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Reblogged this on Plaisted Publishing House and commented:
    Fantasy Era…

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  12. D.T. Nova says:

    As someone who watched a lot of cartoons in the 1980s, my introduction to fantasy fiction was He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, which had a hero whose strength came from a magic sword, a sorceress in a castle, and an evil wizard with a skull for a face…and also a robot horse, a metal-eating cyborg, and aircraft armed with laser guns. So the idea that all fantasy has to be medieval has always seemed weird to me.

    Actually, what’s really unrealistic is the fact that some fantasy worlds somehow STAY medieval (both culturally and technologically) for thousands of years; especially weird in stories that don’t even have magic be common enough or versatile enough to take the place of the technologies that never get developed.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It does come off as unbelievable when worlds don’t change. I guess one could argue that the events of Earth that instigated the tech advancements never happened, but you would expect there to be some kind of replacement. I have seen some that pull it off with a reveal that these things existed in an older time and civilization was wiped out. So the tech was lost or banned.

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  13. I suspect the medieval fantasy trope comes to a large extent from the fact that the modern ‘fantasy’ story, as it evolved, did so in the western storytelling tradition and harked back to western historical imagery. As you point out, infuse that with Tolkien’s intentional echo of northern mythology, with the D&D derivative mashup of Tolkien, Robert E Howard and medieval storytelling, along with influencers such as Lord Dunsany, and the stage seems to be set for the modern idea. But of course a fantasy story can be set anywhere as long as it’s compelling.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. missimontana says:

    The next time someone complains a fantasy is historically inaccurate, tell them “That’s why it’s called Fantasy, not History or Reality.” Personally, I think those who complain about these things are control freaks who want everyone to write the same stories the masters did for decades. That, or they’re just dull and unimaginative. Complaining the characters bathe too much? That is nitpicking.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. If “historical” appears in the genre name, such as with historical fantasy, the setting should be authentic to whatever time period it’s meant to be set in, with only the changes that make it fantasy – such as the addition of magic – being allowed to not be authentic. But it doesn’t need to be medieval. You can have historical fantasy from any time period.

    If it’s pure fantasy, in a world created by the author, it doesn’t matter as long as any time the rules for how things work are different is explained, such as areas that might be more advanced technologically or magically than others being mentioned as being that way for whatever reason. I mean, we don’t need area backgrounds totally filled in, but at least make it clear things are meant to be different here. Anyway, whatever time period it mirrors is up to the author, but even if there are similarities in the time period from Earth’s history, if it’s a completely made up world, the main thing is consistancy throughout the book or series, and historical inaccuracies aren’t important. In fact, if it’s a fantasy world, I’d sort of expect there to be something different from Earth, otherwise what’s the point of having it set in another world?

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  16. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this great post from Charles Yallowitz that asks: Does Fantasy Have to Be Medieval?

    Liked by 1 person

  17. You make some great points. I think a lot of stories that take place in outer space that are classified as Science Fiction are really more, if not completely, fantasy. I give you Star Trek vs. Star Wars. Star Trek has elements that definitely conform to some known scientific principles or theories and educates the viewer through it’s story telling methods. Star Wars is a fantasy in space. The science is made up as the story goes along and is just a background element. That’s my opinion, anyhow.

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  18. Ha! You’ve pegged me. I didn’t even realize I did it, either. Yes, if a book is enough ‘medieval Europe,’ I nitpick details like time systems or available weaponry.

    What successful novels DON’T take place in that imagined universe? Unless it’s a Lewis or Rowling right-under-our-noses-through-some-magic-entry world, I think medieval is what people want.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Have none of these people who do insist that ‘fantasy has to be medieval’ ever heard of urban fantasy, the sort of fantasy set in the modern (or future) world, in a large city rather than in a little town/village in fourteenth-century Normandy or wherever?

    Another thing about this assumption that annoys me is thinking, since obviously all fantasy is medieval, any story with a “medieval” tech level must be fantasy… even if it was sci-fi in the previous chapter, when the protagonist and the crew of her starship got stranded on that backwater planet. Nope — now it’s fantasy, because it’s “medieval” and therefor “in the past” because of the lower (compared to what the viewwpoint character is used to) lever of the local tech.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m guessing they have, but don’t indulge. It could also be that they expect full historical accuracy when you take a medieval setting. I have seen that other mentality too. There is a weird push for science fiction that appears in an older setting be dubbed fantasy. It’s like sci-fi can only be in the future.

      Liked by 1 person

  20. “I’ve seen many readers go after a fantasy book because it isn’t historically accurate.” That’s so silly, isn’t it? If we wanted to make everything historically accurate, we would not be writing fantasy. We would be writing historical fiction!

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  21. Fantasy should be any world, any creation, limitless.

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  22. Decided to surf back through this one. You got an incredible response on it.

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  23. Pingback: Does Fantasy Have to Be Medieval? – Written By Charles Yallowitz – Writer's Treasure Chest

  24. Fantasy is more than a genre in itself, it is first a word that encompasses imagination, creativity and something that does not really exist. We see medieval fantasy because of how history went down, europe was the first continent to have a print, to produce books in a massive scale.

    But Fantasy is more than dragons and shinning armor.

    I’m from Dominican Republic, we’ve been working on some settings and stories in the past couple of months that portrait a fantastical world of the natives that inhabited these lands before the spanish came and the africans that were brought as slaves after the natives were slain.

    They all have magic in their mythos, they all have flesh devouring creatures, tyrant gods and mages, druids, masters of spells. Warriors, places in other realms of existence.

    In other words, Fantasy is more than medieval, it’s more than a language, a place, a heritage. Fantasy is being human, is part of our imagination. The universal archetypes pur mind share just for being a human being.

    Thank you for the question. We talk about it a lot down here in the caribbean.

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  25. Petra says:

    Medieval Europe is probably the default because elements of the quest are right there: sword, steed, etc.

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  26. Pingback: Does Fantasy Have to Be Medieval? — Legends of Windemere | Fantasy/Sci-Fi FILM & WRITING FESTIVAL

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