The other day I came across a comment somewhere (alas, I don’t remember on what blog/forum) that enjoyment of fantasy stems from a nostalgia for the medieval era when lives were “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This view is typically delivered with the rather heavy-handed (though often unstated) implication that only children and fools would enjoy stories set in a time period lacking women’s rights, flush toilets, and antibiotics. I suspect if you’re reading this blog you would agree when I label such a view simplistic and rather asinine. And yet…this opinion has been around for decades, and its staying power suggests that – just maybe – there might be something more at work here than haters hating.
Romanticizing the Past versus Being Nostalgic About It
So why then do people today still say fantasy just romanticizes the ugly past? I’ve never seen a child of the late ’90s and early ’00s make this statement. That’s understandable when we consider that for that generation, Harry Potter was the defining work of fantasy, and that its appeal and reach extended far beyond fandom’s traditional minority. In my experience, the accusation of nostalgia is most often made by folks who matured in the ’70s and ’80s. Unlike the Harry Potter generation, many of those my age or older could have grown up utterly insulated from the boom in genre. They would likely have only been exposed to the unavoidable hits of the generation that preceded them: Howard’s Conan, Tolkien’s Elves, Lewis’ Narnia, etc. Those formative books established their expectations, expectations which a cursory glance at fantasy covers in the ’70s and ’80s would have instantly confirmed. After all, contemporary urban fantasy at that time was the bleeding edge.
So fantasy’s predilection for medieval settings (whether secondary world or not) is an understandable stereotype. By volume, I would suspect (though I have no hard data) it remains warranted today. If someone were to tell me “Most fantasy is set in a quasi-medieval setting” I would say that this is likely a fact. But if somebody says that “Fantasy is nostalgic for the medieval era” I would take exception.
Contemporary fantasy owes many of its roots to romantic literature of the 19th century. In the literal sense, quasi-medieval fantasy does romanticize the past: images of the past are used as a cultural short-hand to set the tone of the work, establish a framework by which its themes can be explored, and set reader expectations. This focus on the reader’s frame of mind and emotional state is in many ways the defining rhetorical device of the Romantics. Realistic fiction does the same, but through the use of different imagery: contemporary imagery, objective or ironic presentation, etc. Both romanticize their subjects (however strenuously the realists might deny it). Fantasy just happens to use quasi-medieval window dressing.
However there is a line between romanticizing the past (a sin of which fantasy, historical fiction, and well-written biographies are all guilty), and being nostalgic for it. In fantasy, that line gets blurred by the genre’s reliance on thinning.
The Thinned End of the Wedge: Thinning vs Nostalgia
In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, John Clute defines “thinning” as the weakening of some aspect of the world or character which then enables the story to be structured as a recovery fable. I won’t reprint the entire definition, but I strongly recommend you check it out: it’s a deep and meaningful concept, however fuzzy the borders of Clute’s definition. The classic way in which fantasy stories use thinning is to present a world in some form of decline. The reversal or slowing of that decline becomes the object of the plot or one of the story’s major themes.
Tolkien’s Middle Earth is replete with thinned elements yearning for restoration: the elves are leaving the world and going west, the line of Numenor is spent, Hobbits are no longer easy to find, dwarves are locked in their mountains, and the Ents have lost the Entwives (just to name a few examples that spring to mind: there are more). In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe we first find a Narnia where humans have died out, the land is blanketed in perpetual snow, and the White Witch oppresses the land and its people. Thinning is even used in non-medieval fantasy, such as in Marie Brennan’s Onyx Court series (see my earlier review).
Thematically, thinning is deployed with a nostalgic tone. The pre-thinning state is never shown, so the reader never sees what this idealized past was like. But the narrator and characters leave us with no doubt that it featured characteristics that they felt were good. It is their nostalgia which permeates the text, not the reader’s or (necessarily) the writer’s. It is merely a rhetorical device, analogous in kind to the use of framing stories or unreliable narrators. It can highlight themes that the writer seeks to dramatize, and can plant deeper emotional hooks in the reader. This isn’t a tool unique to fantasy, and in fact has a long pedigree.
Remember the Dark Ages? Even though it’s an awfully imprecise term, Petrarch’s origination of it really lends a fantastical narrative to the Middle Ages: the Dark Ages were western culture’s own period of thinning after the fall of the Roman Empire, and the influence of the Renaissance (which itself idealized the classical era) remains a powerful force in fantasy today. Contemporary portal/quest fantasies are the descendents of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and characteristic fantasy characters (rogues, merchants, warriors, etc.) can often trace their lineage back to Bocaccio, Chaucer, or Malory.
What Comes after Thinning?
Thinning, and the nostalgic tone it engenders, is clearly nothing new for fantasy. This makes the accusation that fantasy pines for the medieval past an understandable conflation of the terms. Yes, it is wooly-headed. Yes, it is imprecise. And yes, the people who level this accusation are dying out. But if there is some poorly articulated truth to their criticism, then what if they really have a different and far more valid point: is thinning played out as a rhetorical device? Does it remain relevant for the thematic concerns contemporary writers wish to address?
The backwards-looking Renaissance gave way to the striving of the Enlightenment. Thinning and its nostalgic tone became rarer, and tended to be confined to the (already more fantastic) Gothic novels. Though there was much writing we might today call speculative, the thinning popular during the Renaissance was replaced by satire, philosophy, and utopian texts which raised questions about society in the moment and postulated future directions for its development. If thinning as a device has become cliché, what comes next? Can we expect a new Enlightenment in fantasy which replaces thinning and the nostalgic tone with satire? I don’t think we’ve reached that point yet, but I suspect we may be on our way there. And who knows? Terry Pratchett’s Discworld might just be the satirical canary in the coalmine that drags us kicking and screaming into the century of the fruitbat.