Guest Blog: Escaping the Castle : Medieval Europe in fantasy fiction.
By Adrian Tchaikovsky
Fantasy fiction has an odd relationship with history, a relationship that involves jumping into bed a lot and telling inaccurate stories about it the next morning.
Some books are set in a straight-up historical setting, but where magic, dragons or some other mythical element is real, albeit sufficiently low-key so as not to disrupt the course of recorded history (which course may itself have been populated by people who believed in both magic and dragons, albeit sufficiently distant so as not to disrupt their lives). Other books present a secondary world that clearly shows the influences of the real. My own insect-kinden from Shadows of the Apt start off with a classical flavour (Ants with big shields and shortswords; not too much of a puzzler where that came from) and then make a jump to 20th century history when the war really gets going. This sort of echo history is pretty much ubiquitous, and there are certain wells that the bucket goes down more often than most. Feudal Japan is popular, as is Renaissance Italy, but by far the most common place to draw inspiration from is Medieval Europe.
The ur-fantasies are the romances like Amadis of Gaul and La Morte d’Arthur. A lot of the standard fantasy tropes are right there: quests, mysterious patrons, the guilt-free massacre of enemies and objectifying of women… Later pulp fantasies went further afield – Conan covers a lot of terrain that feels like the Middle East and the north coast of Africa, for example. Middle Earth itself has a more feel to it of what we used to call the Dark Ages until mediaevalists shouted at us about it, and many fantasies that followed closely on Tolkien’s heels tended take some of his elves and dwarves and throw them into the Middle Ages, sometimes grim and gritty, and sometimes a sanitised version where all the kings are virtuous and nobody, to quote Monty Python, is covered in shit. Even where the setting is ostensibly a world away from the actual Middle Ages, like Brook’s post-tech far future in the Shannara books, it remains the go-to source for societal structures, landscape and the like. It is very useful fantasy shorthand to be able to rely on familiar concepts to frame the story and get things moving quickly.
It’s only a tendency, rather than a rule. Le Guin’s Earthsea has dragons and kings but a very different feel to it – much helped by it being geographically very distinct from continential Europe. The importance of water travel in the archipelago is a simple but powerful change in itself. Erikson’s Malazan books have a wildly original setting backed by a history that goes back into prehistory. Novak’s Temeraire takes Europe into the 18th/19th century, dragons and all.
Just like the world of the kinden, The Tiger and the Wolf is set in a fantasy world created from whole cloth. The chief concept was “What is everyone was a shapeshifter?” and I spent a lot of time just following the logical implications of that – how it would affect the way people lived and died, how they fought, what they believed in. To knit it all into a working world, though, I did feel the need to look at the real. When drawing on the past for fiction, the historical record gives you systems and concepts that arose and endured in the real world.
With The Tiger and the Wolf I did want to take a break from European history as a baseline. This comes with its own pitfalls, of course. It’s very easy for a writer to swan into someone else’s culture and say, “This looks nice, I’ll take it.”
One thing I didn’t want to do was make any pretence of working within a real historical place and time and imposing my own fantastical conceits on it, but I read about a variety of times and places around the globe – especially Pre-Colombian New World cultures, which are less often explored, though certainly not untouched in fantasy fiction (de Bodard’s Obsidian and Blood series for example). Individual elements from my reading got woven into the book’s setting where they found a logical fit.
An important part of realising all of this was to make the cultures and people as real as possible in my own mind which, just as with the kinden, means walking a line where they are simultaneously the products of their culture, whilst also not being defined by it. In Shadows of the Apt, the Wasp Empire had a particular cultural viewpoint that rewarded some traits and punished others, yet produced characters with a range of virtues and flaws. Just the same, the various cultures of Tiger grow up with certain norms that they accept or challenge or bend to serve them, depending on their natures. One of the recurring themes in the book is that everyone is someone else’s monster: the Tiger curse the people of the Wolf and vice versa.
In the end, I’ve worked hard to make the world of Tiger a vibrant and living one, original whilst lent a sense of reality by the research I’ve done. I’ve also worked hard to restrain my own excesses because, when you’ve done all that world building, the natural inclination is to shoehorn as much of it as possible into the text, which does nobody any favours. All that’s left is to invite readers to visit the new lands I’ve charted a course for, to run with the wolf and hunt with the tiger, and all the other shifting shapes of their world.
The Tiger and the Wolf, HB £16.99, 11/02/2016 TOR
Adrian Tchaikovsky @aptshadow