Fantasy is Badly in Need of the Renaissance

Apologies for the lapse in posting recently, life and appendicitis have been getting in the way of things.

Think about Mediæval Europe for a second. What sort of pictures do you get? Is it one full of unrelenting peasant drudgery, consignment to the scrapheap by birth, dominance of a politicised church and rural peasants struggling to scrape a living from the soil? Or is it a broadly urbanised population with knights in plate armour, a well-established merchant class and people who are a little more willing to speak openly against the priests? If it’s the latter, you’ll be thinking about the Renaissance.

But many “Mediæval” fantasy settings will operate like this, and yet retain several of the trappings and attitudes of the earlier period. The end result tends to be a nonsensical mishmash that has to be modified heavily if it is to make sense.

While I know that alternative worlds don’t have to follow the same development as our own (this has been acknowledged as a generally bad thing), some thought towards the consequences of this state would be nice, and alongside it some differences in the governmental structures. Many of the Mediæval-Renaissance states (“states” being present is another discussion altogether) of fantasy have non-dynastic monarchical governments, simlar to the Doge of Venice and other rulers of the Italian city-states, but still cling to the trappings of kingship and the like. It would be nice to see some forms of government that are actively different to the variety of historical governments and exploring their consequences.

Which I suppose is my main point for this post; the settings present in Generic Fantasy mainly and Urban Fantasy in particular (to bring things to the present day) is to hold everything in an environment constant, while introducing a new element (like magic to Medieval/Renaissance Europe or dragons to New York), and expecting things to otherwise remain the same. There is little acknowledgement of the social effects of the new element, or on their development. If you have a setting where magic wands are freely available, then gunpowder (and therefore large plate armour) is unlikely to develop as there are already far more efficient ways of killing people. What is likely to happen is that various magic-specific defences will be produced and used, and magic wands will become more refined. And, as I’ve pointed out previously, the magic-users will have an effect on the social and power structures that they are part of, which will in turn influence their development.

This will in turn alter the development of things like agriculture and warfare, and the tools that are used with them. And so the society won’t develop as our world has, as there are different social and technological pressures acting on it; the addition of one variable will change the whole social equation. Which will hopefully lead to a reinvigoration of the fantasy genre, with a more thoroughgoing and fresher world creation, another form of Renaissance altogether.

Any thoughts on this? Please post some comments below!

About Aramithius

I'm always interested in the birth and expression of new ideas, from world creation to philosophical and metaphysical exploration. Fantasy and its related genres are the perfect vehicle for this sort of thing, and I enjoy exploring it in various ways.
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2 Responses to Fantasy is Badly in Need of the Renaissance

  1. You have some excellent points. A challenge to one introduced element causing changes is that those changes have to be imagined as to the effects on society, how people and government might react, and a cycle of re-actions taking place to produce a “current state” that is of interest. It’s a sort of realist approach to something imaginary, which is good, but then how realistic can we actually be?

    What I mean is that we end up with a theory of “this is the current state”, but we could be very wrong. Of course, we’ll never know that, but I’m reminded of communism and socialism, where all these guys like Karl Marx had a theory of how society could be and those theories have always had horrible results that were far off from their theory.

    • Of course it’ll never be completely accurate, but the problem is not that authors tend to get the consequences of one change wrong, it’s that there aren’t any consequences at all. Just some attempt to show broader consequences (however realistic that may be) would be good.

      That said, counterfactual history is a very hard-to-do art/science, so maybe that’s one reason many authors divorce their work from reality altogether to create new worlds; so that they can have their world their way, without having to work out causation and the like.

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