In fantasy literature, the medieval era is the most common setting. Sure, you get the “flintlock fantasy” that moves things forward a bit, and then there’s the whole subgenre of urban fantasy, but most of the popular works of the past century center on the High Middle Ages.
It’s not hard to see why. That era has a lot going for it. It’s so far back that it’s well beyond living memory, so there’s nobody who can say, “It’s not really like that!” Records are spotty enough that there’s a lot of room for “hidden” discoveries and alternate histories. You get all the knights and chivalry and nobility as a builtin part of the setting, but you don’t have to worry about gunpowder weapons if you don’t want to, or oceanic exploration, or some of the more complex scientific matters discovered in the Renaissance.
For a fantasy world, of course, medieval times give you mostly the same advantages, but also a few more. It’s less you have to do, obviously, as you don’t have the explosion of technology and discovery starting circa 1500. Medieval times were simpler, in a way, and simple makes worldbuilding easy. Magic fits neatly in the gaps of medieval knowledge. The world map can have the blank spaces needed to hide a dragon or a wizard’s lair.
Times are (not) changing
But this presents a problem, because another thing fantasy authors really, really want is a long history, yet they don’t want the usual pattern of advancement that comes with those long ages. Just to take examples from some of my personal favorites, let’s see what we’ve got.
A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin. You’ll probably know this better as Game of Thrones, the TV show, but the books go into far greater depth concerning the world history. The Others (White Walkers, in the show, for reasons I’ve never clearly understood) last came around some 8,000 years ago. About the only thing that’s changed since is the introduction of iron weaponry.
Lord of the Rings; J.R.R. Tolkien. Everybody knows this one, but how many know Middle Earth’s “internal” history? The Third Age lasts over 3,000 years with no notable technological progress, and that’s on top of the 3,500 years of the Second Age and a First Age (from The Silmarillion) that tacks on another 600 or so. Indeed, most technology in Middle Earth comes from the great enemies, Sauron and Morgoth and Saruman. That’s certainly no coincidence.
Mistborn; Brandon Sanderson. Here’s a case where technology actually regressed over the course of 1,000 years. The tyrannical Lord Ruler suppressed the knowledge of gunpowder (he preferred his ranged fighters to have skill) and turned society from seemingly generic fantasy feudalism into a brutal serfdom. (The newer trilogy, interestingly, upends this trope entirely; the world has gone from essentially zero—because of events at the end of Book 3—to Victorian Era in something like 500 years.)
Malazan Book of the Fallen; Steven Erikson. This series already has more timeline errors than I can count, so many that fans have turned the whole thing into a meme, and even the author himself lampooned it in the story. But Erikson takes the “fantasy stasis” to a whole new level. The “old” races are over 100,000 years old, there was an ice age somewhere in there, and the best anyone’s done is oceangoing ships and magical explosives, both within the last century or so.
Back in time
It’s a conundrum. Let’s look at our own Western history to see why. A thousand years ago was the Middle Ages, the time when your average fantasy takes place. It’s the time of William the Conqueror, of the Holy Roman Empire and the Crusades and, later, the Black Death. Cathedrals were being built, the first universities founded, and so on. But it was nothing like today. It was truly a whole different world.
Add another thousand years, and you’re in Roman times. You’ve got Caesar, Pliny the Elder, Vesuvius, Jesus. Here, you’re in a world of antiquity, but you have to remember that it’s not really any further back from medieval times than they are from us. If we in 2017 are at the destruction of the One Ring, the founding of the Shire was not long after all this, about at the fall of the Roman Empire.
Another millennium takes you to ancient Greece, to the Bronze Age. That’s “Bronze Age” as in “ironworking hasn’t been invented yet”, by the way. Well, it had been, but it was only used in limited circumstances. Three thousand years ago is about the time of the later Old Testament or Homer. Compared to us, it’s totally unrecognizable, but it’s about the same length of time between the first time the One Ring was worn by someone other than Sauron and the moment Frodo and Sam walked up to Mount Doom.
Let’s try 8,000, like in Westeros. Where does that put us in Earth history? Well, it would be 6000 BC, so before Egypt, Sumeria, Babylon, the Minoans…even the Chinese. The biggest city in the world might have a few thousand people in it—Jericho and Çatalhöyük are about that old. Domestication of animals and plants is still in its infancy at this point in time; you’re closer to the first crops than to the first computers. Bran the Builder would have to have magic to make the Wall. The technology sure wasn’t there yet.
Breaking the ice
And that’s really the problem with so many of these great epic fantasy sagas. Yes, we get to see the grand sweep of history in the background, but it’s only grand because it’s been stretched. In the real world, centuries of stasis simply don’t exist in the eras of these stories. Even the Dark Ages saw substantial progress in some areas, and that’s not counting the massive advancement happening in, say, the Islamic world.
To have this stasis and make it work (assuming it’s not just ancient tales recast in modern terms) requires something supernatural, something beyond what we know. That can be magic or otherworldly beings or even a “caretaker” ruler, but it has to be something. Left to their own devices, people will invent their way out of the Fantasy Dark Age.
Maybe magic replaces technology. That’s an interesting thought, and one that fits in with some of my other writings here. It’s certainly plausible that a high level of magical talent could retard technological development. Magic is often described as far easier than invention, and far more practical now.
Supernatural beings can also put a damper on tech levels, but they may also have the opposite effect. If the mighty dragon kills everything that comes within 100 yards, then a gun that can shoot straight at twice that would be invaluable. Frodo’s quest would have been a piece of cake if he’d had even a World War I airplane, and you don’t even have to bring the Eagles into that one! Again, people are smart. They’ll figure these things out, given enough time. Thousands of years is definitely enough time.
Call this a rant if you like. Maybe that’s what it really is. Now, I’m not saying I hate stories that assume hundreds or thousands of years of stagnation. I don’t; some of my favorite books hinge on that very assumption. But worldbuilding can do better. That’s what I’m after. If that means I’ll never write a true work of epic fantasy, then so be it. There’s plenty of wonder out there.