While I’m thinking about settings!
I write most of my fantasy stuff these days in a medieval-style fantasy setting that should scan as pretty familiar to most fans of fantasy.
However, rather than a very specific and carefully architected setting with thematically dense cosmology, geography, politics, and history, I think of this setting as a first-principles expression of my answer to the question, “why do we write medieval fantasy stuff, anyway?”
In other words, you could say this is my Generic Fantasy Setting, although of course I should like to think that undersells it somewhat.
I call it Materia, because most of the mortals and stories are in the realm of material things, and I can’t be bothered to give it some manufactured Anglo-Elven sounding name like Faerûn.
Tolkien did it really well and we’ve all been pretty much obsessed since then.
I guess that’s the more interesting question to ask.
I probably can’t improve on Terry Pratchett’s answer to the question (apparently given in a 1995 interview with The Onion):
O: You’re quite a writer. You’ve a gift for language, you’re a deft hand at plotting, and your books seem to have an enormous amount of attention to detail put into them. You’re so good you could write anything. Why write fantasy?
Pratchett: I had a decent lunch, and I’m feeling quite amiable. That’s why you’re still alive. I think you’d have to explain to me why you’ve asked that question.
O: It’s a rather ghettoized genre.
P: This is true. I cannot speak for the US, where I merely sort of sell okay. But in the UK I think every book— I think I’ve done twenty in the series— since the fourth book, every one has been one the top ten national bestsellers, either as hardcover or paperback, and quite often as both. Twelve or thirteen have been number one. I’ve done six juveniles, all of those have nevertheless crossed over to the adult bestseller list. On one occasion I had the adult best seller, the paperback best-seller in a different title, and a third book on the juvenile bestseller list. Now tell me again that this is a ghettoized genre.
O: It’s certainly regarded as less than serious fiction.
P: (Sighs) Without a shadow of a doubt, the first fiction ever recounted was fantasy. Guys sitting around the campfire— Was it you who wrote the review? I thought I recognized it— Guys sitting around the campfire telling each other stories about the gods who made lightning, and stuff like that. They did not tell one another literary stories. They did not complain about difficulties of male menopause while being a junior lecturer on some midwestern college campus. Fantasy is without a shadow of a doubt the ur-literature, the spring from which all other literature has flown. Up to a few hundred years ago no one would have disagreed with this, because most stories were, in some sense, fantasy. Back in the middle ages, people wouldn’t have thought twice about bringing in Death as a character who would have a role to play in the story. Echoes of this can be seen in Pilgrim’s Progress, for example, which hark back to a much earlier type of storytelling. The epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest works of literature, and by the standard we would apply now— a big muscular guys with swords and certain godlike connections— That’s fantasy. The national literature of Finland, the Kalevala. Beowulf in England. I cannot pronounce Bahaghvad-Gita but the Indian one, you know what I mean. The national literature, the one that underpins everything else, is by the standards that we apply now, a work of fantasy.
Now I don’t know what you’d consider the national literature of America, but if the words Moby Dick are inching their way towards this conversation, whatever else it was, it was also a work of fantasy. Fantasy is kind of a plasma in which other things can be carried. I don’t think this is a ghetto. This is, fantasy is, almost a sea in which other genres swim. Now it may be that there has developed in the last couple of hundred years a subset of fantasy which merely uses a different icongraphy, and that is, if you like, the serious literature, the Booker Prize contender. Fantasy can be serious literature. Fantasy has often been serious literature. You have to fairly dense to think that Gulliver’s Travels is only a story about a guy having a real fun time among big people and little people and horses and stuff like that. What the book was about was something else. Fantasy can carry quite a serious burden, and so can humor. So what you’re saying is, strip away the trolls and the dwarves and things and put everyone into modern dress, get them to agonize a bit, mention Virginia Woolf a few times, and there! Hey! I’ve got a serious novel. But you don’t actually have to do that.
(Pauses) That was a bloody good answer, though I say it myself.
So, why medieval?
I think the basic meaning of “medieval” to the modern mind, beyond the aesthetics of castles, swords, and theology, is the pre-modernity of it all. Historians often identify the Italian Renaissance (or the Columbian voyages) as the beginning of the “early modern” period. Huge transformations occurred in the early modern era that, far more than anything in antiquity or in the middle ages, constitute the political and intellectual foundations of our contemporary life. The early modern era sees the birth of global competition, the blossoming of political philosophy, of the industrial revolution, of modern governance, of rationalism and empiricism. The world before the early modern era is wild and mystical; every century thereafter features greater human rule over the elements and greater social rule over humanity and greater state rule over society.
There’s a romance to premodernity! And there’s also a great distance to it, which erases some of its blunt facts and lets us scribble our own feelings and struggles over it.
There are some iffy reasons, too, worth noting. A lot of modern states trace their cultural heritages back to the middle ages, as part of conscious or semi-conscious nation-building, legitimacy-shoring intellectual efforts. See, for a sort of example, 19th Century Anglo-Saxonism, the Victorian project to link the English nation back to, specifically, Anglo-Saxon settlers in the British Isles in the early middle ages. The honest inquirer will note that England rightly owes its cultural heritage just as much to Normans (too French for these Victorians’ tastes), Danes (too heathen), Romans (too Mediterranean), and Celts (the worst of the lot; too Irish). Similar intellectual projects exist throughout Europe; the middle ages are often as far back as written sources will go and so they have a sort of “original” appeal to the nationalist eye. None of this is to say that interest in one’s family or national heritage or in knights and holy orders are bad things. But neighbor-feuding, people-ruling nationalists who are specifically looking for a historical foothold will almost invariably make one in the middle ages, and it’s good to be able to identify these projects when one sees them.
Back to the main plot: medieval fantasy allows the writer and the reader to be free, if they wish, of the burdens of modernity: the governments, the bureaus, the social contract theororists, the chemists, the physicists, the economists, and so on. It naturally lends itself to single persons of great import. Adventurers! Cutthroats! Queens! Warriors!
The rest of the setting flows from that feeling. Materia is wild and mystical. Towns and cities are separated by long, perilous journeys. Beyond the meager, rough roads between them are vast expanses of untamed, menacing, wonderful, magical world.
Civilization itself is young and small. There are no economists who chart supply and demand and worry about the kingdom’s fiscal policy and its impact on inflation—at most, a King’s trusted advisor can adeptly manage loans and their service. Cities are ruled by lords and ladies who keep the peace—or abuse their rule—with the limited tools at their disposal (such as a tiny permanent soldiery or a constable with a ragtag posse). To understand the goings-on of a population (a village, kingdom, organization, what have you) you understand its most important people and their networks of influence.
The setting’s biggest sop to aesthetics is the presence of magic. In the principles above there’s nothing that cries out, specifically, for supernatural phenomena or people who can manipulate them. But I like magic. I like wizards and I like warlocks and I like witches and I like sorcerers. So there.
One benefit of magic and magic users is that it provides for some interesting thematic footholds. More on that later.
Tolkien did fantasy races because elves and faeries and trolls and goblins and all manner of humanoid creatures have long featured in European folktales and he was specifically setting out to write, basically, a folktale full of magic and wonder and alien beings.
The rest of us who are not writing folktales should examine very carefully what it is we’re trying to accomplish.
The way I see it is: biologically distinct (to the point of speciation) intelligent creatures in your setting beg a host of considerations.
Note that Tolkien handles all of these things. Address those considerations within the logic of Middle Earth and you will find that they, indeed, reveal the themes that he was supporting! The transformation from Tolkien to D&D (which you can imagine as a baseline medieval fantasy these days), however, tends to flatten the races somewhat (because everyone wants to play as something weird, so they have to be on a level playing field and all generally work like humans or the adventuring party frame doesn’t hold together). And that flattening makes the answers to all of these questions… uncomfortable.
There’s certainly lots of space for fiction to work well here! Personally, I think sci-fi/space opera is the ideal venue for this, because it shifts the imagined past to an imagined future; the implied frame transforms from “what if we were all irreconcilably different?” to “what would we do in the future in the face of irreconcilable differences?” Alternatively, you can just have fantasy races but ignore these factors entirely. But then I will ask you why you didn’t just opt for the much simpler option and make your peoples just different cultural groups of humans.
These are not questions which I bring to interrogate every new fantasy book I read, to be clear. If you have fantasy races in your work and you like them, that’s fine and I’ll probably enjoy your stuff anyway! And we did just finish going over the fact that I have magic in my setting for next to no good reason. But these are the questions I asked myself as I was writing D&D adventures (“what’s the deal with dwarves, anyway? Why can’t I just have humans that live down in the mountains? Why shouldn’t I?”) that have stuck with me as I strike out into other fictional forms.
The point of magic in the setting, beyond my truly simple “I like fantasy magic” statement of value, is to lend to the wild, unexplored, untamable and unknowable quality of the setting.
I decided at some point that a convenient way to understand it from a fiction-structure point of view was “agency”: magic, in a general sense, represents an individual’s will, power, control, ability to decide, and ability to influence things around them.
The purest expression of that are gods (who I already decided to just plop down and have residing in actual bodies on the material plane) and what D&D would call sorcerers. They will the world to change and it changes. This is like heavy lifting: it’s a skill that can be practiced and a power that can be built with training. Some are born bigger and with more potential than others. There’s no particular justice to that.
What D&D would traditionally call wizards are somewhere further down on the tier list. They can’t just press their will out onto the world. They have to learn about how the world works—how it really works—to do things that would astonish normal folk, like an electrician who can build a potato flashlight but with much more utility. But ultimately they possess little raw magical talent or even none. Anyone sufficiently clever and patient enough can get into wizardy given sufficient time and resources.
I’ve considered some other ideas: that sorcery can be bequeathed (an evil sorcerer to their minions, a god to their petitioner, a disembodied spirit to a host), that it’s a mantle that may somehow be inherited, or things like that. Spirits and otherworldly beings I’ve considered as “agency”, essentially similar in character to magic but separate from a magic user. I haven’t decided completely on any of those details.
One other theme that I really enjoy playing with is the social role of magic users. When running tabletop games, I’ve always shied away from characters using D&D class names in-universe; it feels weirdly mechanistic to me. This is an extension to that. A wizard is really a wise old person, fulfilling the role of a monarch’s old nerd advisor, in a world where monarchs value having magic users on hand just as much as wisdom. A sufficiently learned “sorcerer” could be a wizard. Woods witches, soothsayers, and warlocks have already made appearances in this setting, and those names have much more to do with the role they play in their world rather than the mere fact of how they come to manipulate supernatural phenomena.
For the D&D game that spawned this setting† I wrote in seven gods and just dumped most of them right on the material plane, living out lives alongside mortals, as a core conceit of the setting. Three ruled over mortal territory, one over an underworld domain, and one more the party discovered entombed in a remote mountain range. The other two remained unaccounted for.
I think this is a fun conceit. And part of the reason goes like this: if your fantasy setting has multiple real, extant gods, they clearly cannot be omnipotent, or else you have all of those stone-lifting paradoxes but worse and not in a particularly interesting way (in my opinion). And if they’re not omnipotent, what’s the difference between a god and a sufficiently powerful sorcerer? Furthermore, why make them less fun by making them so remote?
The actual details on the existing gods were filled in from another idea I’d always wanted to play with. The seven beings that pass for gods (and whom I have been referring to as gods thus far) aren’t, really; they’re the seven archangels (each identified by a color of the rainbow) left over after the Demon lords of Hell invaded and sacked Heaven, killing the real gods but having their own strength broken in the process. This leaves the cosmos with two great planes of existence: Hell and Materia. There is a “border fortress” between these two, the underworld, a strange and hostile place garrisoned by one of the archangels and her servants.
The seven archangels take many forms throughout history, this body and that being slain or disappearing from the stage, but the archangel’s true being always recovers and returns before too long. Only a true calamity or immense exercise of power could truly extinguish one of them.
Part of the tenor of the setting is its elaboration on death and the underworld. The Demon Lords nurse their wounds in Hell, probing the defenses of the underworld for their next assault on Materia. The archangel on watch down there (Ashkahala, the First of the Dead) calls the souls of dead mortals to the underworld to serve in its defense. There is no heaven above, only the pluck and verve of the mortals and their remaining archangels (who, themselves, are not perfectly good and are prone to jealousy, lust, rage, avarice, etc.). Undeath, of course, contravenes this defensive arrangement and is a favored tool of the servants of Hell. Seeing as the crossing from Hell through the underworld to Materia is stoutly defended and treacherous even for them, demons prefer to augment their numbers when in Materia by creating wights, which they do by locating mortal corpses and infusing them with stolen, masticated souls.
I enjoy history, linguistics, and social studies in general, and themes from these fields of inquiry abound in the fantasy I write. As a result there’s a lot that I’ve filled into Materia over the years that would be interesting to explore in this format, but I promised myself that I’d just post things and not write so damn much and make things hard on myself. I’ll be back for more here later.
† Note the presence of the D&D races in the game. Since ending this game, where I would’ve written in a dwarf or an elf or whatever I just made them human. The exceptions are dragonborn (the Mandarin) and tieflings (recast as the Accursed) who I think have pretty cool things going on in the setting. They’re hardly even races, anyway: the Mandarin are humans transformed by the magical gift of a dragon-god, and the Accursed are actually just humans with some unfortunate physical attributes (there is an interesting history to go along with that, but it really is that boring and simple).