THE KING'S BLOOD by Daniel AbrahamSo there’s this argument about epic fantasy that keeps coming up, and it makes me uncomfortable every time I see it. Usually it goes something like this: a beloved novel or series set in a world with kings and knight and dragons – that is to say one set in an imaginary medieval Europe – is analyzed and found somehow wanting. Not enough strong women, too many white people, too much sexual violence. As the debate fires up, one of the defenders of book or series makes some variation of the argument that fantasy that has the set dressings of medieval Europe is better if it also has medieval social norms. Or, at a lower diction, “But the Middle Ages really were sexist/racist/filled with sexual violence.”

And there, my dear friends, I get my back up. With all respect, this is a bad argument. If you don’t mind, I’d like to run down my objections to it in hopes of putting a stake through this argument’s rhetorical heart.

First off – and I include this only because it deserves to be said – history is more complex than a fantasy novel. The Middle Ages, for all their many faults, also included Moorsh Spain where religious tolerance and civilization flourished. Women in the 14th century England could own property and accumulate wealth. The argument that “it was really like that” assumed that there’s a singular “it” that can be applied. There’s not. That alone should be enough to stop this rhetorical strategy, but it’s not the part of the argument that actually chafes me, so put it aside and let’s pretend for a while that there was only one homogenous Middle Ages. And let’s say that from the fall of Rome to the Enlightenment was one long uninterrupted stream sexual subjugation, racial hatred, rape, and plague. It wasn’t, but let’s pretend.

What would that say about contemporary epic fantasy set in a faux medieval world? That it should be like that too? That a story is made deeper, more powerful, better by cleaving to that? Would, to give a concrete example, the Chronicles of Narnia would be improved by plagues and vicious religious schism? I think it wouldn’t. And I think there are many secondary world fantasies like it – Hughart’s The Bridge of Birds, Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, Kushner’s Swordspoint – that would obviously be poorly served by greater historical authenticity.

Which is to say the standard only applies to the projects it applies to.

So fine. We’ve dispensed with the authentic complexity of history. Now, let’s cut out The Chronicles of Prydain and Thomas the Rhymer too. Let’s pretend that the argument might make sense if we only talk about the subset of epic fantasies where the author is trying for authenticity. George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, R. Scott Bakker, Richard Morgan. The kinds of fantasies that pull no punches and show medieval life the way that (we’re pretending for the sake of argument) it really was. In that context, argument has to hold true.

Except that it doesn’t.

Here’s a short list of how things really were in the real Middle Ages that, I think, match the popular understanding of them: religious, agrarian, lacking in cryptozoological discoveries.

The importance of God and the church in medieval Europe is the central cultural fact of the time, and the fear of damnation in the afterlife shaped everything from the creation of art to the customs of international banking. Surely everyone in these historically authentic fantasies must be pious, because the Middle Ages were really like that. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Western Europe had a massive ruralization that didn’t start coming back to focus on large urban centers until the 1400s. Surely the majority of action in these realistic fantasies happens outside cities. And since there weren’t any, dragons have to count as a huge minus.

Except that of course they don’t. And what’s more, they shouldn’t.

The idea that the race, gender, or sexual roles of a given work of secondary world, quasi-medieval fantasy were dictated by history doesn’t work on any level. First, history has an almost unimaginably rich set of examples to pull from. Second, there are a wide variety of secondary world faux-medieval fantasies that don’t reach for historical accuracy and which would be served poorly by the attempt. And third, even in the works where the standard is applied, it’s only applied to specific, cherry-picked facets of the fantasy culture and the real world.

At its heart, the argument that the Middle Ages were “really like that” misunderstands what epic fantasy is by treating it as though it was in conversation with actual history. It isn’t.

At its heart, the argument that the Middle Ages were “really like that” misunderstands what epic fantasy is by treating it as though it was in conversation with actual history. It isn’t. It’s in conversation with the epic fantasy that came before it. George RR Martin (who, in the interest of full disclosure, is a friend and sometimes-collaborator of mine) has drawn a great deal from the incidents of real history, but he hasn’t written a work of historical fiction. What gives his work its power isn’t historical accuracy, but the subversion of genre expectations and a deeply-felt sorrow that infuses almost every scene. JRR Tolkien drew his inspiration not from medieval history but from medieval romances, and the Lord of the Rings isn’t remembered for what it said about an imaginary 1300s, but what it said about (and to) a real 1950s. And 2010s. The roots of epic fantasy aren’t with King William II. They’re with King Arthur, and so they’re timeless. Historical accuracy isn’t what we come here for.

So why are people making the claim? Here’s what it looks like to me:

There are legitimate reasons for racism, sexism, and sexual violence to be part of a fantasy project, and expressing how problematic elements serve a novel is tricky work. It invites conflict, and the issues about what fiction is and should be aren’t straightforward.

It’s hard to have a piece of fiction that spoke to you – and by you I mean me – criticized, and this argument seems to come up almost exclusively in the context of defending a beloved work against criticism. When a critic points out something problematic in a book that we enjoyed (or, God forbid, wrote), it feels like a personal attack. Also this is the Internet, and the level of rhetorical violence with which the analysis is presented can sometimes leave welts. It’s natural to reach come to the defense of the work, because that also feels like coming to the defense of the writer and the fans. We don’t do our best thinking when we’re defensive. Sometimes we make dumb arguments. This is one of those.

We’ll have to do better.

Suggested Further Reading:

Written by Daniel Abraham

Daniel Abraham

Once upon a time, there was a writer who wrote novels under three names — well, two and a half, really. Daniel Abraham wrote epic fantasy set other worlds, MLN Hanover wrote urban fantasy set in something very like our world, and James S. A. Corey wrote science fiction set well into the future. In the real world, he was Daniel Abraham, except that James S. A. Corey was written with a partner named Ty Franck.

http://danielabraham.com     @abrahamhanover

Discussion
  • Calcolatrice Online April 23, 2012 at 3:57 am

    Well argued point. Lack of historical accuracy may distract me from a story, but that’s when the genre requires accuracy. Science fiction stories that involve time travelling in the past come to mind. To me, heroic fantasy is a very different kind of work.

  • AnimeJune April 23, 2012 at 4:56 am

    Wow – INTERESTING POST! The whole nature of “the world has to be like this because history is like this” isn’t related only to fantasy. I’m also connected with the romance community and this debate has come up again and again in historical romances, and specifically, romance writers debate where the focus should rest – on historical authenticity, or the romance?

    And it’s difficult for historical romance writers to balance both because in the romance genre, a strong, unique heroine is required but there is a long-standing (and as you’ve pointed out, frequently erroneous) belief that woman were pretty much Marriage Pawns With No Free Will up until 1965. The result means a lot of historical romance heroines who are just flat-out anachronistic and simply defy (or defy in the broader, more obvious sense) all the norms people believe of the period – which annoys me TO NO END.

    As you’ve mentioned, there are tons of real-life examples of women getting their own in historical periods, or simply different ways women maintained agency, and I prefer those heroines than those fantasy (heh) constructs who simply pout and coo, “But I want to wear pants and get a job and I hate my culture’s racism and empiricism and I’m going to be a doctor in 1812 England, neener-neener! Society is stupid!”

  • Tina Holmboe April 23, 2012 at 5:22 am

    Good article. Excellent, even.

    But …

    “But I want to wear pants and get a job and I hate my culture’s racism and empiricism and I’m going to be a doctor in 1812 England, neener-neener! Society is stupid!”

    Hildegard of Bingen anyone? Or even James “Miranda” Berry, if we are to take on the British, who wore trousers and became an MD doctor in 1812, and an army surgeon in 1813. Yes, if the story is accurate she DID hide as a man, but the pouting, coo’ing, social revolutionary is also a part of history – they are not even fantasy constructs.

    Women did get their own in a variety of ways. Some of them flouted social norms at the time. All of them should/could be a part of fantasy.

  • Nic April 23, 2012 at 5:23 am

    At its heart, the argument that the Middle Ages were “really like that” misunderstands what epic fantasy is by treating it as though it was in conversation with actual history. It isn’t. It’s in conversation with the epic fantasy that came before it.

    Yes, this. So many times this. I’m curious as to where the ‘authenticity’ idea came from – fantasy is a genre of the imagination, is not?

    Fast becoming my go-to book for opening people’s eyes to the notion that The Middle Ages Were A Bit More Complicated Than That, Actually is Yossef Rapoport’s Marriage, Money and Divorce in Medieval Islamic Society, which in a little under 120 pages demolishes pretty much all the assumptions that are popularly held about medieval Islam, medieval women, and medieval Muslim women.

  • Melinda M. Snodgrass April 23, 2012 at 6:14 am

    Well, done, Daniel. You know how much this bugs me because you’ve heard me rant about it. Sooner or later, and usually sooner, these “historically accurate” books make me feel as if I’ve been bludgeoned, and I don’t like being bludgeoned. Strong female role models are important, rather then an unending parade of women being raped, murdered and generally subjugated.

  • E. M. Edwards April 23, 2012 at 6:19 am

    History is broken.

    I mean that literally. It’s a handful of potsherds, a foundation line of time eaten-bricks that someone’s grandfather first built a pig-sty out of and his great-grandson later plowed up.

    Even historians understand that beneath their intercede feuds, they’re just moving things around in a past whose boundaries are perversely fluid. And one whose real face we can only get brief glimpses of through the reflection of our own modern preoccupations, never the full gaze, never the moment those eyes lock on ours.

    So what generic western fantasyland is made from is something more troubling that what we’ve unearthed in our quest for historical verisimilitude. It is an artificial reef, formed over time, stranding many a narrative upon its back. A lot of it is garbage. It posits a cod-medieaval world, with a primacy of violent men squatting at the top of a heap of dirty laundry, spotted by black plagues – though few dark faces – bad teeth, plentiful beer. Heavy swords and implausible names. It snips a bit from the older faery tales, builds inferior shrines to what it sees as genre’s Romulus & Remus by way of English dons of a certain age, but really it is as much a child of the seventies, eighties and now its own inbred (and sometimes monstrous) prodigy which it begot of itself in the 90s.

    It’s not history, accurate or otherwise, save for that its roots lie in the recent past. But we like it, more than we should.

    The point is, the core of the fantasy genre isn’t historical fiction but a patchwork creation. We’ve stitched it together, galvanized it and sent it shambling across the countryside eating peasants. But it isn’t real and it is deeply offensive in some of its habits. By refusing to admit it’s just a construct we find it difficult to exorcise its worst qualities from subsequent works. We don’t have to preserve them as part of a template simply because they got into the mixture while the clay was still wet.

    Generic epic fantasy wasn’t forced on us, we chose it as a model. Or some people did. And people keep choosing it by purchasing it. It’s a easy choice, easily marketed, turned into bad films, familiar and to a certain segment of the readership, comforting. There is a nostalgic quality and a reminder of childhood pastimes invoked by it; of simple games, but they don’t always transfer well to a more complex world.

    There is nothing traitorous about suggesting we needn’t follow it. It is not bad manners to question those authors who haven’t found reason to cut away its rotten pieces. We can have fantasy, without those unfortunate appendages. And I’d argue that we’d all be better off without them.

  • E. M. Edwards April 23, 2012 at 6:46 am

    ed. ‘internecine’ of course.

    And a final point: IF you can give a giant fire-breathing lizard wings and the physics needed to fly with them, why can’t you give female and non-white characters in your epic fantasy equal agency?

  • Saladin Ahmed April 23, 2012 at 6:55 am

    ::slow clap::

    The trick of course, for all of us writing this stuff, is that -despite the fact that this entire post couldn’t me more correct- we (and our readers) DO still give a shit about a chimerical ‘authenticity.’ I agree with every point here. Yet and still, if your quasi-medieval blacksmith shows up wearing sneakers, I will cry foul. For others bailed hay is a foul. Interesting questions of thresholds folded in here, is all I’m saying.

  • Cameron Goble April 23, 2012 at 7:05 am

    Sharp essay, Daniel. As a reader, I most appreciate the authors who can do their story a real service by being thoughtful and aware of what they’re writing. Including elements for their own sake just doesn’t fly. There has to be a reason for inclusion that pushes events along, enriches the world, or challenges the characters in meaningful ways. Just throwing tropes in as commentary seems more to belittle the real impact in our contemporary world than to spark engagement with it. If having a sexist element in the world is so important, go write a story about that and do it justice.

  • E. M. Edwards April 23, 2012 at 7:10 am

    @Saladin Ahmed

    A deft hand. That’s the answer.

    And someone putting an end to all the tedious worldbuilding of the type that must detail every rivet in a knight’s gorget. That sort of thing makes my own gorge rise. What’s wrong with “a figure walked forward out of the river mist, wearing armour,” why do we have to have recursive detail everywhere in some examples of fantasy? It can feel even where due diligence has been used, like they’re trying to convince the reader they’ve done the research/in their stack of Osprey military books. But more often it just feels like we’ve been stranded among the sheeted furniture.

    Just a few nods here and there can do wonders for setting place and a sense of time.

    But the point remains that being historically accurate (and I challenge that exists) isn’t a good explanation for why you have included certain elements, and left other possibilities out of your book.

    No one *has* to write books about females and non-white Europeans in a generic fantasy setting, but leaving them out and then claiming you’re being realistic, is just pathetic.

  • [...] y’all are interested in it, I have a post up on A Dribble of Ink about historical accuracy and epic fantasy.  I am, at best, [...]

  • Douglas Hulick April 23, 2012 at 7:24 am

    To respond to Saladin (and not necessarily disagree with him):

    I think that there are expectations re. authenticity, yes. This is a form that draws on history, or at least a popular concept of history, for many of its most common tropes. If you have castles and swords and armor and the like, then you are making specific promises to the reader–promises that, if you plan to break them, you better damn well explain. However, that is not in the same boat as using authenticity as an argument/defense when the “authenticity” in question is limited to said same swords and castles and armor and [aspect of the book the author is called on]. Then it becomes a shield, and a weak one at that.

    Is it all about choices? Yes, of course. You can’t, and don’t, want to include everything from a historical era. At base, this is a literature of entertainment & imagination, and we need to choose which aspects of our inspiration we are going to include in a story. Some things don’t fit because they don’t, or can’t, or we don’t want them to. Fine: I can completely buy that, and am plenty guilty of it myself. But where I draw the line is when someone uses perceived,”Well, everybody *knows* X was the case…” pseudo-history as a justification against a criticism, when little to no effort re. historical “authenticity” has been put in anywhere else in the work. Then it’s just back-pedaling and making excuses.

  • Michael Sullivan April 23, 2012 at 7:27 am

    Well said, and obviously a better job than I had done. I inadvertently contributed to this controversy while attempting to explain that my impression of authors who wrote worlds where women lacked opportunities, was probably more because of their desire for authencity than a proclivity toward chauvinism. I was taking my lead from Anne Lyle’s blog where she had said,

    “In fantasy in particular, where stories are often set in historical or quasi-historical patriarchal cultures, a significant percentage of male protagonists (written by both sexes) are going to be, well, less than enlightened in their attitudes towards women. I, and most women readers, have no problem with this; as a writer you have to be true to the setting you write about, and fantasy characters who behave and think like modern Westerners are just not very believable.”

    Note to self….next time don’t attempt to explain the actions of others…or why the genre is perceived as it has been…in the future stick to discussing only your own work.

  • Anne Lyle April 23, 2012 at 8:06 am

    Since I’m being quoted, I thought I’d better put my oar in…

    I agree that there’s no need to simply copy your predecessors and write the same old tired sexist cliches under the guise of “historical accuracy” – and I and other women readers will applaud you if you don’t! However as has been mentioned above, the characters’ actions need to fit the society you’ve created. Pseudo-medieval women are not going to think and act like 21st century ones – they don’t have the same frame of reference – but has been mentioned above, they can still have agency and even power, instead of being the helpless pawns of their menfolk.

    If you’re going to research all the other cool details like castle layouts and how to make a sword, make sure you also research how real people lived, women as well as men. Women like Hildegaard of Bingen, Christine de Pisan and Moll Cutpurse may have been exceptional, but that’s what protagonists so often are – exceptional.

  • Anachronist April 23, 2012 at 8:38 am

    I agree with Anne. Authors sometimes limit their own stories to a certain historical or quasi-historical set. They do it deliberately to make their fantasy books sound a bit more ‘real’ I suppose. Anyway in such a case I as a reader expect the writer to do his or her homework – research the said period and try to keep within the limits drawn by yourself. I don’t mean here any serious, time-consuming research because a writer is rarely also a historian and not everybody has enough time to spend months or years wading through a pile of source materials. However if an author wants me to believe that a ‘medieval’ knight in his or her story wears snickers and his/her dragon eats burgers they must substantiate it VERY well or the book sounds simply implausible and silly.

    If you’re going to research all the other cool details like castle layouts and how to make a sword, make sure you also research how real people lived, women as well as men. Women like Hildegaard of Bingen, Christine de Pisan and Moll Cutpurse may have been exceptional, but that’s what protagonists so often are – exceptional.

    Hear, hear.

    It’s hard to have a piece of fiction that spoke to you – and by you I mean me – criticized, and this argument seems to come up almost exclusively in the context of defending a beloved work against criticism. When a critic points out something problematic in a book that we enjoyed (or, God forbid, wrote), it feels like a personal attack. Also this is the Internet, and the level of rhetorical violence with which the analysis is presented can sometimes leave welts.

    I do not condone unfounded accusations and unjustified criticism. Dear authors, let bad reviews be – no matter whether they are positive or negative nobody will remember them after a while. However, every reader has a right to like or not like the chosen book. As long as the criticism doesn’t transform into a vicious attack, geting very personal and ugly, I suppose it is ok. It is true in the case of the reviewers and the authors reacting to the critique. No opinion deserves public tongue-lashing though. Personally if I read a really rude comment from an author whose novel has been criticized just because he/she cannot deal with a negative review I immediately stop wanting his/her books.

  • Anne April 23, 2012 at 10:24 am

    These are all very good points.

    I think there’s also an argument to be made that using the idea “that’s what it was like” to inform your epic fantasy can be used as a tool to subvert and even completely demolish typical modern fantasy tropes. If your fantasy audience expects your characters to behave according to certain patterns, because that’s what they’ve been trained to expect with fantasy – well, that’s an interesting starting-point, isn’t it? Martin’s a good example to use here because he’s very canny about subverting his readers’ expectations*: Song of Ice and Fire, for example, reads, superficially, very much the way we expect modern epic fantasy to read, with Tolkien-esque sweep and a dash of revisionist grunginess. But upon closer examination we find Martin toying with the structures he’s utilizing, rather than venerating them – he sets up, say, plot-points and character moments according to our expectations about what they “should” be and then destabilizes and, in some cases, destroys what he’s built with them.

    You’re right, of course – “that’s the way it was” is unworthy of being employed as an explanation or excuse for problematic fantasy. But the expectations we bring to fantasy can be used as an interesting way to explore what we read, and our relationship to it.

    * So canny, in fact, that it often goes unnoticed.

  • Mr. E April 23, 2012 at 10:39 am

    @Anachronist

    While I definitely agree that authors acting like whiny children because their book was criticized is a bit of a dealbreaker, I can definitely see why their doing it. It hurts to be told that your writing is no good, but it probably especially hurts when you’re told your writing is racist/sexist/prejudiced in any way. That hurts in a different sort of way, because it’s an assault on your own character. The proper response is, of course, to just deal with it, but I will admit that I’ve gotten mad on author’s BEHALFS before simply because of how their character is being bashed. I can’t imagine what it feels like to the people who actually are being bashed; I can see it just being too much and someone having to lash out about it.

  • Jon Courtenay Grimwood April 23, 2012 at 10:42 am

    Almost more than gender, class defined a persons ability to act and have agency. Someone like Bess of Hardwick could wield huge amounts of political and economic power, and negotiate deals and use sons and daughters to secure further advantages for their families. Catherine the Great might be the daughter of a minor and somewhat stupid German general and his teenage wife, but she became the ruler her idiot (and conveniently short-lived) husband could never have been. I agree with Anne. One of my biggest problem is slapping modern thought onto – to us, and let’s be honest about it – almost unimaginable mindsets. I can pretend I know what it’s like to live in 990 and believe the world will end with ten years and my dead family literally rise from their graves, but I don’t, and at best can only try to imagine it. But these are real settings rather than fantasy ones. I think that Gritty for the sake of it in fantasy might have reached its sell by date. And I suspect that, anyway, it was only ever our 21st century minds, overlaying Hollywood dystopia tropes onto a Hollywood version of the mythologised early middle ages. Yes, the period was brutal, unutterably so as anyone who has studied it can tell you, but it also produced stunning buildings, great love poetry, fabulous jewellery, and cogent thought…

    And a tip of the hat to the person who mentioned late Moorish Spain, a place where Jewish architects and Christian builders could design palaces for Moorish princes.

  • Bastard April 23, 2012 at 10:50 am

    I agree with the aspect that there’s not a singular “it” Middle Ages. But I also think we get into the trap of glorifying the exceptions, on both sides of the equation. Also extrapolating from limited samples or limited experiences. So, women in 14th century England could be land owners and own property. Does that really tell us much? Does it say anything about how they were treated by other men in society? Job opportunities? What percentage of women benefited from this? I mean, it’s 2012 and women have much more opportunities than before (or so I’d like to believe), and yet there’s a lot of work to be done towards equality still. There’s still plenty of people who think the female sex to be inferior. There are still ton of struggles for women to get respect from men, heck even from women themselves. How many world leaders have been women, or religious leaders? Have they had de facto power? As an aside, does a black president in the US say anything about the status of racism in American society?

    “Authenticity” is a very tricky word to use in these types of discussions and context. Is it the same as an attempt at being “realistic”? Does the distinction matter? I think it does, particular if the attempt is at a backward society, rather than something that resembles historical accuracy. And then, for better or worse, dealing with suspension of disbelief.

    Personally I don’t care one way or another how fantastical societies are portrayed in Fantasy, the role of women in them add nothing to me as far as authenticity and realism goes, or the role of men for that matter. Arguments are going to be flawed regardless because hey, it’s true, there are dragons. And we’re not well served with generalizing. Even so, one has to be true to the society you envisioned in your work, regardless from where it’s based from or the reason for it being the way it is. The term “medieval fantasy” is flawed in itself. Not everyone is interested in emulating that society, some just want to write about swords and horses, with a mix of magic, yet are grouped together with the rest.

    That said, claims of authenticity for the role of women in fantasy works is often a very poor one. But, even so, is it dis-different to what the history of the world has led us to belief? I don’t know, and in a society that’s not advanced (and even then), is a society that limits women opportunities more realistic?

    But as people have said, it’s fantasy, there are dragons, we don’t have to limit ourselves to any sort of preconceptions, whether accurate or not. And even then, the argument about dragons seems weak to me. Empowering women shouldn’t be considered a fantasy, or even fantastical, it’s something that the real world needs to fix and completely in the realm of real possibilities; it’s an ongoing process, and hopefully towards progress.

    I personally like to see more questions being asked rather than attempts at answering the current ones. But as it has been mentioned above, history itself is broken. So, who to believe?

    How all of this regards agency in female characters, I really don’t know. I still think everyone is working with different definitions of what agency is, so with that in mind, a little tough to understand each other.

    After we figure out what agency is, can we then discuss what romance actually is? Maybe not.

  • George April 23, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    I find the whole “This is fantasy so you don’t have to be authentic” to be kind of a simplification. It isn’t about what you have to do but what you choose to do. The writers who make certain choices are not telling everyone to follow their example but are telling the stories they want to tell.

    I don’t see the reason why a non oppressive, full of equality and people singing kumbaya fictional world does not need to be justified or a more opressive one one does. Or why the later one does. Unless through the later, you do show sexism in a positive light which I am against.

    Note that the first world might have its issues, if you pretend that sexism, classism, does not exist, especially in a society that seems rather medieval, you perhaps are bringing to people the wrong lessons, so if we care about what messages the story brings, whether the world seems more medieval or more cliche does not necessarilly answer the question. So I think “Why do you have to have a world with sexism in it” is kind of an unfair question. Why not? That does not equal being in favor of sexism the same way that having books with misanthrope characters does not show misanthropy in a positive light . Obviously some might not like to read that kind of books but that is the good of diversity and variety. I think what is important is that the writer provides the story he wants to provide in a setting that can provide advanteges such as seemingly more historical authenticity is one so it is a valid point, but someone who is not interested in that aspect and its advantages will not have it. You are not forced to choose that option in fantasy and you don’t have to justify yourself if you don’t. Likewise with those who choose different fictional worlds.

    At the same time criticize characters who don’t have good female characters or their books send bad messages on sexism. And obviously the setting is not a good justification for bad characters. Nor does it cause them, you can have bad female characters even sexist ones in a setting that tries to be authentic and in one that doesn’t. In fact the first might be much better than the later, but it is case by case.

    Is historical authenticity absolute in fantasy? No, it isn’t and it can’t be. But through attempting some not historical authenticity but lets say be closer to historical authenticity than other fictional worlds, you might have a work that feels more authentic to reader which on its own is an advantage. Appears less cliche, subverts tropes, criticizes classism, sexism as ASOIAF successfully does in my view. Maybe even shows the negatives of those societies and has a positive message. And the characters might seem more real and relatable/enjoyable/better characters in such a story in comparison to stories that are more cliche. But it is also possible to have great characters that seem rather real in worlds and settings that are much less backwards than those. Different settings have different advantages.

    So judge the problems of the story and not the setting of the story. If you don’t like the fact that the story is a story of where misery is displayed then it is perhaps just a matter of taste and not a matter of criticism of the story being sexist. And thankfully we all have different preferences and I think some acceptance of how different settings can all be valid is a positive one.

  • George April 23, 2012 at 12:23 pm

    My name is George but I have no relation to GRRM. Don’t want any assumptions.

  • [...] A Dribble of Ink (Daniel Abraham) on Concerning Historical Authenticity in Fantasy, or Truth Forgives You Nothing. [...]

  • Logan L. Masterson April 24, 2012 at 1:21 am

    Fantasy is loosely based on any given set of period cultures. I have never read any work that was based on The Middle Ages. Tolkien drew from numerous sources to create the Lord of the Rings, wherein shades of English, Germanic, Norse, Finnish, Greek, Persian and Celtic influences abound. McCaffrey’s Pern is arguably not fantasy at all, being set in a world colonized by space-faring humans. The Last Unicorn is vaguely European.

    Writers should be encouraged to take whatever aspects of whatever culture (or other influence) serves the tale.

    When I want something historical, I tend to read history texts. My current read is 1215 by by Danziger and Gillingham, which coincidentally refutes your statement that urbanization didn’t begin until the 1400s, placing it closer to 1230.

    If I want an historical story, I read historical fiction, knowing that its relation to history is something like the relation of an Etch-a-Sketch to Rembrandt. Historical fiction is not fantasy. The inverse is also true.

    As far as race and gender go, that’s a sticky subject. The reader usually brings more to the story experience than the author provides on this one. Are not dragons, elves, dwarves, orcs, etc., races? Are they not explored in that very context? Are women not treated with earnest respect in the works of LeGuin, Hambly, et al?

    No book was ever written for everyone.

    The only things requisite in fantasy in particular, epic or otherwise, are resonance and magic. And that’s exactly where it gets sticky, because such things depend on the subtle, often subconscious, recognition of elements that range from the strictly cerebral to base instinct.

  • Felix April 24, 2012 at 1:32 am

    I agree with a lot of what has been said, but I think this topic gets approached from a somewhat undifferentiated point of view. I think it’s important to differentiate between a kind of authenticity that an author aims for, within certain parameters of fiction and genre, and the authenticity of historical times or general cultural issues per se. I don’t think Richard Morgan would claim to offer an authentic representation of a medieval world. It’s clearly conceptualized as a cultural and stylistic mishmash to begin with. Which doesn’t necessarily exempt him from certain assumptions and emphases, but which are more his matter of taste in literature and philosophy rather than fundamental matters of the historicity of his world.
    It’s also fair enough that being based on medieval times may be limited to a certain cultural context or tradition, where other aspects simply didn’t come into consideration. This is pretty much unavoidable to a certain extent and up to a point of becoming self-aware about it.

  • RR Kovar April 24, 2012 at 8:18 am

    The medieval world – or the stripped down skeleton of it – makes a fine template, which is one reason it is used so often in fantasy. The actual complexity of the medieval world (or any world) is more than most stories can relate and, to be honest, more than we wish them to.

    We take our template, and we fill it out with iconic characters (whether we realize it at the time or not) into whom we breathe life. The template does not dictate the belief system of the character; the writer does that. Most don’t write truly bigoted characters – at least not on purpose. The world building is up to the writer, so if the society is sexist or racist, then it needs to be so intentionally and for a purpose, the same way the rules of magic (if it exists) need to be created with consistency and good reason. To say that “it was really like that” is to deny the writer’s agency in the creation of their own world and, on some level, is simply an excuse for not having made conscious decisions regarding how that fantasy world works. It’s fine if the world is brutal, dirty, unfair, and filled with pitfalls – especially for those lacking privilege of place – because we see that around us even now. It’s going to resonate. But it should be that way because the writer finds it useful, not simply because the template came with those settings.

  • JeanGray April 24, 2012 at 8:19 am

    Well, personally, I wouldn’t use such terms as “realism” or “authenticity” about fantasy, because the very laws of physics are different in those settings.

    For me, it is more about plausibility and logical consequences in a given speculative setting. And here, I fear, most fantasy authors fail because they often opt for the quick and easy (and cheap, IMHO) path of using vague variations of certain historical events, but inserting magic, fantastic races, etc. into proceedings.

    Except – it doesn’t really make sense, because if powerful magic existed, why would it be used exclusively for warfare and not for profit? For that matter, why would anybody build costly fortresses if magic to destroy them or bypass their walls existed?

    If there was a magical form of healing, wouldn’t they also work on a magical way of, say, determining paternity? And controlling fertility? And wouldn’t _that_ change the world pretty radically? Etc.

    Basically, yes, there are brilliant fantasies written in pseudo-medieval patriarchal worlds inspired by RL history, but generally speaking this conceit is getting really, really, stale IMHO.
    And as a female reader I’d really like to see something else for a change – as long as it is well thought-through and internally consistent.

  • John Morales April 24, 2012 at 11:01 am

    Excellent rebuttle of this fallacy. the only important criterion when judging a work’s “authenticity” is if the creator lives up to the expectations that they set. That old saw about, “you can have spaceships or dragons, but not both” speaks to this problem of verisimilitude.

    I also want to give mad props for the mention of Barry Hughart’s The Bridge of Birds. The fantastic and fanciful nature of the book sets the expectation of grand (and often overwrought) emotions, so that when Ox and the half-blind seer surmount the obstacles that confront them, the simplest and most elegant of emotions provides the twist and poignancy of the ending.

  • Maenad April 25, 2012 at 3:04 am

    RR Kovar said:

    “The medieval world – or the stripped down skeleton of it – makes a fine template, which is one reason it is used so often in fantasy. ”

    And here I ask – why?

    What attributes make it a ‘fine template’?

  • RR Kovar April 25, 2012 at 6:22 am

    The same thing that makes modern cities a fine template for urban fantasy: a setting we know and a wide variety of malleable particulars.

    Medieval settings are cultural shorthand for a low-tech world with some variation of noticeable class stratification. Chances are the textiles and cooking are simple. Generally, the weapons are metal/wood/stone/magic, though if you can make readers believe that sub-machine guns are a natural outgrowth of the society, you could go that way. It’s a template; they’re flexible.

    Hence, creating a world that has the same social classes and reaction to change or difference that we have been led to believe are the marks of the medieval world is a choice. We don’t have to choose the default setting, and we don’t get to excuse it as “the way things were” when we’re called on it.

  • Raphael April 25, 2012 at 10:21 pm

    I am concerned by this post’s premise. People criticise books because of “not enough strong women, too many white people, too much sexual violence”? Really? So a book that has children kill each other off for entertainment is ok and achieves world-fame, but god forbid your ficticious society has bias incompatible with our modern norms?

    Sorry, but that is a stupid way to approach a book, imho. Suspension of disbelief covers such things, too. I don’t care much how the setting is built, but rather that it does not hit me in the face (a real danger if the author tries to make a point by not having archetypical problems in their societies) and supports a well thought-out story. Hell, race or gender issues give you tons of conflict to work with! I don’t want to read stories set in a society as obsessed with political correctness as ours.

    And, let’s be honest, the majority of humanity lives in societies with lots of discrimination even today. What can be a more realistic premise than a group of people torn apart (or at least troubled by) by predjudice and even hate, regardless of the technological level?

  • Maenad April 26, 2012 at 3:35 am

    RR Kovar:

    “Medieval settings are cultural shorthand for a low-tech world with some variation of noticeable class stratification.”

    So “medieval” settings are a sort of ‘default’ in the fantasy fiction. You say this is because they make an attractive shorthand for a low-tech world. But why did they become such a shorthand? Because of their universality? Errr, no.

    The thing is, the Middle Ages didn’t even happen in most of the world. It is a specific Europe-centric formation. It is only popular with fantasy authors because of the early influence of the Big Name Writers of European descent who just couldn’t get over the 20th century (or the Whigs).

    But a ‘generic’ ‘medieval’ setting is not ‘generic’ at all. ‘Default’ it may be, but ‘neutral’ it is not. It is heavily culturally loaded. There is a price to pay for ignoring this.

    So when you pick a few elements from the ‘default’ setting because they are right there, and easy, and somewhat cool, without examining what these elements stand for, you end up perpetuating the same old cultural hegemony, rather than making any kind of progressive statement (*), even if you feature spunky girl-knights.

    (*) Of course, this does not apply to magic realism, satire, absurdist and surrealist works, etc., which operate under different sets of narrative rules.

  • [...] Concerning Historical Authenticity in Fantasy, or Truth Forgives You Nothing [...]

  • RR Kovar April 26, 2012 at 7:18 am

    I think we’re essentially saying the same thing: that writers should consider the messages they send when they create worlds/societies that parallel medieval Europe and make conscious choices about which aspects they include or don’t.

    Also, medieval is simply a convenient term for a historical time period, so it did happen everywhere. We can use dates, if that makes it less fraught. In my focus on the time period, I studied Asia, the Middle East – where all the stuff I found interesting was happening – as well as Europe and parts of Africa. During this time, everywhere in our world, life was low-tech, textiles and cooking were fairly simple, most fighting was done close-up with basic weapons, etc. The fact that many authors feel more comfortable writing about a medieval Europe-type world may be partially due to their not wanting to culturally appropriate the history/traditions/customs of places they are not a part of or have not studied.

    That said, I believe you are correct when you say that popular early fantasy authors have influenced the choices of those who came after. So should they simply throw over this setting? Would readers accept or welcome that? What setting is familiar and yet not, in some way, heavily culturally loaded?

  • Richard Morgan April 26, 2012 at 11:46 am

    Would……..the Chronicles of Narnia would be improved by plagues and vicious religious schism?

    Oh, HELL, yes!

    And hot sex with the White Witch (which that Turkish Delight is pretty much oozing with anyway, C.S. you duuuurty littel man, you*)

    *with profound thanks to Harry H Corbett

  • Maenad April 27, 2012 at 12:05 am

    “I think we’re essentially saying the same thing: that writers should consider the messages they send when they create worlds/societies that parallel medieval Europe and make conscious choices about which aspects they include or don’t.”

    Sort of. I am taking a stronger position than you in saying that picking ‘medieval’-style setting in itself sends a parcel of messages, whether author considers it or not. This setting is loaded and meaningful, rather than neutral. There is no waiver or get-out clause for that. There is no ‘I just wanted to tell the story and the unfortunate implications are not my fault as I did not intend them; I just picked the elements I liked, so, for the sake of my story, let’s pretend that wider cultural context does not exist’.

    In other words, all ‘aspects’ come with strings attached. So you can’t just pick and choose what you like to include in your story and ignore all the baggage. Or you can, but this is a direct path to creating metaphysical homunculi.

    “Also, medieval is simply a convenient term for a historical time period, so it did happen everywhere. We can use dates, if that makes it less fraught.“

    Here we are hailing from different traditions. To me, Middle Ages are inseparable from the particular social, economic and cultural structures that defined them. Going just by the calendar dates does not make sense to me. 800CE in Rome and 800CE in Tikal might as well be on different planets (not to mention 800CE in Fustat).

    “The fact that many authors feel more comfortable writing about a medieval Europe-type world may be partially due to their not wanting to culturally appropriate the history/traditions/customs of places they are not a part of or have not studied.”

    This does not ring quite true to me. In particular as so many of these European-type worlds include, ahem, ‘exotic races’. Just somewhere close to the edge of the map.

    “What setting is familiar and yet not, in some way, heavily culturally loaded?”

    There are none. That’s the point.

  • [...] Concerning Historical Authenticity in Fantasy, or Truth Forgives You Nothing [...]

  • [...] or an excuse when it comes to portraying race or gender roles? Aidan at A Dribble of Ink posted a thought-provoking article by Daniel Abraham this week. Make sure to check out the comments [...]

  • [...] Abraham attacks the idea of historical authenticity in fantasy: The idea that the race, gender, or sexual roles of a given work of secondary world, [...]

  • Robert Speirs April 29, 2012 at 9:45 am

    I can’t believe how many commenters have drunk the Koolaid and think today’s world, with its broken families, insane debt and degeneracy is in some way better than that of the Christian Middle Ages. “yes” to vaccines and clean water. “no” to “strong women” (shorthand for social collapse) and tyrannical educational systems.

  • Raphael April 30, 2012 at 12:10 am

    Robert, how does “strong women” equate “social collapse”? Even if the former implied the latter, clearly the reverse does not hold! Furthermore, I prefer tyrannical educational systems over no educational systems any day.

    To make this post (hopefully) not pure troll-fodder: You should give reasoning for your statements. As they are, they are clumsy polemics.

  • [...] of diverse characters, they describe why we often lack these characters now. As mentioned in “Concerning Historical Authenticity in Fantasy, or Truth Forgives You Nothing,” when people bring up the issue, they often are met with arguments about historical authenticity, a [...]

  • The Primacy of Story | Serial Distractions April 30, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    [...] Daniel Abraham began the discussion with his post “Concerning Historical Authenticity in Fantasy, or Truth Forgives You Nothing,” where he argues that those that would defend problematic elements of sexism/racism/etc. in [...]

  • [...] Abraham has recently argued against the Realism Defence of representations of sexism and racism in fantasy novels. He begins by [...]

  • C.S.E. Cooney May 1, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    Thank you for this article. I’ll be thinking about it a while.

  • [...] recreation. This is an interested addendum to last week’s article from Daniel Abraham called “Concerning Historical Authenticity in Fantasy, or Truth Forgives You Nothing,” which deals exactly with this topic and explores the relevancy and necessity of strict [...]

  • Andrew Ashling July 10, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    I think the most one can ask of a Historical Fantasy novel is plausibility. I.e. a world coherent within itself. I wrote a series of stories in a medieval-ish setting. (Actually, they’re set in the far future after an hitherto undisclosed apocalyptic event.)
    One of the castles has running water thanks to an aqueduct. In a medieval society the knowledge and the technical skills were present to build aqueducts, so why not?
    On a side note: I’m always surprised that some people can niggle about the accuracy of some historical detail, but have no problem with talking dragons and walking trees, while at the same expecting the characters to adhere to the sexual morals of their own, present-day society.

  • [...] “Concerning Historical Authenticity in Fantasy, or Truth Forgives You Nothing” by Daniel Abraham [...]

  • [...] The original subtitle of this post was “Laini Taylor should build all the worlds,” but I reconsidered. I guess I don’t want Laini Taylor to build all the worlds, but she should at least be on the official worldbuilding committee. It would be her, JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling, Susanna Clarke, and NK Jemisin. And some other people. TBD. You’ll notice I left George R.R. Martin off this list. I did that on purpose. My official worldbuilding committee will consist of authors whose worlds ARE NOT SUPER RAPEY SO THERE. (On that subject see also this and this.) [...]

  • [...] enforce the law in wartime) So is it "realistic" for epic fantasy to be endlessly rapey? Dubious. And a missed opportunity as [...]

  • [...] worlds do selectively borrow from real world histories, mythologies and cultural norms, but they are rarely comprehensive or terribly accurate in those borrowings. The ideal aim is for authenticity and internal consistency, because realism is pretty much off the [...]

  • […] fantasy, and very unlike human history in a lot of significant ways. It's selectively realistic, as Daniel Abraham says, and is less in conversation with history as with fantasy literature. (Note: Abraham is a protege […]

  • MIL | Jules the gamer September 14, 2014 at 5:45 am

    […] As I said, this kind of objectification kind of comes with the Euro territory, but gets kind of creepy when it comes to groups that have a history of objectification. I’m sure the designers were only interested in making a good game and having an interesting historical theme. But making women into resources is a bit of a lazy solution, and historical accuracy is a bit of a lazy argument. […]

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