The Meaning of the Middle Ages: Fans, Authors, and Industry

 The Meaning of the Middle Ages: Fans, Authors, and Industry

Game of Thrones - Daenerys Targaryen and Ser Jorah Mormont
Game of Thrones – Daenerys Targaryen and Ser Jorah Mormont

Session: Tales after Tolkien: Medievalism and Twenty-First-Century Fantasy Literature I in Kalamazoo

Helen Young (University of Sydney)

This was a very enjoyable paper given on the topic of medievalism and the predominance of a European perspective in almost all fantasy literature. Young examined three authors who were moving away from the traditional telling of fantasy by subverting the typical pseudo-medieval narrative or by moving away from European cultures towards embracing Eastern, Aztec and other non-European worlds. 

Thomas Jefferson like Tolkien believed in that “noble Northern spirit”. Medievalism is often attached to a race theory and there are many different contemporary medievalisms. This paper will explore what is considered “medieval” in the fantasy genre.

How did fantasy become medieval? Fantasy hasn’t always been that way but mainstream fantasy has been shaped as medieval. Tolkien isn’t the only fantasy creator but he is certainly the most important. Fantasy had to be made predictable, and available for mass consumption; authors like Terry Brooks, David Eddings and Robert Jordan all drew from Tolkien. Young proceeded to give an account of three authors who strive to move away from the imitations of fantasy after Tolkien: George R.R. Martin, Kij Johnson, and Aliette de Bodard. All three attempt to distance themselves from traditional fantasy tropes. Martin makes assertions that his work breaks with fantasy genre conventions, saying, “I sampled a lot of it. And hated a lot of it. It just seemed to me that they were imitating Tolkien without understanding Tolkien and they were imitating the worst things of Tolkien”…Martin focuses on the way these Tolkien imitators have created quasi-medieval setting and don’t really grasp what the Middles Ages were like. The “real Middle Ages” were grim, and they retained their Europeanist ties. The mud, blood, rape and whiteness of the Middle Ages are constructed as real and authentic in Martin’s vision. Interestingly, there are very few critiques that question the way Martin represents his view of the Middle Ages, but most agree that, “He re-branded the Middle Ages as gritty”.


Obsidian and Blood - Aliette De Bodard - Aztec fantasy
Obsidian and Blood – Aliette De Bodard – Aztec fantasy

Orientalism is also found in many fantasy constructions: dreamy fantasy alt-China, Russian culture and other eastern inspired stories. Aliette de Bodard writes in a non-Western setting, such as Aztec and pre-communist China. Kij Johnson, another fantasy writer writes non-Western novels. Johnson grew tired of reading “lock-step quest fantasy” and set her works in medieval Japan. Curiously, Johnson never refers to her writing as “medieval” because to the Japanese, it wasn’t medieval, it was classical. People were approaching Johnson’s books through a Western lens assuming the timeline of Japan’s medieval period must coincide with ours or our version of what is “medieval”. Young then explored how fans fence off the Middle Ages as specifically European. She brought up a thread from “A Forum of Ice and Fire”  where fans asked why are there no Asian characters or other races portrayed in fantasy books. It became a series of telling trends and responses – some said there are Asian themed places, but they are not focused on as a main part of the story. There was an alarming comment about Australia not having a history in the Middle Ages and  fans were regularly repackaging imperialist and colonialist racism. As Young pointed out, “Medieval is not necessarily the exclusive providence of whiteness” and begs the question: Whose Middle Ages are we looking at and through what lens? Everything we currently acknowledge as traditional fantasy is approached through European cultural time. Many people think only Europe had a “true” Middle Ages, and was therefore “civilised”. There is currently a move away from Western fantasy retellings and an interest growing in shaping stories of a non-European styled world.

This paper was excellent. It really made me think about fantasy writing – a genre that I love and helped form my attachment to the Middle Ages. We definitely approach this period from a white European perspective and place Western ideas of what is really “medieval” in our fantasy stories. It was a very interesting reflection on the current state of the genre and where it’s moving in the future. 

~Sandra Alvarez

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

Smartphone and Tablet users click here to sign up for
our weekly email