Saturday, September 18, 2010

What do fans of medieval fantasy get out of it?

Photo by David Ball, shared according to license.

I think very few modern readers can relate to laboring on rustic farms until marauders come and kill their guardians. And I'm sure it's the rare fantasy reader who actually gets to study with a swordmaster before facing supernatural beasts. Despite an obvious lack of real connections with the audience, the longstanding approach to fantasy storytelling that sets the action in a medieval-style world enjoys enduring popularity.

In such a setting, the technology is pre-industrial, the cultural inspirations are predominately of a Medieval European flavor, and the economies are feudal with some commercialism. High profile examples of Medieval-style fantasy worlds are The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and now Brandon Sanderson, and the Song of Ice and Fire saga by George R.R. Martin.

Because I expect that most readers of medieval fantasy are leading modern internet-connected lives, I am forced to consider what is truly appealing to them in these fantasy worlds. Why do millions of readers love to escape into these text-based Renaissance festivals? Why do I like them so much?

Someone unfamiliar with the fantasy genre might think that people enjoy the simplicity of an earlier form of society, but I don't think that is the only case. Fantasy worlds can be extremely complicated with many kingdoms, cultures, languages, secret societies, and detailed histories.

Here are some deeper themes to consider:

1. Characters struggling in a hostile world. Fantasies inevitably have their main characters facing deadly threats. Their homelands can be conquered. They can be driven into exile. They can be hunted by dark agents desperate to destroy their secret powers. This is exciting dramatic stuff, so readers will naturally eat it up with a big spoon. Readers are looking for entertainment beyond the tedium of daily existence. But what are we relating to? I suspect it is the struggle itself. Although most of our lives are not under direct assault by orcs, getting by ain't easy! Medical bills, getting dumped by your boyfriend, school exams, job loss, and many other things challenge people all over the world. At least in a metaphorical sense, we are all fighting for our lives, just probably not with a sword or the help of a wizard.

2. The chance for a small group to change the world. Fantasy characters are always laboring against the odds to complete some quest, save the world, avenge a father, rescue the princess, found an empire, and so forth. If readers are like me, they want to believe that an individual or a small band of rebels can topple a tyrant or something equally daunting. This is why I tend to admire activists in the real world. They are at least trying to do something big. They usually don't make much progress, but at least they are joining with the enemy. Fantasy readers are doing the same thing in their imaginations. They want to root for the courageous and imagine that they would act as bravely.

3. The knowledge of good and evil. In a mythological sense, we all ate the forbidden fruit long ago. We know that there is good and evil and many points in between. We know that most people are good, but there are evil forces acting against us. Fantasy readers want to delve into this concept. They want to explore what it takes to truly be good and do the right thing. They want to think about what makes evil tick. They want to see the good tempted by the bad. They may even want to see evil redeemed in a final act of goodness. There is an endless pile of narrative fodder here, and many readers can relate to it. In our real lives we are all drawn in good and bad directions. Reading fantasy literature is a way to explore our feelings and think about tapping into our inner heroes and fending off the villains that may be developing within.

I'm sure that there are many other elements that readers enjoy about medieval fantasies. This rich and robust genre has a lot to deliver to readers from whimsical details to lofty themes.

Now it's time to hear from more readers. What do you value in the medieval fantasies you admire?