Okay, I made that up. It’s not from any published fantasy novel (and I’m glad it’s not, for it’s rife with just about every fantasy cliché I could think of off the top of my head). But it could be. And it serves to introduce a question I sometimes get asked:
Why does so much fantasy take place in the equivalent of the Middle Ages?
Think of the more or less undisputed ‘modern’ leaders in the field: The Lord of the Rings and the Narnia series... and, of course, the enormously successful films that have been made of them, films that, in the case of The Lord of the Rings, are very likely not what J.R.R. Tolkien envisioned at all (something his son, Christopher, has made abundantly clear). But it’s probably safe to say that an entire generation of fantasy enthusiasts – writers and readers/viewers alike – have been heavily influenced by Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth and its Middle Ages-style cultures and civilizations. And then, of course, there’s what we would refer to as ‘classic’ fantasy --- of which one of the best examples is undoubtedly the whole Arthurian legend (which, as a story itself, is really cool: it evolved over nearly a thousand years, with additional characters and elements being added at different times by different writers, until we have the narrative we recognize today).
Not that all fantasy takes place in a Middle Ages environment, of course. The most obvious modern example set right here in our own time is, of course, J.K. Rowling’s monstrously successful Harry Potter books (although there’s a caveat to that which I’ll mention shortly). And there are many other classic examples of fantasy that are not set in medieval times: Wind in the Willows, The Wizard of Oz, Winnie the Pooh...
But there are a lot of fantasy heroes out there wielding swords and bows and doing very medieval type things --- or at least, what many people today would regard as medieval type things. In reality, as I’m constantly telling my literature classes, we tend to romanticize the time period to the point where it’s barely recognizable. We tend to think of pennants fluttering in the warm summer breeze, buxom, attractive maidens looking for rescue, chivalry and fair play ascendant among politely dueling knights, and so on. But the Middle Ages were not a romantic time in which to live. Battles were savage, bloody affairs; castles were generally cold, dank, uncomfortable places to live; medical science, like so many other sciences, had regressed terribly after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and to call it rudimentary is perhaps being overly generous; sanitation was disgustingly primitive, with raw sewage being disposed of on the streets. Life was, as Thomas Hobbes would say later about another time period, “nasty, brutish and short.” So why do so many fantasy writers plonk their protagonists down in such a time? (Including, truth be told, yours truly).
Besides the influences I listed earlier, I think it’s at least partly because a great deal of fantasy relies on magic of some sort, and the presence of fantastic, mythical creatures. But magic can only “exist” in certain environments... and our secular, materialistic world isn’t one of them (despite our society’s obsession with the paranormal, which I would count as something very different). Even in Rowling’s world, there’s a very careful delineation, a dividing of the magical world and the non-magical one, and never (well, rarely, anyway) shall the twain meet. The harsh spotlight of science, in its coldly piercing mercury arc glare, tends to want to freeze the hell out of magic.
Some of the appeal is that a middle ages type environment is also pretty exotic to most people. It’s so different from driving one’s car along the freeway in a lengthy (and frustrating) commute to some dreary office job.
And also, I think, and perhaps paradoxically, many people think of its lack of technological prowess, as something of a bonus --- particularly at a time in our existence when technology is starting to assume tyrannical proportions over our lives, at least as far as many are concerned. There’s something very refreshing about a world without omnipresent cell phones and internet and smart-this-that-and-the-other. It gets back to the literary concept of the noble savage and all that.
So I don’t think we need to get embarrassed about our Middle Ages fetish. Load the catapults and the trebuchets! Man the castle walls! Scour the skies for errant dragons!
And if you see any damsels in distress... be sure to let me know.