Saturday, February 11, 2012

Longing for the Medieval

"Bedrock Fortress," by t.j. blackwell

One of the delights of fantasy novels is their ability to take us to places we’d like to go. If that’s true—I think it usually is—then it’s interesting that so many fantasy novels take place in a kind of medieval world.

If you think about it, most of us were taught in school (or somewhere) that the Middle Ages were a superstitious, unenlightened age, where people died young from plagues and constant warfare, and they had to sleep on dirt or stone floors and live indoors without good windows. Those were the “dark ages.” No science; no medicine. Nobody could read, either, so people didn’t get to think for themselves.

If you’re American, you also were probably taught to associate that time with the terrible idea of “kings,” both high kings and petty ones. I remember in particular learning about the feudal system, with peons and lords and constant battles, and walled cities and the whole thing. Nobody envied those peons. Nobody thought highly of those lords, either.

So, if I’m remembering correctly, if all of us really were taught to think of the Middle Ages as backward and superstitious, why do we all want to go there?

Before I hazard a guess, I want to point out one thing that rarely gets included in the fantasy medieval past: the Church. If you dip into a book like A Day in a Medieval City, by Chiara Frugoni, you’ll discover that the Church was everywhere in the Middle Ages. It was in the middle of most cities (which weren’t all that large), and there were monasteries, abbeys, and such things all around the countryside. (Twain’s Connecticut Yankee makes good dramatic use of this fact.) Churches and steeples and friars and monks appear all over medieval tapestries—as do hell, and the manifold torments of its occupants. To use a Twain-esque expression, you couldn’t swing a … er, rope … without hitting a monk or a friar or some other cleric, in the medieval past.

My point is that the fantasy novel doesn’t give exactly a realistic picture of medieval life. I don’t mean that it should. For one thing, this strange silence about religion, which you’ll find in Tolkien already, might be due to the fairy tale and folktale influence on the genre. After all, European folktales were passed down—if not invented—in a society permeated by the Church and its representatives. And yet, rare is the monk or nun or friar in one of these tales, and far more seldom still is the tale really “religious,” especially “Christian,” in any explicit way. (This topic is for another day.) Moral, yes; religious, not especially.

So one possible caricature is: Fantasy novels happen in a vaguely medieval society where, as in fairy tales, the Church is not a real player—religion isn’t the point. To answer our question—“Why?”—you might say that fantasy novels, out of respect for tradition, take place in the same half-articulate social set-up that the folktales assume.

But I think it goes beyond that. I think for many fantasy fans, we experience a longing for a pre-technocratic society. We want to “go there,” where you have to start a fire with a flint (whatever that is) and, if you’re going to reach a remote kingdom, you have to walk through a barren countryside where there aren’t any good roads or automobiles or railroad tracks. Maybe a forest. This might be happening in some land that we can’t find on a map—in fact, all the better. We just want to go there, to Middle Earth (maybe especially there), and live where elves are not far off and dwarves might be inside a mountain. Or dragons might still plague people who live in houses with roofs of thatch. Something about that pre-plastic, pre-automobile, pre-highway, pre-Walmart, existence entices us.

And another thing: we seem to sometimes perceive the “good”—whatever that is—more clearly there, where the technology doesn’t get in the way. Free of its cords and electric pulses, its clutter, we perceive the “evil” there more sharply, too. And that, again, is a legacy of faerie, I expect. For there, in that world of brilliant color and deep shadow, uncluttered as it is by smokestacks and water towers, we sooner expect to encounter the magic that we crave, from some “other world,” hanging around the bend. Yes, even though we know that magic to be full of peril, unpredictable, and ever unwilling to bend its rules to the self-absorbed. Yes, because somewhere we seem to cling to that old-fashioned idea ...

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