An adolescent's concept of the middle ages, or an adolescent boy's concept: how many are like mine? A lot of my imagination has always centered around food, and my fantasies of Medieval meals owed their bulk to the pot roast dinners we often had in my family while I was growing up. There seemed something anachronistic and archaic about a huge hunk of meat on a platter; I think this is universal, judging by the portrayals I've seen in popular media and the wide appeal of turkey drumsticks at Renfaires. Eating large quantities of meat is typically understood as a manly taste, and there is something nearly exclusively masculine about the appeal of a mythical Dark Ages that goes hand in hand with an enjoyment of fantasy role-playing games and their derivative fiction, as well as the accompanying art that teeters on the edge of the pornographic. It's more cave man than anything, and that adolescent male attraction to the Dark Ages has little to do with chronology and almost everything to do with the shagginess that Umberto Eco astutely pointed out in “Dreaming of the Middle Ages.” Cave men with castles for caves and iron swords instead of flint axes. Yet somehow their women achieve modern nutrition and hygiene.
(A Dungeons & Dragons manual I once had, Creative Campaigning, suggested setting a campaign in a stone age and included a reduced magic system to go along with the primitive conditions. I now think that's totally backward: the more primitive the technology and economy, the more pervasive the magic. That game designers should fail to see that speaks to the psychological, historical and mythological ignorance of their society.)
Since in my childhood home we generally had mashed potatoes and gravy with pot roast, I took for granted the Medieval character and even provenance that I projected on them. Not just mashed potatoes but those soggy ones that have been cooked with beef and onions in a slow cooker, absorbing the juice. The whole package of meat, onions and potatoes, whether the meat stays in a chunk or gets cut up for stew, is unconsciously imported into masculine fantasies. In the past few years I've done NaNoWriMo there's been a running joke about stew on the fantasy forum, stemming probably from a question in David J. Parker's Fantasy Novelist's Exam: “Do you not realize it takes hours to make a good stew, making it a poor choice for an 'on the road' meal?”
Even to this day, when I hear or read the word “Lombard” I have to fight to keep the taste and feeling of mashed potatoes and Tabasco sauce out of my mouth. That particular association comes from history books I read when I was 17: the fall of the Roman Empire, the barbarian invasions, the desert fathers. But they said nothing about food, so all throughout I held in my mind a picture of barbarians newly established in appropriated Roman castelli, eating mashed potatoes. This was also shortly after I had taken a great liking to Tabasco sauce and often put it on my mashed potatoes, mixing it in until they turned pink. So for me the Dark Ages came to taste like two American things that were unknown in Europe at that time. I didn't know that; I had only the vaguest idea of the history of food and didn't realize how enormously important staple food crops are in economy, technology and politics, what a difference potatoes really made in Europe in the modern era. My interest in history was a means to an end of fertilizing fantasy; it still is to a great extent, as I think it should be for everyone if the world is to change for the better. But my fantasies then were more narcissistic than the utopian dreams that my spiritual conversions have since engendered, and I had less factual knowledge to help me emerge from the ethnocentric Anglo-American adolescent dreams that I swam in.
So I didn't know the difference between old world and new world crops. I don't want to pin the whole rap for that on Tolkien: as a mythical world, Middle Earth has no reason to pretend to any historical accuracy, being a mythical creation (and Sam cooking rabbit stew in Ithilien makes sense in its context).
But the way the fantasy genre has evolved since then has led to the irresponsible behavior lampooned so well in the Fantasy Novelist's Exam: trying to copy your inspirations without doing your research. Over the past few years there's been a lot of debate online about the race or color of characters in fantasy fiction vis-a-vis “historical accuracy.” I haven't dug deeply into that or followed very closely, mostly because it has always seemed self-evident to me that if you're writing or playing fantasy then you don't need to be “historically accurate.” But if you are writing a fantasy actually set in medieval Europe, then you're obligated to take into account the relations of trade, religion and scholarship that brought people of different races in contact with each other then and there. As a teenager I got an education about Saracens from Judith Tarr's Ars Magica. That novel was published in 1989, and of course Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea novels with their multiracial cast are even older, and not beholden to any concerns for historical accuracy, whatever shallow resemblance their props might have to medieval stuff.
Is the stereotype of a medieval European fantasy landscape – full of castles, monsters, knights errant and damsels in distress all white – more of a notion in the minds of amateur male authors than a reflection of how the genre really goes? It might go back to Ariosto after all, as I mentioned in a previous post: Orlando Furioso is a classic adolescent male fantasy and its European point of view recoils in disgust from black characters and even paints the Princess of Cathay as blond. But I'm not well-read in modern fantasy; I hardly touched it for years until I started on Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series about 11 years ago. It was a welcome re-entry for me because of all that it does right: a multi-racial cast, world-wide trade networks over millennia of history (so potatoes, tobacco etc. make sense, though he keeps maize and tomatoes isolated in the desert to add color in winking asides), and only the most superficial resemblance to “medieval Europe.” It's such a popular series I guess I figured it was typical of how the genre developed while I wasn't looking (I wonder if he was inspired at all by Delany's subversive Return to Neverÿon series with its blond barbarians and child empress).
I fear I'm wrong, based on what I have read from people about what is considered “typical” fantasy – people who I assume have read much more of it than I have. I might like to call it something like White Boy Fantasy with Potatoes: adopting medieval trappings like long swords, armor and castles, and even trying to make these as “accurate” as you can, while blithely including in your misty “northern European” setting blatant anachronisms like potatoes (or pumpkins, like I saw in the Gargoyles TV cartoon series), sewers, cheap soap, or the grosser absurdities like chicks in chainmail . . . but keeping everyone white (with the possible exception of black-skinned evil underground elves) because, forsooth, there were no black people in northern Europe “back then!” This does deserve criticism as narrow-minded: there's not much excuse for it in this century, and I think it's the real butt of Parker's jokes in his exam, much more than Robert Jordan's feminist heroines. White Boy Fantasy with Potatoes might draw from Tolkien, but it leaves off from the mythic resonance that gave his work its sense, settling its roots more in modern American experience. WBFwP is a product of 20th century industrialized middle-class teenage life, along with drive-through fast food, high school romance movies and prog rock. It's gratifying to think that I might extrapolate from my own psychic experience to understand the appeal of a typical and popular genre, but it's sad to think that it should be so typical.
I have to state that my experience with fantasy as a teenager was more with gaming than fiction, and I wonder how many others have experienced similar. The “Fantasy Novelist's Exam” takes obvious aim at the practice of importing game mechanics into novels, as in the series built on the D&D franchise: Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms and probably others that I don't know about. I read Dragonlance books as a teenager and I bristled when others dissed them. At the time I found a lot of value in them (I liked them much more than Forgotten Realms which I abandoned halfway through the first volume). I don't know what I would think of them if I were to re-read them now; my intent here isn't to judge their literary value. I believe that, whatever literary value they may achieve, they still ought to be considered as belonging to the gaming world, separate from “the fantasy genre” as a whole, inasmuch as authors working in the wider genre, though they may be building from common tropes, have more leeway than those who are bound to a set of game mechanics. Some things are more appropriate for games than for novels, and I've become convinced that what makes for good gaming and good fiction are usually opposites.
How many of the authors writing in the freedom of the wider fantasy genre have really taken that leeway though? Again, my ignorance. I turned my back on the genre because I judged it as I have seen it judged by others: overrun by white boys who want to rove through northern European or North American-looking settings, slaying monsters (including orcs who sound like Turks, or is it the other way around?), eating meat and potatoes, and making love to centerfold models in fur or chainmail bikinis – all without encountering inconveniently different people who would challenge the comfortable demography of their actual suburban lives. I might have judged unfairly; I would like to think so – again, I'd like to think that those white boys (whom I can totally empathize with, alas) are mostly the fans and amateur writers rather than the published authors.
But whatever the genre's past might have been, I'm discovering exciting new work by authors like N.K. Jemisin, whose Hundred Thousand Kingdoms I recently read. There's some fantasy for you! - drawn from an obviously wide foundation in psychology, politics, economics; and a rich life experience of living, working and studying in many places. I've recently read others whose settings are modeled on earthly history and geography away from the misty wilds: the eastern Mediterranean for Megan Whalen Turner, and the urban Renaissance for Rachel Hartman. They show evidence of conscientious historical research and that is gratifying, even if they come across more as fenced gardens than as worlds (how much more do I have a right to expect? The pioneers of the novel form itself didn't do years of exhaustive world-building: they focused on a few people in one time and place). There seems to be a growing appreciation for historically-modeled fantasy, which is what I started trying to write over 10 years ago. I'd better finish it soon; I'd hate to miss the right moment to get it published.