Fantasy fiction, in general, is a mish mash of inconsistencies. Of the sizable percentage inspired by pre-modern history, a hodgepodge of elements from history and culture are mined to create an infinite number of worlds and stories. But fantasy seems to shy away from some major historical elements and incorporates odd portions of the modern that produce outright anachronism.
Let’s take a look at what some of these are and explore possibilities for why.
Nearly every fantasy novel mentions alcohol of some sort or another, even if just as a casual setting piece. But what’s odd about this is that only a rare few use beer. Ale, mead, and wine have proven the fantasy author’s preferred brews. Hard liquor is almost never seen either, though humans have been making and consuming it since time immemorial. Beer too has held a solid place among humans for millennia.
So why avoid these beverage? My best guess is that beer is too common in our real lives. In a story seeking to escape normalcy, why use a substance so integrated into modern culture? And does hard liquor remind us too much of whisky and the Old West?
Meat also is a curious inconsistency in fantasy. Authors rarely use chicken or beef in their books. Rabbit, lamb, boar, and even horse far surpass our standard beef or chicken. And that’s not even touching on the fact that most fantasy never considers pre-modern poaching laws or the limited access lower classes had to meat.
Is the reason for all this because beef and chicken are too bland for fantasy fare?
Though a crucial element of pre-Renaissance warfare, shields are rarely seen in fantasy. Occasionally, a buckler makes an appearance. This isn’t to say that an occasional character doesn’t wield a shield, but for the most part, fantasy heroes seem to be required to protect life and limb with sword alone.
Are shield uses and tactics too tedious or cumbersome to include in most fiction? Did shields simply never qualify as cool enough? Or is it that we became enamored with more rapier-like swords that did not use the accompaniment of a shield?
Other Arms and Armament
Daggers are far more common than knives. Pikes and halberds choked out the use of spears. Leather, chain, and plate armor seem hold far more glamour than scale and lamellar.
Why have some weapons and armor types taken on a greater sense of wonder, otherness, or fantasy than others? Have games like Dungeons and Dragons perhaps tinted our perception of value and effectiveness of such arms?
Granted, to our modern eyes, some of the headpieces of medieval and renaissance times are extremely odd. Yet until very recently, hats and head coverings were the norm in history. Whether a hennin, chaperon, or fedora, men and women for the past millennia or so have considered headwear an essential element of their wardrobe. The closest I’ve seen to any consistent use in fantasy is hairnets for women, usually jewel encrusted, and the hood of a cloak for both sexes. I suppose jester’s hats are also occasionally described. And, of course, helms.
Is it only the strange patterns of headgear seen in historical images that has scared us away from their use? Is there something about our modern tendency away from hats, unless they are baseball caps, that we’ve transferred to our fantasy?
In most fantasy, heroes and heroines enjoy their own room or being forced to share a bed with siblings or cousins is a chafing point for them. Baths are often taken in relative privacy and in a secured room. In short, modern concepts of privacy are forced onto pre-modern fantasy worlds. Rarely do we see homes with only one or two rooms. Communal baths are a thing of surprise or strangeness.
It makes sense that this one would be something we’d struggle with. Privacy and personal space are such an ingrained, assumed necessity of our culture that it’s hard to break that barrier, even in fiction.
Of course, there are exceptions to all these observations. The characters in Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind drink beer. Alain from King’s Dragon by Kate Elliot is first depicted as sharing sleeping quarters with his whole family. Also, urban and directly historical fantasy generally escape these issues, which should not come as a surprises since they are heavily based in the real world.
However, fantasy as a genre appears to cling to modern concepts even as it seeks to embrace the romanticism and splendor of times gone by. It spurns elements of historical periods that still pervade our lives in preference for the feel of the exotic.
What other elements can you think of? What other examples of books that break this approach such as The Name of the Wind or King’s Dragon?