Fantasy literature and the Medieval Model
(part one of seven)
Copyright 2011 William R. McGrath
Joseph Campbell’s book on myth, “Hero with a Thousand Faces” remains one of the most influential works for modern storytellers from Stanley Kubrick to Arthur C. Clarke to George Lucas. It’s influence can be seen in movies as diverse as The Lion King and the Matrix trilogy and in television series such as Lost. When a fellow writer asks me to recommend books on story building, Campbell’s work is on my short list. Campbell’s theory describes what he called the Monomyth, the idea that most ancient myths and epic stories contain the same character archetypes, structures and themes. This monomyth concept has become, in some writing circles, what a unified field theory would be for physicists; a central theory that explains everything. However, as encyclopedic as Campbell is, he can be a bit daunting for many folks these days, so I often suggest Hollywood script consultant Christopher Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey. Mythic Structure for Writers” as a short, accessible presentation of Campbell’s theories (and a book without Campbell’s own bias against the Judeo-Christian tradition, which mars so much of Campbell’s otherwise useful work).
Vogler was a script evaluator at Disney who wrote a seven page memo that condensed Campbell’s monomyth theory down to terms a layman could follow. “The Writer’s Journey” grew out of that memo to become a handbook for screenwriters looking to add mythic structure to their stories (“Secondhand Lions” and “50 First Dates” are two examples of movies that clearly show Vogler’s influence).
Another book I’ve been recommending lately to my fellow fantasy writers is C. S. Lewis’ last book, a scholarly work titled “The Discarded Image. An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature.” While Campbell’s work gave me an understanding of the basic structure of my favorite fantasy stories, Lewis’ book helped me to understand their texture, color and flavor: why Tolkien’s elves and their longing for the lost lands across the sea spoke to me while the elves of so many Tolkien imitators seemed little more than guys with pointed ears who spoke funny: why Lewis’ Merlin in “That Hideous Strength” is my favorite version of that character; why I enjoyed “The Chronicles of Narnia” while other fantasy stories aimed at kids left me flat. Lewis’s book showed me the specific elements that gave depth to the fantasy novels I most enjoyed and made their stories resonate deep in my soul.
Lewis’s book, while shorter than Campbell’s, is still a rich scholarly work, and, unfortunately, I haven’t found a book that tells its theories in simple form as Vogler does for Campbell. These seven articles, I humbly submit to you dear reader, is my attempt to do for Lewis’ study of medieval and renaissance literature what Vogler’s memo did for Campbell’s theories of the hero’s journey, to make his work accessible to the common person, specifically the common writer of fantasy literature.
Lewis called his theory of European thought as presented in the literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance “The Medieval Model:” a worldview of man and the universe based on a mix of classical philosophers and Christian teaching. When I hear professors of medieval literature cite the novels of Lewis and Tolkien as excellent introductions to medieval literature for modern readers, it is this worldview, this “Medieval Model” that they are recognizing.
As we look at this Medieval Model during the Middle Ages and Renaissance and its influence on modern fantasy literature, the proper place to start is defining our terms. When were the Middle Ages and Renaissance? The Middle Ages began (depending on which historian you ask), either with the fall of Rome to the Goths in 410 A.D. or in 476 A.D. with the abdication of Romulus Augustus, the last Roman emperor in the West (why these events are important to High Fantasy literature will be explained in my next post).
The ending date of the Middle Ages range from the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453 AD to Columbus’ discovery of North America in 1492: after which the Renaissance is said to have begun-which itself ended in the latter half of the 1600’s, when the so called Age of Enlightenment began.
And what is fantasy literature? First, we should acknowledge the fact that the myriad of genre definitions in literature we see today are a fairly recent invention. (Plato had just three categories, poetry, drama and prose, and I suspect if you go a bit farther back, all tales would have simply been “stories”). The way we categorize novels with terms like, “fantasy,” “sci-fi,” “horror,” “thriller,” “techo-thriller,” etc; comes from booksellers trying to make searches easier for customers trying to find a particular type of book. I can imagine these early conversations at bookstores went something like this: “Well Mr. Renfield, if you liked that Dracula story, then you might also like the books in this new section we call ‘Horror.’”
So then what is a fantasy story? To keep things simple, I would broadly define the fantasy genre as any work of fiction that contains a supernatural element. This would include the epic fantasies of Tolkien, Lewis and Rowling, as well as fairy tales, ghost stories and horror tales that have a supernatural cause. What I would like to examine in this series is a sub-genre of fantasy known as High Fantasy, since this has been the most popular type and it is the type that best exemplifies the medieval model: (the prime examples being the works of the aforementioned Tolkien, Lewis and Rowling) and compare this to the other genre of speculative fiction that fantasy shares shelf space with at the bookstore, namely Science Fiction.
I began thinking about the contrast between the two genres (or at least how they are expressed by their most famous authors) when one of the writers newsgroups I belong to began discussing the definitions of Fantasy and Sci-Fi. I recalled reading a quote from Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in which he described the differences between the modern and the classical novel and thought that, with a bit of tweaking, his description also worked well to define some of the differences between Sci-Fi and Fantasy stories. Here’s the gist of what Solzhenitsyn said going from memory (I haven’t been able to find the full quote on the net, so if you recognize it, I would appreciate a link to the source).
The quote went something like this:
The Modern story takes place in an urban environment. Its focus is on Man the Smith, the maker of things. Its plot revolves around what an individual protagonist wants.
The Classical story take place in a rural setting. Its focus is on Man the Shepherd, the protector and servant. Its plot revolves around what the hero and his people need.
While I am going to use this definition as a starting point in our discussion, I am not so presumptuous as to try to set laws on what a sci-fi or fantasy story must have, but rather identify the common practices of the most influential authors in the two genres. To further clarify the differences, I thought it would be helpful to contrast two sub-genres of sci-fi and fantasy, High Fantasy and Hard Sci-Fi, because in many ways each is the mirror image of the other.
Here’s the definitions of Hard Sci-Fi and High Fantasy as defined by a fan of each sub-genre (from Wikipedia):
Hard Science Fiction:
Hard Sci-Fi is a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific or technical detail, or on scientific accuracy, or on both. The term was first used in print in 1957 by P. Schuyler Miller in a review of John W. Campbell, Jr.’s Islands of Space in Astounding Science Fiction. The complementary term soft science fiction (formed by analogy to “hard science fiction” first appeared in the late 1970s. The term is formed by analogy to the popular distinction between the “hard” (natural) and “soft” (social) sciences. Neither term is part of a rigorous taxonomy—instead they are approximate ways of characterizing stories that reviewers and commentators have found useful. The heart of the “hard SF” designation is the relationship of the science content and attitude to the rest of the narrative, and (for some readers, at least) the “hardness” or rigor of the science itself. One requirement for hard SF is procedural or intentional: a story should try to be accurate, logical, credible and rigorous in its use of current scientific and technical knowledge about which technology, phenomena, scenarios and situations that are practically and/or theoretically possible, and later discoveries do not necessarily invalidate the label.
High Fantasy or Epic Fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy that is set in invented or parallel worlds. High fantasy was brought to fruition through the work of authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, whose major fantasy works were published in the 1950s. High fantasy has become one of the two genres most commonly associated with the general term fantasy, the other being sword and sorcery, which is typified by the works of Robert E. Howard. These stories are often serious in tone and epic in scope, dealing with themes of grand struggle against supernatural, evil forces. Some typical characteristics of high fantasy include fantastical elements such as elves, fairies, dwarves, dragons, demons, magic or sorcery, wizards or magicians, constructed languages, quests, coming-of-age themes, and multi-volume narratives.
(This rather lightweight definition of high fantasy is the best I could find through Google and it does little more than say “stories like Tolkien and Lewis wrote,” though each author would have had some problems with the rest of the definition. A better definition would be “Epic fantasy stories based on the Medieval Model, which consists of…” the elements I am about to discuss on this article).
Now let’s look at the contrast between Hard Sci-Fi vs. High Fantasy that I’ve extrapolated from Solzhenitsyn’s definition of classic vs modern novels and Lewis’ exploration of the medieval model.
Urban vs. Rural.
Campbell, in his “Hero with a Thousand Faces” described the commonly seen elements in classical mythology. One such element is the “Enchanted Forest”, an important place on the hero’s journey known for healing and gifts, but also for mystery and danger. Its roots begin in the wilds of Eden and in the tended garden which lay to its east, for they are the model of all that followed. Here is the Garden of the Hesperides and the Land of Faire. The Wild Hunt sounds its beckoning call in these woods. We find this theme in medieval and renaissance literature with its castles in deep forests where great treasures are kept and perilous quests are begun. We see this in Tolkien’s Fanghorn, the most ancient of forests and in his Eden-like Lothlorean, in Lewis’ lush Handramit on Mars and the unfallen planet of Perelandra, we find it in the dark Forbidden Forrest next to Rowling’s castle-like Hogwarts school.
While many fantasy stories do contain cities, most of the important action takes place and most of the important people are met in rural, if not wilderness settings. The magic of these stories is most often seen in the wild places. The wild places of fantasy stories often seem a character in and of themselves. Homes (whether castle or cottage) of important characters are usually surrounded by wild lands in fantasy. The good guys in fantasy tales are often masters of wood craft and know the secret paths through ancient forests. In the high fantasy stories of the last hundred years, cities are often the abode of corrupt politicians, traitors or thieves. In Sci-Fi much takes place in modern cities or on board space ships or other man-made vessels or structures, nearly all of which are morally neutral. If a wilderness is shown in Sci-Fi, it is there that you will find the primitives, the troglodytes, fools and Luddites. I’ve yet to find the equivalent in Sci-Fi of a powerful character regarding a rural person with the respect of Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil who, “made no secret that he owed his recent knowledge largely to Farmer Maggot, whom he seemed to regard as a person of more importance than they had imagined. ‘There’s earth under his old feet, and clay on his fingers; wisdom in his bones, and both his eyes are open.”
Chapter one of my fantasy novel Asulon contains a scene which introduces a young man surviving alone in the wilderness and a description of that wild place. You can read this sample chapter or listen to it as an audio book at:
See my next post for part 2. Advanced Future vs. Golden Past (coming soon).