High Fantasy and the Medieval Model

Hard Sci-Fi vs High Fantasy

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 a future 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:

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 in this article).

In this series I’m going to 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. I’ve identified seven major points of contrast between Hard Sci Fi and High Fantasy which we will explore in future posts.

Look for part one Urban vs. Rural right after Christmas.

In the meantime, you can learn more about my own high fantasy novels on my website:



Bill McGrath



Filed under Christian Fantasy, HIGH FANTASY, Medieval Model

10 responses to “High Fantasy and the Medieval Model

  1. It’s interesting how definitive Tolkien has become for the genre of High Fantasy, especially considering that William Morris, E.R. Eddison, and Lord Dunsany predate him. But I don’t find it too surprising – Tolkien is more accessible than the others.

    When it comes to mythographers, though, I prefer not to rely so heavily on Campbell. Often his interpretations of myths are idocyncratic and out of tune with the obvious import of a story (something I found no end frustrating when I was studying myth as an undergraduate). For social implications of myth, I go to Claude Levi-Strauss, for the religious/spiritual meanings, Mircea Eliade, for literary impact, Northrup Frye. I eventually threw everything into a boiling pot, along with dashes of Jung, Vladimir Propp, and various other contributors, took Tolkien’s view of myth as my guiding principle and poured it all out again in my own form. (Pardon the self-hype – the Scribbler’s Guide to the Land of Myth).

    The problem with Vogler, when it comes to using his work as a guide for story creation, is that he designed it more for story analysis. That’s why it is useful for that. But creators want a broader spectrum to work with in storytelling, so instead of boiling things down, I opened them up.

    What has this to do with the creation of high fantasy? Well… I think that high fantasy begins with impulses that are very similar to those that create myths. The author has something deep that he or she wants to convey, and there is a need to step out of the “fields we know” in order to convey it. Where sword-and-sorcery doesn’t look much further than the action/adventure, high fantasy wants to convey something greater. I’m not sure that it requires a medieval setting though. Particularly not European medieval. I could imagine someone using medieval Japan as a model, and certainly the Arabian Nights’ Tales could also provied setting guides. In my own (still unpublished) work, I looked a bit further back to a culture level I considered late Classical (though the blend from that to medieval would be difficult to tell).

    Anyway, you’re starting with some interesting points, and I’ll be coming back. (I’ve been laying plans myself to set up a blog on my own process in creating a fantasy world – so your timing is excellent from my point of view!)

    Good luck with this!
    Sarah Beach

    • I’ve just downloaded your book and have it on my iPad. Getting leads on useful books like yours is one of the reasons I started this blog. I’m hoping this becomes something of a writer’s round table for discussions of the high fantasy genre.

      • Thanks! So far I’ve had good responses to it, but I admit that self-marketing is a lot of work. But I’m always glad to read recommendations of others as well.

        And discussion is always fun. It often helps joggle loose sticky problems.

      • “I’m not sure that it requires a medieval setting though. Particularly not European medieval. I could imagine someone using medieval Japan as a model, and certainly the Arabian Nights’ Tales could also provied setting guides.”

        The Medieval Model that Lewis writes of is not really about technology or setting, it’s more about an ethos one finds in the literature of that era. A tales does not have to show your knights in shinning armor issuing forth from a castle in Europe to be part of the model; the important thing is that they be chivalous, that they have a code of honor, that they serve a higher calling. The Jedi fall into this model, as do the samurai of Kurosawa and the cowboy of classic westerns.

  2. Extollager

    Lewis’s pupil Tom McAlindon contends that “the pre-modern cosmological tradition offered in effect two world models, each of which could inspire or sanction quite different feelings about the human situation, different habits of thought. The idea of the universe as a hierarchical system [as in The Discarded Image] …. suggests a fundamental stability and rationality in things and induces a mood of metaphysical confidence … But the notion of the universe as atense system of interacting, interdependent opposites reminds us that every pattern of harmonious order, every structure of identity, is of its very nature susceptible to violent transformation: of a sudden[,], bonds collapse, things decline to their corresponding contraries, and confusion prevails. … {This second model fosters] modes of thought which are dialectical rather than categorical, relativist and paradoxical rather than absolute and univocal.” It is rooted in the “assumption that the world was created from Chaos, and that the forces of chaos are intrinsic to its functioning,” etc. This is not the same thing as Mutability. See Shakespeare’s Tragic Cosmos pp. 7-8 (I haven’t read the book yet, but was put on to it after seeing McAlindon’s essay in the journal Seven, vol. 27).

    Although McAlindon sees this in Machivaelli, Shakespeare, Hobbes, I could see something like this in the Norse mythological model that attracted Lewis so much. It seems to fit the world of the sagas in which feuds constantly break down social order. In terms of pop fantasy, I suppose it readily relates to things such as Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions and other works of that type, and Moorcock’s Elric books… if I can go by old memories and impressions!

    • Chaos vs. Cosmos is the title of one of my upcoming posts, in which I look at this very topic in relation to my favorite High Fantasy stories.

    • “This second model fosters] modes of thought which are dialectical rather than categorical, relativist and paradoxical rather than absolute and univocal.” It is rooted in the “assumption that the world was created from Chaos, and that the forces of chaos are intrinsic to its functioning,”

      I’m writing a chapter titled “The Return of the Pagan” for my fantasy novel Apocalypse in which the postmodernist view of the universe is compared to the the capricious pagan gods of the classical world. The new Chaos ex machina is not much better than the old chaos ex deus.

  3. Wow. I’ve never read such an erudite post in a blog before. Usually it’s about driving the kids to school, or what someone just ate, or how the publishing industry is going to pot. I look forward to reading more!

  4. Fantastic article, William. Just order Vogler’s book. I’ve always been fascinated at the influence of myth on modern storytelling, and how even the most primitive of archetypes seem to appear in our urban legends, comic books, TV shows, and of course, Hollywood movies.

  5. Good job Bill! I wish much success on your blog.


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