Inspired by this Tumblr thread and because I’ve started reading the Song of Ice and Fire series.

One of the more interesting courses I took during my undergraduate degree was called A History of Magic, Science and Religion. Which was about exactly what it sounds like. One of the more interesting things I learned during that course is that the modern idea of progress is relatively recent. Nowdays we tend to see progress as more or less linear. We assume that technology will get more advanced and society more sophisticated and just as time goes on.

But this originated sometime during the Victorian era (I can’t remember exactly when anymore). Earlier than that, and during the Medieval era especially, people believed the opposite. Most medieval scholars believed that the Greek and Roman eras represented a Golden Age, and that both people and society were deteriorating. So while a modern person given a time machine might be tempted to travel into the future to see the various innovations they would expect, a Medieval person, given the same opportunity would probably much rather travel back in time to see the wonders of the past. They would expect that the future would look very much like the present, if not worse.

This line of thinking seems to have been resurrected in modern high fantasy novels. Its very uncommon to encounter research or innovation in a fantasy novel, but it is exceedingly common to encounter references to great and ancient civilizations with abilities lost to modern man, the consultation of ancient tomes, and plot points hinging on the unearthing of ancient artifacts.

I don’t know if most fantasy authors know this and do it deliberately, or if it’s simply an ingrained trope by now, but I know that modern fantasy inherits a lot of its various tropes from Tolkien, who was trained in classics and literature and so probably would.

But if someone who’s studied a more history or more literature or both knows and would care to enlighten me, I’d be very interested.

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2 thoughts on “Medieval Thought in High Fantasy

  1. Interesting article, and I think you’re right, that high fantasy is often built on the principle of a Golden Age, where there had once been a time or miracles and legendary heroes.

    In some ways, that’s echoed in science fiction stories that are set in a post-apocalyptic world, where our contemporary era is that golden age.

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