Places and people from the past become inextricably linked to particular genres of writing in the present. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a story set in Regency England will be in want of a costume romance. The spectre of the Gothic looms over any tale located in Transylvania before the twentieth century. And any fiction set in Los Angeles in the 1940s is going to let you know they’re trouble when they walk into your office with legs that go all the way down to the ground. In the case of the Early Middle Ages, that genre is fantasy. The association stretches back to the Middle Ages themselves. Well before Tolkien began crafting a world for his languages, jongleurs carried songs of Arthur, Attila and Charlemagne through the courts of Europe, while farmers and merchants in Iceland passed long lightless winters listening to sagas about years gone by. That the writer who did more than anyone else to codify modern fantasy was a Professor of Anglo-Saxon studies with a special interest in Beowulf certainly didn’t hurt either.
The bibliography on the influence of the early medieval world on Tolkien’s fantasy writing is enormous and I have no intention of attempting to add to it. But as a professional specialising in the Early Middle Ages with a deep fondness for fantasy as a genre, it struck me that it might be interesting to think about the ways in which fantasy writers since Tolkien have engaged with the period in their writing. In doing so, I’d like to consider what it is about the early medieval world that they find useful and interesting, what that says about popular perceptions of the period, and what ideas, if any, historians can take from them. My method in selecting examples is highly scientific – I raided the contents of my book shelves and my kindle in no particular order. For this reason, it is by no means exhaustive, being anglophone, with a heavy emphasis on the 2000s (aka my teenage years when I had pocket money and a lot of free time) and reflective of my (very) peculiar tastes. Nonetheless, upon reflection I think certain trends emerge which are potentially revealing.
Filing the Serial Numbers Off: Guy Gavriel Kay
Few fantasy writers have made the inspiration they drew from the Early Middle Ages more obvious than Guy Gavriel Kay, whose literary career began when he worked as Christopher Tolkien’s assistant in editing his father’s unpublished works. The majority of Kay’s books are set in fictionalised versions of real-world settings, many of which are from the early medieval period. These include The Sarantine Mosaic duology (1998, 2000, based on Byzantium in the age of Justinian), The Last Light of the Sun (2004, Alfred the Great and the Vikings), and, my personal favourites, The Lions of al-Rassan (1995, eleventh-century Spain) and Under Heaven (2010, eighth-century China).
Although Kay clearly does considerable research for each book, the setting is ultimately there to serve the story and he very reasonably compresses timelines and characters for narrative economy. The early medieval world provides Kay with epic backdrops, settings filled with colour and scale, and dramatic events kickstarting the conflicts that drive the plot. Generally the broad sweep of the history remains the same, with the big exception being The Sarantine Mosaic which throws a couple of fairly large counterfactuals into the mix. Perhaps the most distinctive thing about Kay’s use of the Early Middle Ages, and one of my favourite things about his books in general, is how beautiful his settings are. As we shall see, when the early medieval period is used to provide a fantasy background, it’s normally for a rather grim state of affairs. Kay’s early medieval worlds are culturally rich, filled with art and poetry and song. Despite widespread prejudice, they are also spaces where people of different faiths and races can meet and try to understand each other. Unlike many other works that draw on the period, the tragedy in Kay’s stories is not that the Early Middle Ages are here, but that they are going and with them their beauty and their tolerance. His best writing evokes these fragile middle grounds, creating quiet moments of grace that take place just before the wrecking storm. These spaces are doomed, but that makes them all the more precious. Kay’s ability to see the wonder in the Early Middle Ages helps explain his popularity among medievalists more generally, and is the reason The Lions of al-Rassan is a book I return to every year.
Widukind and Friends: Kate Elliott
As we shall see throughout this post, some early medieval settings are more attractive than others. Arthur and the end of Roman Britain will always attract a crowd. Similarly, anything with Vikings in it does well, particularly when we throw in the compulsory trip to Constantinople. Fantasy depictions of tenth-century Germany on the other hand are rather more unusual. Hesitant though I am to say it, I fear that the Ottonians lack the raw sex appeal of other inhabitants of the Early Middle Ages (Saxon-appeal on the other hand…). Fantasy books that cite Widukind are rare birds indeed.
Rare, but not unheard of thanks to Kate Elliott’s excellent Crown of Stars series (1997-2006), which is set in an unusually convincing fantasy world based on Ottonian Germany. Fantasy it most certainly is, being stuffed full with magic, monsters, rock-creatures for Vikings, and interdimensional elves which come in Roman and Aztec flavours. These elements are grounded by a thoroughly researched human society based on tenth-century itinerant kingship. (It probably helps that the author’s sister is a professor specialising in medieval German literature.) Elliott adds weight and believability to her world through her close attention to material culture and day to day logistics. A hundred warriors are a considerable army in this setting, and one that needs to be fed. Elliott is skilled enough that such realities add to the plot rather than slowing it down. Even the magic acquires a certain verisimilitude from her use of early medieval scholarship (and a healthy dose of Macrobius).
Perhaps my favourite element is the handling of religion. Modern fantasy writers tend to struggle with the role of religion in their early medieval analogues, if they don’t drop it altogether, often reverting to faith as a cynical con perpetrated by a corrupt church. Crown of Stars certainly features plenty of ecclesiastical shenanigans. But Elliott constructs an interesting religious world based on the teachings of Bardaisan of Edessa, where faith imbues every part of society. Although all the characters have different relationships to it, religion matters practically, spiritually and culturally for our protagonists. The result is a vivid depiction of an early medieval world.
Stories of Arthur: Philip Reeve
In discussing the Early Middle Ages as an inspiration for fantasy writing, Arthur is the 1000-pound bear in the room. There is no possible way anyone can briefly summarise the influence of Camelot and company. Generally, when people write stories about Arthur, they follow one of two routes. Either they embrace the weirdness of the medieval source material with plenty of magic and very little attention to historical context, or they go full ‘Dark Age Arthur’, cutting the mythology out in favour of a gritty allegedly realistic setting. As a rule, I tend to prefer the first approach (which is how you get the superb The Green Knight film from 2021) to the second (which is how you get a horribly miscast and inexplicably Pelagian Clive Owen fighting the Saxons on Hadrian’s Wall). But because this post is about using the early medieval past for fantasy narratives, the latter strand is more directly relevant for us today.
In these sorts of stories, the early medieval past is used to strip out Arthurian weirdness and replace it with something more grounded. Done straight, ‘Dark Age Arthur’ can be very good indeed, with Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles (1995-1997) being a fine example. But something about the contempt with which a lot of these narratives cannibalise the mythology rubs me the wrong way. For this reason, the book I’d like to mention in this section is Philip Reeve’s Here Lies Arthur (2007). Despite being written for a YA audience, Reeve’s Arthurian world is a dark place indeed. His Arthur is one armed thug with a retinue among many fighting over the carcass of western Britain, distinguished only by his violence and by his patronage of Myrddin. The latter, who is a bard, wizard and spin-doctor extraordinaire, is determined to unite Britain against the Saxons by turning Arthur into a heroic legend. Our main character, Gwyna, becomes Myrddin’s assistant in this endeavour.
Reeve has a lot of fun with Myrddin’s cunning schemes, as he stage-manages a number of familiar literary episodes. But what I particularly like about this book is his willingness to embrace some of the weirder elements of Arthuriana and medieval culture. His handling of gender and sexuality in the Early Middle Ages is particularly bold for 2007 and serves as a nice nod to the complexity that medieval gender studies have been revealing for decades. Reeve’s Age of Arthur is a fluid world, defined by the stories that people tell, and all the more fascinating for it.
In the Far Future there is only the Dark Ages: Mark Lawrence and Joe Abercrombie
One recent trend in fantasy writing is to use the Early Middle Ages as the blueprint for a postapocalyptic world. This is something employed by Mark Lawrence in his The Broken Empire trilogy (2011-2013, followed by The Red Queen’s War, 2014-2016 set in the same world) and by Joe Abercrombie in his Shattered Sea trilogy (2014-2015). Both feature elite young male protagonists relying upon their intelligence and ruthlessness to survive and thrive in a Hobbesian war against all. Both are also incredibly dark narratives, in which our main characters do appalling things. Because of these parallels, I’m talking about them together.
Much of the action in The Broken Empire takes place in a setting that draws heavily on traditional views of France in the tenth and eleventh centuries. Our teenage protagonist, Jorg Ancrath, reads like a cross between Fulk Nerra and Alex from A Clockwork Orange. We encounter him leading a merry band of droogs on a brutal rampage across a war-torn northern France. The Shattered Sea treads slightly more familiar ground, set in a postapocalyptic Baltic with a strong Viking flavour (our protagonists even travel to Miklagard in the second book). Born into a royal family with a crippled hand, Yarvi was meant to enter the church but unexpectedly becomes a king. Betrayed and sold as a slave, Yarvi seeks his revenge, giving the plot a pleasing hint of The Count of Monte Cristo.
The first thing that raises eyebrows is of course the idea that the Early Middle Ages is what naturally happens when civilisation collapses. I’ve talked about my problems with the idea of the Dark Ages before. This sort of thing undermines our ability to see the period on its own terms, and understand both its beauty and the unique factors that shaped it. There is nothing natural about the Middle Ages, and treating it as a short hand for the state of nature short-changes it. That said, Lawrence and Abercrombie do make good use of the concept. The visual image of a dark age warlord hunkered down in a fortified office block rereading his treasured copy of Plutarch, or of a band of Vikings exploring the irradiated ruins of modern Stockholm, is a striking one, which adds to the atmosphere of the narrative. I particularly like the way radiation and other postapocalyptic standbys are interpreted via medieval stories of magic and the Monstrous Races, giving a fresh feel to both sets of concepts.
I think as a medieval historian I should probably object to the depiction of the Early Middle Ages as a period of constant warfare characterised by political instability and treachery. In my heart of hearts, I don’t think I can. I think it’s safe to say that both Lawrence and Abercrombie struggle with the role of faith and ideology in politics. The idea that people might actually believe in things beyond survival, self-advancement and loyalty to one’s intimates doesn’t really make much of an appearance. That said, I can’t think of many successful well-sourced early medieval rulers who didn’t have an awful lot of blood on their hands. Frankly, the Early Middle Ages could be extremely violent and unstable, although not all the time or at a constant level, and not mindlessly.
Both The Broken Empire and the Shattered Sea take a stab at thinking about how people’s environments and the structure of their societies turn them into bloodstained villains. Where I think they differ is on what they lead into. Lawrence hints that the game can be won, that a Leviathan can emerge to create peace, but that it may require a monster to do so. (Whether a good person can break the wheel is a question he ducks in one of the more disappointing moments in the series). Abercrombie is more sceptical, viewing these events as an escalating cycle, in which efforts to create order through violence lead to more chaos as acts of cruelty beget further cruelty. Trying to read too coherent a philosophy of politics and history into books that are meant to be entertaining may be missing the point. Ultimately both series succeed at their basic ambition of being enjoyable reads if your taste runs to dark fantasy.
Magic and the Waning of the Early Middle Ages: Naomi Mitchison
Travel Light (1952) is probably the weirdest book I want to talk about today. It’s certainly the shortest, clocking in at 135 pages in my copy. Into that relatively brief length, Mitchison crams a huge amount. The book begins as a fairytale for children, a charming and funny story about how a girl named Halla is raised by bears and dragons in the wilds of Scandinavia, with strong nods to Norse mythology. The tone very quickly acquires a tragic air, eventually becoming a surprisingly dark political thriller in which Halla must navigate literally Byzantine court intrigue in Miklagard. But this is merely the second act, leaving a final act that is sad, ambiguous and hauntingly beautiful.
Naomi Mitchison refuses to make things easy for us as the reader. Every time we think we know what genre of story we’re reading and what kind of endgame we’re leading towards, she upends our expectations. Even as she changes, Halla ultimately chooses to remain free and authentic to herself, even when those choices impose costs upon her. Having experienced human civilisation, she sides with the world of magic and dragons, even when its clear both that that world is doomed, and that her own humanity makes it impossible for her ever to truly be a part of it. Halla walks her own path, and not even the Allfather, or the love of her life, can stop her.
In terms of its depiction of the early medieval world, what I find interesting about Travel Light is that it shows the onset of the Early Middle Ages as a tragedy not because it represents an anarchic breakdown of order, but because it is too civilised. The colonisation of the wildernesses of the north marks the end of freedom and magic. Whether it is the corrupt inequality of Byzantium, or the patriarchal brutality of the Russias, the world of men (and it is very much men) does not come across well in this story. Throughout the narrative there are nods to an ancient world were humans were more in touch with nature and power came through personal sacrifice rather than through coercion and violence.
Mitchison also walks the line between medieval literature and history in a way unusual in more recent fantasy. The former provides the basis for the disappearing older world of magic. We’re invited to sympathise with the likes of the Grendels (family friends of Halla) and with Fafnir. In this she resembles Tolkien with whom Mitchison had a long correspondence (she also proofread The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers). The result is a story that brings back some of the alienness of the Middle Ages, which I very much enjoyed.
A lot of fantasy writing that draws inspiration from the Early Middle Ages leans hard on the image of the period as a Dark Age. If you want to tell a story about a poor, violent world, with low levels of technology and stability and high levels of mud, popular perceptions of the early medieval period will give you plenty to work with. Further, the idea of the early medieval world as postlapsarian place, a world in decline in the dying afterglow of Rome, allows for some really compelling stories, which you can also apply to postapocalyptic settings. I don’t really have a problem with this, so long as the stories that we get are entertaining, but it’s worth noting that it reflects a particular interpretation.
It’s also not the only way that you can depict the period. It’s possible to give a much more positive interpretation, as in the case of Guy Gavriel Kay. Other writers, such as Kate Elliott, lean much harder into the primary sources, using her understanding of the Early Middle Ages to ground more fantastical elements. One interesting trend is a move away from medieval literature to history. While they knew a huge amount about history, I suspect that the formative encounter for older writers like Tolkien and Mitchison was with Old English and Norse literature, and that shapes the feel and texture of their writings. By contrast, my sense is that more recent fantasy writing draws much more upon history, which informs their plots and settings but perhaps not the actual language they employ, resulting in books that feel much more modern and less alien. (Kay may be a transitional figure, still active today, but imbued in the older tradition).
As I mentioned above, this is a very brief survey of a somewhat random selection of books. It is by no means exhaustive. I should also say that for all my occasional criticisms, this is a genre I genuinely like. I am already compiling a list of promising sounding authors for the next moment I have some time to read for pleasure (summer of 2057 is going to be amazing). At the moment I have Saladin Ahmed, Poul Anderson and Katherine Kurtz on my radar, but I’d invite readers to offer their own suggestions in the comments.