Forward to the Past

Now that The Hobbit movie has brought Middle-earth back to the top of our minds, along with the Game of Thrones and the new show about Vikings, I think the medieval time period is about to experience a resurgence in popularity.

Tolkien’s vision of Middle-earth was of a place before the Industrial Revolution, before machinery and factories and the dark satanic mills that so disrupted the pastoral beauty of the England he cherished. A medieval society, in fact; a place where things were simpler, slower, and more real. Nowadays, thanks to Tolkien’s vision, the world of high fantasy is generally portrayed as a medieval society with magic. The steampunk genre has pushed the boundaries of the magical realm to the pre-electronic era — mechanical technology, yes, but that is it.

Apparently, magic and modern science really can’t co-exist. Tolkien managed that problem by creating a place in which machinery and industry never happened — no guns, no factories, that sort of thing.  JK Rowling put magic in a kind of special “bubble world,” secret and separate from the everyday world. Jim Butcher’s wizard, Harry Dresden, has so much magical power in him that he short-circuits every electronic device he comes near — computers, telephones, even cars don’t work right around him.

Why is this? Why can’t there be magic and science? Maybe because as our own technology speeds up our lives, we have a harder time figuring out what’s “real” and what’s “not-real,” and the longing for security leads people to favor stories that take place in an environment where we’re all closer to the earth.

So, if you’ve been longing to write (or read) a tale of knights and wizards, of mysterious power and arcane lore, now’s the time. My money’s on the medieval era as the new cool place to be.



3 thoughts on “Forward to the Past

  1. Speaking with my scholar’s hat on, it’s an oversimplification (and a consequence of the fact that we live in the post-Enlightenment world) to separate magic and science. As every natural philosopher knew until the beginning of the eighteenth century, they have much in common. So this separation is really a matter of worldview more than anything else.

    But I don’t have the impression that historical fictions and fantasy have ever really left the medieval world, or the pseudo-medieval world, behind. Maybe I don’t read enough of it to be able to judge, though.

  2. As Arthur C. Clarke noted, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
    I can’t point to any scientific analysis of the subject, but it seems to me that there are certain tropes in literature and media that stand in for the big social issues faced by our culture. Like Godzilla representing nuclear power, or something like that. So I’ve been thinking that we might see stories in which magic is a symbol representing science. I don’t know, I’m just theorizing.
    About the medieval time period: In genre fiction there are trends favoring one time period over another. For the past decade or so, I’ve seen a lot of historical fiction set in the Regency period and in the past five years, the Victorian era. To my way of thinking, Regency and Victorian society was very concerned with social status, observing the proprieties, the limitations on the role of women in public life–and that these are concerns that women have been focusing on over the last, say, 20 years.
    But for all that time, my writer friends who like writing medieval stories have lamented that they can’t sell anything set in the middle ages. I was just thinking that this trend might be reversing, is all, and that the medieval era might experience an upswing.
    But then, this is all based on my observations! Maybe I’m just making it all up.

    • I’m saying something slightly different than Clarke: that I don’t think there’s a good case for saying magic and science are actually two different things.

      Too bad that people can’t sell medieval stuff. Like I said, I probably am not a big enough consumer to be able to judge — I don’t read the other genres either. Browsing at the library suggests there’s plenty of medieval-ish stuff, but that’s just me at the library.

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