A broad title, but one I thought I ought to address after reading both this recent piece by Christopher Nuttal, and the attendant piece he was writing based on. The idea of course raises some interesting questions regarding a sort of stasis in Science Fiction and Fantasy, whether that be Medieval Stasis, or simply technology and mores being stuck Twenty Years in the future or in Modern Stasis.
For this article though I will be examining only the idea of fantasy being stuck in medieval stasis, and the sort of changing social mores that we might associate with medieval society.
This isn't just technology mind you, but the world as we understand it with the divine right of kings, an all powerful nobility, and the common display of peasants and landowners who struggle against the upper classes. Often times, we find this exact paradigm present in fantasy, or at least a rough facsimile of it in a written work. A sort of "standard fantasy setting" if you will.
Picture it; a number of rural villages, big castle overlooking them, and in the cities nobles and merchants squabbling over money with the king. Knights in armor ride around alternatively slaying dragons or oppressing the peasantry. Dirty hovels cling to the roadsides and inns pander to wayward travelers (which oddly enough, is something of an anarchism in itself). Sometimes monsters stalk the night, and demons terrorize the land. These will either be dismissed or hindered by a stand in for the Catholic Church. And of course, everyone will speak with an English accent.
This of course, is an error in fantasy.
For most, the fantasy genre probably echoes some rip off of Lord of the Rings, with elves, dwarfs, and orcs inhabiting the land alongside men. Due to its success, most fantasy tends to ape Lord of the Rings in its ideas and characters, with quests, dark lords, and ect.
However, fantasy in recent years has been branching out. Whether it is attempts in the genre of flintlock fantasy, more exotic fantasy like the works of Brandon Sanderson or Victor Milan, or simply brutal subversions of fantasy from the likes of George R. R. Martin or Joe Abercrombie.
What should be noted though, is that in many of these cases the standard fantasy world still exists. Martin simply creates a more "true to life" depiction of the Middle Ages with the warts and all slicing through the picturesque images of beautiful Acadia's dotting the landscape and noble knights defending them, bringing us ignorant peasants and brutal lords and wounds and diseases that fester in ways Tolkien would never have described. Abercromie subverts quests and noble heroes and brave wizards in a way only he can, but they still live in a largely medieval world.
This gets us to the rough Medieval Stasis that Tolkien is somewhat responsible for.
In Martin and Abercrombie's case it is understandable (but in defence of Abercrombie he subverts the stasis itself eventually), but in many more bog standard fantasy books it isn't easy to understand.
We know that history moves on, but it seems like the perception of fantasy as being stuck in the low medieval period tends to get perpetuated. This is either by authors writing what they know of fantasy, or simply making things easier on themselves. Now there's nothing wrong with this, but by trapping fantasy in this middle ages period you can find yourself stuck writing the same thing over and over. See above for the average description.
Say one thing for A Song of Ice and Fire, it does do justice to the period it tries to portray. Especially the institutions. Now I'm not saying all authors need to get down to the nitty gritty and try and show the evolving notion of feudal politics in their stories, but when trying to subvert bog standard fantasy tropes they should try and get things somewhat right.
This ties in though, to the changing nature of things.
Through history social and political ideas changed, so that eventually the divine right of kings was overthrown by both the idea of the rights of man, and enlightened absolutism. Even before our own historical enlightenment though there were ideas of Philosopher Kings, or simple "First Citizens" which tried to subvert kingship as a model for rule.
While its easier to portray rulers in fantasy as kings, there's numerous titles they could adopt. While I'm not an enormous fan of the Powder Mage trilogy, I cannot help but give Brian McClellan credit for upping the ante by having the main character instigate a revolution and topple the monarchy as the main plot point. It is a not so subtle reminder that fantasy can (and in some case should) change to make an engaging story.
Now you don't need to go around adopting the methods of the French Revolution to have a good mode of social change in a story (even though it is the most dramatic). You could have things as simple as religious change, the emergence of democratic institutions (even limited ones like the a parliament) or at the very least social change as new technologies displace people from their old jobs.
You don't even have to limit this to the middle ages, one could simply try a sword and sandals style fantasy in order to expand on the changes from the iron age, to an age where steel is displacing the weapons of a simpler time. With the sword and sandals genre being critically underfed as a setting for fantasy it would be great if authors could try exploring these ideas in my opinion.
Another problem is having characters with 21st century values interposed into periods or situations where holding such values goes against the grain of that society. A glaring example of this is in the film Kingdom of Heaven, where the main character is basically a 21st century humanist transported to 12th Century Israel before the Third Crusade. This is usually the limitation of writers trying to make people like a character by making them seem more enlightened than those around them.
This can be really glaring in lots of historical fiction, but in fantasy it can sometimes be justifiable, but often times not. One such instance I will highlight is in David Weber's Safehold series (technically sci-fi, but could be juxtaposed to a fantasy setting so here we go). In this you can tell the good guys from the bad guys because they hold enlightened, semi-democratic views in stark relief to the bad guys who hold elitist (and most likely sexist) views as well. They look down on the peasants and feel that it is their God given right to lord over those lesser men. The good guys meanwhile have semi-democratic pretensions and believe in equal gender rights and are against child labor in a roughly early industrial economy.
Now there's legions of problems with the good guys uniformly holding these views. One is that from birth most of them have been brought up knowing (based on the global religious institutions) that they have an unquestionable God give right to rule their realms, enforced by the temporal knowledge that Mother Church always backs them to the hilt against the commons. The commons meanwhile have had centuries of churchmen telling them to obey their overlords, and no concept of the democratic process. Theoretically there is the Republic of Siddarmark that shows a counter example, but the powers of the ruler are effectively an elected dictator. However, the voting system, the overall political makeup, and how this "democracy" works is left startlingly vague and doesn't seem to lend itself to actually being a republic that we would recognize.
The fact that all good guys hold mostly progressive thoughts on things like religion, gender, economics, ect is more authorial fiat. It makes for a refreshing example of people being prejudiced when one minor character internally discusses that he is largely against mixing with commoners as a rule because of his noble heritage.
But this is a problem that crops up in fiction. Progressive views without the moral/philosophic background in the secondary world and society. That's not to say that these people didn't exist in real life, but rather that they should be exceptional characters, and we shouldn't differentiate our good guys merely because they hold views we agree with.
At the very least such ideas should be earned. Have a society that has slavery as the norm? Earn the idea that the main character doesn't like slavery? Child labor? Earn the idea that families shouldn't use children as wage earners. Democracy? Why is it better? The list goes on.
While breaking medieval and cultural stasis is admirable, it shouldn't be a forced trait of people and societies.
Societies evolve, and genres ought to evolve with them I think. Though it is imperative that our idealized views of society, or our own views, ought not to be juxtaposed into our fictional worlds too much. Or at the very least not so much that it completely clogs the story with anvilicious prose and personal opinion. Author avatars can be useful, but sometimes not very useful, and not all characters should be author avatars.
While the middle ages fill the void in fantasy, I am worried that things like flintlock fantasy or even different fantasy will evolve to hold sort of "Napoleonic stasis" or "Medieval - other culture" stasis that may bog the genre down over time.
That said, this is an image of fantasy that, as Adam Whitehead argues in the finale of his awesome history of epic fantasy series, is completely changing. Modern fantasy is a vibrant, changing, and happily evolving genre as the publishing world opens up to new writers. The worlds and cultures are changing, and even the premise behind many of these books is happily changing for the better as different ideas are explored and other things open up.