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An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (2) 12th Century Bookish Culture

Medieval Book Culture: J.R.R. Tolkien, "Bilbo at Rivendell" (The Brothers Hildebrandt)

Medieval Book Culture: J.R.R. Tolkien, “Bilbo at Rivendell” (The Brothers Hildebrandt)

An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (2) 12th Century Bookish Culture

Good Afternoon, Everybody!

Bygone Age: J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Battle of Gondolin" (in "The Silmarillion," art by John Howe)

Bygone Age: J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Battle of Gondolin” (in “The Silmarillion,” art by John Howe)

As I’m assessing the epic fantasy genre, I’m working through some thoughts about what creators and audience might expect from an entertainment form that needs to be rebooted for the 21st Century.   I believe that if the form is to grow past its mid-20th Century roots in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, today’s authors need to go “back to the basics” when trying to recreate a bygone medieval world. After all, that’s essentially what Tolkien and Lewis did while they were researching, teaching, and writing at Oxford in the 1930s through 1960s!

Medieval Book Culture and Epic Fantasy:  Gandalf Reads of Balin's Fate in Moria (J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Fellowship of the Ring," New LIne Cinema, 2001)

Medieval Book Culture and Epic Fantasy: Gandalf Reads of Balin’s Fate in Moria (J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring,” New LIne Cinema, 2001)

C.S. Lewis, "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" ("Cair Paravel," Disney/20th C. Fox)

C.S. Lewis, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” (“Cair Paravel,” Disney/20th C. Fox)

Ask yourself how many so-called “epic fantasy” stories you’ve read that seemed just one more, repetitive variation on Middle Earth or Narnia, and you might begin to see why I think that it’s time for some change.  But, how?  Well, just because some fantasy writing seems imitative or derivative doesn’t mean we should tar-and-feather the entire genre.  What we should do is similar to what great fantasists such as Michael Moorcock, Ursula K. Le Guin, Stephen R. Donaldson, et al did upon looking at Tolkien & Lewis’s respective oeuvres … reinvent & recast medieval-like worlds, and then shift into something new and original.  Otherwise, creators of epic fantasy run the risk of repeatedly returning to the same well & expecting something different each time you draw the water.

J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Children of Hurin" ("The Slaying of Glaurung, Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Children of Hurin” (“The Slaying of Glaurung, Ted Nasmith)

A.J. Carlisle, The Codex Lacrimae: The Book of Tears

A.J. Carlisle, The Codex Lacrimae: The Book of Tears

My creative approach to the genre is very much influenced by my being a medieval historian who’s passionate about epic fantasy. Readers of my works might notice that all the books in The Artifacts of Destiny begin with a variation of the word “codex,” the Latin term for “book.”  (For example, the first three books in the series are The Codex Lacrimae: The Book of Tears, The Codex Vindicta: The Book of Vengeance, and The Codex Maleficarum: The Book of Witches, etc).  The emphasis on books is intentional because the world I’m trying to recreate and embellish is that of the Middle Ages (c. 500-1500 A.D.), a period whose peoples were explicitly concerned with “the book.”

J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Fellowship of the Ring" (Gandalf arrives at repository of knowledge for 3rd Age Middle Earth...Minas Tirith; art by Ted Nasmith)

J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” (Gandalf arrives at repository of knowledge for 3rd Age Middle Earth…Minas Tirith; art by Ted Nasmith)

Medieval University (from ms, "Book of Ethics" --  Henry of Freimar/Alemannia, c. 1350)

Medieval University (from ms, “Book of Ethics” — Henry of Freimar/Alemannia, c. 1350)

Yes, in the “long dark” of the 6th through 9th centuries, texts were hard to come by, but after the “renaissances” of the Carolingian Age (9th-10th c) and 12th Century, we know that there began to grow a definite “book culture” in medieval Europe and the Muslim-controlled Mediterranean basin the affected all regions & peoples (rise of universities, Scholasticism, law and medical advances, etc).  Arabic translations of Greek authors (Aristotle, Euclid, Hippocrates, et al) and original treatises by Muslim & Jewish thinkers (Al-Razi, Averroes, Avicenna, Maimonides) in astronomy, medicine, mathematics, and philosophy made for a dynamic network of knowledge and shared cultures that make the period an exciting one, and one that’s inarguably marked by a definite book & written culture.

C.S. Lewis, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" (Lucy Pevensie acknowledges interests of Medieval Literature creator and 12th C. Literary Culture; Georgie Henley)

C.S. Lewis, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” (Lucy Pevensie acknowledges interests of Medieval Literature creator and 12th C. Literary Culture; Georgie Henley)

Tolkien's Medieval Textual Interest: "Beowulf" (1939 ed., trans. by William Ellery Leonard; art by Lynn Ward)

Tolkien’s Medieval Textual Interest: “Beowulf” (1939 ed., trans. by William Ellery Leonard; art by Lynn Ward)

Throughout these times, literature continued to be produced and, particularly after the 12th century, many parts of that medieval literature still inform fantasists imaginations to this day (dragons and monsters from the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno, the Arthurian legends in Chretien de Troyes Tristan & Iseult, etc.)

So, if you’re trying to make an epic fantasy that reflects the “medieval worldview,” you should at least read some of these texts to get a sense of the medieval imagination, and what was important to people from those times you’re trying to recapture.

To repeat in closing, that kind of reimagining a medieval past is exactly what Tolkien and Lewis did when they practically invented the epic fantasy genre we know today; if we’re serious about bringing new life to this kind of literary form, we should at least return to the paths they discovered before setting out on our own ways!

Next time: Medieval Literature & the Shadow of Tolkien & Lewis

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