Many works of the High Fantasy genre are set in a pseudo-European fantasyland, in a rather amorphous time-period that mixes early-medieval and late-medieval arms and armour (but never gunpowder), late Renaissance society structure, and civilian technology that's everything before steam. Of particular note is The Lord of the Rings: the hobbits dress and act like they're late 19th century, eat potatoes and smoke tobacco, while the world around them appears to be early middle ages: swords, shields, mail rather than plate armour, longbows rather than crossbows.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of setting a fantasy novel in such a fantasy past time, rather than in a specific time period, with its historically accurate technology (or lack thereof)?

Clearly, we are willing to accept a "Once-upon-a-time" setting that's a mix-and-match of "past", it doesn't break our suspension of disbelief. Such a setting requires less research, and is less limiting (for example, I can have a character leaf through a book, when she should be reading a scroll, if she has access to written material at all). But looking at the story itself, what does it gain, and what does it lose, by the time being more specific? (The genre being High Fantasy, history and calendar would be that of the fantasy world, of course. I'm talking of the Real-Life time period that serves for inspiration being more specific.)

Is it possible for historical correctness to detract from the setting, when history clashes with the readers' expectations? (For example, presenting Englishmen with no potatoes as per the LOTR example, because potatoes would not have been introduced yet, or Middle East with no curved swords and no coffee?)

Does the answer change if the story is set not in fantasy-Europe, but in fantasy-Middle East, or fantasy-East Asia, for instance?

  • 4
    To me the advantage to 'mix and match' is the opportunity to create new metaphors in the service of philosophical discussions. Example: I'd like to write a fictional story about the opioid epidemic. We understand this issue in our own framing, and as such have become numb to some details of it. By putting powerful opioids into a frame where you wouldn't normally consider them, you can get people to think about them again, in new ways, again. It might not 'matter' in the end, might not change a thing, but it is a worthwhile thing to do especially for important issues. Make people think.
    – SFWriter
    Jul 8, 2018 at 14:08

4 Answers 4



I would be interested in both; the historically accurate vs the "alternative history" or "general past" setting. I'd also suggest there is a spectrum; at least I see it that way in my own writing.

In both cases, the advantages and disadvantages arise from constraints. Or as you said, "limitations."

Is it possible for historical correctness to detract from the setting,

I think, to be more accurate, it could make the setting both richer and more coherent or consistent. But it can certainly detract from the plot, and alienate some readers, particularly female readers, LGBT readers, etc. The medieval past was over-the-top sexist; not in every culture but most of them. The Old Testament, read literally with an eye toward the treatment of women and children, is a good starting point. The same for strict Islamic codes; these guys were not kidding around; women were property and did what they were told or they were beaten. A man raping his wife or female slaves was expected. There are instructions there for how to sell your daughters, etc. The vast majority of marriages were arranged, by men for the women they controlled, for financial, political or social reasons: Effectively sex slaves traded by their owners for personal advantage. Children were likewise treated as slave labor.

I think most fantasy readers prefer a less dark world for more than half its population, and want some notion of Romantic Love, self-agency, and other modern social interactions.

Accurately portraying the technology is one thing; accurately portraying the culture is another. I could certainly appreciate an accurate portrayal of the technology; that would be informative, and the constraints on the characters make it a bit more difficult for the author, but to my mind in a good way, there are no free deus ex machinas to get the author out of a plot jam, or solve a character problem quickly. (Maybe that's the job of magic.)

Accurately portraying the culture is a different thing. Fiction needs to be relatable to the reader, and modern notions of family, marriage, sex, love, religion, sanitation and other cultural phenomenon are far too different than what was commonly true in medieval times. To me, those constraints would prevent the vast majority of readers, including me, from relating to or enjoying a story; I think the attitudes are too alien.

The disadvantages of the mash-up.

The big disadvantage here is the risk of incoherency. As you suspect, various inventions and cultural innovations have ramifications and consequences. Introducing an invention from the 1600's to solve a writing or plot problem in the 1200's may ignore a dramatic shift in cultural or scientific knowledge that the invention to easily solve a writing problem can ring false if the other ramifications of that invention are not realized in the story as well. If the reader knows them.

However, this is not always the case: Ulfbherht Viking swords from the ninth century are an example. From that link:

Dozens of these swords — made with metal so strong and pure it’s baffling how any sword maker of that time could have accomplished it — have been found in Europe, along with some knock-offs. They are all marked with the Ulfberht name and two crosses, though some of the imitations are missing a letter here or there. [...] At the time the Ulfberht swords were forged (approximately 800–1000 A.D.), equally perplexing swords made of a substance called Damascus steel were being produced in the Middle East out of a raw material, known as Wootz steel, from Asia. Both Damascus steel and the Ulfbehrt’s so-called “crucible steel” had high amounts of carbon. [...] It was thought, before Ulfberht was discovered, that the capability to remove slag to such a degree only became possible during the Industrial Revolution. Iron ore must be heated to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit to accomplish this, a feat the Ulfberht makers apparently accomplished 800 years ahead of their time.

Thus, I'd posit that mixing might not be that bad, steel to rival our own modern steel was being made and used 1200 years ago, but did not result in an industrial revolution, new architecture like skyscrapers, vast machinery, etc. The only artifacts left using it were swords. Perhaps other modern ideas can be introduced and what seem like "obvious" ramifications can be ignored, for cultural or religious or economic reasons: Perhaps Ulfberht steel was too expensive to use for anything other than a sword: The strength of that steel made it light, fast, magically flexible and difficult to snap, and so hard it could cut a man in half and still hold a razor edge. Perhaps the failure of imagination is not considering these properties separately, thus not imagining any other use (like machinery, architecture or shipbuilding) that would not demand all of these properties.

I think the advantages of the mash up (including the lack of scholarship demanded) must clearly outweigh any value of accuracy. Its why we invent our own worlds and maps, and give our medieval peasants cultures not too realistic for their time, so our readers can relate.

I always go for that option; I prefer to invent my own constraints and culture, and even if the setting is medieval or even more ancient, I invent the constraints within that setting too. I've done the same in modern times: Put my characters in a town I invented with politics, landmarks, facilities and what not of my own invention.

Consider (as I do) your setting as almost like a character you invent. It presents both opportunity and obstacles. e.g. a private place where teen lovers might meet is easily found. Food and water are easily found next door. The local university has an expert in what you need. OR, the place where action X must be accomplished is two hundred miles away. The town where your father took a job is extremely homophobic. You have to go to a school three steps down from your previous awesome school, that bores you to tears and has effectively robbed you of two good years of education, and apparently everybody in it loves country music that you despise and considers the music you like literally evil and blasphemous.

I invent my setting like I invent my characters, and would not use a realistic setting just like I would not try to invent a character matching all we know about a historical figure. While many readers might like a fictional but accurate adventure of, say, a twenty-year-old Thomas Jefferson, I couldn't write it.

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    I'd just like to point out that the whole "medieval places were all horribly sexist" trope is a little overblown. They certainly were not as egalitarian as today, but people have always had a conscience. An average father would have been just as upset in 12th century France as he would be today if he found out his daughter was being beaten by her husband. Further, with less effective law enforcement, he would have been much more able to handle it himself.
    – Ryan_L
    Jul 8, 2018 at 15:28
  • @Ryan_L Read the Old Testament. Whatever one may think of its divine inspiration, It is separately verified as an accurate portrayal of the actual culture. It was the law of medieval Europe. Beating wives and children was not only condoned by the Church but recommended in cases of disobedience; pre-1500 medieval Welsh law set a rule on beating a wife for disobedience - The width and length of the stick to be used. Did Romans have a conscience, watching murder for fun? Did Attila? Southern slavers? "Conscience" is a cultural artifact; it depends on what you are raised to believe.
    – Amadeus
    Jul 8, 2018 at 17:05
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    +1, although I agree with Ryan_L. As sexist as the medieval times were, there were a few women of power (both noble and commoners). I'm a historical fiction writer and reader, and going through chronicles and legal documents of the time gives a good idea of how women could work within (and around) the rules of their time. Oh, and male relatives exacting justice in cases of domestic violence, while not the rule, was not unheard of... not to mention at least a few church people who publicly condemned husbands who beat their wives violently. Nevertheless, it was not a nice time for women, at all. Jul 9, 2018 at 16:42
  • @SaraCosta Which to a large extent summarizes my point; a realistic portrayal of medieval life, especially one considering peasants, servants and slaves, could easily be so off-putting to female readers (and a significant number of male readers) that agents or publishers would pass on it for less realism: Readers are looking for a fantasy, not a heart-rending, brutal documentary. OTOH, The introduction of realistic technology, education, travel options, battle, finances, crime, food, drink, etc might present compelling "setting" obstacles (or opportunity) to make the story fun to read.
    – Amadeus
    Jul 9, 2018 at 16:59
  • @ A realistic portrayal needn't be a documentary, just like writing a contemporary novel needn't be a documentary. There were plenty of (documented) married couples who lived without violence. For as long as the writer focuses on the story of their characters, there's no need to show only the worst of a society. I don't expect every contemporary novel to dwell on abuse, sexual harrassment or family & social neglect of the elderly. Similarly, why should a medieval or medieval-inspired novel focus solely on the worst? Besides, a character that overcomes strict social rules is inspiring. Jul 9, 2018 at 17:36

High fantasy rarely bears much resemblance to "capital H" history even when it has been inspired by a particular period as magic rather than technology tends to dominate the setting. Instead high fantasy tends to show a stylised mythological version of the past that may or may not be based in a particular period or region. If you want to use a particular era in a particular place and show it to be so you can but generally the setting of any fantasy story is only a backdrop for the story's characters and their actions so if you're writing Fantasy, as opposed to Alternate History, use what you need to get the story written since it's not the/a real world. Which in no way means it shouldn't be internally consistent but it need not be externally consistent with a specific piece of history. If you are writing Alternate History you really need to get your history spot on though because the accuracy of what you don't change is critical to selling what you do change.

In terms of writing high fantasy in non-European settings I feel that Asia and the Middle East present both opportunities and limitations. In both areas the age of mythology, when history was spoken and recorded as saga rather than date verified written account, is still relatively close to the present compared to most of Europe. This means that there is a lot more to draw on as inspiration for fantastical accounts but it also means that there is relatively little room to draw outside the accepted bounds of existing legendary accounts.

The advantage of mix-and-match history to the fantasy writer is obvious, you don't have to do deep research. As long as you're consistent you have a great deal of latitude to write history as you think it should be for a particular story in a particular place. The disadvantage is that if you're not drawing on a particular place and time you have to, depending on the tone of the piece, pay more attention to being internally consistent and/or explaining discrepancies. Discworld is notable as a piece that can ignore this completely due to it's lighthearted approach to the fantasy genre.

The advantage of using a particular time and place as a basis for fantasy is that it provides some baseline material to work from; both a historical framework that includes geographical and geopolitical relationships and a base set of mythology that has filtered down to modern times from the cultures of that time. This framework makes consistency easier and gives an author inspiration in many fields. The problem with historical accuracy is that it jars people to realise that, for example, there were still mammoths in Europe when the Egyptians were building the first pyramids. Real history is actually far stranger than most people either realise or are ready to accept so true historical accuracy runs the risk of alienating ones audience.


Wikipedia's Definition of High Fantasty Genre:

High fantasy is defined as fantasy set in an alternative, fictional ("secondary") world, rather than "the real", or "primary" world. The secondary world is usually internally consistent, but its rules differ from those of the primary world. By contrast, low fantasy is characterized by being set in the primary, or "real" world, or a rational and familiar fictional world, with the inclusion of magical elements.

The works of J. R. R. Tolkien are the archetypical works of this genre, meaning that later works often pull inspiration from Tolkien. Lord of the Rings, as you note, is set in a medieval-like setting, so guess what, later authors of the high fantasy genre in the English-speaking world set their worlds in a medieval-like setting. This is similar to how Jane Austen's novels have inspired and created a whole Historical Romantic Fiction genre in modern times, or how Arthur Conan Doyle has created the archetypical detective character, Sherlock Holmes, and detective fiction in English literature. The original authors of these classic English works came from European backgrounds, so of course, they would write about what they knew of the world at the time, from a European perspective. Language and culture cannot be divorced from each other.

For a High-Fantasy English-Language story, check out The New Legends of Monkey. It is a high-fantasy TV series, based on the Japanese production from the 1970s and 80s (the West actually becomes acquainted of several things of Chinese origin through Japan, mainly because Japan was the first of the East Asian countries to open to the West), which is based on the original Chinese classic novel by Wu Cheng En. The setting is obviously East Asian-inspired. The characters don't eat with chopsticks; they eat with two-tined forks. The architecture looks very East Asian. The religion is inspired from East Asian Buddhism. The cast speaks English, which means the characters actually refer to each other by names instead of by relationship. The gender of the characters also changes, conforming to Western gender expectations. The Tripitaka character is female, probably because the producers don't want the film series to be too religious/Buddhist, and Tripitaka's character feels too feminine for Western viewers - gentle, kind, altruistic, naïve. The Sandy character is female, probably because "Sandy" (a popular translation of the real character's name) sounds like a girl's name. Monkey and Pigsy are kept as male. Apparently, it doesn't matter if the story is High-Fantasy Europe-influenced world or High-Fantasy East-Asia-influenced world. In both worlds, people introduce bizarre anachronistic elements.

However, the main point of a High Fantasy story is to create a make-believe world that mirrors our own, but has a different historical timeline from the very beginning. So, stuff like swords and cannonballs, which may be invented at different times in our history, may be invented at around the same time in the fantasy story but two rival sovereign states. Hence the seemingly anachronistic stuff you see in High Fantasy novels may make sense in the novels' own history of the world.

Advantages of a Fantasy Setting:

  • You are writing a High-Fantasy novel.

  • You are free to imagine however you want about the world. Your imagination is boundless. Just make sure to keep your plot consistent, though.

Disadvantages of a Fantasy Setting:

  • There are not that many fantasy authors who focus on the language component of fantasy writing. Often, they are stuck with Latin script and random names. Fantasy authors may go further and assign meaning to the names, but they often do not really get into conlanging and actually invent a real language, so the invented names provide absolutely no clue to the actual language.

Advantages of a Historical Setting:

  • If a work is set in an actual historical setting with a lot of realistic elements, then it isn't High Fantasy. It's Historical Fiction. The advantage is the type of audience you are targeting towards.

Disadvantages of a Historical Setting:

  • This is just too much work, man. One must have a huge body of historical knowledge to write such a work. Even folktales aren't really all that precise. That's because the main point of the story is the conflict and resolution. Historical accuracy really isn't the point of it at all, unless it interferes with the plot development. One kind of eating utensil the characters use will probably not interfere with plot development. However, gender roles will definitely interfere with plot development.
  • I'm sorry if my question wasn't clear enough. I am not asking generally of the advantages and disadvantages of a fantasy setting vs. historical setting. I am asking within the fantasy setting of the advantages and disadvantages of a fantasy setting inspired by "general-past" vs a fantasy setting inspired more specifically by "11th century England", or "early Renaissance Italy", for example. Jul 8, 2018 at 8:35
  • While technological development can take more time or less time in my story, the implications of each invention on warfare, for example, do not change, but necessitate the same adaptations we see in Real Life. When man has just started making swords, the technology doesn't yet exist to make canons. Architecture is affected by what kind of weapons might be used to lay siege against it. Armour is a response to the kind of weapons used against people. All those are limited by mining and smithing technology. Etc. Earlier discovery tightens the schedule, but doesn't change the interactions. Jul 8, 2018 at 8:41
  • @Galastel Societies do not develop at the same pace. You may have one fictional society that uses bows and arrows, while another fictional society that uses guns and cannons. The latter society conquers the former. The conquerors tend to influence the conquered heavily.
    – Double U
    Jul 8, 2018 at 11:22
  • Well, yes, exactly - a society develops canons, either the sword-society buys/steals the technology, or it gets conquered. You don't see them existing simultaneously for very long. Jul 8, 2018 at 17:38

High Fantasy is a genre that has its own rules, just like Steampunk or "Flintlock fantasy" have theirs.

There are examples of more "historically accurate" fantasy works which are placed more firmly in a specific country and historical epoch (GRR Martin comes to mind), but then it looks like the work would lose the gloss and awe of "High Fantasy" and becomes some other kind of fantasy. Why is that?

My opinion is that Dark Ages were called that for a reason. It's difficult to write a "high" period novel while skipping ugly parts of historic reality. This is why characters appear not only dressed like they are from XIX century - their mindset is "enlightened" and conform to post-renaissance rather than medieval standards.

  • You're saying that it's being liberal with other aspects of the historical epoch, that allows me to be liberal with the way people think? I haven't considered that. Jul 8, 2018 at 8:47

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