Five Things You Should Never Do in Epic Fantasy
by K.V. Johansen
When Shaun asked me to write this blog post, the immediate reaction of the Spouse was, “Oh no, I see a baleful article coming out of this.” The Spouse accuses me of being obsessed with baled hay. I’m not, really. It’s just the most obvious example and symbol of quite a widespread and glaring error that at once ruins literary belief in the world for me. And that is point one, of my Five Things You Should Never Do In Epic Fantasy, from the perspective of someone who has spent a lot of time studying history and languages.
1) Do not put baled hay into a world that has not had its Industrial Revolution. I wrote an article/lecture/rant on avoiding anachronisms in fantasy and historical fiction once, entitled, “Belief is in the Details: Don’t Take the Present for Granted”, and yes, my file-name for it was simply “Bales”. Baled hay is such a lovely symbol of anachronisms caused by failure to consider the forces that drive industrial change. It’s amazing how many medieval fantasies have barns filled with baled hay, even ones written by people who aren’t third-generation urbanites. We do take the present for granted. After all, we live here. And people, particularly urbanites, tend to regard farming as something old-fashioned and unchanging. (We’ll pause for the farmers to stop laughing.) So, what the whole baled-hay problem represents is the greater issue of the Industrial Revolution. If your world is based on a primary-world classical, medieval, or renaissance culture and its technology, you need to be aware of what that means. Human technological development and invention is driven by need and by science, and if the scientific foundation for a particular development isn’t there yet, and there’s no need for the machine because you’ve got twenty slaves or serfs or tenants owing service, or sons and daughters and cousins, to head out to the field with scythes and forks, you’re not going to bale your hay. You’re not going to be drilling oil wells and refining crude oil to get diesel to run your tractor to power your baler to bale your hay. You’re not going to have big iron foundries to make sheet metal to mass-produce your balers to bale your hay. (And don’t forget the internal combustion engine for your tractor.) The modern pick-up baler, by the way, was an invention due to the social changes around the time of the Second World War, when people were leaving the land in droves. Social and technological changes feed off one another. The Victorians had stationary hay-presses to bale hay, not for use on the farm, usually — as they carted it to the barn or farmyard before baling it — but for export by train to the cities. Victorian cities, unlike medieval ones, were full of horses who had to be fed. The ancient Greeks had steam engines, of a sort. They just didn’t need them to do work, so there was no impetus for them ever to be developed beyond an experiment, a toy. Look, it spins — cool. Tell the slave to go draw another jar of water from the well.
Sure, even without the internal combustion engine or a massive steam tractor some lone inventing engineer could build, piece by piece, a hay-baling machine — people do adapt them for horsepower now — but why would he need to? In the pre-Industrial-Revolution world, and for a couple of centuries after, there are all these people around who aren’t employed as managers or call-centre harassers; they can do the haying. And that’s why it’s good to pause and think about the Industrial Revolution, especially when you’re writing about some aspect of everyday life you tend to take for granted.
While you’re at it, do a bit of research, read up on the technological and cultural era you’re writing about, and don’t err in the opposite direction by omitting things that don’t seem “primitive” enough to you. Bear in mind that guns were a medieval, not a modern, invention. Even the early Middle Ages, the Dark Ages, were not “primitive”, whatever the Victorians and Monty Python may lead you to believe. The era of the barbarian invasions in Europe, the post-Roman world, was a technologically, culturally, socially, and philosophically complex era, and so was classical Rome, and so was the Bronze Age.
2) Don’t throw in obvious gibberish and pretend it’s a language. No, I’m not saying everyone must be Tolkien and invent entire languages, with vocabulary, grammar, and a system of sound-shift laws to give it a progression through time. That requires a particular genius, and very, very few can claim to have it. But don’t say, “Urg” means “The place where the wind generally blows from the west around about teatime on Wednesdays,” because you’ve got more concepts than syllables, and that just doesn’t seem plausible. If you’re making up names and place-names, try to have them sound as if they go together, if they’re meant to go together. Pay attention to the sound of the words and names you’re making up. Don’t have a place-name that sounds Chinese-ish and one that sounds Romance-language-ish and one that sounds Mi’kmaq-ish as neighbouring villages, unless you’ve got a history that accounts for it by having had various waves of migration, conquest, and so on.
3) Don’t use extremely modern slang and glaringly modern words. Your hero should probably not talk like a valley girl, or whatever the equivalent is these days, but there are more subtle diction dissonances that are almost just as painful. “Pants” is a good one not to use. It’s a very recent shortening of pantaloons, and pantaloons themselves are recent. Er, well, relatively recent. Sort of. From some perspectives. The word “pants” is so recent that it’s a bit jarring. And besides, if someone’s pants are wet, in North America, they’ve been walking in the rain. In Britain, well . . . maybe it was raining really, really hard. Or their dog pulled them over into the river. Or a really, really scary demon popped out from behind a tree and said “Boo!” not long after the embarrassed person now wearing the wet pants had had a very large mug of tea. Do you want your British readers (and anyone over fifty) picturing your hero in his Stanfields or Fruit of the Loom briefs? (Wet or otherwise.) This is not advice to adopt what used to be called “Wardour Street prose” (Gadzooks and forsooth, yon demon hath made me wet my smallclothes!) — far from it. Just, think a little about how datable the language is, and if it screams post-war, try for something more temporally neutral. (And if you are going to use the second person singular and the verb-endings of the sixteenth and seventeenth century for some purpose — ritual formality, showing that someone speaks in an old-fashioned way — steep yourself in the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible and Shakespeare until you can get it right.)
4) Don’t use primary-world proper nouns that have become adjectives or metaphoric nouns. Words with an historical connection, derived from a person or place, have no place in a world that does not have those historical persons or places in it, even if the word has largely lost its proper-noun capitalization. In a secondary world, you should not have, by its primary-world name, an Archimedean screw, marcelled hair (quite modern anyway — a late-nineteenth-century process invented by a chap named Marcel), sherry (Jerez), port (Portugal), champagne, bourbon, Burgandy, cheddar, Edam, raglan sleeves, a Jersey cow, or a Lombardy poplar, nor should it refer to Catherine wheels, dalmatians, or Samaritans good, bad, or indifferent. Vandalism … well, debatable. Is there another word for vandalism that works so well? I can’t think of one, offhand, so ….
Turkeys are a serious conundrum you will have to deal with, if you’re including New World flora and fauna in your natural history. Perhaps, like small “v” vandals, we’re stuck with them.
Words to be faced almost as cautiously are the months and the days of the week. Tolkien’s epic grew out of a children’s book with a contemporary narrator explaining things like “dwarves have never taken to matches” and so on; in The Lord of the Rings he added a detailed pseudo-historical apparatus in order to explain the use of Wednesday and March, which he knew didn’t belong but which had gotten in through the gateway of The Hobbit. It’s simpler even now, in a children’s secondary world fantasy, especially a lighthearted one, to go with our names of the months and assume an interpretor to our world, but in an epic fantasy for adults, unless you want to have a framework around it explaining the “translation” to primary world terms and unless, as in LR, doing so is consistent with your world and your story, perhaps better not. January, Thursday, etc. all have meanings, and most of them are derived from the names of primary world gods. The Spouse proposes the word anacosmonyms for such usage — words taken out of their proper world.
Words, words, words. If you want to know about a word’s history, the very best resource is the OED. The Oxford. Not your little desktop Oxford, the Pocket or Concise, though that’s nonetheless important for every writer in English, but The Dictionary. The Oxford Universal is good. It only weighs a few kilograms and you can fit it on a table. It gives dates of use and etymologies. The two volume Shorter Oxford is also nice. However, the Queen of Dictionaries in its full glory is thirteen volumes long on paper — now usually accessed electronically by most who use it, through a library’s subscription — and it has not only dates of first use and etymologies, but examples, masses of examples, tracing the word through history from its first recorded appearance in English.
5) Don’t fail to consider the economic complexities of your world. This does not mean writing a treatise on economics (unless you’re the author of Wolf and Spice). It does mean you shouldn’t create an urban setting and blithely announce that the kingdom has been devastated by war or dragons or ravaging hordes of unspeakable terrors while at the same time showing the entire populace hanging out in the cities eating well. Don’t forget that even now we are all dependent on the people growing food and that it takes a lot of hard physical labour and a lot of hands to grow that food, whether it happens in the fields of your hero’s village before she sets out to conquer the world, or outside the city walls, or in Egypt, which once supplied Rome with much of its grain, or in China, which now seems to be cornering the world garlic market. It takes many, many woman-hours to spin enough thread to weave a bolt of cloth, and many more hours to weave that cloth. And before that someone has to shear the sheep or hackle the flax. And so on. People don’t just pop downtown and buy a new dress because they feel like going shopping. A chair takes a lot of work to make. These are not worlds of very many disposable things, because things, most made things, are relatively expensive — expensive in time for the people making them, thus expensive for anyone buying them in a cash economy. Cheap manufactured goods — that’s the Industrial Revolution again.
There were factories, of a sort, i.e. people producing the same object over and over, for some objects; the Romans made amphorae on a scale, which were shipped all over the empire full of various liquids, and lamps. They were really more workshops than factories. And such clay objects were cheap, relatively, which is why archaeologists can dig them up all over the place. They were emptied or broke and you threw them away. (And of course, cheap or expensive, they can’t be stuck back together again and they don’t rot. Watch very much Time Team and you’ll conclude you can’t sink a spade in the earth anywhere in Europe without hitting pottery shards, making you realize that however unattractive the habit is, hurling coffee cups and pop cans all over the landscape is an inherent element of our humanity.) However, there were not large-scale foundries or spinning-mills or weaving machines, and it’s that kind of mass-production that lets us have both leisure, and cheap stuff, on the scale we now do in the industrialized world.
So, for every man (or woman, since we’re talking fantasy, not historical fiction) who can afford a sword — an extremely expensive item with a lot of man-hours from ore to weapon, or a mail shirt (probably even more labour-intensive), there is a huge foundation of people doing other things so that he or she can eat and not run around naked, as well as getting on with the heroing. It’s good to remember that, when you’re travelling through your world. It’s also good to remember that archaeology shows that even apparently-remote neolithic and Bronze Age villages were part of a surprisingly far-reaching network of trade, with goods, and presumably ideas and stories, moving about, even if most people never got more than a day’s walk from where they were born. By mediaeval times, complex trade routes bound the known world together, and very, very complex webs of duties and services, rents and taxes, produce and commerce, held society together, from ploughman to lord, merchant to crown, country to country.
Just for the record, and very vaguely related to this point, peasant and serf are not synonyms. And feudalism and manorialism are not synonyms. And vassal and serf are really, really, really not synonyms. See 4) and why the OED is such a useful thing.
And those, she said, reflecting gloomily that she has probably done all of the above (except for the baled hay and getting her sixteenth-century verb endings wrong), are five things you should try not to do when writing epic fantasy.
If you’re a fan of Epic Fantasy, check out some of our podcast interviews:
“Fantasy Tropes in Japanese Folklore” by Travis Heermann
“Depression, Suicide and Sexual Abuse in Science Fiction and Fantasy” by Susan Cartwright