Having spent the last ten or so years writing nearly exclusively within the genre cloud commonly known as ‘urban fantasy’, I have taken a departure from the ‘urban’ part of it and retaken the mantle of ‘medieval’ or classic fantasy. I grew up reading J.R.R. Tolkien and David and Leigh Eddings, for the most part. I was steeped in the epic sort of fantasy that tends to be quite uniform: stone castles and dragons and tribal conflicts with British and Celtic roots.
When people ask what I’m working on currently, I have been saying ‘medieval fantasy’ because that’s what most people think about when I say so: sword and sorcery with low technology and that European flavour.
But the more work I do on this project, the more I find that I don’t want to fall into that trope. That the story itself is leading me away from that standard.
One of the main problems in works like Tolkien’s is the issue of race. There is little doubt that racism plays a part in The Lord of the Rings. ‘Dark men from the east’ is a recurring theme; these are the bad guys led by Sauron to invade and destroy the good people of the west. And the elves? Whiter than white. There is some mitigating mention of darker skinned men and hobbits that are not bad guys, but they are still probably not that dark.
Was Tolkien himself racist? I don’t know, and I don’t particularly care. I do know he was a linguist and folklorist, and he was attempting to fill what he saw as a gap in English mythology. In the cultural setting he was recreating, racism would have been standard. You didn’t have the kind of global community we enjoy now. Anybody who wasn’t part of your particular tribe was a stranger and potential enemy. Anybody who looked different from you and all the people you know was suspect. You just didn’t know what they were about.
So in my mind, Tolkien was either himself subliminally racist or he was trying to be historically accurate within his fantasy tale. Or both.
It doesn’t matter.
I bring it up for two reasons: One, I want to illustrate what I’m used to reading, and two, to show what I don’t want to do.
I’m aware that fantasy is a very large genre. There are thousands of books that I would love to read but lack the time. I am aware of fantasy books (and have read some of those myself) that break away from the whole Eurocentric idea and I love that.
I know I’m not attempting to do something that hasn’t been done before in that sense, but I want to find a way to make this idea mine.
When my story, ‘The Outlaw Duchess’ began to take shape, I did have two different ethnic groups, which is important to the plot. Without this distinction, the story can’t happen. I already had my main character’s name, Braithwyn, which sounds ridiculously Celtic. In order to differentiate the opposing culture I began to look around for different linguistic groups and instead decided to use Esperanto conventions for names. It seemed a way to steer clear of any racial connotations, and the names were at once strange and familiar.
I named Braithwyn’s tribe Eleri and the nearby kingdom Kerat.
This automatically began painting pictures in my mind of what the two groups looked like. The Eleri were probably fair-skinned redheads and blonds, and with their names sounding so Mediterranean, the Keratans were probably dark-haired and swarthy. I realised right away that I was falling into the race trap again, and there was really no reason for it. To further complicate things, my other heroine, Anjo, was a blond Keratan. She couldn’t not be blond. Oh, I supposed I could change her hair colour like I could change anything else, but in my brain she would always be blond and I may end up writing blond where I meant something else and ruining my continuity. By contrast, while I had initially pictured Braithwyn as a redhead, I hadn’t really mentioned her hair colour in the story. I wasn’t married to the red hair.
I briefly thought of making the Eleri the darker ones, but that brought along a whole host of connotations I did not want to deal with.
I was still thinking of the distant past.
Why not think of the distant future? Why not think of a present in another world where the technology is still very low but the genetics are mostly homogenous? I don’t want to simply switch out European for Asian or American because I don’t know enough about those cultures to do them justice at this time. What if the layout of this world is such that every tribe came from a common source and haven’t differentiated as much as they did on Earth? After all, one thing that was clear from the inception of this story was that the conflict was socioeconomic, not ethnic. A larger group of people sought to expand their power at the expense of a smaller group of people.
I’ve also been a fan of BBC shows like Merlin and Robin Hood, where the casting is basically colour-blind. We have a black Guenevere, and a black Friar Tuck, and nobody seems to notice. That’s the kind of world I am trying to construct here. Where skin colour isn’t absent but instead is not tied to any racial connotations. I think I can make it work.
Thinking along those lines gave me more background for the story that I hadn’t really considered. Now there are layers upon layers to work with, and I like that.
As always, all of this has been done before, just not by me.
So maybe instead of ‘medieval fantasy’ I should say ‘pre-industrial fantasy’? That’s a mouthful. Perhaps I will just say ‘fantasy’ and give a brief synopsis. Because when you get right down to it, each book, each story, is a world onto itself which shouldn’t be limited to a word or catch phrase.