One of the workshops I attended at Worldcon 75 was about non-European-based fantasy worldbuilding. It was a lively and enjoyable workshop, but—no doubt for logistical reasons—the discussion of what exactly makes a setting seem European was cut rather short. It’s not a question that is easy to answer, even though—from Tolkien to Game of Thrones—it is obvious that a lot of fantasy literature and media draws heavily on European, and specifically medieval European, influences. What is it about a fantasy world that makes it feel European, and what kinds of things should we consider changing if we want to create something that doesn’t?
Our popular collective sense of medieval European history is a fairy-tale world of knights on horseback, castles, kings and queens, pageantry and chivalry. For people growing up in the West, fairy tales in this tradition shape some of our earliest exposure to storytelling and it is no surprise that their forms and characters continue to inform how we approach fantasy. If you want to make your fantasy world feel less European, one approach is simply to look around the world for different terms to slot into the formula. Instead of telling a story about a dashing knight riding his trusty steed to rescue the princess from the castle of the wicked queen, you can tell a story about a dashing jaguar warrior riding his trusty ostrich to rescue the geisha from the stone fortress of the wicked maharani. This kind of “palette-swapping” (as Jeannette Ng calls it in an excellent recent Twitter thread) can work, up to a point, but the more depth and detail you have in your story, the more shallow this kind of worldbuilding will feel.
Let’s take a closer look at the details of “fairy tale” Europe. Knights, castles, kings and queens all have some basis in reality, but they are complicated. Mounted knights played only a small part in medieval European warfare and only in certain regions and periods. The crenellated stone fortresses we think of as “castles” had a similarly limited scope. Kingship was a precarious position across most of medieval Europe (where it existed at all). The most powerful actors were often local warlords. Chivalry meant the rules of war, which were followed as haphazardly as rules of war generally are. Their more romantic aspects were an embellishment of popular literature. Indeed, modern fantasy literature that imagines a world of chivalrous knights and fair damsels wandering from castle to castle draws far more on medieval fantasy literature (not to mention the self-serving propaganda of a small warrior elite) than on any of the realities of European history.
Furthermore, many of the things we commonly associate with medieval Europe were not originally European. Heavily-armed cavalry had been pioneered by the Parthians and depended on technologies—most crucially stirrups and large, strong horse breeds—developed in Central Asia. Stone fortifications had a long history of development in the Levant, and European castle designs drew heavily on Islamic examples encountered by Crusaders. Speaking of the Crusades, the Christian texts and ideologies that guided medieval intellectual culture were rooted in Jewish traditions and the cultural turmoil of the Roman empire’s eastern provinces.
So, what, after all, is so European about Europe? When we say that the fantasy we’re reading feels European, or that we want to write something that doesn’t, what are the things that add up to that?
My basic advice for worldbuilding is: start with the land, so let’s look at the land of Europe.
Europe, geographically speaking, is not really a continent but rather the long, vaguely triangular western end of Eurasia. Compared with most other major land areas, Europe is relatively compact. Most of the landmass falls between the 40th and 60th parallels. Many bays and small seas penetrate the land and break it up into numerous peninsulas and islands. A long mountain system sprawls across the southern half, a smaller and more fragmented one across the northwestern diagonal. Wedged between them is a broad plain threaded with numerous rivers, with forests in the west giving way to grasslands in the east. The North Atlantic current brings warm water and wet winds to the western coast while the many bays and small seas bring the climate-moderating effects of water to much of the land.
This geography has several significant effects for human cultures in Europe. One is that the climate is relatively stable and uniform across most of Europe. The southern half tends more warm and dry while the northern half is more cool and wet, but broadly speaking, the temperatures, rainfall, seasonal weather patterns, and growing conditions are similar enough across most of the land that the same crops can be grown and animals raised in most regions. (No, I’m not saying the climates of Spain and Finland are identical; I’m saying they have enough in common that a farmer from one place would not have to learn a whole new way of farming and acquire entirely new crops and animals to get by in the other.) The major staple crops are grains, primarily wheat and barley, with hardier alternatives like rye and oats appearing farther north. The principal farm animals are pigs, cattle, sheep, goats, and poultry, with goats being more common in the mountainous south and cattle more common in the northern plains.
The geography also makes travel and transport relatively easy. Most places in Europe are within a few hundred kilometers of the sea and much of the area is crossed by navigable rivers. Since waterborne transport is more efficient than overland, large cargoes can be carried around Europe more easily than in many other regions.
Put together the similarity of climate and the ease of transport and the result is a land where many basic elements of economic and social life—the organization of agricultural labor, the rhythms of the farming year, the structure of local trade—are similar in many different places. The relative ease of connecting local economies into long-distance trade means that goods, people, and ideas flow readily from one region to another.
Despite the ecological cohesiveness of Europe, this landscape has different effects on political life. The profusion of islands, peninsulas, and bays breaks up the landmass into many smaller regions. So do the mountains of the south and the forested areas of the north. While these smaller regions are connected by trade and travel, they are difficult to assemble into large coherent states. There are many places in Europe where one leader with a small following of warriors could easily control a handful of villages or a stretch of river valley, but these small territories are much harder to unite under one leader’s power.
These two tendencies have underlain much of European history and are still visible today: cultural and economic interconnectedness at odds with political fragmentation.
When people are united by culture but divided by politics, their warfare tends to focus on establishing dominance over the enemy rather than destroying them. The respect for shared institutions and values facilitates the development of common diplomatic customs which can limit the destructiveness of warfare and channel competition into symbolic contests. On the other hand, diplomacy can draw conflicts out by delaying a decisive clash. People are likely to find themselves at war repeatedly over the same issues, a feature we can also see in European history.
These factors tend to draw European societies into internal connections and conflicts, but Europe is also well connected to the outside world. The Mediterranean Sea is easy to cross to North Africa or the Levant and the there is an extensive land connection to the rest of Eurasia. A short overland trip from the southeastern Mediterranean leads on to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. North America can be reached either by riding the circular North Atlantic trade winds or by island-hopping by way of Britain, the Faroes, Iceland, and Greenland. People have always been moving into and out of Europe both individually and in larger migrations, bringing the influence of outside ideas and cultures into the region and taking European ideas abroad.
All of these factors are part of what makes Europe European. We can see their influence even in the fairy tale version. Many kings and queens (and other kinds of rulers) have competed for power across stretches of Europe, relying on knights (and warriors of other descriptions) who supported themselves on the agricultural produce of small local regions. In parts of this fragmented landscape, local magnates built castles (and other kinds of fortified dwellings) to secure their control of territory and resources. The cultural and economic connections between many of these warring parties fostered the development of a common set of norms for the conduct of warfare, which literature elaborated into a fanciful code of chivalry. Contact with the outside world and immigration of foreign peoples brought new ideas and technologies—like stirrups and stone castles—which then spread widely through networks of trade.
These forces are not always visible in storytelling, but they underlie many of the basic assumptions, social structures, and cultural habits that make so many fantasy worlds feel European. Even some of the most basic staples of fantasy literature have their roots in the European landscape—of course everyone eats bread and cheese when wheat is the dominant crop across most of Europe and cattle are the primary herd animal on half the continent.
If we want to build fantasy worlds that don’t follow the same familiar patterns, we need to understand where those patterns come from.
Images: La Belle Dame sans Merci via Wikimedia (Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery; 1901; oil on canvas; Frank Dicksee). Satellite map of Euopre via Wikimedia. A View of Tallanton Castle via Wikimedia (Scottish National Gallery; 1816; oil on canvas; Alexander Naysmith).
Post edited for clarity and to correct historical inaccuracies.
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.