What Makes a Fantasy World Feel European?

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.


This Is Not the Food

When characters in fantasy fiction sit down to a meal, we have a pretty god idea of what to expect. If the setting is Europe-ish, you can count on hearty bowls of stew, roasted meats dripping with savory juices, ripe wheels of cheese, and maybe a little bread to dab up the sauce with. If the setting is Asia-ish, expect sizzling pans of vegetables and fish, skewers of meat steaming with spices both hot and sweet, and maybe a little rice to dab up the sauce with. (And I’m sure some of you out there who have read books I haven’t can tell us what food to expect in Africa-ish, Americas-ish, or other-ish settings.) The trouble with this picture of food is, historically speaking, it’s backwards. The sizzling meats, steaming vegetables, and spicy sauces are not the food. The bread, rice, and other grains are the food.

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Land Tenure

160613MarchLand tenure. The very words sound boring. Perhaps they conjure images of gray-haired men in tweed jackets with elbow patches picnicking beside a barley field. But stick with me for a minute here, because land tenure is an important thing to know about in understanding historical cultures and for building your own fictional worlds.

Land tenure is one of several terms historians use to describe the legal structures surrounding the control of land. (Technically, the term land tenure is only used in British common law. Other legal systems use different terms, but this is one you’ll see a lot of in English-language history texts.) The question of who controls a piece of land is always important, but it is especially vital in agrarian societies in which land, specifically farmland, is the basis of wealth. Land tenure is about figuring out who gets to use a piece of land and under what conditions.

In some cultures this isn’t an issue. Some legal systems allow only an either-or choice, you either own a piece of land or you don’t. Under other traditions, no one owns land at all. But in certain kinds of societies, the question of who controls a plot of land and under what conditions they hold it is at the heart of many conflicts.

It’s the same basic principle that applies today when you rent an apartment. As a tenant, you have certain rights in the use and enjoyment of the apartment, but the landlord also has rights they can enforce such as demanding rent and keeping the apartment in a usable condition. Landlords have good reason to want to keep as much control over their property as they can. They don’t want tenants messing things up and making it harder to rent the apartment profitably in the future, plus they want to be able to easily get rid of tenants who make trouble or don’t pay their rent. At the same time, renters also have good reason to want as much control as possible over their apartments. They want the security of knowing they won’t suddenly be thrown out and have to look for a new place and they want to know that no one’s going to be coming in and messing with their stuff. There is a tug-of-war between different interests and the balance of legal rights between landlords and tenants reflects the balance of power in larger society.

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Travel: Large Groups on Foot

160118legionSometimes writing fiction means not just moving a few characters around the map but planning entire campaigns for massive armies. In previous entries in the travel series we looked at some basic issues and how small groups travel on foot. For large groups on foot, much of what we discussed in those entries is relevant, but large groups of people, like armies or mass migrations, bring with them their own set of problems. Today we’ll look at some basic questions in the movement of large groups: How large is “large?” What did it take to make the journey successfully? How far could they travel? And how fast?

This post is written with a particular focus on armies, since they are the best-studied large groups that traveled in the pre-industrial world, but any sufficiently large group of people traveling by foot would face the same basic problems.

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Headcanon: Underground Hydroponics in The Hunger Games World

From time to time, I get sucked into thinking about the pragmatics of fictional worlds. By that I mean all the mundane details of how people lead their everyday lives, starting from the very basic human (or creature) needs like food, clothing, waste management, and social interaction. Not just who takes care of, say, the laundry and when, but where do they go to do it, how do they get there, what kinds of implements are they expected to bring in themselves and what is shared, how long does it take, what physical motions do they go through, is it a solo activity or a joint effort, and the like.

For me as a visual person, often thinking about everyday activities and movement through spaces tumbles into thinking about what exactly do these various spaces look like. It’s a way to add depth and realism into a story – we are physical beings who love tactile experiences and accumulate all sorts of personal possessions, and if a fictional world ignores that, it makes that world fall flat for me. (Hello, Star Trek!)

The Hunger Games is one of the current ones in my mind because of the approaching Mockingjay – Part 2 premiere and because of an article on Colossal I saw about a World War II era bomb shelter in London that has been turned into an underground farm.

Growing Underground Forgotten Heritage Photo Shoot
Growing Underground on Instagram.

The company running the operation, Growing Underground, produces leafy greens like watercress, basil, coriander, and radish in hydroponic beds lit by LED lamps.

Growing Underground Beds Homepage
Growing Underground.

In the The Hunger Games world, the population of District 13 lives in underground bunkers; the above-ground structures were destroyed by the Capitol. In the Mockingjay novel, Collins mentions various spaces like the armory, the laundry, labs, testing ranges, and farms in passing. She describes these spaces mostly just in very generic terms; e.g., the color of the living compartments is white, and we hear of furniture like dressers and conference tables with individual screens, but that’s about the extent of the detail.

Scenes in the movie Mockingjay – Part 1 show the special weapons lab with a shooting range, the hangar, the bunker, and some hospital and apartment rooms, among others, but I don’t think we’ve seen any underground farms of any kind, nor the poultry farm, for example, that was destroyed in the book version of the bombing of 13 by the Capitol.

Mockingjay1 D13 Collage
Clockwise from top: living quarters, cafeteria, and infirmary at District 13. Images via Jabberjays.net.

The Growing Underground photos of their growing beds fit quite well with Collins’s carefully frugal description and the established Hunger Games visual style. So, in my headcanon, even if we haven’t seen them on screen, District 13’s underground hydroponics now look very much like those of Growing Underground.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

The Judean Date Palm Lives Again

The only living Judean date palm, at Kibbutz Ketura, Israel. Photograph by Benjitheijneb
The only living Judean date palm, at Kibbutz Ketura, Israel, photograph by Benjitheijneb via Wikimedia

The Judean date palm was a plant of great economic and cultural importance in the ancient Mediterranean. It grew extensively in Judea where it provided shade for people and livestock and its fruit was used for food and medicine. By the modern period, devastation in war and a changing climate had wiped out the trees. Then in the 1960s a two-thousand-year-old seed cache turned up in excavations at the palace of Herod the Great. The seeds sat in storage for another forty years until an attempt was made to cultivate some of them. Amazingly, one of the seeds germinated and grew. In a few more years, we get to find out what ancient Judean dates tasted like. If further efforts to breed the Judean palm with some of its nearest living relatives are successful, modern Judean date palms could return to the Mediterranean.

This story is a few years old, but I only stumbled across it recently. It’s wonderful that some things we once thought lost can come back.

Geeks eat, too! Second Breakfast is an occasional feature in which we talk about food with geeky connections and maybe make some of our own. Yum!


150810oxcartThe majority of the stuff that needs to get done in an agrarian society is basic manual labor: primarily farm work, but also things like construction, building and road maintenance, mining, carrying, housework, etc. Any functioning pre-industrial society needs lots of workers to do all that work, but there are many different kinds of workers, some of which are not so familiar to us today. Some of these kinds of workers had it much better than others.

Here’s a list of possibilities, by no means exhaustive, arranged roughly in order from worst to best conditions.

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Some Notes on Gender and Power (Part 1)

150629BoudiccaGender and power are two very big and complicated topics. Put them together and you get something even bigger and complicateder. (Yes, I said “complicateder.” Deal with it.) They are also two topics that have become very important in a lot of contemporary speculative fiction. I’m not going to try to take on the whole subject here, but I would like to offer a few points that can be useful for thinking about gender, power, and how they fit both into the world we live in and into the worlds we write about.

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Food Production: The Original 99%

150615FarmingWe have some berry bushes and a few fruit trees in our back yard. Every spring I plant a few vegetables in a couple of small patches (some years they produce; other years they just wither under the care of my brown thumb). It’s nice to be able to go out back and pick a cucumber or a handful of raspberries, but it doesn’t sustain us. If we had to feed ourselves on what we can produce, we’d be dead in a matter of weeks.

The same is true for most of us in the industrialized world. In the modern west, only about 3% of the population is engaged in primary food production, which is to say: actually producing edible things from nature. Farmers, ranchers, and fishermen (along with some more niche specialists like bee-keepers and salt miners) are in a very small minority today. That 3% manages to feed all the rest of us, but only because of a host of modern technologies: mechanized farming, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, antibiotics, refrigeration and canning, cheap long-distance transport, and so on. Pre-modern societies had to feed themselves with none of these advantages, which means that food production required a huge amount of labor.

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Living on the Land

A lone river winding through the desert. A pair of wide plains. A fragmented land of islands and mountain valleys. When you’re building a world, the land matters. The land we live in shapes the way our societies work. To see what this means, let’s look at a few examples: ancient Egypt, ancient China, and classical Greece. We’ll be zooming way out and looking at these cultures on a very large scale.

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