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.

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Major Roman Roads Subway Map Style

A very, very cool map of major Roman roads done in subway map style:

Shasha Trubetskoy roman_roads_24_jun

Made by Sasha Trubetskoy, statistics major and designer, artist, and geography and data nerd.

Really fascinating! I know there were also some Roman roadworks running at least partially across the land from east to west along Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, but I don’t know whether there ever was a complete major road there.

In Making Stuff occasional feature, we share fun arts and crafts done by us and our fellow geeks and nerds.

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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Inca Rope Bridges and the Importance of Landscape

The Inca empire of South America was connected by a network of roads used by chasqui runners and pack llamas carrying messages and supplies around the empire. The Inca, creating their empire in the Andes mountains, faced challenges unlike those of flat-land and river-valley empires, among which was the problem of crossing numerous steep mountain valleys and rivers that ran dangerously swift in the flood season. Their solution to this problem was: rope bridges.

160229QiswaChaka

Suspension rope bridges spanned rivers and valleys, the longest reaching a length of 45 meters. They were made with ropes twisted out of grass and had to be rebuilt every year or two. The rebuilding was dangerous work that was assigned to local villagers as part of their obligation to the empire. Most Inca bridges have long since been replaced with modern structures, but one, the Q’iswa Chaka over the Apurimac River in Peru, is still rebuilt every year by local people as a way of preserving their heritage.

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Fantasy Religions: Religious Sites

So, you’re creating a fantasy religion for a story or game. When your characters need to interact with their gods, where do they go—if anywhere at all? Down the street to the local temple? To the top of a windswept mountain? To a corner of their kitchen? Today we look at religious sites in historical cultures to inspire our imaginations.

We can start by looking at religion in today’s world. Look at the religious life of a modern western community and you will find some people attending their local church, synagogue, or mosque, some people praying quietly in their own homes, some feeling inspired by solitary walks in the woods, some debating points of theology over the internet, some participating in celebrations of religious holidays, and some not involved at all. Many people will do more than one of the above. No culture or religious tradition is monolithic, and this is just as true in the past as the present. The history of religious expression is one of incredible variety both across and within cultures.

In this variety, though, there are some patterns that recur in varying forms. People use different kinds of religious sites for different  needs. Many different traditions have used similar kinds of religious sites, and within any given tradition different sites are used for different purposes. Today we will look at four common types of religious site out of the wide variety of possibilities: assemblies, temples, household shrines, and natural spaces.

Assembly

The “assembly” type of religious space will be recognizable to anyone familiar with major variants of the modern monotheistic religions. It is a space where a community of believers gathers to perform collective rituals such as praying, singing hymns, hearing sermons, feasting, and witnessing or participating in ritual enactments.

Grand Mosque, Djenne, photograph by BluesyPete via Wikimedia
Grand Mosque, Djenne, photograph by BluesyPete via Wikimedia

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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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Labor

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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Do-It-Yourself Fantasy Place Name Generator

Writing a fantasy story or role-playing scenario? Need to come up with names for towns, rivers, mountain ranges and so on, but tired of thinking up new names all the time? Here’s a handy technique I use. It takes a little work up front, but then it makes coming up with new names really easy.

The thing about place names is: when you dig down deep into their meaning, they’re usually really obvious and descriptive. It’s only time and language change that obscures their meaning.

Look at a map of Europe and you’ll find Copenhagen (“merchant harbor”) and Dublin (“black pool”). In Asia there’s Shanghai (“above the sea”) and Samarkand (“stone fortress”). The same applies to the native names anywhere else in the world. In places that have experienced substantial colonization, the conquerors often imported old names that didn’t relate to the landscape (New York, Wellington), but in other cases the new names given by colonizers were just as descriptive (Cape Town, Salt Lake City).

The reasons for this naming pattern are fairly straightforward. If you live in a landscape where there are several rivers, but only one of them is muddy, or plenty of mountains, but there’s a big one with no trees on top, when you need to refer to that river or that mountain, you’re likely to say: “the black river” or “the bald mountain.” From there it’s only a short step to calling them “Black River” and “Bald Mountain”. As time goes on and language changes, place names tend to become fossilized and preserve older variants and meanings that the rest of the language has left behind.

So, put these facts to work for you. When you’re setting up your map, generate a list of place name elements and then you can quickly combine them to make new names for whatever you need.

Here’s how it works:

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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.

150608Egypt Continue reading