Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Fairy Tales and Fantasy for Artists - p15

 Previous                  Index                 Next 

Medievalism, Steampunk, and Creating a Dreamworld of the Past

  Ty Hulse

Fairytales have succeeded by using aspects of real-world societies to describe the fairies and people of the other worlds so that their audiences could understand their motivation. The fairy court had nobility and peasantry that mirrored that of past and present human societies, a person in the otherworld might encounter a magical being herding cattle, a nix goes to church as any normal human would. As game creator D’Amato puts it “most of our favorite worlds were inspired by the work of other authors, mythology, real world culture, or history.” For fantasy the most common inspiration is that of the imagined medieval.

Fantasy, even Urban Fantasy, is often “deeply rooted in medievalism, in both aesthetic and origin. As Selling has noted, “out of all the imaginary landscapes one could place a fantasy in, a consistent choice of setting is one resembling a simplified version of the Western European Middle Ages […] where the characters wear medieval dress, fight with swords, and live in hierarchical vaguely feudal, semi-pastoral societies with low levels of technology.” (Cook)

Given the importance of the past to successful depictions of fantasy it’s worth discussing then how the real world, especially the medieval world has been used in fantasy stories and art. Just as importantly is the question of why the past, and especially the Medieval era is so commonly used as inspiration for fantasy stories.

The reason for medievalism in fantasy is one that will likely be familiar given the uses of fairies by artists and writers. America’s fascination with the Middle Ages occurred after one of the worst pandemics in modern history and during one of the most severe economic depressions, as well as a number of industrial and cultural upheavals that occurred in the 1890s. During this time “Americans appropriated Europe’s medieval past, as they longed for an agrarian and rural land now tainted by the railroad and those made rich from it.” (Haines, 2013)


Because of the time when Medievalism became popular, “the ideologies and views of the Middle Ages often stem more from Victorian medievalism than from the Middle Ages… in which the Middle Ages is celebrated as a time of gloriously resplendent beauty and simplicity.” During this time the art and especially the music meant to represent the Middle Ages was “the embodiment of the natural, the innocent, and the divine.”  (Helen Young)

As is typical of this pattern, upheaval leads to a longing, thus the reason beauty and fantasy are, after all, frequently born from challenging times. Thus medievalism is useful because, as with earlier Romanticist works of pastoralism and magic, a faux middle ages is fundamentally appealing, producing nostalgia and a deep desire for a more pure world that modern settings struggle to replicate. That said, fantasy artists don’t use actual medieval style in creating their games, because they want their stories to be accessible (Lind 2016). Although I also suspect that artists aren’t completely accurate to history because they want to be free to let their imagination flow, which is a good thing, after all great artists are skilled at helping audiences explore emotions. Even stories set in the modern day often use some elements of Medievalism, such as “Harry Potter” which is about a boy who gets to escape to a castle where he uses quills on parchment. 

When discussing fairytales and fantasy audiences C.S. Lewis posited; 

"Does anyone suppose that he really and prosaically longs for all the dangers and discomforts of a fairy tale? really wants dragons in contemporary England? It is not so, it would be much truer to say that fairy land arouses a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him with the dim sense of something beyond his reach, and far from dulling or employing the actual world, giving a new dimension of depth."

I think that part of the power of fantasy stories is that the desires of fantasy are ineffable. Even those who read it with longing can likely only rarely fully explain the desire and need. What fantasy does is express that which cannot ever be fully expressed or understood, often during times of confusion and uncertainty. Robert Olen Butler stated that "we are the yearning creatures of this planet. There are superficial yearnings, and there are truly deep ones always pulsing beneath, but every second we yearn for something. And fiction, inescapably, is the art form of human yearning."

Yearning for a past, just as Neo-Classicists and Romanticists yearned for ancient Rome and Greece, seems to be built into us. Thus, the reason Steampunk and similar fantasy genres become popular. As with the love of an imperfect fantasy world, this longing for a fictional past doesn’t mean people think the past was ‘better’, rather it is a desire to reimagine what could have been and what could be. For example, the 1960’s musical “Camelot became the hallmark of a new form of Western escapism,” offering images of “the world as it might have been” as well as a fantasy of what it might yet come to be.” Thus, using the Middle Ages as inspiration for this play was in part a way of expressing “aspirations” for a vague but peaceable, idyllic future.” (Young, 2015)


The past further allows us to rebel against current concerns, thus the reason so many rebellious and counter cultures have looked to often fictionalized early times. Rebelling against social conventions and modern problems is a frequent feature of fantasy, such that even “Tolkien’s novel in paperback format was seen as an indicator of its countercultural status. Hardback novels were the prescribed texts of crusty professors, whereas paperbacks were new and rebellious. Moreover, Tolkien’s nostalgic medievalism and its focus on rustic simplicity also paralleled the hippy ethos of rejecting technology and returning to nature.” (Young, 2015)


If we accept the premise that for many fantasy helps give a voice to unexpressed longings and a desire to battle uncertain fears, we should also understand that "While the fictional Middle Ages can play many roles, what is found in music and the fine arts is an attempt at transcendence, an attempt to create an experiance in which art regains a kind of ritual and spiritual function that separates it from works arising in both earlier and later periods." (Young)


Thus, the purpose of drawing on the past for inspiration is emotional, not authentic. As such the creator of fantasy art must choose what will draw the audience into the story, and what will be too unusual or off putting to include. This, of course, depends on the audience. Stories of dark political intrigue like “Game of Thrones” will obviously include much darker elements from the medieval past than stories like the animated children’s show “Gummy Bears”. This can be a fine line to walk as if the art created is;


Too far in the direction of the familiar, and the reader expecting magic and adventure is disappointed. Too far toward the strange, and there’s nothing for a reader to grab hold of, to relate to in the story. The fantasy author, in order to maintain the suspension of disbelief for the reader, has to pay close attention to this balance, as well as make their world engaging and enjoyable from the perspective of the reader. (Casper Miller)


As a result fantasy worlds do not mirror history, they extract ideas and themes, many of which are themes that exist in our minds rather than reality. They then add and alter these themes to be more appealing to modern audiences. This is because the goal of art is to stir emotions, rather than to act as a perfect reflection of reality. This is certainly true of fantasy which uses imagination to at most, shine a light on what the artists believes is real or should be real, and to invite thinking on philosophical ideas. 


We can learn a lot about striking the balance between the familiar and the past through the music used for fantasy video games. Such music has often struck this balance by including things like Gregorian chants, fanfares, bards, ballads, and folk musical elements often being use to indicate medievalism. That is, musicians often choose elements from the past that we think would fit medieval ideas to create their music. Thus the composure for the game “Descent Of Erdrick” draws on Bach and Baroque era music to give us the feeling of a medieval world. 


“In Dragon Warrior, the effect is striking. Through its historical allusion, Sugiyama’s short work exudes refinement and elegance, simultaneously depicting the grandeur of Lorik’s richly appointed thrown room and imbuing the scene with a pomp and circumstance befitting the dragon-slaying quest the player is undertaking.”


Castles and large buildings were common in early Nintendo fantasy games because they offered players spaces to explore. Part of what resulted from this was that Bach was often used to convey “a sense of seriousness, grandeur, and even pomp onto the events it underscores. (William Gibbons)


Thus, in order to give people a sense of the medieval, these games use musical elements from the Early Modern. This use of the Early Modern era as a stand in for Medievalism is actually fairly typical in general, for we commonly associate things from the Early Modern with the Middle Ages. Mass inquisitions and witch burnings, for example, were less common in the Middle Ages than the Early Modern when the Spanish Inquisition took place and King James the First began the largest witch hunts in British history, and the guide to hunting witches known as the ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ (1486) was published and used. Jousting as we think of it, with two knights charging at each other on either side of a wooden fence to keep them in their lanes wasn’t invented until the very end of the Medieval period and was more common during the Early Modern. Further, in the Middle Ages meat was typically boiled, with large chunks of roast meat becoming popular in and later eras. Natural stone castles were usually plastered white in the medieval, or covered with tapestries and art on the inside, such that people rarely ever saw the grey stone we so commonly associate with castles. Thus, most of what we think of as the Middle Ages is based largely on things that happened after them. 

Wolterink (2017) in the journal Gamevironments states that societies view of the past comes from "a cultural archive, which can be seen as a collective historical consciousness, filled with nostalgia, popular perceptions of the past and cultural memory." Thus, while people in the middle ages were actually afraid of roast meat, due to philosophical ideas from Ancient Greece, we tend to view meat as being roasted, rather than boiled like it was in the middle ages because we remember the 17th century philosophies about cooking which led to the idea of roasting meat as being primitive. That is, we tend to lump aspects of the past and our own ideas of what is primitive together to create a mental database of what entire periods of the past looked like. 


Often fantasy worlds will pick specific regions on which to focus in order to help ground the narrative, just as the game ‘Skyrim’ focuses on Medieval Scandinavia. The game uses historical associations such as allusions to the fall of Rome, the Viking Age, Beowulf, etc. One way it does this is through the use of architecture, such as is present in Dragonsreach which has building designs based on Norse stave churches, which well not entirely used in an authentic way, its use helps make the world feel authentic and interesting. 


Often, making a game, film, or work of art feel medieval simply requires the placing of a few things people associate with the past, such as banners, torches, market stalls, people wearing smocks, etc. Being too simple or fantastical with such design, however, does run a number of risks. 


Skyrim’s predecessor Oblivion, which was deemed as a “too generic” fantasy setting by fans. Skyrim seemed to address this fact by greatly increasing the medieval (and Viking) 'feel' or atmosphere of the entire videogame. Indeed, recognizing our own Middle Ages in the game-world is quite important, according to Hedda Gunneng (2012). It motivates players to continue playing by intensifying their playing experience with historical baggage and weight. As implied by Skyrim’s lead environment design artist Noah Berry (2015), 'details' (authentic imagery) are crucial to reinforce the specific aesthetic direction a videogame wishes to take. They make the world seem grander, feel more alive and become extensions of the world itself. (Wolterink)



The fact that the medieval and fantasy worlds depiction is based on the needs of the artist and audience, rather than pure reality means that what is used to represent it can and has changed. Again in music we see that “There has been a historical move from the representation of the fantasy medieval through rock to its representation through folk In more recent years.” (James Cook)


At one time depictions of medieval worlds used rock, sexualization, scantily clad people (such as Conan the Barbarian), heavy armor, and images of Satanism as well as the iconography of heavy metal and rock as a form of rebellion. At this point fantasy represented the rebellion of the seventies and eighties, as much as anything else. Thus movies like “Highlander” drew heavily on metal aesthetics. Rock too is a frequent theme in “Game of Thrones” in which composure Ramin Djawadi “mixes aspects of postromantic filmic composition, folk, diegetic period style music, and more ambient horror-type music… rock is used in the series. In a way, rock is a constant silent presence throughout many scenes…” yet it isn’t allowed to become a dominant or even a strong presence (James Cook). Instead folk music is used to evoke a rustic feel in many places. The same is true in the game “Age of Conan” where folk music is used to represent the countryside and Renaissance pastiche is used to represent ‘civilized’ and potentially elegant places. 


“Central to this understanding, though is a sense of nostalgia, of safety. The medieval is, for us, a space in which such ideas may be navigated without attendant danger and without risk to civilization.” “The medieval can operate as a site of projection for fantasies of wholeness and escape from cultural repression, or as a repository for the violence and dirt that are anathema to, and a source of humor for, modern life.”

“Viewed through this lens, our genres of folk, heavy metal, and progressive rock can be seen to have very different roles to play. When present as medieval – that is real, authentic medieval music – folk evokes the sense of temporal distance that is necessary for nostalgia. Separated by this clear temporal divide, ‘Game of Thrones’ may safely stand as a “repository for the violence” of the Red Wedding, for instance. Folk is therefore a distancing feature…” (James Cook)