Assumptions about Northern European fantasy that really irritate me

Disclaimer: This is a late response to Bridget Burke’s post in my “Racism in writing fantasy” thread. It’s in no way meant to be an attack on her and Bridget, I apologise in advance if it does come off as if I’m attacking you personally.

Even though arguments are permitted in this subforum, I don’t intend to start one. Also this thread-- --despite being a response to Bridget’s post-- is not about her. Or (mostly) about me. So please don’t jump on me and imply I’m criticising her, attacking her unfairly or making it all about me. I genuinely like Bridget so I don’t mean to come off as though I’m attacking her. I thought over most of it today and decided not to post it here several times before finally deciding to post it here because to be honest, the implications of that post rubbed me the wrong way and I couldn’t ignore them. As I said I don’t want to accidentally start an argument because Internet arguments are draining and (in my experience) tend to make me want to type up page-long rants and break my concentration (I have a short attention span so it’s very easy.) I just want to get something off my chest.

(Apologies for the long post.)

A while ago, after I started the “Racism in writing fantasy” thread, Bridget made a post which basically criticised all northern European medieval fantasy as overused and implied I was writing a Tolkien ripoff as well as (at least to me) not willing to write about non-White characters because I was using a medieval European fantasy. To me it looked as if she was categorising all medieval European fantasies as ripoffs and therefore saying that all writers who write stories making use of Northern European mythologies and folklore are writing ripoffs (and that all writers who like Tolkien slavishly copy the great JRRT because it’s easy.) I’m not quoting the post in order not to give anyone the wrong impression. You can find the post on the first page of the “Racism in fantasy: does it exist?” in the Cafe Society thread.

There’s a possibility that her post was just poorly worded and composed in a hurry because she was about to go somewhere, was tired or had to do something important. But again, this isn’t about her. It’s about assumptions about medieval Northern European fantasy, some of which have a lot of justification behind them and others that are just plain irritating.

The first assumption is the idea that “Northern European fantasy= Tolkien ripoff.”

This idea is actually justified. There are a number of popular Northern European-based fantasy books which follow a broadly similar plot to LOTR with a group of adventurers consisting of representatives of various humanoid fantasy races going on a quest centred on an item key to defeating the Dark Lord. There’s usually also a stock mentor figure with similarities to Gandalf and other conventions such as heroes and heroines becoming king or queen, marrying their love interest, mysterious creatures in long black cloaks and orcs, elves, dwarves and (sometimes) halflings/hobbits.

The most well-known examples of this type of book are The Sword Of Shannara and The Iron Tower (the first book is a very obvious ripoff of LOTR with the Warrows as hobbits by a different name). But not all Northern European fantasy books have a LOTR plot. For example George RR Martin’s A Song OF Ice And Fire series takes its insipration from the Wars of The Roses in order to create a gritty medieval fantasy setting and is also inspired by Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn.

This assumption irritates me because it lumps all medieval Northern European fantasies together in one big mass and ignores the fact that fantasies (even Northern European ones, don’t necessarily follow the LOTR model.

As a related tangent, most Tolkien ripoffs are actually more-or-less D&D ripoffs with things like Scottish-accented dwarves, very explicit organised polytheistic religion (Tolkien made a point of saying that after Sauron corrupted Numenor, he encouraged people to build temples to Morgoth and worship him, while temples had never existed before Ar-Pharazon brought Sauron to Numenor. Religion isn’t much of a presence in Arda beyond a few hymns and invocations of Varda/Elbereth.) and very few of Tolkien’s actual themes in LOTR.
The next assumptions are that “Northern European fantasy= all-White cast” and that “Northern European=overused (and therefore you can’t possibly do anything new with it or you’d better not write one).” In fairness I may simply be reading in the part in brackets where it wasn’t intended whenever I come across discussions like this.

Now here’s where this post starts to be at least partly about me and my writing. Bridget isn’t the only person to criticise the cliche of all-White casts in Northern European fantasies.
The author of this page criticises it too and I’ve seen it critiqued on other forums.

This also has some justification in the fact that Northern European-based fantasies tend to have all-White casts (reflecting the bias of Northern European mythology and legend which were written by Whites and feature White heroes). But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Quite a few sagas mention the blamenn or “blue men” : Black Africans who the Norse came into contact with and stole to sell as slaves in Norse settlements in Northern and Western Europe. The sagas describe the blamenn is demonic terms (with no hair or masses of black hair on their heads and sometimes with yellow eyes

Often they are faceless villains for the White hero to fight. I have a huge problem with this and the fact that most Northern European fantasy has all the heroes being White (and other racist saga archetypes) so I decided to play around with those conventions by making the young teenage hero dark-skinned (a 14-year-old Black boy born in a fantasy-Icelandic/Norwegian poorhouse who was raised by a dwarvish Fagin type.)

Part of the aim of this story is to play around with the conventions of both the Icelandic saga (by setting a picaresque novel in a dungeonpunk world modelled on the worldview of medieval Northern Europeans, the conventions of Icelandic sagas and knowledge of several non-European cultures (including my own) in the Middle Ages) and the Northern European fantasy novel (by making the hero a non-White kid in medieval Europe and giving unconventional roles to non-standard-human characters, as well as adding social commentary on the Middle Ages). That said, Northern European (or to be more exact medieval European) is the predominant fantasy setting and folklore from other non-European cultures basides Chinese and Japanese also need to be well-represented in fantasy as well as northern Euopean folklore and mythology thta isn’t Norse and Celtic. (In fact I’ve planned a fantasy novel based on loads of research I did on the Mexica/Aztecs. It’s decidedly oder than this idea.

So that’s why I’m so irritated at the idea that if you are wiriting Northern European fantasy you are automatically not doing anything new. Yes it is overused but that doesn’t mean you are necessarily writing a rip-off or cannot do anything new with it.

EDIT: writing.


EDIT: As apparently you’re expected to quote posts, here’s the post I’m talking about:

Quit bumping your own fucking threads.

Since we’re in the Pit, I’d like to suggest that maybe you should try to limit the number of threads you start on what is basically the same topic. It’s nice that you’re writing a book and all, but there are a number of other Dopers who are published authors and they don’t start a dozen or more threads about each of their books.

I wouldn’t call two addenda in 15 minutes “bumping.” I’d love to see a better editing system here - perhaps one that allows editing for a longer time but highlights any changes made after 5-10 minutes.

I don’t remember any saga mentions of blue or black men. Nor did any vikings, to the best of my knowledge, reach black Africa. Persia, North America, Constantinople, yes, but not black Africa.

I don’t call that bumping either. He wanted to add some stuff, the edit window was past, and he hadn’t done, sure as shit someone would have jumped on him for not fixing those issues.

That said, Morwen, as a fellow author, I sympathize with your frustrations. I would also suggest that you consider composing your longer or more heartfelt posts in a word processor, sitting on them for a while, and then editing that draft before posting it. That will help with the addendums and editings.

Now, for actual topical content. Mary Robinette Kowal is on twitter and has a lovely blog, and she is very active with engaging writers and fantasy lovers. One ‘movement’ she’s been involved with is called ‘medieval people of color’ or ‘medievalpoc’ for short.

Basically what they’re doing is collecting primary documents (usually paintings, but also diaries or letters) that reference actual people of non-white ethnicity living in Europe in what most people consider the heart of ‘white stereotypical fantasyland.’

Most of their resources are based a good deal later than what you’re working with, but I thought it would hearten you to realize that established authors were looking at the same issue in fantasy, and trying to combat it through research and scholarship. In addition, you could probably look Kowal up online, and see if she can point you to other resources that would more directly deal with your period. I’m certain she would appreciate what you’re doing with your protagonist.

Finally, I would like to point out that while you are correct that northern euro fantasy doesn’t have to be racist or derivative, it would be less than honest to claim that it hasn’t often (perhaps even mostly) been so in the past. It is a legit concern, especially when most authors of fantasy are still white males, that other cultures and ideas and historic backgrounds are getting ignored for yet another published fantasy set in a place which is going to be most obviously relevant to other white (stereotypically male) readers.

Now, as a white person myself, I find myself a bit unhappy about that, because it seems a bit of a catch-22. Don’t write stereotypical white euro fantasy because it’s been done too much already and it’s often racist. But, don’t write fantasy set in another recognizable culture because then I’m appropriating their culture (and to be fair, most likely mangling it in the process). So, ok then. Gee thanks for the options.

But you know, that’s pretty much the definition of first world problems, and I really can’t justify getting bent out of shape because I happen to be part of the dominant culture that has in the past, and continues today, to make things difficult or marginalized for a host of other interesting and varied writers, with interesting and varied culturally-based writings.

Actually, one more point. It is entirely possible to accuse a subgenre of being racist or tapped out without meaning the comment as an insult to the authors who are/were writing the works in question. (I don’t include derivative, because that is often used as an insult to authors, I just consider it to be a silly, meaningless sort of insult.)

Really interesting topic tho. I’m glad you posted it.

Actually I’m a woman. An Asian woman to be exact.

That wasn’t specific to this thread. The OP is in the habit of bumping her own threads repeatedly.

It can also be a bit irritating to assume that all Northern Europeans are obsessed with Dungeons and Dragons style fantasy, or place any importance on it at all for that matter. :stuck_out_tongue:

My apologies for the misgender. It’s hard to tell on message boards. :slight_smile:

That said, I wouldn’t have changed my points if I had known your race and gender beforehand. I do think the genre is inundated with northern euro fantasy, and I do believe it is because that’s what ‘traditional’ fantasy is to most people, and also because it is the background that is most familiar to majority western, white, male writers.

I guess the short version is ‘write what you believe in, but expect pushback, and acknowledge that those critics have valid and reasonable concerns before showing how your work answers those concerns.’

Alas, my sarcastic remark hit a nerve. I got bored quite early by the third rate Tolkien ripoffs–but that doesn’t mean that all fantasy based on the Northern tales is automatically bad.

The very year I encountered LOTR, I also read The Once & Future King. The Matter of Britain has been done many times & continues to inspire work; but I loved T H White’s version & enjoyed reading it again recently. (I also read C S Lewis’s Space Trilogy that year–but that’s a matter for the Tolkien vs Lewis thread.)

The endless multi volume post-Tolkien fantasies never tempted me; I finally discovered that GRRM was not writing one of those. ASOIAF (sp?) is something original–even though it’s begun to drag because of planning & editing issues. I may just continue with the TV version…but he did start it well.

The great Gene Wolfe’s *The Wizard Knight *includes the Arthurian thing & the Norse thing. But he uses the material in puzzling, surprising & eventually delightful ways.

Write about what you know. Oh, consider expanding your viewpoint if you can. Create something excellent and original & stop wasting your time asking strangers about what they want you to write. If you do, you might get answers you dislike…

Thank you. I got irritated at the “what special power does this MacGuffin have?” question. Fuck, why should we know; it’s your book! Ask about factual things here, not goddamned basic creative things like plot.

Exactly. If you have a good story to tell, tell it. If you don’t, we’re not going to give you one.

Bridget, thanks for explaining yourself. In the OP I mentioned something I left of finishing set in a fantasy version of the Mexica/Aztec Empire.


said totally non-sarcastically

I don’t entirely agree–which should come as no surprise, given the role I usually take on in the NaNo threads. You may have a rollicking adventure in mind, full of great scenes and interesting characters, and still have trouble getting those characters off their asses to go on the adventure. Inspiration can come from stranger places than asking on a message board. (Like, say, PMVs or TF2 “Meet the Team” binges. :D)

Besides, some of us enjoy coming up with stuff like that. Also, I learned about sunstones and Iceland spar, neither of which I’d heard of before. I thought it was a fun thread.

Exactly what I wanted to say! (Why is it that whenever you post something someone posts it and says it much better?) Plus there’s a huge difference between “Please give me an entire story because I can’t come up with one on my own” and “Please help me, I can’t resolve this plot aspect!”

EDIT: “In a much a better way”

As an aside, I really hate the 5-minute limit on edits.