In the past few days I’ve been revisiting a topic I’ve written on before: the connections – or lack of them – between medievalism and colonialism in fantasy. I’d originally thought it was a negative correlation, that works which explore and critique processes and practices of colonialism don’t, for various reasons, do it in conventionally medievalist settings. I’m giving a paper next week at Melbourne University and it’s made me rethinking this. In the paper I’m talking (briefly) about 5 works/ groups of work which have colonialism and its legacies as a theme: Terry Pratchett’s Nation; Robin Hobb’s Soldier Son trilogy; Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series (having grown up loving C. S. Forester and Anne McCaffrey I love this amalgam of the two); N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy, and the Dragon Age game franchise (I read the narrative of elven slavery to humanity as distinctly linked to colonialism).
The first three are all set in analogues of the nineteenth century; Pratchett and Novik use Alternate Worlds and Hobb a secondary world that is very clearly and deliberately inspired by the heyday of European imperialism. Sailing ships and guns are the forefront of technology in these worlds, not swords and castles. All three engage with colonialism (I’m using this a an umbrella term, the details in each vary) as it’s happening, in the narrative present. The other two use pre-industrial worlds. Dragon Age has a reasonably conventional fantasy setting: ‘Europe in the Middle Ages’, while Jemisin’s is distinctly non-European and is more a fall of empire and the aftermath thereof than the conventional fantasy ‘epic struggle against evil.’ Both of these works are interested in the long-term social and cultural impacts of colonisation, and in both the actual process happened long ago. Even with pre-industrial settings, and a medievalist one at that, colonialism still can’t happen in the Middle Ages.
I think there’s more than one reason for this. For a start authors (and I include game-makers here) who are interested in social justice and critiquing European colonialism in any form are also, I’d suggest, more likely than others to shy away from cookie-cutter ‘sort of the Middle Ages’ settings – or not be drawn to them in the first place. Critiquing colonialism, or history at all, isn’t that common in a genre known for its nostalgic tendencies, and perhaps breaking one convention is connected to breaking others. But there’s more to it than that, and it goes back to something else I’ve written about before: the influence of Alternate History.
So far as I can tell there is, quite simply, no Alternate History story where the nexus event which changes the path of history happens before Columbus’ arrival in America in 1492. This implies that the Middle Ages are too far back, too different to today, for any change in the past to alter our present. The texts I’m talking about here are trying to imagine, or at the least imply, a more just future for their worlds, but the Middle Ages – fantastical or not – are too far removed for that implication to carry weight, so setting inspired by the more recent past are needed. This works for the pre-industrial settings as well. Both reference empires fallen from former glories, and the temptation is to read these are referring to the Roman Empire because of the pre-industrial present of the narratives. Both can just as easily invoke the British Empire, and the ways that both engage with contemporary issues stemming from that aspect of history suggests that they do.