A positive question, this one – as in, this doesn’t have negative connotations. It’s a purely neutral fascination, something that’s been on my mind for a while.
Why are the aesthetics of most secondary world fantasy novels quasi-medieval?
Why that approximate period more than any other? Sure there are Roman-tinged fantasies, those with Viking flavours and whatnot, but even those are rarities in the modern genre. I’m sure it’s not even particularly a conscious thing, but it just so happens that many – if not most – secondary world fantasy novels are set in a quasi-medieval Europe, something vaguely reminiscent of the Middle Ages, in terms of technology, culture, architecture, even in terms of political arrangements.
Again, this is neutral – I’m not being derogatory about it, though some bad examples are often referred to as cod-medieval (the term can be used dismissively). I’m even curious about writing in such a period setting myself at some point. But just step across to any fantasy section in a bookstore, and look at the types of aesthetics available – nearly all epic fantasies will be set in a more primitive society based around a pseudo Middle Age period, at one end or the other.
There are some broad, sweeping answers to this, none of which quite satisfy me:
1. It’s all Tolkien’s fault.
2. It’s all George R.R. Martin’s fault.
3. Fantasy is pastoral, romantic – a symptom of yearning to escape from complex technological times.
4. We’re preoccupied with history, with re-imagining the past; an opposite, in some ways, of science fiction, that imagines the future.
5. We’ve all got a castle/power/wizard fetish. We dream of surroundings and opportunities that are way beyond quotidian life, because most of us will never be able to afford such luxuries/status/power. It is a yearning for capital.
6. Magic doesn’t seem as impressive when modern technology has an equal wow factor (or, iPads are better than spells).
7. Publishers won’t publish anything else, goddammit, so let’s blame them. It’s a conspiracy.
8. Something to do with swords and Freud.
I wonder about all of these points since, as a writer, I’m looking to exploit the reason people are interested in various forms of literature, and I like to look for ways to have my fun with it. But I can’t really find a satisfactory answer to why a good chunk of the genre is made up of a Middle Age Dreamland.
Very interesting question.
I think point 6 is part of it. And I see the advent of science/age of reason as a turning point. It’s hard to have magic in a scientific society, at least without spending lots of time explaining how it works.
If you add firearms (16-17th century) into the equation, it changes how useful magic is. Why go to the trouble of using magic when you can blow someone away from 1500 metres with a sniper rifle, or bombard them from thousands of kilometres away?
And of course there’s the time of myth and legends in Europe from post-Roman to late Medieval times that makes it an “easy” time period to set a fantasy story in. Then again that is in some way a Victorian romanticised ideal of the middle ages, but that’s arguably where modern fantasy started.
I think you’ve got a number of the valid reasons, namely Tolkein.
Personally, I think one aspect of it is the feudalistic and monarch-ruled society lends itself well to fantasy. What’s more epic, the prime minister dispatching a hero or a noble king doing it? Clearly the latter. Settings with kings, lords, barons and so forth work beautifully with a lot of fantastical concepts.
Fantasy is moving out of that in various ways. Urban fantasy is getting more and more prominent, especially with the help of series like Buffy, True Blood and even the recent Twilight set of books, so in a way one aspect is moving away from old tropes. We’ve also got Steampunk, which often crosses with fantasy as well as science fiction, and various other forms of fantasy that are moving away from what we consider a “traditional” setting.
I’d also propose the idea that it’s a flexible setting. We have a good amount of information and speculation about the medieval life, and it can easily have parts swapped in or swapped out. You could replace the church with a number of religions, for example. It’s also a very good time for non-firearms based combat, for people living by honour and chivalry, and also for increasing technology. It’s a time of castles, conflict, politics, strife and rich-living.
It’s such a rich setting to draw on, one that’s both more and less limited than others.
Weirdmage – good points, thanks for sharing. How do you mean that it’s an “easy” time period to set a story in, as such? That it’s so familiar with us?
UnravThreads – in your first paragraph you bring up a nice point that, I think, Michael Moorcock discusses in his famous Epic Pooh essay (though it’s been years since I’ve read it).
I’d actually argue about the Twilights of this world, that they came across from the Romance genre (via Paranormal Romance) then sprouted from the core fantasy genre itself, though that’s mainly a point about taxonomy. It’s not avoidable, exactly!
Mark – I mean “easy” as in you already have some legends/myths to work from, Robin Hood, King Arthur etc. And of course the Norse Sagas that Tolkien used a lot for inspiration. So “easy” as in we are already used to a medieval setting for the type of story used in traditional/epic fantasy, andI think it is actually easier for both the reader and the writer to relate to something that is already familiar.
So basically, yes to your questions.
0. It’s all Tennyson’s fault.
-1. It’s all James Macpherson’s fault.
-2. It’s all Spenser’s fault.
-3. It’s all Mallory’s fault.
-4. It’s all Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fault.
The aesthetics is a massive strain of English Literature, I mean, from the get-go, and while the early Arthuriana was temporally set in the Dark Ages it was representing that period in Medieval terms — knights, kings, etc. — (re)constructing an ersatz past (for reasons 3 and 4 in part, perhaps? Also because temporal displacement is a stratagem for maintaining (in)credibility — reason 6.) Any pre-Modern aesthetic can be wired into that, really — Celtic, Viking, Roman or even Tudor/Plantaganet. And often is, it seems.
There’s a pastoral appeal, but the flipside of the Gothic (original Gothic, I mean, the aesthetic of gargoyles, the grotesque) also has to be considered, no? And between them, created in the clash of idyll and inferno, you have the baroque, the byzantine. The aesthetics of pseudo-medieval fantasy is itself a rich discourse of those aesthetics, loaded with the symbolic capacity for wonder, horror and intrigue. And in a heroic narrative grammar, power, capital and sex are all mushed up, so reasons 5 and 8 surely come into play here too.
Anyways, taken in reverse order, each of those writers, it seems to me, taps into and reinforces the power of that deeper aesthetics. It all seems fairly logical as an ongoing industry of mythopoeic manufacturing, with pretty much all those reasons valid aspects.
Reason 7 isn’t unfair either. The creation of Ballantyne’s Adult Fantasy line in the 1970s creates the category around Tolkien and the other works in that Romantic tradition. And the aesthetics is cemented with Terry Brooks and so on, a genre with a closed definition that only starts to open up as the default label for non-generic strange fiction changes from sf to fantasy.
Hey, Hal, super discussion. I wonder, how much do those writers prior to Tolkien, *really* have to answer for with respect to today’s cravings though? I mean, how much of these particular aesthetics were viewed through the same soft-focus lens in the past, like we do now? Does our particular craving for much of the above not really kick in post-Romantics and a rebellion against Classicism/the dark satanic mills etc? (I forgot to blame William Morris, also.) (Also, I think here I’m actually wondering where the pastoral elements genuinely solidified.)
Agreed very much on Gothic etc. Super point, not sure why I didn’t even recall that. I tend to see the core fantasy genre split down those very two lines of pastoral and gothic (traditional or weird), as it happens, but rarely does the Gothic spill into what I’d call traditional epic fantasy. (How much of the Gothic exists in Robert Jordan’s/Terry Goodkind’s novels, for example? Though this could all plunge into taxonomy.)
And then the interesting question, leading from what you say about the aesthetics being a massive strain of English Literature – at what point did such aesthetics really become distanced from the rest of literature? When they became distilled into genre?
(This reply might have made more sense had I not had an Ardbeg.)
It is White and Western?
The ? made that sound snarky, but really it was genuinely a question! That’s always been my assumption, but reading some of the more thoughtful comments above, I’m not so sure…
I think a lot of reasons have been highlighted without realising it. If it’s not medieval it gets branded as something else eg sci-fi or urban fantasy and the fact there’s steampunk as well leaves little wriggle room. Part of the problem is that medieval actually defines the term “fantasy”.
More simplistically is the fact that “medieval” as most of us regard it means anything before guns and after the stone-age, which is actually the majority of civilised history. There is a lot of scope to pick from, just there.
The romantic in me still likes to think it’s linked to legend though. Most fantasy books try to emulate the spirit of mythology and since mythology is intrinsically set in the era of swords, be it Greek gods or King arthur, that’s what we go for now. In a thousand years authors may be trying to emulate Marvel/DC comics?
Then there’s the cynic in me that simply says “That’s what Tolkien did and that’s what sells”.
“Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.”
The lure of pre-industrial aesthetics, or pre-now, has been going on for centuries – millennia really, as many Roman poets harkened back to an earlier, more “heroic” age.
When it comes to fantasy/romantic based fiction, it can seem like a line was drawn at the industrial revolution, which sparked massive changes in the way we lived, and the way we went to war. You can be pedantic and argue that many of these changes were already well under way, but I think while agreeing to that, we can also say there came a collective tipping point in the recently Industrialized West which we can identify here.
Romantic hankerings to head back to an arcadia that never existed, one of courtly love, jousting knights, and pre-gunpower and agrarian adventure all were long present before Hobbits and the Shire. William Morris’s The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at the World’s End – rather than strictly Morris dancing, drew on this 19th century fascination with just these aesthetics.
But that’s not the cause I think of todays glut of shields and maidens, dragons and stupid orcs – not even Tolkien is the guilty party. I’d personally blame Robert E. Howard before even the dean, along with a few others.
“Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”
No, I’m afraid it’s the influence of two things: a little game called D&D and movies – like Conan and others which during the 70s and 80s firmly cemented this particular period in our fantasy garden, like some blight of cement gnomes and spread it like artificial manure through the medium of popular culture. That, and Monty Python. You might think I’m being funny here, but really, take D&D + Conan + Monty Python’s Holy Grail and put it through a cod-randomizer, and with enough monkeys and typewriters you could produce 99% of the current fantasy canon.
It may pass in time, or already is/has, as we’re now seeing more post-industrial fantasies all the time now – not just urban fantasy, but the whole ‘steampunk’ thing. Someday perhaps, all our fantasy heroines and heroes will have 1980s feathered hair and fight evil whilst in enormous shoulder pads and wielding brick-sized magical telephones. Just like in Krull, only with cars and better clothes. I could happen, it could indeed.
Correction, I didn’t *really* mean post-industrial – just industrial. Post pre-industrial, perhaps, or something.
And I didn’t even have an Ardbeg, sheesh.
Jared – yes and yes; perhaps inevitably because of many of the things above?
Neil – ‘Part of the problem is that medieval actually defines the term “fantasy”.’ I suppose there’s an element of truth in that, yes, in terms that we’re using it as a blunt guide to create our own genre taxonomy?
Eric – Ah, external influences. Yes, though I’m never quite sure how far the D&D reach went. Certainly there were many other movies, computer games, RPGs, that help define this – perhaps the major cultural centrepiece being the Lord of the Rings films.
I liked your last paragraph. I, for one, am already working on my 1980s fantasy trilogy about a stockbroker in Canary Wharf who seeks for the holy grail of offshore tax breaks. Plenty of dark lords in that one.
9 – Dude, swords are cool! (I guess that’s 8 rephrased…)
10 – No lawyers. A lot of heroic fantasy is set in less civilized times so that the hero can solve things in ways that would not be allowed today unless one were the president of a large western nation. This is why cowboy fiction has remained popular. Back in the old west, a man is able to do what a man’s gotta do without being subject to crippling litigation.
Often, that’s what a lot of romanticism breaks down to – dreaming back to simpler times when problems could be solved through direct action, when heroes and villains were clearly defined, and good triumphed because it was destined to. In that regard, fantasy is very conservative. I don’t mind it in books. It’s when its used in political campaigns that it annoys me.
It’s also what I’m trying to muddy up in my own writing.
Hey, Nathan – heh, imagine a fantasy novel all about lawyers and litigation. That’d be amazingly funny. If not a bit dull. Surely someone’s done that?
I think there’s one called “Elf Defense.” I’m afraid I haven’t read it.
I agree with the D&D influence, though of course Tolkien can be blamed for much of D&D’s feel. I also agree with the myth and legend ideas that seem to be rooted heavily (at least for those of European descent) in our Dark Ages, when far fewer histories were recorded than during the Roman Empire. So, we get the legends of Arthur and Merlin and all the various knights and castles. I think many of us played at these things as young boys, even before D&D.
I think Hal and E.M. have tapped a pretty rich vein from which a lot of the ore that goes into the alloy of fantasy has been mined, but there’s more than that. The “medieval” period is also violent, stratified, conceived as somewhat lawless, and full of uprising, crusades, and banditry, which makes for a setting that can be exciting, escapist, and at the same time safe. It lends itself not just to pastoral description, but assorted grotesqueries and flamboyances as well. You can have grit and high fashion, magical woods and forbidding fortresses, and swordplay swordplay swordplay! Certainly other periods have some of these elements, but in the cultural memory they lack the fusion of the bucolic and the dastardly, the hardscrabble and the regal, and the concomitant stratification with chaos that, many think, is what characterized the era
There is also the counter-ethic that a reader can pleasurably wallow in of the mean old feudal system and all of its problems that contrast with our relatively safe, privileged democratic systems. We can read about the excesses of monarchs and opposition to them (or the anointment of a better king) , we can observe brutality and honor in “purer” forms. . . there are an array of contrasts that can be created aesthetically that play on the reader’s suppositions through the deployment of genre traditions. It is also an easy milieu to set up for Anglophone readers, and the reader can often fill in a lot of blanks easily as they read on. We receive a lot of these protocols in the standard education we received in literature, and they are easily deployed.
I think Moorcock also gives us a lot to think about in his WIZARDRY AND WILD ROMANCE, and Hal touches on a few of the elements that Moorcock discusses there.
Taxonomy aside means that there is actually a lot of fantasy that doesn’t mimic a medieval setting. Steampunk, urban and romantic take up as much shelf space these days (if not more) than medieval. A whole other can of worms is opened if sci-fi is considered as a different fantasy setting.
I think the argument of people liking castles, dragons and trolls is quite valid though. The cowboy analogy in terms of people being able to affect change immediately by themselves also makes a lot of sense.
I can’t wait for the fantasy lawyer series. Destroying schools of wizards with the wave of a pen :). Lawyers and wizards have a lot in common thinking about it…
I think Eric’s nod to Don Quixote is a cogent point in terms of how much the yearning is a response to Classicism and the industrial era. Actually, the Rationalist aesthetics in literature is born with Cervantes, one might argue, in a response to chivalric Romances like Amadis de Gaul (1508). The later Romantics are counter-revolutionaries, idealising the pre-industrial era, for sure, but the pastoral is there in Virgil’s Eclogues, if not earlier. Either way, in the 1100s you have Jean Bodel talking about the Matter of Rome, the Matter of France and the Matter of Britain. All of which is knightly, courtly.
The soft-focus may not even be on the far past at first — like the dime novels that created the Western genre were being written (almost?) during the frontier era itself in the grands scheme of things. The rapt audience wasn’t distanced by decades but by space — being “back East” — and… cultural trappings, the milieu itself. Wild West or wild woods, I see a common yearning in the gunslinger and the knight, something that predates the reaction against those dark satanic mills because it predates the mills.
You *do* have the Arcadian idyll — even *more* a part of Classicism than Romanticism — but I think the import of the Enlightenment / Industrial Revolution may be over-stated, that the notion that it’s *essentially* a panic in the face of mechanistic Modernity is… part of a grand self-serving metanarrative of Rationalism which is *itself* ironically Romantic. Like, it’s a great way to undermine the counter-revolutionaries, positing their aesthetics as *dependent* on your own.
I think I’d be forced to agree with some of the reasons given so far. I’m curious, though, where you draw the line in historical reference.
Take a popular reference, the Battle of Thermopylae, which took place in 480BC. That wouldn’t be considered medieval by historical standards, right?
The technology and infrastructure required to feed, clothe, arm and sail that many troops is nothing to sneeze at.
You mentioned architecture, yet, for instance, the 7 Wonders are all BC works of art.
I’m wondering what the litmus test is. Is it feudalism vs slavery? In that case, I would venture that slavery is an unfriendly topic for fantasy readers.
Is it castles? Castles were simply an upgrade from hill forts, which also originated in the BC era, and a reasonable notion, considering the Great Wall of China (same time period).
This is sounding a bit more argumentative than I had in mind – it’s not my intention. It just seems to me that a great deal of what is apparently medieval has its roots in systems and infrastructure from centuries prior.
While your observations are very likely dead on, is it possible that our collective knowledge of ancient history leaves us incapable of identifying more ancient parallels once we read a story containing a farmer, a knight, a castle, etc.?
Then, just to have fun and chunk it up some – if magic is simply technology (and vice versa), wouldn’t some of the societal advances be entirely reasonable, and not just medieval knockoffs?
There is an artistic tradition antedating Tolkien which is heavily invested in medieval settings, sagas and symbols: the Gothic novelists, the Pre-Raphaelites, fantasists like George MacDonald, etc. If you include the Renaissance, which many modern fantasies borrow from, along with the medieval, it is about a thousand years of history that is being drawn upon for inspiration, which is an impressive span. But modern writers often treat it as more static and uniform in its technologies and social structures than was actually the case. The influence of fairy tales, which Tobias mentions, probably has a lot to do with that, as they seem to occupy a timeless period that conflates the characteristics of numerous different historical periods within that thousand year range, while adding large dollops of magic to the mix. Childhood exposure to those tales created an audience highly receptive to the modern medievaloid fantasy.
Part of the deal has to be like Seinfeld (this will hopefully make sense). I think about 99% of all the Seinfeld plots wouldn’t work if there were cell phones, but because there weren’t, it made for some funny predicaments. The medieval background allows people to have a prolonged travel sequence, slow communication (for the plot to thicken), etc, etc with the added benefit of not having to explain every detail since people are familiar with it. I think it’s just a handy time that’s also pretty cool.
Re the Gothic spilling into epic fantasy: When I say “original,” maybe I could have put that better. I mean the Gothic of medieval cathedrals, that pre-Renaissance aesthetic that’s largely visual, architectural — grey stone and gargoyles, castles and keeps. I’d say epic fantasy is full of that. Hell, goblins and orcs are, visually, gargoyles in flesh, just missing the wings. I’m thinking less of a taxonomy of Romantic literature — into straight Romance and distinctly darker (weird, uncanny) Gothic Romance — more of the aesthetics of the grotesque and the sublime that go hand-in-hand with the pastoral. *Without* that, actually, do you still have the pseudo-medieval at all? Pure pastoral fantasy, it seems to me, tends to slip towards the Arcadia of (Neo-)Classical art.
I guess I’m arguing, in an inchoate way, that there’s a self-mythologising going on in Western Europe in the High Middle Ages, something akin to the way Classical Greece defined itself in the present with its legends of Antiquity. The rose-tinted lenses were mostly pointed on the Classical period, with Petrarch setting everything since, up to his own 14th century as “the Dark Ages.” Against that you might view Geoffrey of Monmouth and his ilk as *progressive*, casting the High Middle Ages as a replacement to Classical Greece, with the Early Middle Ages as a sort of European Antiquity, the heroic age of Arthur & Charlemagne. In other words, rather than nostalgia for a lost past, those chivalric romances were establishing heroic/mythic foundations for their current culture as legitimate in and of itself. Parzival as a new Perseus, so to speak.
Why would the specifics of that mythos persist? Why *wouldn’t* it persist? It’s Western Europe’s equivalent of Homer.
My first guess is that there is a historical reason, but not a functional one. I don’t think we’ll find a reason that ancient Rome or industrial Manchester are inappropriate for fantasy stories in a way that medieval times are of themselves more accommodating of it. But because this is the expectation and context of contemporary fantasy, moving outside it breaks convention. Yes, that’s circular and absurd, but I think a lot of culture grows out of making up arbitrary rules and then forgetting they were arbitrary.
Far too many intelligent points to respond to here, as comments spread like mutated mushroom after a nitrate rich rain.
I would posit there is another element, not touched much on so far. The psychological dimensions of these stories, with their roots in both European fairy tales and Greek and Roman mythos – especially those of the Mysteries and the work/re-work of dramatists like Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
There are interwoven in this tradition both foundation myths and deeper aspects of the human psyche – ideas which we respond in certain ways as children, and then later as adults, looking back at the darker elements in these same stories.
Taking away the modern’s yearning for past agrarian glories, it is over simplification to say its the pull of the dark in the dark ages, or the ability for writers and fabulists to add colour to terra incognita. It is true that the fuzziness of historical knowledge often of these periods (which were not so uniformly dark as is frequently assumed) can lead to easily imagined heroics, and later even political satire in the hands novelists like Rabelais and Swift.
But I’m less sure this explains the relative, and I do stress, relative, homogeny of so much our fantasy landscape. This is why I think that the influences of popular media, from games, to toys, to movies, and more, have contributed. Less in terms of all of the above, but in the original sense of Mark’s question as I see it: one of surface aesthetics, not necessarily the deeper and more classical meaning behind the exploration of these themes and ancient questions.
Middle Age might be used not because it’s well known, but because it is not. The high points from history, if you are western, Athens, Rome, Florence and Versailles are well covered both in history and literature. If you create a world or myth of your own, the darkness of Middle Ages is a good place to drop it.
Today anyone more interested in the doings of their characters than building a world, or someone with more, ah, commedia dell’arte type characters has an easy framework to drop just about anything in. (not implying this is bad time period 🙂
For a reader it is easy to pick it up since you more or less know what to expect. If you step back in to the light, like Augustus Rome, there’s a chance the book contains more history and less fantasy (yak).
I think that part of it is about believability (is that a word?). There is a certain amount of suspension of belief that has to occur when reading fantasy but it also has to be beleivable in the regular sense. The historical setting seems easiest to achieve this in, it is an era we are familiar but because it is so different from today (the most standout reason being the lack of technology) the unreal is easier to believe. It creates a balance that may be harder to achieve using a more modern setting, and using a setting that appears futuristic creates the danger that you’ll automatically be classified as SF regardless of anything else.
Of course this is from a reading perspective, but what is read is written right?
I don’t know that I actually agree with the above, it was just my first thought, I have no problems with believability, I do afterall still read children’s books and enjoy old sci fi.
Wow, stack of comments here. You leave your computer for a day… I think everyone’s raised some very sensible and learned points here (and on other posts related to this).
Daniel – “I think a lot of culture grows out of making up arbitrary rules and then forgetting they were arbitrary” that, for me, is the neatest conclusion on this subject!
I remember that my first books as a child, the ones that had been read to me and also the ones that I had started reading myself were fairytales. I include also the Greek and other ancient world legends which in my opinion could be a form of fantasy. For those contemporaries of Homer and Herodotus, who had to deal with the “realities” of gods and goddesses, might have not been fantasy. Interesting question though and now that I think about it, the reason why I turned to fantasy were The Iliad, The Odyssey, Gilgamesh and The Aeneid among others. All in prose form and simplified, mind you, since as a 4 year old I would have been bored by the verses.
My off the top of the head thought is as follows I’m someone who has returned to reading fiction (as in fantasy/sf/urban fantasy/westerns) after a close to two decade break, and being an Australian (of anglo saxon heritage), that the “quasi medieval Europe/middle ages” setting is one that my education and cultural understanding has an innate, possibly subconscious, grasp of. If the majority of fantasy readers have this same grasp then the worldbuilding can be quickly and easily conveyed.
On the flip side, would authors using non “quasi medieval Europe/middle ages” (i.e feudal Japan, any of the Chinese Dynasties etc) settings, have to be more mindful/comprehensive of how they convey/inform the reader of the cultural, social, religious components as part of the story being told?
Out of the Australian authors that I’m familiar with/know about I can only think of one who has written a fantasy series in a “quasi medieval Europe/middle ages.”
Hhmm, some interesting things to think about here.
“But that’s not the cause I think of todays glut of shields and maidens, dragons and stupid orcs – not even Tolkien is the guilty party. I’d personally blame Robert E. Howard before even the dean, along with a few others.”
You’re probably going to have to explain this a bit more, since I honestly don’t see why Howard should be any more to blame than Tolkien.
In any case, I don’t think either are to blame for the current archetype, so much as their imitators fail to understand exactly what made their fiction so compelling are to blame – and thus, the legions of imitator’s imitators have a gigantic game of Chinese Whispers, the original genius lost in the process.
How many epic fantasy stories have all the battles, feudal trappings, grand landscapes, lost civilizations, orcs, elves, “halflings,” trolls and knights of The Lord of the Rings, but fail to have anything comparable to Tolkien’s themes of loss, of magic fading from the world, of nobility, of the common soldier shouldering incredible trials alongside the famed leaders and kings? How many Sword-and-Sorcery stories have all the buxom maidens, horrific monsters, dastardly sorcerers and muscular heroes of Conan, but fail to match Howard’s themes of man’s futility in the face of a vast and uncaring cosmos, the bleakness of existence quenched only by the immediacy of love, war and hate, the philosophical conflict between barbarism and civilization, the corrupt decadent hypocrisy of civilization being not that much more morally superior to the harsh violent brutality of the wild?
Neither Tolkien nor Howard can, nor should, be blamed for the glut of dime-a-dozen cookie-cutter fantasy epics cluttering the shelves: the blame falls squarely on the writers of those books for failing to understand the true value of the original authors they lifelessly ape, and on the droves of fantasy fans who buy them in such numbers to justify their continued existence.
In any case, I would hesitate to blame Conan purely because so many of the stories happen outside a feudal Medieval milieu: plenty happen in the equivalent of the ancient Middle East, darkest Africa, even a few in Colonial America. Only a few of the tales take place in a decidedly Medieval setting, and even then, there’s usually something to offset it substantially.