Friday 27 October 2023

Community Project: Fantasy Inspiration, Era by Era

Currently reading The Inheritors, I started to idly list in my head the broadly 'stone age' fantasy books I had read. I couldn't come up with a long list. Along with The Inheritors, there is The Clan of the Cave Bear, The Land That Time Forgot, and I suppose The Saga of Pliocene Exile if one were cheating a little bit. Maybe also Mythago Wood and Lavondyss if, again, one were cheating a little.

So that got me thinking: what if we were to create a list of resources of inspiration for fantasy settings, era by era (focusing, for now, on eras of Old World history?). These can be books or films, and don't necessarily have to be situated firmly within the fantasy genre; A God Strolling in the Cool of the Evening is straight historical fiction, for example, but would clearly be good inspiration for a vaguely Classical-era inspired setting. You can also include myths, legends and folklore too, but don't go overboard with that. Here are the broad categories I think we can work with (no need to be pedantic about them and where each begins and ends), together with a few ideas for each just to start us off. Feel free to add your own in the comments or repost elsewhere; I will update the list accordingly:

Stone age/prehistoric/dinosaur

The Inheritors by William Golding

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel

The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The Saga of Pliocene Exile by Julian May

Mythago Wood and sequels by Robert Holdstock

The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Dinotopia by James Gurney

Bronze/iron age

The Song of Albion series by Stephen Lawhead

The Epic of Gilgamesh

River God and sequels by Wilbur Smith

Troy series by David Gemmell

Creatures of Light and Darkness by Roger Zelazny

Classical antiquity

Soldier of the Mist and sequels by Gene Wolfe

Salammbo by Flaubert

Julian by Gore Vidal

Herodotus's Histories

A God Strolling in the Cool of the Evening by Mario de Carvalho

Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault

Dark ages

The Saga of Erik the Viking by Terry Jones

The Last Kingdom and sequels by Bernard Cornwell

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley*

The Once and Future King by TH White

The Poetic Edda and Prose Edda

Egil's Saga and other Icelandic sagas

Middle ages

The Iron King and sequels by Maurice Druon

A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin (come on)

The Game of Kings and sequels by Dorothy Dunnett

The Cadfael Chronicles by Edith Pargeter/Ellis Peters

A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay

Renaissance/early modern and later

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

The Niccolo books by Dorothy Dunnett

The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson

*I accept Zimmer Bradley's status is nowadays problematic for entirely justified reasons


  1. Peter Dickinson's The Kin for prehistoric.

  2. Once and Future King is definitely not a dark ages book. By its own reconning it is set in the 1100s I believe. And it doesn't fit that time period very well either.

    1. As I recall, TH White deliberately set the early parts in something quite Dark Age, but by the end Modred is using cannon (Cf. Paradise Lost) and a young Thomas Malory appears.

    2. In the third part White makes a comment about "500 years ago, or 1500 years ago by Malory's notation..." (not exact quote, going on memory)

    3. It's been a while since I read it, but I think Anonymous is right that it's explicitly post-1066 -- indeed, the first book has a sequence where Arthur meets Robin Hood.

  3. For Bronze & Iron Age, I'd add The King Must Die by Mary Renault. For Classical Antiquity, Thomas Burnett Swann's Cry Silver Bells. Dark Ages, Firelord by Parke Godwin. For the Middle Ages, I'd add Three Hearts & Three Lions by Poul Anderson and The Dragon and the George by Gordon Dickson.

    Have to admit I'm not an Emperor Julian fan. I think he wasted his time on boosting his own idiosyncratic version of paganism when he should have been running the Empire & modern fans misinterpret him as a modern secular thinker. Which didn't exist in his time.

    I'd be tempted to add Hobbit/Lord of the Rings to the Dark Age category. There's a definite late Antiquity feel to the late Third Age.

  4. Kim Stanley Robinson's Shaman and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas' Reindeer Moon are the best paleolithic novels I know. And I would really love to see more, but it seems people just aren't interested in prehistoric fiction. (I think every time they make a movie or video game set in prehistoric times it always flops.)

    Arthurian and Homeric retellings are huge genres of their own. I've read some I've liked and started reading, but haven't finished, others that failed to grab me, but in my experience there's little agreeing on which ones are and aren't worth a read. That being said, the Iliad and the Odyssey are kind of obivous list-toppers. For audiobook listeners, there's an Odyssey read by Ian McKellen that I liked a lot.

    1. Yes, Shaman and Reindoor Moon definitely belong.

  5. "West of Eden" for prehistoric fantasy; at least the humans in those stories are stone age. The terrestrial mosasaurs are... hard to place.

  6. Well, here's something to stick on the very end.

    It is interesting to compare Vidal's Julian with Waugh's Helena, and possibly Burgess's Hun.

    I suspect Bronze/Iron Age and Classical Antiquity need a mention of The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur, respectively. If I knew more about Gustav Doré's Bible illustrations I'd include those too.

    The Three Musketeers should be mentioned for the Early Modern period.

    If you're including Cadfael for the Middle Ages, I would add Lindsay Davis's Falco for Classical Antiquity.

    I'll doubtless think of a few more throughout the day!

    1. To lean rather heavily on the 'Community' element of the blog post, and begging pardon of mine host:

      Classical Antiquity/Dark Ages: John James, Votan []

      Middle Ages/Renaissance: John M Ford, The Dragon Waiting []

      Middle Ages, referenced by Angon below: The Knight in Panther Skin []

      Finally, discussion of the same writer doing the same sort of radio plays for different historical periods: []

  7. I’m shocked and appalled and offended there’s no Poul Anderson for the Dark Ages. Broken Sword is S-Class (dark) fantasy. Also William Morris’ translation of the Volsunga Saga is ace.

    1. Also from Poul Anderson Hrolf Kraki's Saga and the Last Viking series - both good works on various periods of the viking age. Harry Harrison and John Holm's (Tom Shippey) The Hammer and the Cross series is good too.

  8. Stone Age: the "Hok the Mighty" stories by Manly Wade Wellman?

  9. Shaman was the inspiration for the Stone Age portion of my Runequest campaign; for the first session I lifted the novel's opening, where characters must survive a month without tools or clothes as a coming of age ceremony. I haven't read the others suggested here but will check them out! For the Iron Age portions I found Beowulf very helpful. Kidnapped and Treasure Island are inspirational all around; the former has useful descriptions of long travels by foot and asking directions in a world without maps or vehicles.

  10. You'll easily get hundred of titles. I doubt this will be useful to any degree, as anyone interested in a particular era probably got so interested by reading some of the good fiction on it in childhood. Anyway, you can just look up an era in question on tvtropes. And, yes, get literally hundreds of references.
    Of things you probably didn't heard of, which which are actual fantasy and are quite good, I can reference an old classics by Ivan Yefremov (not sure how he's currently spelled in English) Thais of Athens and On the Edge of Oikumen - both Classical Antiquity. They certainly were translated into English, though I'm not sure on exact titles (Russian spelling is Таис Афинская; На краю Ойкумены). Also, he had some short stories on Stone Age and Mesosoic-themed, as he was a professional paleonthologist.
    Of recent ones, I can recommend S. Loginov & N. Perumov's Black Spear/Black Circle . Was probably translated into English with this title, but not sure. Some of Perumov's works certainly were translated, and Loginov is generally a better writer... This is a Stone Age cycle and does a good work with Homo species as something like fantasy races. Divov's Khrabr (not sure it was translated. and the title uses an actual archaic word) on Dark ages.
    A bit earlier with time of writing, with High Medieval (in Mongolian-occupied Russia and its neighbors) as setting is Balashov's cycle Lords of Moscow (plus 2 Novgorod books). Again, purely historical prose a bit close to Mary Renault's among those you listed, from the author who was a Medieval history researcher specializing in Novgorod.
    Also, Renault had written a half dozen of novels on classical antiquity of which you only listed one. I'd say at the very least Theseus (The King Must Die) should be listed, as it does a rarely-depicted Archaic Greece, plus it treads the fine line between pure historical adventure and fantasy and does it so well.
    Plus, Mary Stuart's Merlin cycle on Dark Ages. And most Turtledove's works (though he did some purely commercial books some years ago, but they still weren't bad). And Crighton's Eaters of the Dead (the book which formed a basis for 13th Warrior film) on Dark Ages. Etc-etc-etc.
    Damn, this is off the top of my head in five minutes, and I probably could go for some hours! %/ Just use tvtropes, as I already said...

    1. I am not sure that "On the edge of the Oikumene" is Classical Antiquity. It is set during Greek Dark Ages and most of the plot is happening in Egypt and Sub-Saharan Africa. I'd say it is much more closer to Bronze/iron age.

    2. Just use tvtropes. Thanks for that. Just read somebody else's blog.

  11. To the victors go the spoil by Javorsky is a very good source of inspiration for venetian renaissance. The author is fantastic but sadly it is his only book translated in english. If you can read french or find a fan translation I would recommend "the kings of the world" which is a series about celtic heroes (so iron/bronze age). He manage to blend politics, religious and fantastic themes like no one and can write 20 pages long fights without being boring. Javorsky is a french literature teacher who published a medieval RPG and then became the best french fantasy author for me. The lack of translations for his books is a crime.

  12. There are so many good books and films that can be added, but I'd try to list only some of that I've read/watched:
    *Stone age/prehistoric/dinosaur*
    1. "The Quest for Fire" and other works by J.-H. Rosny aîné (such as "Les Xipéhuz" and "Vamireh"). They aren't fantasy, but also aren't completely realistic historical fiction. The "Quest for Fire" film isn't that good IMHO.
    2. "Sannikov Land" and "Plutonia" by Vladimir Obruchev. "Plutonia" closely resembles "The Lost World", while "Sannikov Land" is more focused on the Ice Age and Siberian native peoples. Both were considered science fiction during the time of writing but look more like fantasy nowadays.
    *Bronze/iron age*
    1. "Iliad" and "Odissey" (original ones, by Homer) are a must.
    2. I am not sure if the "Ramayana" fits here, but I don't find a better place. There is also quite good animated Indo-Japanese film "Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama" (1992).
    3. Another fun film about Ancient India is "Baahubali".
    *Dark ages*
    1. "Beowulf" is a must.
    2. "The Long Ships" also known as "Red Orm", by Frans G. Bengtsson. The book is quite fun, although the part about Kievan Rus isn't that good, IMHO.
    3. "Eric Brighteyes" by H. Rider Haggard.
    4. The works of Maria Semyonova. I prefer her historical fiction (like "Pelko and Wolves" and "Valkyrie" rather than fantasy (such as "The Wolfhound" series), but I am afraid that none of her works are translated into English, unfortunately.
    *Middle ages*
    1. I am not sure if "The Song of the Nibelungs" and "The Song of Roland" should be here or in the Dark Ages category, but they definitely should be somewhere.
    2. There are a lot of chivalric romances and other medieval epic literature, but my favourites are "Yvain, the Knight of the Lion" by Chrétien de Troyes, "Parzival" by Wolfram von Eschenbach, "Orlando furioso" by Ludovico Ariosto and "Jerusalem Delivered" by Torquato Tasso.
    3. Historical novels by Walter Scott ("Ivanhoe", "Quentin Durward" and "The Talisman"), by Arthur Conan Doyle ("The White Company" and "Sir Nigel"), by H. Rider Haggard ("Fair Margaret" and "The Lady of Blossholme"), by Robert Louis Stevenson ("The Black Arrow") and so on.
    4. "The Knights of the Cross" or "The Teutonic Knights" by Henryk Sienkiewicz, about Polish knights fighting against the German crusaders.
    5. "Lāčplēsis" (or "The Bear-Slayer") by Andrejs Pumpurs, about Latvian hero fighting against the German crusaders. This is an outright fantasy with witches, monsters, giants and so on.
    6. "The Knight in the Panther's Skin", Georian medieval epic poem by Shota Rustaveli.
    7. "Ruslan and Ludmila" by Alexander Pushkin, set in fantasy version of Kievan Rus.
    8. Soviet films "Alexander Nevsky" (historical, about Russians fighting against German crusaders) and "Ilya Muromets" (also known as "The Sword and the Dragon", based upon Russian bylinas).

  13. For Renaissance Early Modern I'd add:

    The Thirty Years War by CV Wedgwood (Peter Wilson's more modern The Thirty Years War: Europes Tragedy is also good)
    Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
    The Warhound and the Worlds Pain and Gloriana by Michael Moorcock

    My main connection to this era is through art and architectural history but I am struggling to find a go to single book - maybe Vasari's Lives of the Artists if you like primary sources.

  14. I'd second West Of Eden by Harry Harrison, great ideas for gaming in that.
    And for viking historical try some Henry Treece.
    Joe Abercrombie writes some cracking fantasy, which easily fits in the medieval/renaissance and with his last trilogy dips into the early industrial.

  15. "Eater's of the Dead" by Michael Crichton in the Dark Ages category.

  16. No one has mentioned Henry Treece's excellent novels (if they did I apologise, I missed them in long list), mainly dark ages viking stuff but also Roman occupation of England.

    Matt Adams

  17. Bronze Age: The Odyssey!

  18. Cyrus the Great, by Jacob Abbott, is a weird biography/novel mix. And it's from the (pre-)Classical period. Shadow Hawk, by Andre Norton, is set in Ancient Egypt, at the start of the New Kingdom, where they chase out the Hyksos, De Brief voor de Koning (The Letter for the King)by Tonke Dragt, and it's sequel Geheimen van het Wilde Woud (Secrets of the Wild Woods), is set in a vaguely Medieval world, but with enough proper medieval grounding for me to use the opening chapter of first one as a KAP (King Arthur Pendragon RPG) scenario. They also made a Netflix (I think?) series out of it, but that has not much of anything to do with the original. For both Ancient Egypt, and Classical Rome there are several detective series written. The one in Rome is about Gordianus the Finder, in which the writer manages to incorporate at least one of Cicero's court cases. For Classical China, there is the Judge Dee series, by Robert van Gulik. Then there is Sinuhe, the Egyptian, which is a mix of new wrtiting by Mika Waltari, and the actual ancient Egyptian "novel" of the same name. For more Arabian Nights writing, there is The Book of Khalid, by Ameen Rihani.

    1. just realised that I meant "Khaled" by F. Marion Crawford instead of "The book of Khalid"

  19. A lot of the Young Adult books by Rosemary Sutcliff are set in most of the eras mentioned above. The "Eagle of the Ninth" series goes from Classical Rome al the way to Norman ruled Britain.

  20. Some random ideas:
    Stone Age: Evolution Man by Roy Lewis
    Bronze Age: Gilgamesh the King by Robert Silverberg
    Classical antiquity: The Phoenix and the Mirror by Avram Davidson (really good!).
    Middle Ages: Timeline by Michael Crichton
    Renaissance: The Malacia Tapestry by Brian Aldiss


  21. Bronze/iron age:
    The Ancient Allan by Rider Haggard

    Classical antiquity:
    Aethiopica by Heliodorus
    The Alexander Romance by Pseudo-Callisthenes
    Pearl-Maiden by Rider Haggard

    Renaissance/early modern and later:
    The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie
    Lord of Darkness by Robert Silverberg
    Montezuma’s Daughter by Rider Haggard

  22. A couple more:

    Classical/antiquity: The four book Videssos Cycle by Harry Turtledove about a Roman legion transported and marooned in a fantasy empire.

    Also, Dark Ages: Starkadder and Vagr-Moon by Bernard King, both good Norse fantasy adventures.