Why Medieval Fantasy IPs Stand the Test of Time

10 min readJul 4, 2023

The roots of medieval fantasy can be traced back to the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century, and the genre has stood the test of time with remarkable longevity. We recently saw Diablo 4 release with massive success, Amazon just wrapped up production of the next season of Rings of Power, having spent a whopping 1$ billion, and season 2 of House of the Dragon is soon to follow with a season cost in the hundreds of millions. Clearly, medieval fantasy is here to stay and audiences can’t get enough. We want to explore why medieval fantasy endures as one of the most successful genres in Western pop culture. First, we’ll dive into the history of the genre, before looking at the underlying aesthetic influences and themes that make this genre the titan it is today. We hope you enjoy!

A Brief History of Medieval Fantasy

Medieval fantasy is a corollary of the fantasy genre. Many consider the medieval fantasy trend to have begun with the Romantic movement of the early 19th century, which brought a renewed interest in the supernatural, the mystical, and the past. This period gave birth to a new wave of fantasy literature. Works such as George MacDonald’s Phantastes (1858), Samuel Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), and Keat’s Lamia (1820) are often regarded as the beginnings of modern fantasy. These works, with their settings and elements of the fantastic, paved the way for the emergence of medieval fantasy.

The actual birth of the medieval fantasy genre as we know it, however, is often attributed to J.R.R. Tolkien, an academic and author who wrote “The Hobbit” (1937) and “The Lord of the Rings” (1954–1955). Drawing inspiration from a mixture of mythology, medieval literature, and his own imagination, Tolkien created an entirely new world — Middle-earth — filled with unique languages, cultures, and histories. His work established many of the tropes and conventions that define the genre, such as the epic quest, the battle between good and evil, and a host of non-human races like elves, dwarves, and orcs.

Tolkien’s work had a profound influence, inspiring a new generation of authors. In the years that followed, numerous other medieval fantasy works were produced, each offering its own take on the genre. C.S. Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia” (1950–1956) brought elements of Christian allegory into the mix, while Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Earthsea” series (1964–2001) offered a more introspective and philosophical approach.

Beyond literature, medieval fantasy found a home in the gaming industry. In 1974, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson created “Dungeons & Dragons”, a tabletop role-playing game that lets players embark on epic quests in fantastical, medieval settings. The game, often regarded as the genesis of modern role-playing games, has significantly impacted the genre, shaping how narratives and worlds are built in gaming.

The late 20th century saw a growing diversification in the genre. In 1993, Richard Garfield created Magic the Gathering; the progenitor of the modern TCG, which featured medieval fantasy theming.

Meanwhile, in literature, authors like Terry Pratchett with his “Discworld” series (1983–2015) employed the medieval fantasy setting to satirize modern society, while George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series (1996-present) introduced a gritty realism and moral ambiguity that sharply contrasted with Tolkien’s more clear-cut morality.

With the advent of digital games, the genre expanded even more. Titles like “The Elder Scrolls”, “Dragon Age”, and “World of Warcraft” borrowed heavily from the aesthetics and lore of medieval fantasy, offering immersive experiences in meticulously crafted, Tolkien-esque worlds. These games, with their unique blend of storytelling, world-building, and interactive gameplay helped bring medieval fantasy to a broader audience.

Fantasy literature in recent years has seen a shift towards more diverse and inclusive storytelling. N.K. Jemisin’s “The Broken Earth” trilogy (2015–2017), for example, challenged traditional genre norms by introducing elements of science fiction into a fantasy narrative and focusing on characters and cultures often overlooked in mainstream fantasy.

Setting — The Allure of the Pastoral

In literature, art, and music, the pastoral genre is typically defined as a style that centres around the lives of shepherds or other rural folk and idealizes the simplicity and innocence of rural life. It has been around since the days of the classical poet Theocritus (around 300 BC) and has been a subject of ongoing aesthetic and intellectual interest since. And we believe that it is crucial towards understanding the enduring success of medieval fantasy.

Now, you might justifiably scratch your head at such an assertion. Surely with the host of demonic monsters, bloody battles, necromantic wizards and the host of other deliciously bleak and violent facets of our favourite medieval fantasy franchises, gentle scenes with shepherds and pastures are of little importance.

However, the foundational status of the pastoral ideal in medieval fantasy comes into sharper view when examined under the definition provided by American historian Leo Marx, in his landmark book The Machine in the Garden:

Hence the pastoral ideal is an embodiment of what Lovejoy calls “semi-primitivism”; it is located in a middle ground somewhere “between”, yet in transcendent relation to, the opposing forces of civilisation and nature.

The transcendent middle ground, the liminal dream space between the machine of society and nature is epitomised not only by the more glaring instances of pastoralism in the cannon (we’re looking at you, Shire!), but by the medieval period itself. Or, at least the oft-romanticised version of it we see in medieval fantasy. The liminality between nature and modern technology is perfectly embodied by the era- I mean, “mid” is even in the title! It provides the fabric for fictional worlds which are an escape from the modern machine, without regressing to savagery.

Now, we realise that this is perhaps… stretching the definition of pastoralism and maybe reducing the medieval fantasy genre a little too. Of course, operating in this middle ground isn’t categorically pastoral, and as far as artistic influences go, the more impressionistic aspects the vast rural landscapes of Tamriel in the “Elder Scrolls” series, or the harsh ecosystems of Westeros (particularly beyond the Wall) feel more reminiscent of intense and rugged Romantic stylings.

Yet, it is usually the simple pastures and idyllic vistas of peasant life which we always feel are the treasure to be fought for. The starting point of the quest and the home to which to return. And the haven provided by pastoral scenes within the fictional world is a microcosm of the escape that the fictional world as a whole provides from external reality, in the safe technological liminality of a romanticised medieval world.

And such an escape was undoubtedly required in both phases of the medieval fantasy’s genesis. The first vestiges of the genre are synonymous with the Romantic movement, in which was embedded a resurgence of pastoralism. They were partially a revolt again the industrial revolution, scientific rationalism and secularism which were sweeping Europe. The Romantic revivification of the supernatural, the mystical, and the past, paired with the pastoral escape from the complexities and corruption of urban life, was an artistic coping mechanism for the burgeoning of industry and the collapse of the old-world order of social hierarchies and institutionalised religious meaning.

And certainly, when modern medieval fantasy was born with Tolkien, this hankering for regression to simpler times, with all of the grandeur and mysticism of the religious meaning the world had lost, had grown even stronger. The ravages of two world wars were fresh and raw, and the collapse in meaning was so profound in the West that the “Modern” era, with all of its enlightenment idealism, died giving way to an era of “Post-modernity” in academia and culture. The backlash of which we are now in the throes of, with widespread interest in mythological archetypes.

And, with the mythically imbued pastures of pastoral landscapes providing the foundation for the quests we know and love, it is to those archetypes that we now turn.

Mythology & Archetype

We believe that the most important feature of medieval fantasy, the source of its enduring appeal, is in its close contact with the governing archetypes of fiction, culture and psychology itself. It is the perfect melting pot of folklore, myth and legend — those fictional forms which are foundational to all others and are in turn, in close proximity to the nebulous foundations of all human creation.

Mythological stories symbolically represent experience, both internal and external, with universal resonance which echoes in all subsequent fiction. They are a pure manifestation of the patterns which pervade even ostensibly disparate stories, for instance, the struggles of Donald Draper in the Sterling Cooper boardroom and the questing of Luke Skywalker in a galaxy far, far away.

The massive, widespread and enduring popularity of medieval fantasy owes in large part to its use of these core, fundamental story forms and tropes. And the metaphors hold true — we all have dragons to slay, a kingdom to protect, and calls to heroism to answer. Our mundane lives are fertile grounds for adventure if only one learns to look.


All manner of strange and terrifying creatures populate the fantasy worlds we know and love. They are a universal symbol of “trial” in its most general sense, and provide us with a great deal of joy with some crazy creature designs.

We’ve chosen The Witcher 3 for a couple of examples. We love this entry into the franchise because it ingeniously took inspiration from the insane world of Slavic folklore. Check out the Lechen below:

And, here is a Chort:

Another interesting example is Shelob, from Lord of the Rings. She is particularly interesting, because of her affiliation with what Swiss psychologist Carl Jung called the negative Anima. The Anima (or Animus in the female iteration), is fundamentally the archetype of relating, to other people, to the external world and to the internal world of the unconscious. It is an energy configuration which governs all of our exchanges, and it is imprinted on by all caregivers early in a person’s life. However, the primary imprinter is considered to be the mother.

Now, as all humans have positive and negative experiences of their mother, needless to say, representations of the Anima come in positive and negative forms. In the movie, when Frodo descends into the cave (universal shorthand for the unconscious) he encounters both extremes of the positive and negative Anima. While Frodo battles with the horrifying Sheolb, a nurturing and benevolent Galadriel arrives at his aid. She bears the Light of Eärendil; the shining torch of consciousness which guides Frodo and Sam out of the treacherous labyrinth of the unconscious with its volatile traumatic complexes which are embodied by Shelob. Such are among the most challenging monsters for us to slay in our lives, to become our most fully actualized selves.


And to battle these monsters, we need brave and noble heroes. In recent decades, anti-heroes have become increasingly popular, and perhaps to the detriment of our cultural sphere.

We all know the universal qualities of heroes; they are brave, resourceful and selfless, facing down danger unflinchingly for the good of the world around them. It is no wonder we venerate such figures so much in our fiction — the ideals and qualities they embody have the power to create truly positive change in the world.

For this reason, the classic model of the “hero”, is a revered archetype with countless iterations. It is the optimal model by which humans should deal with the manifold challenges of life.

Wise Old Men

Wise older guardian figures are a well-established trope in all types of fiction, especially fantasy. In Jungian theory, they represent the archetype of the Self — the unchanging centre within a person, the fundamental organising structure around which wholeness and psychological balance might be achieved.

Moving closer towards this centre, which is the promise of wholeness, inner harmony and insight, is considered a prime goal of life. It is reached through a process known as individuation. As this core is both a guiding star and an end goal, it is represented through wise older guardians, who have already travelled the path we walk. As we grow and develop through our many quests and adventures in life, the movement towards this state of wholeness and inner harmony, which is the proper goal (according to Jung), guides our steps. Magical or spiritual affiliations are evidently appropriate, due to associations with the mysticism of the unconscious.

We could go on. The Shadow Archetype is perfectly embodied in Gollum, who represents all of the worst potentials in Frodo, just as George R.R. Martin may as well have called his series the “Song of Yin and Yang”, of Eros and Logos, of Apollo and Dionysus… and so on.

The point is that medieval fantasy as a genre is the perfect tapestry for some of the most universally meaningful fiction. It provides audiences with a transcendent dream space between and beyond society and savagery, while naturally giving rise to stories which instruct and inspire us. Or, they deconstruct our beloved tropes with subversion and satire.

We hope this article has aptly demonstrated why, as far as we can tell, in the long run medieval fantasy is here to stay, and while fluctuations in the zeitgeist may send it to the background for a while, it is the unique and truly special home for us to return to, and an unmoving staple of our fictional sphere. Let us know what you think in the comments, or in #general in our Discord.




Aradena is a medieval fantasy gaming brand created by Litoja Labs. Aradena: Battlegrounds is a tactical TCG where collectable cards come to life.