Saturday, 17 August 2019

Meeting of Minds: Five Examples of Cultures Meeting That Would Make Great Fantasy Inspirations

I seem to be unable to do anything other than write blog posts at the moment, so I might as well make hay while the sun shines. This one was inspired by a stray Twitter interaction on the subject of the objection to PoC in fantasies "because people didn't travel that much back then".

Frankly, I think the tendency to look back to history all the time as the guide on how to do Fantasy is not particularly good for the genre in the first place. The clue on how close to reality we have to be in this genre is in the name and while a grounding in reality is often vital, it doesn't have to be found in hard historical accuracy. Many of fantasy's most beloved cultures have cheerfully thrown such a thing to the wind.

But still, it seems that it does matter these days. Which is why I found myself musing about the many cool little bits of history I've seen that show that the argument really doesn't have to be the case in anyone's book. 

1) The Roman Embassy to China - The distance that the Roman Empire covered, and the amount of geographical dislocation it caused, would make good fuel for any number of stories, but for an embassy to get all the way to China must have been an astonishing feat. Yet it happened in 166 AD, going from the Middle East through the Indian Ocean (evidence of a Roman presence is not uncommon in Indian sea ports) and up to South China. Since Fantasy loves a travelogue, that seems as good a one as any.

It mightn't have been the first presence of Romans that far east. There's a somewhat dubious theory that some of the Roman soldiers took prisoner at Carrhae eventually ended up fighting for the Huns against the Chinese somewhere in modern day Xianjiang, and settling there. I don't know whether it's true but that would be one hell of a saga - and hell, how much of Fantasy is based on "Weellll maaaaybe" history anyway?

2) Vikings in America - From little known to well known; the voyage of Leif Erikson has always attracted attention. I can't think of many fantasy adaptions but I always loved the little shout out it got in American Gods. And the most recent evidence suggests that the Scandinavian presence in Newfoundland went on a lot longer than previously thought too.

3) Early Medieval Southern Italy and Sicily - If the first two are about small populations, brief meetings and incredible journeys, then the tale of Southern Italy is one of prolonged inter-cultural exchange that reached its peak in the late 1000s when Byzantines, Arabs, and Norman mercenaries all fought for control over the boot and its native population (who ended up with very little say in the matter). Honestly, I feel a little like I'm sharing a precious secret given how little this era's history is used, but it deserves to be known. Its an incredible story that has left its mark on the world in a number of small ways (such as the word admiral). And the architectural heritage it has left is stunning.

4) Mansa Musa's pilgrimage to Mecca - The story of the Malian Empire is little known. Hell, I barely know more than's on Wikipedia. But I do know that its 10th Mansa, Musa the 1st, made the journey through Egypt to Mecca and he took so much gold with him that he ended up crashing the economy everywhere he went. And there's just so many ways you could make a story out of a great king who appears from a foreign land with a massive entourage, handing out so much gold it ceases to have meaning. 

5) The 18th century population of Africans in London - If it wasn't for a local library display, I'd have probably never known that by 1750 about 1 to 3% of London's population was made up of people of African heritage. Many were sailors, some were servants in great houses, a few such as Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano achieved a certain level of social standing and celebrity.

So there we go. A little dip into the wide range of cross-cultural communities and incredible journeys that formed part of the pre-modern age (with nought said of the Greco-Bactrian kingdom, the missionaries to the Mongolians, the Phoenician traders in Britain, the Celtic settlement of Iceland etc.etc.).

Part of me suspects this article might be wasted words as anyone who wants to go that route in their Fantasy already will and those who don't, won't, but there we go. Maybe someone will get inspiration; maybe someone will find a weird little nugget in history they didn't know about and get to spend the next thirty minutes uncovering it. 


  1. Another great example is Hadrian's Wall. The Romans brought recruits from North Africa and Syria to northern England to man the wall. Great post!

  2. Figured that one was well known, but yes, that could provide some great stories. Honestly, I could have done this article with just the Romans or Greeks alone.