Context Aware: Magical and Medieval Times

You know what you like, and that’s great. Luckily for you, our writer Caroline is here to let you know what else fits your taste!

Dungeons & Dragons is having a real moment lately, but vaguely medieval and magical fantasy settings have been mainstays of pop culture since at least Shakespeare’s time. When Tolkien set Lord of the Rings in a “high fantasy” world filled with new and adapted mythical creatures and races, he cemented vaguely English and vaguely Scandinavian castle imagery in the fantasy canon forever after.

Let’s look at some fresh takes on medieval castle times, including some great games on Steam sale.

Game: Knights of Pen & Paper 2, $1.99 on sale

KoPP2 is a game within a game, starring a stubborn dungeonmaster who prefers an older edition. You create player characters using a handful of different personalities and fantasy races, and a lot of the game’s mechanics hinge on in-fiction dice rolls. It’s a fun, savvy story with enemies like “your game-newbie younger sibling” and shoutouts to a ton of other games. There’s a free mobile version of KoPP2 but it’s freemium-monetized to the hilt, including rebalanced enemies to push you against paywalls.

Movie: A Knight’s Tale (2001)

Like KoPP2, A Knight’s Tale picks and chooses the characters and motifs it wants in order to tell a playful, modern story. Heath Ledger and Shannyn Sossaman make this a Y2K time capsule, but an idiosyncratic soundtrack and pre-Firefly Alan Tudyk help make it a cult classic.

Game: Words For Evil, 74¢ on sale

This charming little typing game turns words into weapons in fights with fantasy monsters. It’s simple but effective, with elegant pixel art and satisfying progress. You unlock new characters and reach shops where you can buy upgrades and weapons. It’s a quick, fun little confection with an educational sheen.

Book: Dealing With Dragons by Patricia Wrede

Wrede’s long-running series of children’s fantasy books started with this, a subversion of Cinderella where a young princess chooses to serve a local dragon. The heroine is motivated and spunky without teetering over into manic-pixiedom, and Wrede’s tongue-in-cheek take on the societies of the dragons and humans is still fresh and funny decades later.

Game: Cinders, $5.99 on sale

More faithful tellings of the Cinderella story include gruesome details that show how it is a story of survival: Cinderella must defend her life from the deadly threat of her stepfamily. The Disney version focuses on what a pure diamond in the rough Cinderella is. Cinders, a beautifully illustrated visual novel of the classic story, wonders how far Cinderella should be willing to go in order to change her life for the better.

Book: The Illuminator by Brenda Vantrease

In the 14th century, a widow owns her country estate, but only because of a technicality of widowhood. When a manuscript illuminator, an artist whose job it was to illustrate priceless handwritten books, comes to stay at the estate, any hint of scandal could cost her both her livelihood and her property. This story is straight medieval with no fantasy or magic. Vantrease brings the characters to believable life with tons of entertaining and interesting details of daily life for the wealthy widow, her staff, her children, and others in their daily orbit.

Column: Tales for Willful Readers by Cate Fricke

Fricke’s monthly column for Catapult looks at folklore and fairytales from a fresh perspective, like studying different versions of common stories to show how they change over time.

TV Series: Merlin (2008-2012)

Pop culture is littered with King Arthur properties, but the series Merlin chose to follow baby teen wizard Merlin through a plot that’s more Sword in the Stone than the grim Christian-Bale-as-Batman-Arthurs in most adaptations. Arthur is the Ted Mosby of his own myth googolplex, so focusing on someone else is a refreshing change anyway.

Game: Sunless Sea, $6.45 on sale

The eponymous Unterzee is technically Victorian, but in Sunless Sea, you grapple with ancient and elemental evils straight out of mythology. There are devils, possessions, sentient fungi, and warring tribes of rodents. Your wallet holds gold pieces alongside symbolic currencies like gemstones and human souls. There are plenty of castles and fortresses in the Unterzee, along with living machinery, hellmouths, and cities built in ancient ribcages. Sunless Sea is like one huge strainer for the grimmest parts of all of our origin myths.

Book: The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights in the UK) by Philip Pullman

Pullman’s “grim Harry Potter” trilogy spans parallel worlds, from grim and desolate ruins to dark, smoky London clubs. His characters have magical familiars that represent their natures and pull their inner monologues into the outer, so every scene is cluttered with at least one animal per person. Heroine Lyra takes on an epic journey, including mystical artifacts, destined but star-crossed love, and warrior polar bears.

Book: Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

Kay’s epic novel of medieval China adds a much-needed non-European perspective on the history and lore of medieval times.  A famous warrior named Tai has spent his time burying the dead and setting their spirits in a faraway war zone, but he’s called back toward civilization by family connections and politics. China’s far western frontier has fewer rules and social norms, but a neighboring ruler gives Tai a huge, disruptive gift that could destabilize the region and threaten his life.

TV Series: Britannia (2018)

Amazon Prime’s co-production with Sky TV is very, very violent and not for the faint of heart. But the story is a swirl of magic, clashing religions, and warring tribes during the Roman conquest of Britain. Celtic rulers fight with each other over how to handle the invasion, and the Roman soldiers act like they’re the fresh meat in a teen horror movie. There are beheadings, kidnappings by Druids, and various flights over waterfalls. It’s like a soap opera. Can you make soap out of blood?

Movie: Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Studio Ghibli owns the market for fantastical journeys, I think. Howl’s Moving Castle is adapted from a Diana Wynne Jones book and tells the story of a young woman who’s time-turned into a crone and must try to find a way to undo the curse. She meets Howl, a roguish wizard whose titular moving castle is a belegged Baba Yaga tribute. And speaking of Baba Yaga:

Book: Ask Baba Yaga: Otherworldly Advice for Everyday Troubles by Taisia Kitaiskaia

In a long-ago column for the Hairpin now collected in book form, fiction writer Taisia Kitaiskaia answers reader questions as though she is the Russian witch of legend.

Game: To the Moon, $3.39 on sale

This beautiful, short game ostensibly about science may not be an obvious fit for a list of the magical and medieval. But its setting is dreamy and nonspecific, and the pretend science invoked is definitely more like magic. Most importantly, the story is a fable about trying to rewrite history. To the Moon’s main character has forgotten something critical that a pair of jaded scientists must race to recover before he dies. It’s a kind of reverse Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: “The world forgetting, by the world forgot.”

Book: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro is a living legend, but his latest novel divided readers like crazy. An elderly couple in an underground medieval village leaves on a journey, and they speak with a variety of characters as they make their way toward the home of their faraway son. It’s a beautiful, dreamy book couched in mythology and palpable wonder.

Book: This Census-Taker by China Mieville

The Spectator reviewed Mieville’s 2016 novella with the headline “Is China Mieville becoming a bit too inscrutable?” This Census-Taker is grim and gestural, more like prose poetry hinting at the secret life of a dreamlike medieval village. The main character is a child living in a spooky house on a hill, where his father makes mystically powerful keys. There’s technology in their village, but everyone walks everywhere, or do they? Maybe this is the dark side of Stardew Valley’s Pelican Town.


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About Caroline Delbert

Caroline Delbert is a writer, book editor, grad student, researcher, and avid reader who lives in Chicago. She's also an enthusiast of just about everything.
View all posts by Caroline Delbert →

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