Dark Age of the Conworld

So, I’ve kind of let this blog go by the wayside for a while. Yes, I know, bad blogger. On a somewhat personal note, I’ve been having a bit of a hard time. Things can get kind of crazy in life. We all know how it is. We get depressed, and all the work we’ve done seems to come down around our heads like an empire that falls into a dark age. Speaking of dark ages, I want to talk about putting them into your fantasy world.

See that there? That’s called a segue! Okay, sure, it’s a clunky and awkward segue, but it’s still a segue, so there.

At any rate, when we talk about the Dark Ages, what do we really mean? A dangerous, deadly time of disease, plague, and warfare where anyone from the peasantry to the nobility, and even the seemingly sacrosanct clergy can be cut down by mercenaries and soldiers alike? You realize I just described the Italian Renaissance, right? The term “Dark Age” is usually used in retrospect with a heavy dose of temporal ethnocentricism, where we view our culture as better than all the rest that came before us. Those who view urbanization as the ideal would see a pastoral or nomadic culture as being in a Dark Age, or those who view the pastoral and nomadic life as ideal would see urban life as being completely dystopian.

Essentially, the concept of the Dark Age is a mythical, historical dystopia. Instead of futuristic dystopias, where the predominant culture has degenerated into danger and paranoia, it’s set before the ideal culture has even come to be. Either that, or it did come about after the ideal, mythologized culture degenerated, but now we’ve risen out of the ashes of that Dark Age to reclaim society and thumb our noses at the barbarians of the past.

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with throwing a Dark Age or two into the back story of a fantasy world, or even of a science fiction world. It makes it interesting. Barbarians and dark magic made Robert E. Howard the writer he was. Stories set in that Dark Age tend to be sword and sorcery when it’s fantasy and dystopian fiction when it’s science fiction. There are a few things to take note of before you do, though.

  1. Don’t make the entire period of time a single, monolithic evil place. Even in the worst places, there are still people who look out for people, and there are still ways for people to have hope or faith. Remember that it was during what we consider the European Dark Ages that Charlemagne instituted the first universities throughout France, that monks were recording the histories for posterity, and Vikings were rampaging…okay, so two out of three isn’t so bad.
  2. Where one culture might collapse into dangerous and violent anarchy, another will flourish in a different part of the world, and they will eventually interact. In fact, one of the things that got Europe to become what we consider civilized was the fact that they took the learning from the Islamic world. Muslim scientists were researching medicine, astronomy, and optics at the same time that the bubonic plague was ravaging the world. No culture exists in a vacuum, and even if you’re creating an empire, you need to be aware of what exists around it.
  3. What caused it, and what keeps it going? When you’re dealing with fantasy, there’s more than political upheaval and plagues that can cause a Dark Age. In the real world, it typically takes about a generation or two before someone really steps up and makes a new government, and maybe a few more generations before there’s stability, for better or ill. In a fantasy world, is there perhaps a dangerous sorcerer who is controlling the minds of the people with the added benefit of prolonging his life? Could it be that there’s a dark god who is keeping the world in, well, darkness? Is it a Dying Earth scenario, where the world used to be flourishing and plentiful, but has been so ruined by science or magic and is now a wasteland that would put Tatooine to shame?
  4. No culture is one-dimensional. Even in a Dark Age of barbarians and despots, it needs to be fully realized. I know that this is similar to my second point, but it bears repeating. This is your setting, your world, and in many ways, your main character. It affects everything in whatever you put into the world, whether it’s a story, an RPG, or a collection of artwork. Creating a world is not simply writing a short story or a single painting. Think of the Dark Age of your world like a psychopathic or sociopathic character in your story. It’s so much more rich, believable, and realistic when you add the little touches, the hopes and dreams that exist among the darkness, even if you plan on dashing most of them.

My point is simply this: When you’re adding the concept of a Dark Age to your fantasy world, view it as a real, active culture, and don’t just turn it into a treatise on how your culture is the best.