On Why I Should Not Be Allowed To Read High Fantasy

Let’s face it. If High Fantasy were a geographic location, it would be nestled on the bosom of Africa, or settled squarely on the permafrost of the Russian taiga. It would be any place where bright-robed women wander barefoot through the lion-ridden desert,  and men in tall, fuzzy ear-hats wrestle bears every Tuesday–after a shot of vodka and a can of caviar, of course.

So I will start by saying that I understand that High Fantasy doesn’t have to play nice with our mundane reality. That’s part of the appeal. Still, any genre of fantasy must follow its own internal logic. And, if there is a lapse–such as the existence of 50-pound swords, or one of the characters running around with several limbs cut off–and it goes unexplained, I will assume that it’s either really, really cool, or the writer is a muttonhead.

There are, however, more subtle crimes against reality. In The Name of the Wind  by Patrick Rothfuss, they come in the misleadingly curvacious shape of glass bottles.

The back story:

Kote, for quite mysterious reasons that shall be revealed once I finish chapter six or seven I’m sure, has retired to the deep countryside to serve as a poor, innocuous village-folk innkeeper. The reader has reason to suspect that he and his apprentice are running from some dark past.

“Kote ate slowly, mopping up the last of the stew with a piece of bread. He looked out the window as he ate, or tried to, as the lamplight turned its surface mirrorlike against the dark behind it.”

and

“Finally, he pulled a stool behind the bar and began to polish the vast array of bottles nestled between the two huge barrels.”

and finally,

“The bar was decorated with glittering bottles, and Kote was standing on the now-vacant counter between the two heavy oak barrels when Bast came back into the room, black scabbard swinging loosely from one hand.”

So, Kote has an inn with glass windows, and a bar full of glittering bottles. Yes, you know what’s coming. A history lesson!

A brief history of the very ancient art of glassmaking:

I can see where the book is coming from. The history of glass goes all the way back to Mesopotamia (glazes) and Ancient Egypt (beads). It took its first real strides around the time of the Roman Empire with the advent of the first glass windows. However, well till the end of the Middle Ages, glazing and glass windows remained a luxury reserved for churches and the (very) wealthy.

For centuries, homes used other materials for windows — paper, flattened animal horn, or simply wood shutters and curtains that could be closed in the evenings and during winter. For alcohol consumption, wood was generally used to store wine, and drinking vessels were made of wood, clay, and metal. Especially in villages much like the one our dear Kote inhabits.

Venice headed the renaissance of glass-making around 1100-1300 A.D., and by the 1600’s, glass-making became more common in northern Europe.

It was only in the early 18th century that new developments in the creation of glass wine bottles made wine storage and aging practical.

The 18th century. To put that into context, that’s the century of the French Revolution, the guillotine, Blackbeard, and the American Revolution. Guns and cannons were already in use in the 17th century, for heaven’s sake. (SEGA games agree, by the way.)

It was only in the 19th century that glass containers entered into universal usage, with commercial food-packers and the patent-medicine industry jumping on the bandwagon.

My Conclusion:

I will allow that there existed bottles in which one could have conceivably stored alcohol. I will even allow that these bottles were in existence during the historic period that is a relative equivalent to the world the Rothfuss creates (middle ages, or perhaps even Roman times, say).

However, these bottles would not be found in a village tavern, laid out in easy access. Especially as the Tavern/Inn in question is not in the middle of a bustling trade city or on a high capacity trade route. I have no reason to think that in a very basic, feudal economy, with levies, and war, and barley being sown, and salt a luxury, glass would somehow be commonplace.

But the real question is…

Why does this matter?

After all, it’s a fantasy novel. It’s supposed to be fantastical, with all sorts of inexplicable occurrences taken on faith alone.

Surely I’m just being silly.

No, I’m not. This matters.

This matters because it caused me to spend the last hour researching the history of glass-making.

Bad author. Bad.

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10 thoughts on “On Why I Should Not Be Allowed To Read High Fantasy

  1. “Men in tall, fuzzy ear-hats wrestle bears every Tuesday–after a shot of vodka and a can of caviar”! 😀

    I concede the point about glassmaking, and shall proceed to change how my high fantasy characters guzzle tavern-booze from now on 😉

    By the way, perhaps said 50 pound swords be made out of aluminium-titanium? 🙂

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  5. The problem is that you assume The Name of the Wind is set in your standard medieval fantasy world. It is not. Further into the books you will start to see examples of some fairly advanced technologies, and given this I have no trouble with all the glass in Kote’s inn. I don’t think there is a real world historical period that Name of the Wind has been based on- which is one of the things which make it such an impressive book.

    • Happily, I never read beyond the writing disaster that was the first book. But it’s nice to hear that he deals with that issue further in the series; there was little to indicate any level of advanced technology in the worldbuilding in the first book.

      Thanks for the comment!

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