Fantasy and Disease

Most fantasies are rooted in hypothetical time periods before the advent of plumbing, vaccines, and antibiotics. So where are all the diseases? Why in a genre that chronicles the rise and fall of civilizations, isn’t more spotlight given to one of the greatest engines of widespread upheaval and death? Have we mentally inoculated ourselves against disease?

The first widespread fantasy media were sculptures and paintings. Late medieval and early renaissance artists either drew inspiration from classic mythology or depicted an idealized world. In portraits of the rich and famous, moles and blemishes faded away as the artists literally presented their patrons in the best possible light. And small pox scars were just another blemish after all. Perhaps the topic was too raw or too realistic, but disease and the marks it left on individuals and families rarely intruded in this idealized world, this insulated sanctuary, even as plagues ravaged the world outside.

Now time and modern medicines have provided yet another layer of societal insulation. In many affluent countries, the last major epidemics are on the fringes of living memory. Names which struck terror in the hearts of our ancestors: typhus, small pox, dysentery, black death are relegated to the dustbin of history. But we have not beaten disease, we are merely enjoying a brief respite before it cycles back again. And besides, isn’t part of the thrill of fantasy exploring historical motifs through different lenses? I think it’s high time we dragged disease back into the spotlight.

Of course, the thesis of this essay is not that all fantasy writers eschew disease as a topical point. But even that is slightly idealized. Worldwide plagues tend to produce zombies or dragon riders delivering medicines. I think we should focus in on the people in our fantasy world, the humble average citizens who have suffered and survived not the ravages of armies or famine or government upheaval, but of disease. Don’t erase this vital element from your world due to mental inoculation. The diseases are out there, whether we see them or not. Don’t be shy. Pull up close. Show off those small pox scars.