I find that a very common concept in fantasy fiction is the fact that human (I am using the word to also include humanoids) acchievements are decreasing over time. Usually, some sort of glorious remains of days in which people were capable of gread deeds remain, but only as ruins or artifacts of some sort. A few examples I came across:

  • LOTR: in ancient times, elves were able to stand up to Morgoth with a whole army of balrogs. In fact, a single elf was able to stand his ground in a fight against Morgoth. At the time the storry occurs, however, a Maia (Gandalf) dies while fighting a balrog, which in olden days would be just one of several in an army. Sauron, a being of far lesser power than Morgoth, almost enslaves the whole of Middle Earth. No human, or elf, for that matter, can hope to oppose him alone. In fact, even the humans degraded from ancient times, with Aragorn being some sort of relic. Even at the end, when "all is well", the might of the human kingdom is a shadow of what Numenor's power.
  • GoT: In times past, humans built the wall. They had dragons, and fire mages and all sorts of stuff that is now only a part of legends. Ancient artifacts (like that what's-it-called horn) carry great power because they are remnants of a time when humanity was capable of much greater feats.
  • Star Wars: The lates (episodes 4,5,6) war agains the sith is really nothing compared to the first great hiperspace wars. Going even further back, the Rakata empire was way way way more powerful than anything seen in the movies.
  • D&D: Artifacts from ancient Netheril are among the most dangerous things in the world, because they hold the key to the power that was, once, wielded every day. Even further back, the power of the Creator Races makes even the Netherese seem puny in comparison.
  • Elder scrolls: Both the Ayleids and the Dwemer were, in ancient times, capable of great feats that have no match in modern times.

There are even more examples, like Warcraft (ancient Night elves), I could probably think of. What's more, I can't think of one fantasy world where the most awesome things are happening at the time of the story.

Why is this the case? Is this pandering to the fact that humans like to complain and think oh, in the olden days, thigs were so much better!" That seems the obvious answer, but I think many authors realize that for the vast majority of times, children in the real world lived better, longer and happier times than their parents (with some steep drops, sure, but the average is rising). Any ideas?

  • Part of the reason is the bias on what times are worth to write stories about. The people may have lived better during the golden age of the Empire, but the collapse of the Empire and the expansion of the Foundation makes for an interesting story.
    – b_jonas
    Nov 28 '14 at 15:09
  • 4
    While interesting, this is somewhere between too broad and primarily opinion based, both of which are out of scope for the main site. You may try stopping by the chat room to see if anyone would like to discuss this (it's kind of dead today, but some people may be lurking around).
    – phantom42
    Nov 28 '14 at 15:10
  • Alternatively, possible dupe: Why doesn't technology advance in fantasy settings?
    – phantom42
    Nov 28 '14 at 15:12
  • 1
    @phantom42 I don't really think this is oppinion based. It is a clear fact that what I am describing is happening, and ther is probably a (psychological? sociological? historical?) reason behind it. I am asking if anyone knows the reason.
    – 5xum
    Nov 28 '14 at 15:48
  • I agree with phantom42. This question is really interesting interesting, but not well suited for this site's format. You mention several different universes (and that collection might be also biased to state that this is a generalized thin in Sci-fi/Fantasy), the scope is too broad and answers are going to be opinion based. I still think is worth discussing in a different format.
    – Kreann
    Nov 28 '14 at 15:49

There are really only three possibilities for tech level in a story:

  • it is far beyond what we have now. Flying cars, sure, everything in the Hyperion sagas, Spider Robinson's Red/Green/Blue Mars books, and a ton of "hard" SF.
  • it is far less than it once was, regardless of its relation to now. This enables some cool plot stuff if somebody finds an old weapon/tool/spell/place/power and starts to learn to use it. Or it lets us feel we know more than the characters. Or it eliminates "why not just shoot him? why not just fly there? couldn't they google it?" objections to long and complex quest sequences
  • it is at about the same level as its own past but utterly different from what we live in now. Water worlds, desert worlds, sentient plants, whatever

If roughly one-third of the fiction you've been exposed to is the middle category, you'll be justified in thinking that it's a common concept. It is. It's just not the only concept.


This tendency is actually following a real-world pattern of mythology. If you read ancient myths you will frequently find this pattern, in which there was a previous golden age, and the current time is a poor shadow of it. A classic example is the Mabinogion, which constantly talks about things past (war leaders for example) as "the greatest there was and will ever be", implying that there is no hope that a modern person can ever equal the people and events of the past. This tendency is repeated to some extent in Greek and Roman myth.

An interesting read is Thomas Cahill's The Gift of the Jews, in which he describes this tendency and argues that the Jewish writing (i.e. the Bible) is the first example of a 'mythology' which describes upward progress rather than downward degeneration, and which looks forward to a time when things will be better than they were.

  • But even in Jewish mythology, the golden age of Solomon is past... So, OK, I agree that fiction follows mythology. Do you know why it is so in mythology? Why is this so basic in human fiction?
    – 5xum
    Nov 28 '14 at 15:33
  • @5xum The Golden age of Solomon is past, but there is a looking forward to a greater time in the future. As for why this should be true in mythology, no idea. Maybe a question for a different forum. Nov 28 '14 at 17:04

Like phantom42 says, this is pretty opinion based so there cannot be a correct answer, but my opinion, which is always 100% correct, would be that it provides such a huge wealth of possible material for authors / script writers / game developers to work with.

Ancient mysterious civilizations are always interesting, and if they were somehow much more advanced than the current society, all the more interesting!

What happened to them?

Who wiped them out?

Will they or their ancient enemy return?

To be honest, most of the major fictional worlds / storylines that pop into my head match your description pretty well. But I never even considered it until this very minute.

  • This would explain why some of the stories were like that, but I think there must be another, deeper reasong behind the fact that nearly all of them are.
    – 5xum
    Nov 28 '14 at 15:49
  • @5xum It definitely seems to be a pretty insanely consistent trend!
    – Daft
    Nov 28 '14 at 15:51

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.