Concept: Illness in Fantasy

If you are reading this, chances are you or anyone you know has probably not faced death due to what we, in our cushioned twentieth century scopes, would call a common illness. Things like influenza, stomach viruses, and diarrhea can, have, and do kill people, but sometimes it is easy to forget that.

Anyone who has read medieval fantasy has likely encountered an illness as viewed from “medieval eyes,” as well as the “cures” needed to ameliorate the sickness. Looking back on history and considering what we as humans have invented, it is a wonder we survived at all. When I was growing up, I remember thinking  things like “Boy, was I born in the wrong era. I would have loved to live in medieval times.” No, young Jesse, no you wouldn’t have. Chances are you would have died young.

After all, without the simplest of antibiotics, we could succumb to common infections. A deep cut in the woods could actually be fatal. What solutions might your characters have in your world to simple problems like this?

I mean, heck, check out the concept of having bad humors or miasma. Seeing as this came before germ theory (theory!!) well, I’m just glad I have soap and sanitizer around. But then there’s the argument of super bugs


Inventing diseases (and their arguably effective remedies) can be a good thing for your fiction, fantasy or otherwise. Some miserable epidemic like the Red Death, an invention of Edgar Allan Poe, or some strain of undead plague as can be encountered in countless fantasies, or even some of the “common illnesses” I mentioned a moment ago — any of these can be used to paint a more rounded picture of a culture and  the people in it. The disease need not even be integral to the plot, but catching a glimpse of any given culture’s healing practices is an excellent chance to really give people an idea of what your people are like.

Are the illnesses magical in origin, and by extension can they be cured only by magical means? Can they be cured at all? Or is the common cold known as the Blue Cough in your world, and only a ritual of running around the house with a mouthful of salt the only sound measure against it?

Now, do not think me overly morbid, but I in fact have a favorite fantastic disease, though by itself it is not particularly imaginative; the setting around it is perhaps what makes it work for me.

The Thran was a book set in the Magic: The Gathering universe – one of the older books, set in “a time before there were colors of magic.” Well, on that world anyway. The disease was known simply as phthisis (which happens to be the real-world name for tuberculosis, an excellent choice – if sometimes overdone – for any dramatic disease in a story if you ask me. In that world, however, phthisis is a Thran word for “continual degradation.”), and was the result of extensive powerstone radiation exposure.

It’s basically a nasty disease with a long list of symptoms, developed from over-use of an (ancient yet) advanced civilization’s dependence on it’s fantastical technology. Whether or not the writer was trying to make a statement about cell phone radiation or electromagnetic fields that emanate from all over the place, well, I couldn’t be sure. But I love the idea.

Have any favorite fantasy diseases?


3 responses to “Concept: Illness in Fantasy

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