Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Minstrels

The figure of the minstrel, carried over from historical fiction into fantasy, draws on and often illegitimately combines a number of historically discrete sources. The Bard was a recognized figure of Celtic society, ranked in a system that overlapped with that of the druid priesthood so that he possessed a measure of the druids' magic. In Scandinavian society, the skald was an entertainer and maker of flattering or satirical verse which enhanced or diminished the lord's status; the skald himself had status only if otherwise respected as a fighter or adviser. The jongleur was a professional entertainer in medieval Western European society; he or she might well also juggle, ropewalk or sell sexual favours. The troubadour was a noble who made music and verses as part of courtly love; he might well also be a grizzled military commander like Bertrand de Born. Similar figures in later medieval and early Renaissance society were either members of theatrical troupes or itinerant professional musicians; women musicians were likely to be either members of religious orders or courtesans – they were unlikely to travel except as part of a group.

The figure of the minstrel in Genre Fantasy draws on these types eclectically, though usually with an emphasis that depends on the particular part of history from which the author has chosen to construct the Fantasyland with which s/he is working. There is also a default setting which draws on all of these without much thought, treating minstrelsy as a Template attribute which moves a protagonist around from location to location. Bards are found most often in Celtic Fantasy, but may occur elsewhere. Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd in Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser is primarily a warrior, but also explicitly capable of earning his living as a skald. Poul Anderson's Cappen Vara starts as a jongleur with pretensions to troubadour status who has wandered into a Northern land where he is treated as a skald. Guy Gavriel Kay's A Song for Arbonne (1992) is unusual in treating the cult of courtly love and its troubadours sympathetically and at some length.

Minstrels are not often protagonists but more usually the Companions of heroes, though minstrelsy is often an attribute of the hero, or a disguise adopted by him; Robin Hood has Alan'A Dale and himself passes as a minstrel on occasion. Minstrelsy is occasionally a useful Gender Disguise, explaining why someone of boyish appearance with a high voice is on the road. Elves are often minstrels, and were extensively presented as such by J R R Tolkien. [RK]

see also: Music.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.