Culture is not static. While some groups might resist outside influences, becoming increasingly xenophobic, isolationist, or simply clinging to tradition as matter of course, living societies will adapt and change.
In the real world this is a controversial subject. Certain groups will constantly resist change, while others embrace what they see as positive change or simply ‘go with the the flow’. A large part of our political discourse in North America is based around the conflict between those who resist change and those who embrace it. An example of of this is the rhetoric over gay marriage in the US — some groups see it as an erosion of traditional values, while others see it as a great victory for freedom. In this case it is a clash between modern egalitarianism and traditional biblical values. In reality it is a clear cut case of equality, one of the founding principles of modern western democracy, and any possible legal issues are already covered under the basis of consent. This does not stop certain people from using gay marriage cynically to whip up support.
What is an annoying, grinding conflict in real life can be the basis of a fascinating fantasy tale. Removing the reader from their comfortable political positions and presenting them with a new culture clashes will engage their political mind without devolving into the ugly, frustrating talking points of the 24 hour news channels.
Fantasy worlds are often presented as relatively static, with cultures rarely switching sides. One needs only look at our own recent history to see how this is nonsensical. Germany and Japan, once dire foes of the western democratic are now staunch allies. Meanwhile the partnership between the philosophies of capitalism and democracy, once thought to be two sides of the same coin seem to be coming unglued as the equality gap widens and the middle class can no longer act as a referee between the lower class and the upper class. For a Fantasy world to maintain a status quo for decades or even centuries would be remarkable, and would also require some interesting world building to retain suspension of disbelief. This is especially true given the action and magic found in a typical fantasy epic.
Aside from the usual social tensions, wars, and shifting alliances Fantasy offers a chance to showcase true culture clash, such as when two cultures encounter each other for the first time. This sort of event has caused huge shifts in our world, with problems, and changes that can be felt to this day. It is great fodder for Fantasy novels, where the reader does not necessarily have the same emotional investment in the cultures portrayed.
Here are some of the conflicts that can arise when two cultures meet, and the changes that can result.
- War: War is the most obvious conflict that can arise when cultures clash. It seems to be the default in fantasy, where cultures are often portrayed as mutually antagonistic and engaged in a struggle for dominance or even existence. Interestingly it is a characteristic often shared by both grimdark fantasy and pastoral feudal fantasies.
- Trade: Trade relations are far more natural than war. However, they are harder to portray in an interesting fashion. Black markets, drug cartels, and slavers all have a place in fantasy cultural clashes, but even simpler forms of trade are worthy of consideration when building a fantasy world. After all the colonial system was based on an economic model that was considered sound at the time, and look at all of the conflicts it created.
- Crisis of Faith: New cultures can bring new ideas, and new ideas can run counter to old traditions. One of the most interesting culture clashes occurs when the mere appearance of a culture undermines a long held belief, causing cultural upheaval. Isolated cultures suddenly become aware of a wider world. Ancient religions must compete against new gods and philosophies, feudal and tribal systems may have to justify themselves against more advanced methods of governance as people become more worldly.
- Crisis of Advancement: The technological or magical advancements created when new cultures meet can really stir the pot. Firearms followed the European expansion, changing the very face of conflict all over the world. Imagine the disruption that could be caused one day by the arrival of a simple merchant bearing guns for sale. Imagine what could happen if something as powerful as magic or new forms of magic occur as a part of cultural exchange. People will seek to resist these advancements or take advantage of them, creating internal conflicts.
- Crisis of Exploitation: Often the new opportunities afforded by this culture clash will cause a certain set of people to try to take as much advantage of the changing situation as possible. A merchant might try to maintain a monopoly on some new product at any cost. An iconoclast might use the disruption of an old belief to cast doubt on the whole structure of society. A warmonger might seek to tilt the balance of power by seeking new allies. A despot might use the fear of change to solidify his hold on power.
- Crisis of Survival: What happens if one culture is so overwhelmingly powerful that it simply shatters or displaces the other culture? This has happened several times in our history, and while it is a sensitive topic, it is a story worth examining.
Culture clashes provide many opportunities for world builders and writers. The meeting of cultures invariably creates both conflict and opportunity, which makes for great story and great background for your world.