The Resonance, Artifice and (Possible) Enervation of Epic Fantasy

Fantastika is the mirror-mythos of our times. The stories and experiences and connections contained within that vast range of literary creations encourage imaginative peregrinations, engagement and reflection, within our own minds and in the social worlds we fashion around them. Boundless marvels and perpetual illusions anchor the stuff of dreams into words and images. How we apprehend this stuff, and the meanings that we take from it and exchange with each other, form a rich tessellation that constantly flourishes, a vivid mosaic whose patterns and delights and quandaries are never exhausted.

One recent quandary has gotten a lot of attention in the last year or so: “Is Epic Fantasy Still Epic?” Terri-Lynne DeFino, the author of Finder, discussed this question over at Apex Book Company’s blog, and received an avalanche of comments in response (including several from me). She was responding in part to a panel on “The Continued Viability of Epic Fantasy” at the last World Fantasy Convention where most of the discussion focused on whether epic fantasy could survive in the marketplace, and what conditions were affecting its survival. Terri-Lynne focused more on the question of whether or not the transformations that panel discussed would diminish the “epic” in epic fantasy (her answer was: it would). Both of these discussions, however, were trying to figure out why epic fantasy, the flagship of Fantasy, was struggling.


What struck me as noteworthy was not the discussion of viability or persistence, but the way in which the term “epic fantasy” was described and applied it in their exchanges. This question of the term’s definition is not a new one, and has been examined by authors, reviewers, and fans alike, with no final definition in sight. Michael Moorcock in his erudite essay on epic fantasy refused to define the term. What I find perplexing is that, while there is a lot of debate about the term, it has undeniable utility and power when discussing certain works of fantastika and establishing cultural and/or literary value for them. At the same time, there is agreement among many observers that epic fantasy is becoming less common, perhaps even dying out. How does the term maintain its heft and prestige while the works it describes are becoming fewer in number?

Efforts to define the term are manifold and ongoing. Some definitions begin with the term’s classical roots but do not linger there, while others focus on imputed qualities of “the epic” that the subgenre possesses, such as scale, heroism, and length of story. John Clute’s definition from The Encyclopedia of Fantasy begins with the term’s origins as a label for a “long narrative poem which tells long tales, often incorporating Legend, Myth, and folk history and featuring heroes whose acts have a significance transcending their own individual happiness or woe.” In the modern incarnation epic fantasy is “[a]ny fantasy tale written to large scale which deals with the founding or definitive and lasting defence of a land.” Certainly this definition reflects the basic plot of many common exemplars of the term, including The Lord of the Rings.

There is more to the idea of epic fantasy than this notion of defense of the land. Tolkien’s magnum opus is many things, but it does not much resemble the classical epics of Gilgamesh or The Iliad. Honestly, The Lord of the Rings is much more saga-fantasy than epic. The idea of the epic has undergone a significant shift in the English language, as it was first applied to long poems such as Paradise Lost and has since gain wider currency in describing other works of literature. It is this shift that opened the word up to its current usage in fantastika, and also provides a clue as to its resilience.

Part of that power is the cultural cache that the word “epic” carries, exemplifying momentousness, eminence, and depth in a story. For some epic fantasy reflects a spiritual journey; in many instances the idea of a work being an epic fantasy gilds it with heightened prestige or distinction. “Epic” is expanded to mean not just resonance with a specific narrative form, but a literary work of grandeur, of great conflicts, high stakes, and obvious stature. In fact the strength of that identification makes circularity inevitable in discussing “epic fantasy,” such as definitions that say it is “a story of creative imagination that has a hero and or heroic feats and that takes place on an epic scale.” “Fantasy” seems easier to describe than “Epic” because it is a broader descriptor, more basic as a term. Fantasy is everywhere, but epics are not, although people seem to be constantly finding them. Commenters on Terri-Lynne DeFino’s article, for example, kept applying the word to a dizzying array of creative works with little qualification, but with the insistence that their epic-ness was self-evident.

Another part of the word’s durability comes from its plasticity. The panelists at the WFC used the term frequently, but after a brief discussion of definition (which seemed quite close to heroic fantasy), the term “epic fantasy” was applied to many different works of fiction primarily because of their length and entanglement of subplots. It was frequently wedded to works with high word counts (and thus the joking characterization of epic fantasies as “Chihuahua killers”) or extended story arcs. Blake Charlton extended the term to include works “gaining momentum, gaining power.” It was applied very broadly, often without specifics outside of large structural considerations.

But designating a work as “epic fantasy” has more implications than just length. Epic fantasies are all about power: who keeps it, who uses it wisely, who defends against it, and how the reader experiences that story of power. They detail enormous conflicts between good and evil, between tyrants and rebels, between divine powers. They are about consequences that would be hard to imagine in our own reality, and rely on a combination of dramatic vastness, accumulative detail, and narrative touchstones to create, literally and figuratively, a weighty tome. These tomes require both a suspension of disbelief and the comfort of expected conventions to cohere the narrative. Regardless of the story’s or the writing’s qualities, what sets epic fantasies ostensibly apart is that they are immersive fantasies that rely on assumptions about how power, morality, and ramifications will play out in such lengthy narratives (the expected tropes and clichés that Freda Warrington was referring to at the WFC panel). Calling a work an “epic fantasy” indicates that it relies on the combination of recognizable tropes and (to borrow a term from cultural anthropology) thick description to create a story that is both outlandish and prosaic, yet anchored by a massive amount of detail to secure the reader’s immersion in the river of words.

Epic fantasy, perhaps more than many other designations in fantastika, demonstrates that genre is a coalescence of expectations from all perspectives. Those expectations have a range of variation and are frequently contested, but genre labels pull all of that together to create a discursive nexus for understanding, debate, and application. Some genres have fairly rigid characteristics, while others have broader interpretive possibilities. I think that “epic fantasy” is not just a genre appellation or modifier, but a conditioning term that people use to bring literary works into a special relationship with others that have particular prestige, whether ancestral poems or large, bestselling books . It is also used by readers and professionals to categorize certain lengthy tales of immersive fantasy and thus imbue them with the classical echoes of epic, as well as being a marketing term and merchant designation for organizing and selling literary works.

If these stories really are becoming fewer in number, and can the standard epic fantasy be saved. . . and should it? I do not think that “stories need to be shorter” is really the solution, for a number of reasons. First, some epic fantasies are doing quite well, not just in sales but in the adulation heaped upon them. Their length and weight of detail do not seem to deter many, many readers from enjoying them. What appears to be happening, which the WFC panel and Terri-Lynne DeFino both point out, is that fewer of them are being written. That may be more for the second reason: shifts in the dynamics of what publishers and merchants want to sell.

Writers do not just need to write shorter works, they need to write different works. Whether those are punchy sword-and-sorcery tales or para-romantic paranormal stories, what people want is also changing. It is not just a matter of making epics shorter, it is that what sells more quickly and briskly, and is more in line with a number of cultural changes and market shifts in fantastika. This might mean that fewer epics will be penned, a trend that might make the idea of epic fantasy even more prestigious and rarified in their increasing scarcity and prominence.

Next week: how do we talk about the antithesis of the epic, and the popularity of the anti-epic?

6 thoughts on “The Resonance, Artifice and (Possible) Enervation of Epic Fantasy”

  1. I do think the times are a changing.  

     

    Things happen in cycles, and sword and sorcery seems to be having a renaissance. Is it “eating” epic fantasy’s market share?–perhaps.  

     

    Its also a matter of the epic fantasy genre having been played out, at least the moment. It’s had a several decade run.  In time, I think there will be a resurgence, with new writers revitalizing the genre.

     

    Today seems to be the day for paranormal romance, steampunk and S&S.  5 years from now–who knows?

     

     

  2. Paul:

    First, thanks for the warm welcome!

    Second, your comments about epic fantasy possibly being played out and the ascendence of other genres is a topic I would like to explore further at some point.  As I noted at the end of this column, I think that the idea from the WFC panel that epic fantasies need to be shorter to compete is just an indicator of a number of changes in reception, audience, and market forces.  I agree that the times are a-changin’, and I am going to talk about that a bit next week.

    I’m intrigued by the idea that sword-and-sorcery’s resurgence might be a factor in epic fantasy’s decline, both in terms of popularity but perhaps also in designation?  Are there hybrid stories out there that take on the genre appelation that the publisher thinks will make them sell better?  Does that affect the readers’ reception of that work?  And, what do writers need to do to revitalize epic fantasy, if indeed we need to do so?  This is a question that I am pondering personally as I write my first novel, which dips a toes into several related genres, including epic fantasy, at least a bit.

  3. Don’t you think epic is simply a matter of geographic and cultural scope?  Epic deals with matters that affect countries, peoples, or worlds.  The opposite of epic fantasy is not heroic fantasy–it is low fantasy.  Low fantasy deals with the adventures of individuals just trying to stay alive in a fantastic world.  Heroic fantasy is a different thing.  It needs heroes who do heroic things.  In my own Tunnels and Trolls mythos, the struggle between Lerotra’hh and Khazan is an epic fantasy–it spans centuries and determines the fate and history of the entire western part of the Dragon continent.  If you read the Trollworld chronology, you can see the various decision points that determined what happened.  The epic fantasy becomes implicit in the mind of the reader and the gamer who plays Tunnels & Trolls in my world.  If I wrote a novel or series of novels about the War of Liberation for the monster kindreds, that would be an epic fantasy.  Instead, I wrote the origin story for Lerotra’hh.  That’s a low fantasy–it deals with the struggles of one individual to survive.  I suppose if I could follow it up with a series of novels, or even stories that detail her life until she becomes Empress of Khazan thenit would become part of an epic fantasy–that’s not likely to happen.  I don’t have the stamina for that much writing.  Personally, as a reader, I’m happier with low fantasy.  The self consciously epic stuff has a tendancy to bog down in repetition after a while.  Robert Jordan’s Eye of the World series was epic–no doubt about it.  However, each succeeding book told less story and repeated more of the tropes of the previous ones until at the end it was almost unreadable, and he’ll never finish the epic.

    Epic fantasy also defies believability in a way that low fantasy doesn’t.  The fate of worlds, nations, peoples rarely hinges on a single individual.  The fate of individuals, however, is very often determined by individual effort.  Thus, low fantasy is more credible, less repetitive, and altogether more fun to read and write.  I say let the epics be implicit.  Give me the explicit hero sagas and survival stories of low fantasy 99% of the time.

  4. Ken:

    Thanks for your comment!  I have loved Tunnels & Trolls since it first came out.

    There’s a lot in your response to mull over, but two immediate reactions:

    1) I think you’re right that epic fantasy, at its base, is about magnitude and scope.  In fact, many definitions I came across use that word specifically to name a central characteristic of the term.  That narrative hugeness is linked to the fate of a land or world, indeed.  But I think that is just the first level of definition, and there are a number of assumptions bound up with that idea (about power, the nature of conflict, how heroes figure into the story, etc.).  I think that comes out in your immediate distinction between heroic, low, and epic strains of fantasy.  As you compare the idea of epic fantasy to other subgenres, more distinctions become apparent.

    2) I like this idea of “low fantasy” very much.  Most sword-and-sorcery, I think, is low fantasy, as are some other subgenres (like New Weird, perhaps?).  I haven’t read Brent Weeks’ Night Angel books, but I’ve heard that they are a fusion between epic fantasy and your idea of low fantasy, which sounds like a fascinating trick to pull off.  I am alsoquite intrigued by your characterization of Lerotra’hh’s origin as a “low fantasy,” when that has the potential to be more like an old-school epic.  But I see your point that the focus of the struggle in the story on a person is the essence of low fantasy.  That sounds like an idea that would be interesting to expound upon and explore!

    3) Your last paragraph is worth a discussion all on its own, about how fantasy and actuality are blended in different genres.  I broadly agree with you.  I think that the outlandishness of epic fantasy is a combination of strength and potentially fatal flaw in the genre.

  5. Great analysis, John. I’m actually interested to hear more about this “anti-epic” to which you allude at the very end of your essay. Something I’ve been thinking about lately is how fantasy – epic or otherwise – is so tangled up with power, and, particularly, violence (both hard and soft kinds). Although I’ve read a few fantasies where the violent/power-struggling elements are rather muted, I haven’t found many. In my own writing, I’ve started writing fantasy stories whose protagonists are poets or streetpavers and nothing more, and where the arc of the story is much more “personal” and not tied up with Crushing Your Worst Enemy.

    Anyway, if this sort of non-violent fantasy is what an “anti-epic” might be… well, someone point me in the right direction so I can read some!

    Because yeah I’m kind of over violence.

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