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?
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