Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, and interviewer. Her latest novel, The Heir of Night, the first of The Wall of Night quartet, is published in the USA (Harper Voyager), UK and Australia/NZ (Orbit), and The Netherlands (Luitingh.) It recently won the Sir Julius Vogel Award 2011 for Best Novel, as well as a Single Titles’ Reviewers’ Choice Award in 2010. Helen’s first novel, Thornspell, also won a Sir Julius Vogel Award (for Best Novel, Young Adult) and is published by Knopf. She posts every day on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really blog and on the 1st of every month on the Supernatural Underground.
I live in New Zealand, which although recently re-cast as Middle Earth by Sir Peter Jackson, is still very much ‘the far side of the world.’ Arguably the only places further away from world hubs such as New York and London, Paris and Beijing, Berlin and Tokyo, would be Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica-which leaves New Zealanders with two fundamental choices: to turn inward, or look outward to the larger world.
It strikes me that part of the enduring appeal of epic fantasy may be because it offers a similar choice. We all get caught up in the round of our everyday lives: the ups and downs of the job, bills to pay, kids to cart from school to sport, and family stuff. No question, there’s plenty of drama there-a point underlined every time we turn on TV-but focusing on it can feel like looking inward all the time. And sometimes we want to look beyond ourselves, outward to a wider world, and to events and issues that take us beyond the everyday.
I believe part of the enduring appeal of epic fantasy is that it offers us that opportunity. As a genre, it has its roots in the mythic sagas where the protagonists’ struggle between the socio-political forces in their societies, and the codes they hold to be true and right, give power, drama, and tragedy to the narrative-but almost always at the “heroic” rather than the “domestic” level. (It is no accident, I believe, that “heroic fantasy” and “high fantasy” are alternate terms for the epic subgenre.)
The elements of classic epic fantasy also point to a focus on the wider world: the physical journey that sweeps heroes such as Frodo and Rand Al-Thor, and heroines like Arya Stark and Yeine Darr, away from quiet backwaters into a much larger political arena-usually involving major conflict or outright war-where they will play an important, if not pivotal, role. Often the conflict has its roots in a long ago past reawakening into the world, but almost always speaks to the grander sweep of history.
In this way, epic fantasy allows us to step outside of the everyday and into larger issues and their implications, whether good or bad, noble or profane. This occurs both from the point of view of the central protagonist (or protagonists in works such as The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire series) but also those they must draw around them as allies and friends.
Escapism? Perhaps. But I would also argue that epic fantasy, like the mythic stories that form its roots, is a way of enabling us to engage with worlds and issues that are bigger than ourselves. And sometimes we need to feel part of those things, not just keep our nose to the grindstone of the everyday.
Epic fantasy allows us to have fun with that-to see events and affairs worked out through elves and dragons, trolls and demons, as well as more human characters, and to enjoy portals as well as wormholes, magic swords instead of smart guns. As well as being fun, these elements of epic fantasy also provide a little bit of wonder-all part, I believe, of why epic stories keep “speaking” to us in every generation. It’s human nature, after all. However much we may be lying in the gutter, we keep looking at the stars1.
1 “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” ~ Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan, 1892