The Notion of Epic Fantasy And The Dreams It Offers


“Dreaming is impossible without myths. If we don’t have enough myths of our own, we’ll latch onto those of others — even if those myths make us believe terrible or false things about ourselves. Tolkien understood this, I think because it’s human nature. Call it the superego, call it common sense, call it pragmatism, call it learned helplessness, but the mind craves boundaries. Depending on the myths we believe in, those boundaries can be magnificently vast, or crushingly tight.” – N. K. Jemisin

“[I]t is a quintessential if not defining characteristic of epic to refer back to and revise what went before. . . .” – Catherine Bates, The Cambridge Companion to the Epic

I’ve been following the discussion that arose at the end of last week when someone at Gollancz tweeted a serious, if somewhat loaded, question:

A lengthy debate spread across the Vales of Tweet with many responses, including my own:

I did not get to stick around for the whole discussion, but Liz Bourke did, and she penned an excellent response over at Tor.com that both questioned the terms being used and reflected on some of the presumptions “epic fantasy” contains.  She noted the broad range of applications it has and how often it is used without firm definition.  As she noted:

“‘Epic’ in discussions like these frequently means whatever each individual participant wants it to mean: examples that don’t meet a participant’s own personal criteria are dismissed as insufficiently epic, while other participants may wish to claim them. We’re going by feel. . . .”

Initially I was caught up in the question of how ‘conservative’ epic fantasy was, but the more I thought about that question, the more I realized that what bothered me was not  some conservative characteristic of “epic fantasy” in and of itself but of the value that was assigned to the word. There is something about the idea of a story being “epic” that makes authors and fans want to claim it for their own purposes. The symbolic power that the word invokes makes it a prestigious and contentious label in discussions within the literary field. There is something about the idea of a story being “epic” that causes the term to, as Bourke called it, have a “lack of firm semantic boundaries” when applied to fantasy literature. What this lack reflects, I think, is that the word has significance and weight.

And yet, if you start looking for attempts to define the term “epic fantasy” you discover that they exist in abundance. The entry for it in Clute and Grant’s Encyclopedia of Fantasy links it to the classical poetic form but says that its use “by publishers to describe HEROIC FANTASIES that extend over several volumes” mean that the term has “lost its usefulness.” In The A-Z of Fantasy Literature Brian Stableford characterizes it as a label for multi-volume immersive fantasies that “gradually build up detailed historical and geographic images of secondary worlds, within which elaborate hero myths are constructed.” “[M]ost epic fantasies are strictly commodified,” he continues, but “the format readily lends itself to greater ambition.” Most definitions highlight structural aspects: length, scale, massive detail, but these are just means to an end. As Chloe Smith noted in a piece at Fantasy Faction, “The word ‘epic’ suggests a certain weight, a significance to the work that raises the stakes of the drama, that gives the tale it tells distinctive power and gravitas.” Jeremy  L. C. Jones summarizes it thusly: “‘Epic Fantasy'” is gloriously broad, vague, and… resonant.”

Here is where the quotations that I started the column with come into play. That “certain weight” is the core of the term’s resonance; “epic” implies that a story is momentous, but why? I believe that the power of the term emerges first from its associations with past narratives; an epic is something historical, legendary, and culturally salient. To call a fantasy novel or series epic is to assert that it has linkages to a rich past of important stories. This may actually be a double historical assertion, a claim that it is significant to the reader’s history and to the history of the immersive world that they have experienced in a narrative. It is a story that is grounded in but also exceeds history, it is a reworking of history that frames one or more pasts.

Epics are historicizing stories, but they are also historicizing dreams. They are dreams of history, both of the context (fictional or actual historical) they emerge from and in terms of the literary experience a reader gleans from them. Epics take histories and encrust them with added portent and influence. To claim that a story is an epic is to proclaim that it has both prominence and potency.

Some of these stories acquire and channel these qualities because they use tropes and narrative forms that readers recognize as epic, but those qualities alone are insufficient. An epic has to generate linkages to a historical memory that is then exaggerated and aestheticized to give the narrative mythical momentousness. Tolkien did this by creating a history of another world that was entangled with histories of our world for the purpose of making a new mythology. Tolkien had a dream of history that he actualized through the narrative of his novels. the goal was not to create a new history, but to draw from a transformed history themes and ideas that would be amplified into portentous legends.

Epics transform history, culture, and time, but they do not have to follow the classical traditions to do so. N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy is a good example of this. It has many of the epic traits but does not follow them closely; rather, the series questions them, tests them, and refashions them into a different strain of epic. Jemisin’s epic is about opening up tradition, looking for inspiration not in a single hero or Chosen One but in the actions of several protagonists (who are far more complicated than many epic heroes).  Jemisin’s epic wants to reform the idea of mythology and to advocate for liberation (rather than the establishment of the old order once again). The revision here is not an update of historical resonance for a contemporary audience, but an interrogation of it.

There’s much more to say about this, but for now, I merely want to plant a seed. Epic is not just a question of structure or taste; it is one of aspirations and vision. Epics of all sorts, from Gilgamesh’s saga to the newest self-published fantasy novel extravaganza, are sweeping, rambling dreams that take the reader on a journey through a reimagined history. Some of them want to remake the world, many want to maintain it, a few want to question it. What makes them epic is less their literary characteristics than the dreams that readers find in them. If we want to understand epic fantasy better we need to examine those dreams and ponder why they are portentous and momentous.

5 thoughts on “The Notion of Epic Fantasy And The Dreams It Offers”

  1. Epic fantasy usually has High Authority At Risk as the major plot driver. Countries being conquered, governments overthrown, civilization being destroyed, humanity slipping into an inescapable abyss of moral depravity, the world ending, the gods themselves being shaken loose from heaven, etc.

    Heroic (or antiheroic) fantasy only overlaps with epic to the extent that the protagonist is identified with Authority or its nemesis. Conan being king might qualify The Hour of the Dragon as epic, but it’s quite a stretch. And most Conan stories are anything but epic. Same with Fafhrd/Grey Mouser, Corson/Nyctasia, Jirel of Joiry, and Cugel the Clever.

    A definition of conservative, in this context, is also needed. One type of political conservatism presents its narratives in terms that are not unlike those of fantastic stories where Authority is at risk, and stands or falls most often based on the violent actions of competing factions. That may be a subliminal presence for readers of epic fantasy, made more overt when the text seems to privilege racist or sexist stereotypes. More prevalent is the idea that epic fantasy doesn’t imagine any new social or political structures or ways for people to interact, that it just rehashes old forms of Authority, old social hierarchies, and conventional if not grotesquely dated social roles. So it’s conservative in the sense of unimaginative, not open to new ideas, lacking in daring.

    I have a hard time seeing epic fantasy as dramatically more guilty of conservatism in either the political or literary sense than much of science fiction. Violent overthrow of a tyrannical Authority or violent defense of a supposedly worthy Authority is also a common occurrence in science fiction works, with military SF being a particular bastion, and most science fiction imagines a future in which technology is far advanced but social relations are much the same as whatever decade the book was written in, to the extent of having books set 300 years from now where people are still heavy into ’80s pop music or ’50s Beat poetry. Of course the more contemporary the writing, the more natural it seems to us that the future world would be like NOW, rather than like Tudor England or ’50s America. Now always threatens to become the eternal present, to the detriment of our imaginative faculties. Now it seems obvious that democracy is more enlightened than monarchy, but it’s not at all unlikely that both will be considered equally reprehensible at some future date. Would your 24th century counterpart really root for the government of McCarthy era America against the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, simply because the latter was a fossilized aristocracy?

  2. Not given this nearly enough thought to be confident of its coherence, but nothing ventured nothing gained and all that …

    Time was (in the 80s, maybe 90s?), I think what most writers, readers, publishers, booksellers basically had in mind when they used the word ‘epic’ was not much more than scale. Big word counts, big casts, big (secondary) worlds, big threats. There was plenty of more sophisticated thinking about it going on, but in commercial, practical terms, that’s all that was functionally meant, I’d have thought.

    Was it trying to borrow a sense of consequence and resonance from ancient/old prose and poetic ‘epics’ by associating itself with the word? Sure. But quite a few of those ancient mythic iterations of the epic don’t centre upon existential or near-existential threats to worlds, civilizations, races, cultures or philosophies in the way I think epic fantasy has, and often still does. That’s a particular more-or-less defining component of ‘epic’ that the sub-genre settled on for itself, if you ask me, partly because LotR is so deeply embedded in its roots I guess.

    (I think I could maybe also make a case that epic fantasy has in recent years been more interested in, putting it very crudely, turning legends into history than history into legends, and therefore actually more inclined to decode and demystify (debase?) myths than aspire to their status, but that’s a whole other debate).

    That so much epic fantasy was/is conservative (or restorative) is kind of cooked into the meal. If one of the key ingredients was change that posed an existential threat, overcoming or reversing that threatened change is pretty predictable as a dominant trope of the sub-genre in its early years. There was an inherent tendency to an internal conservatism.

    As Paul says above, it’s a somewhat different thing to debate whether epic fantasy is, or has so far been, conservative in the wider, politicised sense we might use the term when considering the books as cultural artefacts in the real world.

    The imagined societies and worlds within those books have undoubtedly sometimes – and sometimes uncritically – reflected the contemporary assumptions (conscious or otherwise) about cultures, privilege, hierarchies, social order etc etc held by their authors and readers. That, or they’re based on visions of real-world historical societies seen through the lens of past or current assumptions.

    It’s easy, and a bit unsettling, for them to therefore look not only internally but also externally conservative. I’m pretty sure they’re not the same thing, because as a thought experiment I can imagine an epic fantasy that was deeply conservative in an internal, narrative sense, while at the same time being wildly non-conservative in the wider, external sense. I’ve got to admit, I’ve not read enough to think of an absolute slam-dunk of an example that really nails the two extremes off the top of my head, but they must be out there somewhere?

    What I really think, though, is that the taxonomy and perceptions of secondary world fantasy has not yet caught up with the much greater variety of styles, tones, viewpoints, ambitions that – as you point out in the article – new writers have gradually introduced, especially in the last decade or so. Turns out ‘epic fantasy’ doesn’t have to be conservative, doesn’t have to involve existential threats, maybe doesn’t even have to be epic at all.

  3. With this migraine I can’t supply the wall of text your essay deserves, but I very much enjoyed it. In particular I appreciated your attempt to define “epic” as something more than “possessing much bigness,” which is a blight in the zeitgeist. Historicizing aspirations is a lovely way to describe it, and that resonates with the great epics like The Iliad and Lord of the Rings. Jemisin’s Inheritance surely travels that path, but diverges mostly because her characters lead her toward divergence. There’s profound character at the core of 100,000 Kingdoms, just as there is in Fellowship of the Ring and Achilles remaining at the shore rather than going to the battlefield. ‘lest we forget, too, that The Iliad’s backbone is a great warrior refusing the authority of his culture’s hierarchy.

  4. Belated thanks to everyone who commented on this post; I have been ill the past few weeks and not prowling about very much. I really appreciate the thoughtful responses.

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