[GUEST POST] Garrett Calcaterra on Epic Fantasy and How J.R.R. Tolkien Pulled a George Lucas


Garrett Calcaterra is author of the epic fantasy novel, Dreamwielder, released earlier this month by Diversion Books, and touted by steampunk legend James P. Blaylock as “fast-paced, colorful, and richly detailed.” His previous titles include The Roads to Baldairn Motte and Umbral Visions. In addition to writing, Calcaterra teaches literature and composition at various academic institutions. When not writing or teaching, he enjoys hiking with his two dogs and quaffing good beer.

Epic Fantasy: A Civilization in Peril and the Heroes to Save it

by Garrett Calcaterra

With Disney’s recent purchase of the Star Wars franchise and a new movie looming, everyone seems to be talking about Star Wars. I’ve been no exception. In a guest post at the very cool Inkpunks blog I confessed how the ending of Return of the Jedi inspired me as a young lad to go off and write sprawling stories with multiple viewpoints and climatic endings. More recently, I was a guest on the Defective Geeks podcast where I talked with the delightfully nerdy Gizzy B and Space Pirate Queen about why the original Star Wars trilogy is so much better than the prequels. The consensus among the three of us was that Episodes 1-3 are little more than Star Wars porn-sure we get our fix of exotic planets, light saber duels, and space battles, but the plot premise and characters are about as plausible as a buxom babe inviting a plumber inside to “check her plumbing.”

To me, the most disconcerting aspect of Episodes 1-3 is the fact that in the back of our minds we all know Anakin Skywalker is going to turn into Darth Vader. We all know the Republic will fall and Palpatine will create the Empire. This makes every one of the protagonists-even the most powerful ones like Obi-Wan and Yoda-utterly impotent. They can do nothing to change the fate of their civilization, and therein lies the weakness of the prequels. George Lucas had it right the first time when he started the story with Luke, Leia, and Han: the heroes who actually save the galaxy. But Lucas is hardly the first person to make this mistake. In fact, the grand-daddy of epic fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien himself, made a similar miscalculation a good 80 years before Lucas.

It’s widely known Tolkien created the languages of Middle-earth, and many fans rightly point to this sort of world building and dedication as to why The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are so captivating. Tolkien’s dedication went much further than language and world building though. In fact, it bordered on near fanaticism and readers came very close to never hearing of Bilbo, Frodo, Aragorn, or Gandalf at all.

The LOTR universe began when Tolkien created Quenya (High Elvish) around 1912. In order to explain the etymology of his invented language, Tolkien began writing the history of a fictional world, , which then led to the invention of more languages and more histories. In 1917 Tolkien took his notes and wrote the first formalized story, “The Fall of Gondolin.” He kept at it and soon enough had a book: The Silmarillion. By all accounts, The Silmarillion was the book Tolkien viewed as his crown achievement. Problem was no publisher wanted to touch it. While there are heroes aplenty and epic battles between good and evil, the characters are almost peripheral, offering little for the reader to become invested in.

Luckily for us, Tolkien had interests beyond creating languages and Norse mythology. He was also a big fan of romances (no, not like Harlequin romances, but rather medieval romances or prose romances as they’re sometimes called), particularly William Morris’s The Roots of the Mountains. In 1930 Tolkien began writing The Hobbit, a novel that is in essence a whimsical children’s story infused with the history of Middle-earth. The book was published, to much success, in 1937, and this emboldened Tolkien to write The Lord of the Rings, a novel in the style of the romances he enjoyed to read. As much love and devotion as Tolkien put into LOTR, he was still obsessed with The Silmarillion though. So much so he tried to leverage the success of The Hobbit to convince a publisher to publish The Silmarillion if they wanted LOTR. No such luck. LOTR became a smashing success, whereas The Silmarillion didn’t get published until 1977, four years after Tolkien died.

So what’s the difference? How is it the Silmarillion has stayed in the shadows whereas The Hobbit and LOTR are perennial top sellers and get made into movies? The Silmarillion reveals more about Tolkien’s fictional world than both of its more successful counterparts. The Silmarillion chronicles heroes, wizards, and villains who could mop the floor with Aragorn, Gandalf, Smaug, and even Sauron himself. What gives?

Well, it turns out it’s not all about world building and kick-ass characters. What makes an epic story epic is the confluence of a richly imagined world and the characters who are tasked to save it from destruction. The world has to be a backdrop-context-for our characters to live and fight in, and there has to be some sort of doom encroaching on the world our characters are driven to fight for.

At this year’s WonderCon, during the Q&A portion of the “A Story is a Story” panel, an aspiring writer asked acclaimed fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss how you should go about world building and writing your story. “Do a lot of the world building and leave virtually all of it out,” Rothfuss replied. While it’s necessary for the author to know all the background information about the world, he explained, only maybe 5% actually finds its way into the story. “No one wants to read an atlas of your world.”

While I’d argue that a bit more than 5% of the world shows up in good epic fantasy, Rothfuss has the right of it. The world building is important, but in good epic fantasy it only find its way into the story in bits and pieces through the context of the characters. The Silmarillion is rich in history, language, and lore, but it’s outside the framing context of any character’s story arc. It’s an atlas-arguably an atlas Tolkien needed to write in order to write LOTR with such a rich sense of history and culture, but an atlas nonetheless. Only avid fans who are already invested in LOTR bother to read it. Most readers are drawn to the stories of Bilbo and Frodo and Aragorn, and rightly so, because those are the character whose stories are linked to saving the wonderful, complex world Tolkien created.

Contemporary masters like George R.R. Martin have learned this lesson. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series has perhaps the most richly developed and sprawling fantasy world since Middle-earth, but that’s not what the story is about. The story is always about the characters who are trying to curb the perils of the impending winter, or those who stand in their way. This is why the books are so beloved by readers and have an epic feel despite not having a clear cut theme of good vs. evil. It’s all about the characters.

The flipside of this, of course, is the generic fantasy story that takes all the epic plot and character tropes and dumps them in a generic fantasy world. There are hundreds of books of this sort, along with dozens of cliché fantasy movies. An orphan with a sword, or magic, or a magic sword who is somehow ordained to save the world from the evil lord who wants to rule the world! We’ve seen it over and over again, and it always falls flat, is always unmemorable, because without a richly developed world to save from peril, there’s no reason to become invested in the characters trying to save it.

For my own part, I’ve tried to learn from Tolkien and George R.R. Martin-and yeah, even George Lucas-to create my own epic fantasy, Dreamwielder. It’s full of the traditional fantasy tropes courtesy of Tolkien and Ursula Le Guin, but at the same time I’ve put the work into creating a rich, imaginative world that’s all my own. My filing cabinet is full of pages and pages of history and maps and backstory no reader will ever see, and more importantly, the story is all about the characters who are trying to save that world. If I did my job well, readers will walk away saying, “That was epic.”

11 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Garrett Calcaterra on Epic Fantasy and How J.R.R. Tolkien Pulled a George Lucas”

  1. Personally, I prefer the Simarillion to LOTR…

    It has more, and better, characters and a deeper story arcs.

    1. TW, I don’t mean to say that The Silmarillion is bad. I’m a big fan of it myself. It simply doesn’t have the structure or framing to give it the necessary “epic feel” for most readers. Instead, it reads very much like the Old Testament or a history book with it’s creation story and various tales that span the history of Ea. Many readers like yourself prefer it over LOTR, and it’s not like it’s been a total sales flop–It’s still in print and doing well 30 some odd years after it was first published.

  2. Great post! When I was a newbie (an embarrassingly number of years ago), I remember being discouraged by the “war of the worlds,” meaning writers who bragged long and loudly about their world building. I never knew what my worlds were like until my characters took me exploring. In the decades since, I’ve gone on to a respectable career in traditional publishing, and I’ve come to respect my own process. I’ve seen far too many aspiring writers get so bogged down in world building and research that they never learn how to tell a whopping good story with much at stake and characters we care about.

    At the same time, it’s important to create distinctive and vivid worlds. I love Martin’s advice to leave all that infodump off the page. It will be there in the nuances, the assumptions of the characters, the small everyday details that evoke so much. Here there’s an aspect of trusting the reader because after all, what we do is put words on a page. The reader is the one who creates the landscape and its drama between his own ears.

    1. Thanks, Deborah! It’s great to get insight from someone with so much wisdom and experience. I was first introduced to the idea of leaving world building in the background by Orson Scott Card’s book on writing SF/F. I remember reading how he detested prologues and long backstories and info dumps. That was almost 15 years ago and I really took the idea to heart. Too much so, in fact. The first novel I ever wrote was one of those generic fantasy worlds with essentially no world building. Luckily, my mentors in graduate school, James P. Blaylock, Gordon McAlpine, and Pilar Rotella, taught me the importance of giving your story a sense of place and history, and so now I’ve found a happy medium.

  3. That’s kind of a pop-perspective on it… The hook of George Lucas I find awkward, or rather grossly miscalculated. There is certainly no comparison between the “mistaken” nature of these two, beyond an artificial and superficial resemblance. Another difference to the old worldbuilding vs character argument: Tolkien was still a much better writer than Rothfuss is, and that is not simply to diss Rothfuss, but the “worldbuilding” was part of Tolkien’s process as a writer, his writing works on all levels the same way, but it naturally leads him to create a larger “mythos” or “legendarium”, which is not “background” or “information” nor even “authenticity” as we like to understand it in neat packages with a kind of market-lookout, but simply the “writing” that he does.

    1. The whole emotional journey of the fate of the world or dire times is presented in that form whereas others may make it into a character-arc of more detailled internal/external dynamics…

      1. Good point, Mat. Perhaps I should have explained further how the Star Wars movies tie into this whole premise. Every story is going to have elements of both milieu and character development tied into the plot. My point is that stories we characterize as “epic” are those where the fate of our protagonist and the world are linked together–if the protagonist fails, the world as we know it is doomed. LOTR functions on this level, as does the original Star Wars trilogy. Luke, Leia, and Han are the last hope for keeping the galaxy from falling under everlasting control of the Emperor and the dark side. That puts a lot onto the shoulders of our protagonist, and hence the epic feel of it. The prequels did not have this epic set-up, yet tried to pose themselves in the same epic fashion, and so in my opinion were doomed to fail. If there was some a different framing for the story–if Anakin’s flawed-hero character arc were more thoroughly developed and believable, for example–the prequels could have maybe worked.

        As for the whole pop-culture/commercial success element, I just sort of took for granted that readers are drawn towards epic tales, but that’s certainly debatable…

  4. Very nice, Garrett! Bravo the storytellers as opposed to the architects!

    You remind me that the only reason we got the stories of The Silmarillion was because Guy Kay really nudged Christopher Tolkien to give readers the flavor of the characters who were part of those epic events.

    World building is awesome, but sometimes stripping some of that world out after the first draft is critical. I had to strip half a book out of the first Nuala book — an entire galactic civilization that was fun, but not what that book was about. It was about characters. The subtle shades of the cultures are half the fun. Scott Card’s book on writing SF is excellent for those kinds of decisions.

    I also love what CJ Cherryh likes to say: “Write badly. Edit Brilliantly.” Don’t let the weight of the first draft kill the flow of the story you’re trying to tell.

    I may have been the first pro to ask Scott to sign his writing book. He didn’t know what to put — felt it was silly to sign — and then he wrote: “May your characters live forever!”

    Isn’t that what we all secretly hope for?

  5. Garrett, your thoughts on development are always insightful. I can see why you did a good job with Dreamweilder. Looking forward to seeing (and reading) your writing evolve.

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