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.
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, Eä, 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.”