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[GUEST POST] Helen Lowe on Why Epic Fantasy Speaks To Us

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.

Looking at the Stars: Why Epic Fantasy Keeps “Speaking” To Us

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

9 Comments on [GUEST POST] Helen Lowe on Why Epic Fantasy Speaks To Us

  1. What irks me is that people who like fantasy seem to have a need among “serious” speculative fiction fans to always justify their enjoyment. It’s as if there is some need to prove to naysayers that, no, I’m not just some person who likes wizards, sword fights and quests — there’s depth to my enjoyment.

    As far as I’m concerned, there are no caveats for enjoyment of any genre. I might think pulpy action stories are great and honestly not give a damn whether someone else turns his nose up at it in favor of his fiftieth reading of Gormenghast.


    I have been reading in the genre for over thirty years now, and even though my interest waxes and wanes at times, I keep on coming back to it. I think that one of the reasons for this is the broad scope of the canvas available to the writer. The whole of human history, myth making and story telling is available as a guide – to be used or not used as desired. The best writers weave these threads into their stories then do something new – either with the world or the people in it. Great stuff when it comes together!


  3. PaulNYC: ‘in my book’ story is primarily all about enjoyment, and sometimes we get that from lighter/shallower and sometimes from darker/deeper waters. I think perhaps the need to ‘justify’ comes because there are those–both in the literary pantheon and amongst readers–who do look down on SFF, but I know that as a writer I approach SFF in exactly the same way as I approach my writing in any other genre: I give it all I’ve got!

  4. Andrew, sometimes there are epic fantasy stories that speak to me more than others, but I’ve never gone away from the genre, which I have loved since I picked up my first volume of Greek myths and legends. I hope I always will–and that there will always be new voices speaking to us, as well as old favourites to return to.

  5. I like fantasy and one of the reasons I like fantasy is becasue of what you wrote in this post. 

  6. Nice post – and I think you found the perfect quote. 

  7. Thank you, June and Alicia, for stopping by and commenting. 🙂

  8. Wonderful post, Helen!  It was worth coming to read your piece to make that connection with mythology and epic fantasy.  Now that you’ve said it, it seems so obvious.  Should have drawn that conclusion before now!

    As to enjoying fiction for sheer entertainment–let us please do that!  A friend and I were rolling our eyes over some award-winning novel neither of us could slog through, and I was reminded that reading can be–should be, must be–fun.

  9. Louise, I’m glad you enjoyed the post–& thank you for saying so.:) I read the Greek and Norse (and Egyptian, and Celtic–I think i ran out of puff around about Babylonian) myths avidly as a kid and so when I first read “The Lord of the Rings” I recognised the depth of influcen from the Norse sagas immediately–and loved the books more because of the way Tolkien had woven them into his own storytelling. In terms of book enjoyment, a few years ago a friend was telling me about a book she had both really enjoyed and gotten a lot out of, “but she wasn’t sure whether it would be regarded as a ‘good’ or ‘great’ book.” I replied with great firmness that if she had gotten great things out of it, then for her it was a great novel–and it didn’t matter a cent what anyone else thought!

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