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[GUEST POST] Helen Lowe on Having Fun with Epic Fantasy: Making the Grand Tour

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, UK, Australia/NZ, and The Netherlands. 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, is published by Knopf and she posts every day on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really blog and on the 1st of every month on the Supernatural Underground. To read more about Helen and her writing, click here.

Having Fun with Epic Fantasy: Making the Grand Tour

A few weeks back I posted on why epic fantasy keeps “speaking” to us, by which what I really meant is that despite its critics, people keep writing and reading in the genre. I discussed epic’s mythic roots and how it allows readers to step outside the everyday and focus on a wider world-but in a way that lets us have some fun as well. Since then, I’ve found myself coming back to the fun and reflecting on some of the elements of classic epic fantasy that I most enjoy. So much so that I thought I’d share a few of those elements here, starting today with “epic fantasy and the Grand Tour”-because ever since Beowulf first sailed to Hrothgar’s hall, the quest journey has been one of the most distinctive elements of epic.

Usually the journey is physically conceived-something that’s mighty fine by me because it facilitates world building, one of the elements I most love in speculative fiction. The characters get to travel and see their world, a journey that can operate at any number of levels, including the environmental / geographic, cultural, and magical.

The Lord of the Rings set the standard, with the grand tour from the Shire to Mordor and side trips to such exotic destinations as Rivendell and Moria, Fangorn and Rohan. “Cultural” diversity was derived chiefly from the difference between species such as elves, dwarves, and ents, but there was plenty of historical tourism woven in: for example, Weathertop as the locale where Elendel waited for Gil-galad in the Last Alliance between elves and men, Lothlorien as a remnant of the elder world, and the passage of the Argonath.

The epic journey continues in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, with the splitting of the party enabling more destinations to be experienced in terms of social organisation-the Aiel and Seanchan probably being the most distinctive-weaponry, clothes, and food. Steven Erikson’s Malazan series is more culturally and species diverse, with continents such as Genebackis and the Seven Cities comprising beings such as the Forkrul Assail, T’lan Imass, Jaghut and K’chain Che’malle, as well as entities as diverse as the Azath Houses. Sometimes, as in NK Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the story only begins with a journey, but that in itself sets the scene for a diverse cultural and political world, bringing the focus squarely to the ‘centre’-a city where the heroine-Yeine’s-quest becomes both political and essentially internal in nature.

Yet that, too, is the nature of epic fantasy’s Grand Tour, not simply to ‘see the world’ in the context of travel miles, but to grow in knowledge and self-awareness through doing so. Often that growth may be painful-something we see very clearly with characters such as Pippin in The Lord of the Rings, Cithrin in Daniel Abraham’s The Path of Dragons, and Jobber in Midori Snyder’s New Moon. It may even be argued that the point of the external journey is to mirror the character’s internal progress. But that would be getting away from the point, which is that the journey is part of the fun of epic fantasy, offering colour, adventure, fellow travellers-both diverse and dull-the opportunity to open one’s mind or cling rigidly to previously held experience, and plenty of road dust.

Yet the real point, and the fun, may simply be the journey itself.

5 Comments on [GUEST POST] Helen Lowe on Having Fun with Epic Fantasy: Making the Grand Tour

  1. For me both elements need to be present – the exploration of the physical world either by covering new ground, or learning more about where you are definitely needs to be balanced with learning more about the characters.


    I am far less interested in stories where the characters themselves just become secondary vehicles, (or even worse mouthpieces) that facilitate exposition of some idea about a world that the author thinks is cool.


    This is a trope that you see more often (in my opinion) in things like “military sci fi” (although there are some counter examples here! Hands up for Joe Haldeman!), but can still be a problem in epic fantasy.


    Definitely not in the examples you mention though.

  2. And we should mention that the Grand Tour idea was codified in the classic Tough Guide to Fantasyland by the late Diane Wynne Jones.

  3. Andrew, in a way you are talking about the ‘character development vs cool ideas’ discussion that was the subject of a recent Mind Meld right here on SF Signal, which I very much enjoyed being part of—and I think all the ‘Melders’ without exclusion, opined that the best SFF and Fantasy was where the cool ideas and elements happened in conjunction with great character development. But in this post I was wanting to begin exploring some of the classic tropes in a fun way ‘for their own sake.’

  4. Paul, As I said in response to a comment on my personal tribute to Diana Wynne Jones on March 30 (here– “I think everyone loves ‘The Tough Guide to Fantasyland’!:)” 

  5. I don’t read a lot of Fantasy or Sci-fi because the “world” gets in my way sometimes. The ones I have read and loved found that perfect balance between the physical journey and the personal journey of the characters. Like Lord of the Rings. I recently bought The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms in hopes of reading it soon. I am also looking forward to the next installment of Heir of Night!

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