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[GUEST POST] Helen Lowe Asks: Do We Need To Make Epic Fantasy New?

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 and internationally. Helen has twice won a Sir Julius Vogel Award, for Thornspell (Knopf) in 2009 and The Heir of Night in 2011. She posts every day on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really blog and on the 1st of every month on the Supernatural Underground. You can also follow her on Twitter: @helenl0we.

Making Epic Fantasy New – Do We Need To?

At the end of last year I sat down to write a post on “making epic fantasy new.” I had been seeing opinions for some time that was critical of epic, from the aspersion that the genre itself is ho-hum, to allegations that it is variously monocultural, reactionary and misogynist. I was also mindful that when The Heir of Night was released in the US my Big Idea post on John Scalzi’s Whatever addressed concerns around some contemporary epic fantasy – chiefly that issues of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ were not only portrayed in absolute terms, but that affiliation to one or the other depended more on what color “hat” a protagonist wore, rather than focusing on his or her actual behavior.

Yet somehow, the “making epic fantasy new” post just wouldn’t come together. Instead I found myself reflecting on the quest-journey and what an integral part of epic fantasy it is – and almost before I knew it I was completing my first “Having Fun With Epic Fantasy” post on ‘Making the Grand Tour.’ After that I just had to write about the ‘Band of Brothers‘ and ‘Heroes with Soul-Sucking Swords‘ as well. Not to put to fine a point on it, I was having a lot of fun-and by the time I had finished the blog series I realized why I hadn’t been able to write that post on “Making Epic Fantasy New.” Because I don’t actually believe that it needs to be “made new” at all. In its essentials, I think it’s absolutely fine just as it is!

‘But hold on,’ you say, ‘what about that Big Idea post? Are you saying that you were wrong in what you wrote then?’ To which I reply: ‘not at all.’ In that post the essence of my concern was not that epic fantasy needed to be made new, but that it had strayed too far from its classic roots, which are steeped in the great mythic and hero tales. Those stories are not only all about exploring right behavior – and the tragic consequences when things go wrong – but also about quest-journeys, bands of ‘brothers’, (and ‘sisters’, i.e. companions) and the perils inherent in weapons of power. I believe that they endure for two reasons, firstly because they’re great human stories, but also because the issues they address are never so simplistic as whether a protagonist wears a “white” or “black” hat.

In the Iliad, for example, a character’s integrity is not determined by whether he (mainly ‘he’, so I’ll use that pronoun) is Greek or Trojan but how he behaves, on the battlefield and off it, toward his enemies as well as to his friends. There are many nuances around Achilles behavior, but as readers we know that he is the greatest of the Greek heroes, not just because of his skill in battle, but also because he is merciful to his enemies. When Patroclus dies, that stops. Achilles begins killing indiscriminately and he desecrates Hector’s body. Although the storyteller does not say so in so many words, we understand that this is not exemplary behavior – that because of his guilt and grief over Patroclus’ death, Achilles has fallen. The fact that he wears a Greek war helmet has nothing to do with it – and certainly does not make his behavior “ok.”

You may be thinking that I’ve just used an example from Greek myth, thus supporting the assertion that epic fantasy is monocultural, ie Europe-centric or even Northern European-centric. I don’t believe so, however. I chose the Iliad as my example mainly because it is so widely known. Obviously I am not familiar with all the world’s myth cycles, but those I do know a little better – whether Maori myth here in New Zealand, or the Indian Mahabharata, and some of the Chinese and Japanese legends – all seem to deal with similar themes within the context of their own cultures. There is nothing monocultural about quest-journeys, faithful companions, magical weapons and artefacts, or wrestling with the big questions of ethical behavior in difficult circumstances – most cultures appear to have their own epic variants. So if epic fantasy appears monocultural I would argue that is because most of the authors have been Western / European in origin and writing from the mythic/legendary base in which they are steeped.

Increasingly that’s changing, and with Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fear’s Death winning the World Fantasy Award 2011, at the same time as books like Kij Johnson’s Fudoki, Karen Healey’s The Guardian of the Dead, NK Jemisin’s Inheritance cycle and David Durham’s Acacia continue to come through, I hope there will be no turning back the trend toward increasing cultural diversity in epic.

I feel that the trend of my argument, i.e. that there is nothing inherently at fault in the tropes and concerns that form the core of the epic genre, applies across the board. I reached a similar conclusion when I looked at misogyny in epic over a series of three posts on my blog last year. Although there are certainly examples where I can point to sexism and outright misogyny, this is by no means universal and I believe reflects the approach of the authors rather than being locked into the genre.

Which leave those tropes – since in arguing that they are the core of the genre, I may also be confirming that it is indeed all old hat. Again, I don’t think so. Firstly because in my view every style of fiction is based around tropes. And I do not exclude the literary genre (although I prefer the term “contemporary realism”): i.e. social alienation – check; dysfunctional relationships – check; haunted pasts – check. I don’t think I need to go on: anyone who has read a reasonable amount of contempary realist fiction will know that it’s chock full of tropes.

What puts the interest into an epic (or any) story is what the author does with the tropes – the nature of the “quest” and what the characters have to do to fulfil it. Is it a linear geographic journey, a series of alarms and adventures, or an internal quest for realisation of some kind – or perhaps best of all, it may contain elements of all three. (For example, although it’s not adult fiction, think about Madeleine L’Engle’s characters’ quest-journey into the mitochondria of a cell!) But the thing I believe drives storytelling more than anything else, regardless of genre, is the level of interest in the characters – and any story that delivers on that is never going to be ho-hum.

Looking at the epic fantasy field right now, I think there are plenty of stories being told that are grounded in epic tropes yet still fun, fresh, and exciting to read, whether because of their characters, their world building, or plain old-fashioned storytelling. I mentioned a few recent examples above, and would add Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, China Mieville’s The City & The City and Karen Lord’s Redemption In Indigo. But the thing that struck me, when looking back at the Having Fun With Epic Fantasy series, was how many examples I used weren’t that new. These included Midori Snyder’s New Moon, Barbara Hambly’s The Ladies of Mandrigyn, and CJ Cherryh’s The Paladin.

So having reflected on the question of whether epic fantasy needs to be “made new” for some time, I feel increasingly sure that it does not and that in essence it is completely fine just as it is. Sure, as writers, we should always be looking at what we bring to the genre, particularly in terms of our overt or covert prejudices and bias. And fiction is about storytelling, so ultimately we always need to be striving to tell the very best stories we are capable of. But as for the genre itself, let’s not break what ‘ain’t broke’ by trying to fix it.

4 Comments on [GUEST POST] Helen Lowe Asks: Do We Need To Make Epic Fantasy New?

  1. Thank you, John.

  2. Hi Helen

    I think there is plenty of life in the old Tropes, if they are told well. That’s the key, though. Painting straight by the numbers gives any genre, especially one as prominent and large as epic fantasy, a bad name.

    Therein lies the rub. I read a highly publicized epic fantasy last year that felt to me not much more than paint-by-number, and I was not amused.

  3. I think there can be both outstanding and poor examples of any genre, and that just because each genre has its tropes doesn’t mean we should get away with treating them as a ‘formula.’ I find I look mainly to the world building and the characters–the new and the freshness, as well as the depth to the storytelling, can really come in there, even if there is a ‘quest’ (ie ‘problem to be solved/resolved–I mean, go figure!), or a band of buddies etc. And I have also found that sometimes when a writer appears to be trying to subvert the tropes, that can feel very contrived–as though it is really getting in the way of the story, as much as polemicizing/proselytizing does. (And any ‘exterior’ agenda getting in the way of the story is the cardinal sin, imho!)

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