“Dreaming is impossible without myths. If we don’t have enough myths of our own, we’ll latch onto those of others — even if those myths make us believe terrible or false things about ourselves. Tolkien understood this, I think because it’s human nature. Call it the superego, call it common sense, call it pragmatism, call it learned helplessness, but the mind craves boundaries. Depending on the myths we believe in, those boundaries can be magnificently vast, or crushingly tight.” – N. K. Jemisin
“[I]t is a quintessential if not defining characteristic of epic to refer back to and revise what went before. . . .” – Catherine Bates, The Cambridge Companion to the Epic
I’ve been following the discussion that arose at the end of last week when someone at Gollancz tweeted a serious, if somewhat loaded, question:
Epic Fantasy is, by and large, crushingly conservative in its delivery, its politics and its morality. Discuss. And why? (Oh why?)
— Gollancz (@Gollancz) February 22, 2013
A lengthy debate spread across the Vales of Tweet with many responses, including my own:
@gollancz Well: use of patriarchal monarchies, the Myth of the Hero, rigid social structures, volken-nostalgia. Working on an essay about it
— John E.O. Stevens(@eruditeogre) February 22, 2013
I did not get to stick around for the whole discussion, but Liz Bourke did, and she penned an excellent response over at Tor.com that both questioned the terms being used and reflected on some of the presumptions “epic fantasy” contains. She noted the broad range of applications it has and how often it is used without firm definition. As she noted:
“‘Epic’ in discussions like these frequently means whatever each individual participant wants it to mean: examples that don’t meet a participant’s own personal criteria are dismissed as insufficiently epic, while other participants may wish to claim them. We’re going by feel. . . .”
Initially I was caught up in the question of how ‘conservative’ epic fantasy was, but the more I thought about that question, the more I realized that what bothered me was not some conservative characteristic of “epic fantasy” in and of itself but of the value that was assigned to the word. There is something about the idea of a story being “epic” that makes authors and fans want to claim it for their own purposes. The symbolic power that the word invokes makes it a prestigious and contentious label in discussions within the literary field. There is something about the idea of a story being “epic” that causes the term to, as Bourke called it, have a “lack of firm semantic boundaries” when applied to fantasy literature. What this lack reflects, I think, is that the word has significance and weight.
And yet, if you start looking for attempts to define the term “epic fantasy” you discover that they exist in abundance. The entry for it in Clute and Grant’s Encyclopedia of Fantasy links it to the classical poetic form but says that its use “by publishers to describe HEROIC FANTASIES that extend over several volumes” mean that the term has “lost its usefulness.” In The A-Z of Fantasy Literature Brian Stableford characterizes it as a label for multi-volume immersive fantasies that “gradually build up detailed historical and geographic images of secondary worlds, within which elaborate hero myths are constructed.” “[M]ost epic fantasies are strictly commodified,” he continues, but “the format readily lends itself to greater ambition.” Most definitions highlight structural aspects: length, scale, massive detail, but these are just means to an end. As Chloe Smith noted in a piece at Fantasy Faction, “The word ‘epic’ suggests a certain weight, a significance to the work that raises the stakes of the drama, that gives the tale it tells distinctive power and gravitas.” Jeremy L. C. Jones summarizes it thusly: “‘Epic Fantasy'” is gloriously broad, vague, and… resonant.”
Here is where the quotations that I started the column with come into play. That “certain weight” is the core of the term’s resonance; “epic” implies that a story is momentous, but why? I believe that the power of the term emerges first from its associations with past narratives; an epic is something historical, legendary, and culturally salient. To call a fantasy novel or series epic is to assert that it has linkages to a rich past of important stories. This may actually be a double historical assertion, a claim that it is significant to the reader’s history and to the history of the immersive world that they have experienced in a narrative. It is a story that is grounded in but also exceeds history, it is a reworking of history that frames one or more pasts.
Epics are historicizing stories, but they are also historicizing dreams. They are dreams of history, both of the context (fictional or actual historical) they emerge from and in terms of the literary experience a reader gleans from them. Epics take histories and encrust them with added portent and influence. To claim that a story is an epic is to proclaim that it has both prominence and potency.
Some of these stories acquire and channel these qualities because they use tropes and narrative forms that readers recognize as epic, but those qualities alone are insufficient. An epic has to generate linkages to a historical memory that is then exaggerated and aestheticized to give the narrative mythical momentousness. Tolkien did this by creating a history of another world that was entangled with histories of our world for the purpose of making a new mythology. Tolkien had a dream of history that he actualized through the narrative of his novels. the goal was not to create a new history, but to draw from a transformed history themes and ideas that would be amplified into portentous legends.
Epics transform history, culture, and time, but they do not have to follow the classical traditions to do so. N. K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy is a good example of this. It has many of the epic traits but does not follow them closely; rather, the series questions them, tests them, and refashions them into a different strain of epic. Jemisin’s epic is about opening up tradition, looking for inspiration not in a single hero or Chosen One but in the actions of several protagonists (who are far more complicated than many epic heroes). Jemisin’s epic wants to reform the idea of mythology and to advocate for liberation (rather than the establishment of the old order once again). The revision here is not an update of historical resonance for a contemporary audience, but an interrogation of it.
There’s much more to say about this, but for now, I merely want to plant a seed. Epic is not just a question of structure or taste; it is one of aspirations and vision. Epics of all sorts, from Gilgamesh’s saga to the newest self-published fantasy novel extravaganza, are sweeping, rambling dreams that take the reader on a journey through a reimagined history. Some of them want to remake the world, many want to maintain it, a few want to question it. What makes them epic is less their literary characteristics than the dreams that readers find in them. If we want to understand epic fantasy better we need to examine those dreams and ponder why they are portentous and momentous.