While one controversy about morality and fantasy was being thrashed out around these parts last week, another, quieter, discussion seemed about to get underway in the fantasy blogosphere. N.K. Jemisin began a discussion about “feminization” (her quote marks), sexual explicitness, and the male gaze in epic fantasy, which also involved considering the ways in which female-authored texts were presented to readers. The conversation was continued in a number of places around the web.
This is a potentially massively interesting topic about which I actually don’t have that much to say — because, in what looks like an example of a feedback loop at work, I haven’t read most of the writers Jemisin and others have mentioned. In fact, though I try to maintain a basic familiarity with contemporary fantasy fiction, many of the names they mention are completely unfamiliar to me. So this certainly goes some distance toward increasing my interest in examining the way certain writers are marketed and reviewed, and I’d like to see this discussion developed further.
What I’d like to contribute here is a bit of possibly-meaningless pedantry about definitions. To ask why certain books, specifically books by women, are not described, categorised, or marketed as epic fantasy means having a solid idea of what epic fantasy is. Jemisin noted that she herself was unsure whether some of the books she thought of as ‘epic’ would actually count for most people as epic fantasy. So what is an epic fantasy?
It’s generally true that useful definitions of the term seem hard to come by. Clute and Grant’s Encyclopedia of Fantasy says “Any fantasy tale written to a large scale which deals with the founding or definitive and lasting defence of a land may fairly be called an epic fantasy. Unfortunately, the term has been increasingly used by publishers to describe heroic fantasies that extend over several volumes, and has thus lost its usefulness.” This seems promising, but also perhaps a bit specific; is “a definitive and lasting defence of a land” really a necessary part of epic? And how large is the scale? Does that refer to the length of the tale, or to the events within it? Could the definition apply to non-epics, such as Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser defending Rime Isle? Is David Gemmell’s novel Legend (AKA Against the Horde) long enough to count as an epic?
After discussing these questions with my girlfriend, fantasy writer Grace Seybold, we decided to take a stab at coming up with a definition for epic fantasy ourselves. We decided to first list a number of texts that seemed clearly ‘epic fantasies,’ and try to work out what they had in common. In the process, we also thought of texts that seemed close but which we felt not to be epics, and texts that really seem to be on the margins of the epic; any genre definition is a fuzzy set, and some things will seem in the genre and some out of it depending on how you look at them. At any rate, while it seemed likely that the defintion we’d arrive at would be somewhat conservative — at best describing what epic fantasy has been so far, not necessarily what it is or could be — it seemed worth doing, just to try to establish what people think of when they talk about epic fantasy. If you have any counter-suggestions, or texts that you’d like to put forward as possible epics, we’d love to hear about it in the comments.
The core texts that we came up with, by a fairly quick process of word-association, were: Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara, David Eddings’ Belgariad, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson’s The Wheel of Time, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Deathgate Cycle, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders Trilogy, Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series, R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing series, and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series. In many cases only one of us had read the books in question; in a couple of cases, notably Erikson and Bakker, it has to be said neither of us had read all the books of the series. In some cases neither of us liked the books much, but this was not an evaluative process, simply definitional.
As we discussed what we thought was and wasn’t epic fantasy, the marginal cases we found were Ursula Le Guin’s original Earthsea trilogy, Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, and Glen Cook’s Black Company series. Things that looked like epic fantasy, but which one or another of us felt strongly were not, were Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books, Roger Zelazny’s Amber series, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.
Attempting to justify what we felt was and wasn’t epic fantasy, we came up with the following characteristics of the fantasy epic:
Firstly, it has to have a certain length. Ideally, at least three thick books. I’ve seen The Lord of the Rings estimated at 400,000 words, which seems about right; The Sword of Shannara I’ve seen estimated as 265,000 words, so let’s set 250,000 words as an absolute minimum, with a reasonable expectation of much more. (Incidentally, I never knew The Sword of Shannara was adapted for newspaper comics, and by Gray Morrow, no less. Image searches turn up odd things.)
I personally feel that the epic fantasy usually has an encyclopedic quality; much of that word count goes to describing details of food, dress, ways of making war, and other cultural details. Often poems, songs, and other cultural texts of the story’s world are included.
The story itself takes place (entirely or mostly) in a secondary world, though that world may be this world in the future or seen from a radically different angle. The secondary world is often, though not necessarily, similar to medieval Europe, particularly in terms of the use of technology. Magic or mystical occurrences are typically frequent. If the setting is in the future, there has been some change to the world, often the advent of magic, which has not only nearly eliminated technology, but also likely done away with scientific thinking; in any event, the setting is clearly not science-fictional.
The story is further usually about a world-transformative event, either to be brought about or to be dreaded. Typically this involves wars, and the possible fall of kingdoms or empires. The story has to have a certain scope to be truly epic. A solo quest may be a major feature of the tale, but if so, it’s probably set against major political events and the march of armies.
Related to this, the characters are active agents who will have strong feelings about the putative transformation of their world, and who have the power or develop the power to have a say in events. Very often this results in one or more characters setting off on a quest or quests which will significantly affect the world and story.
That story usually has a straight-ahead narrative structure. The tale is told simply. Events given as backstory are often (though not always) accepted as true accounts; the usually third-person narrator is typically omniscient and reliable (Kushiel’s Legacy is a notable first-person exception). Significant events are usually described in detail, rather than implied by careful lacunae. There may well be some playing about with viewpoint characters, and different groups may have their chronologies overlap, but what is happening to whom is usually obvious and unquestioned. And the telling of the tale is, let’s say, stylistically clear. Although the tale may occasionally be told in a ‘high style’ signifying a particularly great level of importance, for the most part the diction of the epic fantasy is not far from everyday speech.
The epic is distinguished from a series of individual adventures by a unified structure. The evil, or problem, that the characters are dealing with in the first book (or major subsection) of the tale is fundamentally the same problem, or directly linked to the same problem, that they’re facing at the end. The individual units of the story see them advancing directly toward their goal, though that process may involve going through a series of apparently-nigh-infinitely extendable episodes. We think also that this eliminates shared-world stories, which are by definition the creation of multiple sensibilities, expressed through multiple characters. Collaborations, on the other hand, though rare, are not unheard of.
Usually the narrative features a defined evil. Good may not be clear, but a specific evil usually at some point stands revealed as a thing devoutly not to be wished. Very often the evil brings the other characters and forces in the story together in an alliance against it; indeed, very often the epic is in fact the story of the discovery of the nature of the evil, and the formation of a more-or-less troubled alliance to oppose it.
Although not absolutely necessary, most epic fantasies include paratextual elements which broaden the world: maps, family trees, glossaries, and the like. These elements seem to function as a kind of very simple multimedia, providing yet more information about the setting through ways structurally distinct from the main text.
One last characteristic occurred to us: the story is always fundamentally serious. It’s not necessarily tragic, and usually is not, on the surface at least (in this, as in so much else, it seems that Tolkien was stunningly original not only relative to his predecessors, but also to his successors); but what it absolutely is not, is funny business. You can’t simply laugh at the world and the story if the fantasy is to be epic and successful. Terry Pratchett’s a great writer, but he doesn’t seem to us to be an epic fantasist.
So with that said, what have we eliminated and why? Most of Michael Moorcock’s heroic fantasies are eliminated on length alone, as is Earthsea — which also isn’t unified in the way we think is typical of epic fantasy. Neither is Karen Miller’s Godspeaker trilogy. Weis and Hickman’s Dragonlance books (even the first three novels) seem to us to be too much a product of a shared-world setting to be counted as an epic.
Grace, who unlike me has read a number of the Pern books, feels strongly that their science-fictional underpinnings distinguish them from epic fantasy. Like The Book of the New Sun, there isn’t the explicit magic — the actual fantasy — that there is in The Sword of Shannara. Personally, I much prefer Wolfe’s work to Brooks’, but I’m not sure how epic fantasy can be defined so as to include Wolfe without including not only McCaffrey but also such clearly science-fictional works as Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep.
The Harry Potter books seem to be too entwined with this world to be a real epic; the secondary world is almost parasitic upon the ‘real’ world. In Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, on the other hand, the balance between the worlds is different; the other world is a separate, significant thing of its own, indeed the first of all worlds which is more significant than this one. Zelazny’s Amber series deals with another primal world, but seems to me to be essentially science-fictional in nature.
Is there anything unexpected which the definition we’re working toward seems to allow to be an epic fantasy? Well, it seems to us that William Horwood’s Duncton Wood series is an epic — just one that happens to be about moles. It’s nominally set in this reality, but practically it feels like a seconday world; the human element is almost nonexistent.
So the definition we’ve provisionally come up with is as follows: an epic fantasy is a very long and fundamentally serious story set mostly or entirely in a fantastic secondary world, typically defined by the existence of magic and often fleshed out with maps, appendices, and other paratextual devices; it’s usually an encylopedic, stylistically direct, structurally uncomplicated story in which characters notable for their active agency combat a defined evil, often by forming an alliance, and generally are involved with a world-transformative event.
Does this sound like an epic fantasy to you? What have we missed? Are our assumptions fair? And is this too conservative a view of the epic? If this definition has been accurate, is it changing now?
And what should we be reading to get a sense of the current epic?
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His blog is Hochelaga Depicta.