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Epic Fantasy: Notes Toward a Definition

Sunday, February 27th, 2011 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

The Hundred Thousand KingdomsWhile 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?

Legend by another nameIt’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.

Chronicles of the Black CompanyAs 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.)

The Sword of ShannaraI 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.

Kushiel's DartRelated 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.

The Fionavar TapestryUsually 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.

Empress (of Mijak)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.

Duncton WoodIs 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.

24 Comments »

  1. Just to add to the conversation:

    http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2011/01/the-resonance-artifice-and-possible-enervation-of-epic-fantasy/

    Comment by eruditeogre - February 27, 2011 10:22 pm

  2. A fascinating discussion. I can’t speak to all of your evaluations, as there is some of the work you cite that I have not read, but I do feel that you have dismissed The Chronicles of Amber for the wrong reasons. Amber, as a primal earth, is not at all science fictional. The closer to Amber the characters go, the less likely technology is to work. It is a fantastical place.

    The first Amber series is a fantasy murder/conspiracy mystery story overlaid across a final conflict story. It’s a journey of self-discovery and maturation as much as it is a journey that reveals the workings of the wider universe. Does that make it epic fantasy? I’m not sure. It sure has a lot of elements in common with sword-and-sorcery as well, but it doesn’t quite fit there either.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - February 28, 2011 8:32 am

  3. […] Saw this interesting post over at Black Gate’s blog. I agree with some of it; that whole thing about a defined evil, […]

    Pingback by Epic Fantasy Defined, again (at Black Gate) | Epiphany 2.0 - February 28, 2011 9:03 am

  4. The old Justice Potter line works…”I shall not attempt to define it, but I know it when I see it.”

    Because of that, if someone wants to self-define it in a way to make it seem exclusionary they can. Contrarily they can define it in a very wide and inclusive way. It all depends on whether they want to complain/comment about something being excluded, or included.

    TW

    Comment by TW - February 28, 2011 10:04 am

  5. Length doesn’t seem a requirement for me but I couldn’t find a single title in my library to offer as an example ! It appears length de facto is a good criterion.

    Comment by Helene - February 28, 2011 11:24 am

  6. Eruditeogre: That’s a great link! Interesting food for thought.

    Howard: Yeah, Amber’s really difficult to pigeonhole as anything in particular. It was definitely one of the works we went back and forth on. I think it felt like science fiction to us because the characters seemed to think scientifically; not only did they have a modern’s understanding of physics and chemistry, but there seemed a comfort with things like ‘reason’ and ‘the scientific method,’ which shaped their actions and the story overall. On the other hand, the Pattern and the Logrus do underlie all of reality, which one could say is a fundamentally fantastic idea.

    Yeah, Amber’s difficult. But that’s the nature of a genre, I guess; fuzzy, and some things will be in or out of it depending on how you look at it.

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - February 28, 2011 11:43 am

  7. “Yeah, Amber’s difficult. But that’s the nature of a genre, I guess; fuzzy, and some things will be in or out of it depending on how you look at it.”

    Right. I think genre definitions are useful so that we know what we’re talking about. On the other hand, I hate the discussions where defining the razor thin borderline between one sort of thing and the other becomes a source of argument. There’s an axis or spectrum or fuzzy interdimensional barrier that connects all of this.

    Re: Amber, considering the modern way that the characters view the world’s working makes sense. I understand now where you got “scientific.” Amber does set out to fight a major evil — except that the evil is more of a “different” than an evil, and it’s more a journey of self-discovery than the typical defeat the dark lord and his army kind of thing. It’s a little dated now (female characters are doing cool stuff but ALMOST ALL OFF STAGE and we don’t know about it until the end) and the final book felt mostly like filler despite some great moments…. but I still really, really love it. I return to Amber far more regularly than I return to Lord of the Rings.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - February 28, 2011 12:27 pm

  8. […] an interesting post by David Surridge over at Black Gate about defining epic fantasy, and an equally interesting […]

    Pingback by Defining Epic Fantasy « shattersnipe: malcontent & rainbows - February 28, 2011 12:43 pm

  9. It’s a very interesting subject for debate. I think the one thing that may have been omitted, as was pointed out in the discussion that your post inspired on my blog, is an aspect of the dictionary definition of “epic”, namely “narrated in a grand style”.

    I think this is perhaps why you feel that Amber doesn’t qualify – correctly in my opinion – and I would go so far as to say that Kushiel doesn’t either. In an epic, the character’s development is secondary to the world events, no matter how well that development is presented. In a non-epic, the world events, however grand, are merely a backdrop for the protagonist’s development. Amber and Kushiel primarily revolve around what happens to Corwin/Merlin and Phaedre rather than what happens to the worlds they inhabit. Moreover, although both tales are compelling and entertaining in their own way, there is little that is grand about the style of either.

    Comment by Theo - February 28, 2011 1:15 pm

  10. This is a very thoughtful post, Matthew. Thank you!

    Comment by C.S.E. Cooney - February 28, 2011 1:23 pm

  11. Matthew, you have systematically misspelled Jemisin throughout your piece. Epic length is not synonymous with epic content and the alliance requirement sounds too close to D&D. As for reading lists, I have a partial one in my Apex entry on the topic:

    A Plague on Both Your Houses
    http://www.apexbookcompany.com/2011/02/a-plague-on-both-your-houses/

    Comment by Helivoy - February 28, 2011 2:22 pm

  12. Ah, nertz. My apologies, to Jemisin and everybody else, for the misspelling; it should now be fixed.

    Since this post is really about trying to enunciate what epic content is, could you elaborate on how you see it? It’s interesting that length seems to be one of the sticking points for people; it was literally the first thing Grace and I came up with. Actually, could you also elaborate on how the alliance bit sounds like D&D? It doesn’t especially fit with my experience of the game. (Maybe *I* should elaborate, actually: by alliance we didn’t necessarily mean an alliance of characters so much as an alliance of political powers — that might be powerful individual characters, but would also include kingdoms, wizard groups, and so forth.)

    You’ve got some interesting writers listed on that blog post; I suppose I’m wondering what distinction you see, if any, between ‘heroic fantasy’ and ‘epic fantasy’?

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - February 28, 2011 2:58 pm

  13. Theo: the problem with ‘high style’ (and there’s no doubt it’s a major characteristic of epic poems) is that, while it fits for Tolkien, it’s hard to see it in what I guess I’d call the first wave of epic fantasies that followed him. I never really saw a high style in Brooks, Eddings, or Donaldson (although it is there in Kay). Maybe I’m in error, but my recollection is that the term was first created to refer to their work. Am I misremembering? Or could it be that the nature of ‘epic fantasy’ has moved on, such that early examples of the term no longer qualify?

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - February 28, 2011 3:04 pm

  14. Well, Matthew, the definition of epic (in the original Hellenic, as well) is “narrative of heroic deeds”. So unless you want to dissect gnats and swallow camels, epic and heroic fantasy are synonymous.

    As for D&D, I was using it as shorthand for the RPG games that start with assembling a team, which is also done in much so-called heroic fantasy.

    As for your definition, I don’t have time to do a sustained analysis right now, but let me give one example: if you posit that fantasy has to include kingdoms to be labeled epic, right there and then you’ve skewed and narrowed the trope to feudal models.

    Comment by Helivoy - February 28, 2011 3:14 pm

  15. Well, I wouldn’t want to say that epic fantasy includes kingdoms, no (not that kingdoms are necessarily feudal). As I said in the post, the epic fantasy secondary world is not necessarily similar to medieval Europe.

    I do think, though, as I meant to imply in my comment to Theo, that ‘epic’ and ‘epic fantasy’ aren’t synonymous. Or so it seems to me. That is, I always understood people to be referring to different things when they talk about ‘epic fantasy’ and when they talk about ‘heroic fantasy’. To an extent, the post was an attempt to figure out the difference.

    Although I note that Clute and Grant say (in the “Heroic Fantasy” entry) “There may be a useful distinction between Heroic Fantasy and Sword & Sorcery, but no one has yet made it. The term itself … was almost certainly coined in an attempt to avoid the garishness of the S&S tag. This seems an inadequate reason to adopt a term which might seem synonymous with Epic Fantasy (itself a term little used in this encyclopedia, and for similar reasons).”

    The thing is, I’m absolutely positive people mean different things when they talk about ‘epic fantasy’ and ‘sword & sorcery’. So, again, trying to work out definitions seemed worthwhile.

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - February 28, 2011 3:50 pm

  16. Except you originally asked me whether I thought there’s a difference between epic and heroic fantasy (no), not between epic fantasy and S&S (yes).

    The latter is obviously a subtype of heroic fantasy. But I’ll leave you to ponder further — although my recommendation is not to ponder at such a length that the definition becomes a toe-bruiser in itself.

    Comment by Helivoy - February 28, 2011 4:12 pm

  17. Fair enough. But just to elaborate one little bit: my basic take is that epic’s a subset of heroic fantasy, just like S&S.

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - February 28, 2011 4:26 pm

  18. One final point. You say at the start of your article, “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.”

    I’d say that it’s worth reading a sample of those before you further elaborate your definitions. Otherwise, it’s like trying to build a universal theory of language while being monolingual (not that this has stopped linguists, particularly from the US, of doing exactly that).

    Comment by Helivoy - February 28, 2011 4:30 pm

  19. “I never really saw a high style in Brooks, Eddings, or Donaldson (although it is there in Kay).”

    I don’t think there is much genuine high style in Brooks or Eddings, although I think there is at least an amount in Donaldson. The recounting of the cleansing ritual of the mourning Giants is perhaps the best example there. But what there is in all three works mentioned is an attempt to emulate high style, particularly in the case of Eddings. I would certainly agree that none of them came anywhere close to Tolkien, but then, how could they, lacking his esoteric expertise?

    Comment by Theo - February 28, 2011 4:58 pm

  20. […] Matthew David Surridge tries to define epic fantasy over at the Black Gate blog. What is notable about this post is that he at least references the related discussion about sex, gender and epic fantasy. What is also notable is that Surridge openly admits that he has never heard of many of the female writers mentioned in those discussions. Alas, when he tries to define epic fantasy, he largely goes back to the men with the exception of Robin Hobb and Jacqueline Carey. […]

    Pingback by Quo Vadis, Epic Fantasy? | Cora Buhlert - March 2, 2011 1:56 am

  21. Dude, your talking out both sides of your mouth and your being totally conservative(not a “little bit” as you thought you would)and I’ll tell you why.
    First, in this day and age of Modern Fantasy (or Postmodernism as some/most would say now) how can you even define what is and is not Epic Fantasy? You read books like LOTR or WoT and you get a feel for them. Well, that’s a seperate card to play, so I’ll stick to my point.
    First, I was appalled that you even say that Wolfe’s Long Sun series has no explicit magic, the actual fantasy. As both a fan and a writer (yet coming from the fan view nonetheless) Fantasy DOES NOT NEED MAGIC (well, the lightning and fireball kind anyway). I ragged about this on my LJ on how most systems read like D&D systems than something that actually reflects on the human condition (coming from another viewpoint of mine that Fantasy can reflect this world’s societal state). Long Sun was perfect without magic.
    And why isn’t Earthsea on the list? It was eliminated on length, and it also isn’t unified in the way you think of typical Epic Fantasy huh? Because the author brought something new to the plate? Because it isn’t a long-drawn out Wheel of Time novel it isn’t Epic Fantasy? Because Ged’s quest is more personal and relatable than that farmboy/soldier/magician/etc that attempts to rid the land of the Dark Lord, it is not Epic Fantasy (because honestly, who here has saved the world?) ?
    And with Harry Potter, you eliminated the series because the world was “parasitic” to this one, yet you said that “Epic Fantasy” has to be a certain length (think that later books of HP) encyclopediac, tales places (I quote from you, “entirely or mostly”) in a secondar world, a world transformative event, and other “factors” that you and your friend have come up with.
    Come up with a better non-conservative definition of Epic Fantasy (trust me, the books are out their) then we can talk.

    Comment by BrandonMarkham - March 3, 2011 4:14 pm

  22. […] but suffice it to say that this will be another fantasy (don’t want to call it epic since I don’t feel like defending that definition today) but slightly SF-flavored, insofar as it’ll be postapocalyptic and dystopian. The story will […]

    Pingback by So What’s Next? | Epiphany 2.0 - March 28, 2011 2:49 pm

  23. […] http://www.blackgate.com/2011/02/27/epic-fantasy-notes-toward-a-definition/ – Black Gate column discussing what is epic fantasy? […]

    Pingback by Links of The Week Vol. 2 Issue 7 : BTS - May 30, 2011 3:02 am

  24. […] I had was not with the book itself, but rather with its description as ‘epic fantasy’. There is some debate about what exactly that means. I would generally define ‘epic’ as ‘you need a chart to […]

    Pingback by Let every dirty, lousy tramp arm himself with a revolver or a knife, and lay in wait on the steps of the palaces of the rich and stab or shoot the owners as they come out. Let us kill them without mercy, and let it be a war of extermination. | evilsoup - September 1, 2014 12:51 pm


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