My attention this morning was caught by a couple of online discussions about what “epic fantasy” is, one on Mythic Scribes and one on Fantasy Faction.  Both got my mind spinning in various ways.  I’ve realized that I have a lot to say on the subject, so this will be more of an introductory post, followed by more analytical posts.  A lot of thoughts from my earlier post about conventionality also are part of this discussion; I think a lot of non-readers of fantasy imagine the entire genre to be epic fantasy with its particular conventions, despite the numerous subspecies of the genre out there.

So what are the conventions of epic fantasy?  Plotwise, they seem to include a quest or mission, forces of evil, magic, swords, royalty, and something that makes the world very distinct from our earth: fabulous beasts, non-human sentient races, angels, dragons, minor deities, and other such things from folklore, fairytale, myth, and legend.  The discussions on the blogs referenced above describe epic fantasy as a narrative of a great change in the characters’ world, not just in the characters – a sort of paradigm shift. The empire crumbles or the kingdom is restored, the Ring goes in the fire, a great threat is removed from the world.  Etcetera.

I like this description of the subject matter of epic fantasy.  Epics are about great events.  But what about the fantasy part?  In some ways a good epic fantasy is not that different from a really well-realized historical novel; Sharon Kay Penman’s novel about Richard III, The Sunne in Splendour, has everything that I want in an epic fantasy except magic, and I don’t actually miss the magic much.  Conversely, I’ve heard it said that George R.R. Martin’s books are a more accurate description of the Middle Ages than a lot of historical novels.  The dividing line between the two is that in the fantasy, things happen which can only happen in imagination.

Epics can’t rely on magic, though.  A Song of Ice and Fire is not free of magic – the dead walk, dragons rouse, Melisandre kills with shadows, Bran sees through the eyes of wolves, and so on.  But what is really seductive about the books is the vividness of the world-building and the transformations of the characters.  Similarly in The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf only does a few acts of actual “magic” in the entire trilogy, and the books are so wonderful because they drop us into Middle-earth.  All the magic in the world won’t make a good epic if the world-building isn’t there.

Epics may have narrative arcs that span upheavals in the realm or world or universe, but they are also firmly grounded in things which are both small and ordinary. For us as readers to appreciate the earth-shaking events of the story, we have to understand the earth before it’s shaken.  My absolute favorite sentence in the trilogy comes in the Tom Bombadil chapter in Fellowship:  “The sky spoke of rain to come; but the light was broadening quickly, and the red flowers on the beans began to glow against the wet green leaves.”  It’s simple, largely adjective-free, and specific. The Earthsea books are similarly full of domestic details and plain language.  The best writers of epic fantasy have a streak of Hemingway in them.

It’s not just detail that matters, however.  A writer can be very detailed in describing a dragon or the magical ingredients of a potion.  An epic also needs to be full of the real.   Fellowship begins with that most ordinary event: a birthday party.  The Return of the King ends with another ordinary event: a father holding his baby on his lap.  All the magic and wonder happens in between those two very domestic and familiar bookends.

The writer of epic fantasy needs to be able to hold together the large by working hard on the small and create the strange by setting it against the familiar. Because the scope of an epic fantasy is so great, it’s easy for the writer to let the epic-ness run away with the book.  (I think Robert Jordan fell victim to this, which is why The Wheel of Time was so interminable.)  But the epic-ness needs to be reined in with an equal joy in the mundane.  Writing is an act of balance.  And epic fantasy requires one to be particularly graceful.


Coming up next:  Epic Fantasy and issues of class.