Epic Fantasy (What and Why), Part 2

The typical epic fantasy includes a fairly hierarchical class structure with a ruling nobility, members of whom often feature prominently in the storyline.  This is pretty much de rigeur.  Heroes might be thieves, or farm boys making good, or struggling artisans, but they get swept up into adventures that include, in one way or another, the ruling elite.  This seems to be part of what makes an epic epic. The best example of an epic fantasy that I can think of that doesn’t rely heavily on this trope is Steven King’s The Dark Tower series, but even that has its origins in Roland the Gunslinger back in the castle. (I admit to being underread, and I would like to be pointed to an epic fantasy that takes place in a communal society, for example.)  Of course lots of fantasy doesn’t feature an aristocracy, but that fantasy is not generally classed as epic.

There are at least two significant reasons for this.  One is literary tradition.  In The Poetics, Aristotle sets out the ideal tragic hero as a person of a notable family, in the enjoyment of prosperity and riches; this is the person whose fall will be greatest.  Shakespeare’s plays all feature kings or lords or Italian dukes or what have you.  Traditional epics – The Iliad, Beowulf – have kings as heroes. Fairy tales are full of princes on quests and faerie queens. And of course, for the modern fantasy writer, the shadow of Tolkien, with the story of the restoration of the exiled king, looms large.

(I digress here a moment to point out that these examples are in the Western European tradition, and that there may be epics from other cultures which are not so focused on important kings or leaders.  This post is pretty Euro-centric, and examples of differences are welcome.)

The other significant reason for fantasy featuring an aristocracy is that these characters are the people in power, and power is what makes things tick. Power is sexy. If an epic involves world-changing events, it has to happen on a greater scale than a conflict between a shoemaker and a village witch.  This is not to say that one can’t write a really great fantasy story about such a conflict; it just isn’t likely to be an epic.  The people with power have the resources to mobilize the armies, hire the best wizards, and so on.  The stakes are higher when a nation is involved.

But – and here’s the question that really started my thinking about this – why do the people with power have to be kings instead of elected presidents?  To say that the answer is in the faux-medieval setting of most fantasies begs the question – why that setting?  Is it intrinsic to epic?  Monarchies and travel by horse and “heavy oaken doors” are glamorous, but the setting is also a breeding ground for cliches and sterotypes.

This is especially interesting to me as an American.  We cut our teeth on the Declaration of Independence; why are our epic heroes not based on Jefferson and Adams and Franklin?  Why are there not more epic fantasies set against the backdrop similar to Colonial America or the Revolutionary War?  Would a novel with a main character of a wizard who comes to a new settlement as an indentured servant and fights a magical battle to save a Boston-like city not be an epic fantasy?  There are plenty of other events in American history that would make great settings for battles of magic that change a nation.

These are questions.  I don’t have answers to them.  My own book certainly uses all the traditional tropes, although, now that I have it out of my system, I’m not going to write 20 more books just like it.  A related discussion to have would be the potential for fantasy novels to act as agents for social justice a la Dickens, rather than reifying undemocratic systems of government.  (GRRM does a pretty good job at depicting poverty and the slums, but in end it’s a game of thrones, not a French revolution.)  Another whole topic is the pyschological need of people to escape into a world where rules are clearer and stories are predictable. And there are big questions about genres.

In the meantime, I’m going to conclude with this thought: writing epic fantasy involves embracing certain tropes, but they don’t have to control the story.  It’s the writer’s job to find ways to push the limits and keep the tropes from getting stale. And class is a biggie.