What Makes ‘Epic Fantasy’ Epic?
What does the term “epic fantasy” make you think of?
For most people, even most well-read, card-carrying members of the fantastic-fiction-reading community, these words conjure an image of a very specific type of fantasy story. It does not take place in a recognisable version of the world we all (I hope) wake up to every day. It has warfare. It has magic. It has heroes. The heroes carry swords. Most importantly—-at least to the knee-jerk definition of epic fantasy—-the story is long. Long as in “use-the-piled-series-as-a-bedside-table” long.
So far so good. However, there is another valence to the adjective “epic.” Many of the rules I listed above (even the length) could be applied to the sword-and-sorcery subgenre, a type of story whose tropes were recently laid out in a recent post on this same site by Liz Fellshot [Liz’s Article Here]. The term “epic” connotes a little more than that. It suggests more even than the term “high fantasy,” which Wikipedia, that font of knowledge, claims is a label interchangeable with epic fantasy, and defines as “fantasy fiction set in an alternative, entirely fictional (‘secondary’) world, rather than the real, or ‘primary’ world.” 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.
What, then, is the “epic” nature of epic fantasy? What is the defining feature of this subgenre? In consideration of some of the qualities of contemporary epic fantasy, as well as the historic meaning of the term “epic,” I am prepared to hazard a guess.
(Disclaimer: The following is not going to include analyses of some of the best-known and best-loved contemporary epic series; I am drawing from my own reading experience and personal opinions, and I am not prepared to wade in and duke it out with the champions of various contemporary authors. Apologies, fans of Robert Jordan, Patrick Rothfuss, Terry Brooks, Steve Erikson, Kate Elliott, etc., etc.. I yield this particular field to you.)
Epic Fantasy takes its name from the tradition of epic poetry that reaches back to antiquity and beyond. Epics, in this meaning of the word, were stories that stood as central pillars to the cultures that created them. Preserved orally, they were capable of being repeated thousands of times, so that listeners would grow up knowing the tales, not even able to remember a time before they had heard them. They were massively long and complex, and although they did have heroes, and often battles and dramatic adventure, their role was more complex than merely to entertain. They described a world not different from the one their authors lived in, but one in which the mysterious, the mythic, and the divine were made to speak openly and to make their actions clear. They helped explain the nature of the world.
Further, they showed how it changed. In all of the traditional epics, the narrative of events takes place on what historians call “a world historical scale.” This means that deeds of the main actors, the struggles and journeys that the epics recount, have an effect on the very nature of the world. They permanently change history. For better or worse, something is different at the end. When Odysseus returns home, Troy has been destroyed and the mythic age of heroes is over. At the end of the Aneaid, a city is established that will grow to become the largest empire the world had ever known. In vanquishing Ravenna, Rama establishes himself as the God-King on earth, fulfilling the destiny of the seventh avatar of the God Vishnu (I count the Ramayana as an epic in the traditional sense, although it is at the same time a living religious text). When Dante completes his journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, he has explained the fall and redemption of man according to the medieval Christian understanding.
Turning back to modern fantasy, it is easy to see why epic fantasy series become so long. If an epic is a story about how a world changes, it has to be able to give a sense of the entire world in which it is set. Epic fantasy novels must have a grand scale. Their plots are often complex and multi-stranded, with a cast of thousands, a host of different narrators, and plot arc that can take years, if not generations. (Speaking of time, it was always a quibble of mine that Stephanie Meyers’s books are referred to as The Twilight Saga. Even though my memories of high-school make it seem like it dragged on forever, there is no way that a few years of late adolescence count as a saga-length time frame. But I digress….) It is the question of scale which makes the quality known as “world building” so important to epic fantasy.
However, it is not enough for a story to be sustained and complex with a fully-realized world. Length of narrative is not a guarantee of epic proportions. Some stories usually described as epic fantasies do not actually fit the bill, if not enough has changed by the end. (Of course, with some epic stories, we are waiting to see how, and whether, the seeds of change will ever come to a fruitful harvest…ahem, George R.R. Martin, Isobelle Carmody, and others.)
Further, if the key factor in telling an epic story is that the author makes the reader believe in the verisimilitude of a world, and then see how the events of the story change it, the definition of epic is suddenly opened to include a range of stories that are not doorstops and that do not focus on pitched battles and flashing swords. By this rubric, I would say that stories such as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy, or Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books, to give a couple examples, qualify as epics. It is a question of the depth of the story, rather than its breadth.
Of course, the simpler, more straightforward definitions with which I began this article are still often the easiest rules to isolate the epic fantasy novel from the rest of the herd. In this, as in much of the realm of speculative fiction, Tolkien’s books set the standard and throw a long, long shadow over the entire field (no pun intended!!). Authors who have come after him have to negotiate that legacy, even as they chose different ways to break from his model—-by complicating the moral clarity of their stories’ conflicts, or by letting more speaking roles go to women, to give a couple examples. It is well to remember, though, that important as Tolkien continues to be in defining the genre, he himself was well-acquainted with the traditions of epic poetry and his own books did not spring out of nothing but instead owe a lot to poems like Beowulf.
Ultimately, when we try to settle the question of what counts as epic fantasy, we shouldn’t ask how long the book is, or whether or not it describes heroes joined in massive battles, but rather, in the spirit of the epic tradition, how significant is the change it marks on its world? How big is the scope of its conflict, and how significant the power of its eventual resolution?