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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?

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19 Comments

  1. Wow, Chloe. I mean wow! This is the best article on Fantasy Faction yet IMHO.

    I would offer Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files as an epic fantasy (of the urban kind!). Here the character’s actions have consequences in the following books. Although we only see the world from Harry’s eyes things are going on “off stage” in such a way that it’s obvious the world is “really big” and Harry’s actions (and lack of) are affecting other characters even ones in other countries.

  2. Khaldun says:

    Fantastic article, Chloe. I agree re: His Dark Materials and Earthsea.
    @Paul, not sure if I would consider the Dresden Files as epic urban fantasy. Sure there are repercussions of actions from one book bleeding into the others, but I don’t get the same sense that the entire world is affected by his actions. The general area around him, sure, but not the whole world (keep in mind I’ve only read books 1-4 so far, so I could be totally wrong here. If that’s the case, please feel free to disregard this comment).

    What I like most about GRRM’s books is that there are so many individual character arcs and tragedies occuring during the same timeline. Any one single thread from a single POV would deal with a variety of events happening across Westeros, but it is the sum of these threads that contribute to some sort of large-scale change and that is what makes the books truly epic in scope. Frankly, I find it astounding how he uses secondary off-screen characters and actions to such a high degree of effectiveness in affecting the plot and the reader’s perceptions. Anyways, I’ll stop blabbing now. Great article!

  3. Great article. Clarifys the confusion that seems to surround this ‘epic’ debate.

  4. An excellent explanation, clear, concise. You touch on a number of valuable points, reminding people of the social and historical contexts brilliantly. Make me think, which is the purpose of any good writing.

  5. I absolutely agree. “Epic” shouldn’t mean “wrist breaking”. If the future of the entire world is at stake, that’s what I call epic. In that sense, the way the Dresden Files series has developed, I think there is an argument there for calling it epic fantasy. Not at first, certainly, but as the books continue… I’m not sure it’s an argument either side would win, but you could still have the argument!

  6. This is a fantastic description of epic fantasy! Thanks so much for such a great article.

  7. […] applies to epic fantasy. Chloe Smith recently posted a great article on Fantasy-Faction.com called “What Makes ‘Epic Fantasy’ Epic?”. In it she compares epic fantasy to the tradition of epic poetry and, while explaining the purposes […]

  8. […] like. If you care for another, more cohesive view, there’s a post on Fantasy-Faction about epics showing how the world changes — definitely worth a […]

  9. Edmund says:

    Great article, I just finished reading The Name of the Wind (as it is cataloged as “Epic Fantasy”) and I was expecting a world built with the mythologies or terminologies a la His Dark Materials and Narnia or The Lord of The Rings. Obviously, what I found was an old-school Harry Potter book. Great post here, fantastic.

  10. A very good article, I enjoyed reading it. The definition of “Epic” is one of those things that is always going to be highly debated, so my take on it is just one of the many. But to me epic is a work where the stakes are big…usually a turning of an age or possible destruction of a civilization/kingdom/world. I’ve always liked the idea of “starting small” and ramping up the tensions which is why in my Riyria Revelations I think by its end it is epic, but in the beginning it’s really just he necks of two thieves that we are mostly concerned about…and the power struggle in one kingdom of many. But for me it was really mostly about the fates of two guys. It was fun to continue to pull back the camera and expose more of what is going on and how even little events have major consequences.

  11. DG says:

    Great article! I would suggest Steven Erikson’s series – Malazan Book of the Fallen, and his new series The Kharkanas Trilogy is shaping up as another must have. (Finished Forge of Darkness yesterday)

  12. Francis Knight says:

    “Epic” deals with the stakes (High/low deals with how much magic etc there is)

    Epic merely means that the stakes are world changing , or country changing — the stakes are more than what the characters stand to gain or lose (as opposed to S&S where the stakes are more personal, see Conan)

    That’s all.

  13. Joie says:

    Really great article. I agree; Tolkien really sets the standard for “epic” and that depth is just as significant as breadth in terms of impact.

  14. Brian says:

    Bloody brilliant! Until i saw this, my definition of ‘EPIC’ was just about what u said at the beginning and very vague, at that, but your article clarifies things a bit…

  15. Ashley says:

    I will point out that The Twilight Saga was named by the movie studio not by Meyer or the publishing house. Before the films it was just the Twilight Series.

  16. […] Pohl? Then there’s a short and sweet article from Chloe Smith at Fantasy Faction that deals with the definition of “epic” fantasy and the much older definition of an epic as a story about a vast and changing world. Oh, and I’m […]

  17. I love this blog as well. Epics have a much deeper history, of course. The Mabinogion, the Eddas, the Tales of Genji, the Kalevala, the Popul Vuh are influential sources, tales that many people would say were about the world changing. Some may be considered holy — they matter. The old stuff — the REAL stuff, my wife says. ;-> I at least, am often lost in reading such tales — not entirely understanding what’s going on. There’s also Le Morte d’Arthur, the Song of Roland, lots and lots of great stuff out there to dig into.

  18. […] should have started with The Storyspinner. It is an epic fantasy (even by the definition given be fantasy faction) and I loved it […]

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