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Tropes and Clichés in Epic Fantasy: Is It Time To Move On?

I just finished Diana The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (cover)Jones’s The Tough Guide to Fantasyland first published twenty years ago, but still accurately satirical in the shots it takes at the more recognisable “issues” in fantasy fiction. Tropes of plot, style and substance are all scythed down in a humorous harvesting of fantasy’s most memorable clichés, from the impeccably behaved and literally tireless horses, to the almost religious obsession that the genre has with trilogies. (Even A Song of Ice and Fire was supposed to be a trilogy apparently, but – like a teenager’s party when their parents are away – it got a bit out of hand.) There are many threads on Reddit about tropes, well done, badly done, loved or hated. However, much as I recognised Wynne-Jones’ critique of cliché and faux realism in The Tough Guide, I did find myself wondering how far should such tropes be viewed as a problem or a feature of fantasy fiction.

Fantasy – like science-fiction (its speculative fiction sibling) – has more potential than most genres for innovative settings and plots that really stretch the envelope of storytelling. But, the best stories are still rooted in people (in the broadest possible sense). William Shatner once described Star Trek as a vehicle to explore the “human condition” in new contexts. For all the new worlds and new civilisations the stories were about human frailties, friendships and how they rose to meet fresh challenges.

Dungeons and Dragons Red BoxIn the twenty years since The Tough Guide was first published we have seen an increasing diversity in fantasy fiction as a generation of writers flexed and honed imaginations first forged through exposure to Tolkien, Brooks, Moorcock and Dungeons & Dragons. Writers have created settings that merge the medieval and the post-apocalyptic, the gun-slinging western and the European political, that put dragons in Victorian times, demons in the Spanish civil war, and weaponised sewing machines on America’s Western seaboard.

Like the stars of our own local cluster – birthed in close proximity 5 billion years ago and drifting apart ever since – the shining lights within fantasy fiction have been growing and separating in the decades since JRRT’s death. The genre has become more nuanced and mature. So much so that there appears to be a rush to slap labels on subgenres with all the enthusiasm of particle physics finding and naming their veritable zoo of subatomic particles hidden within the mighty atom. Where scientists have their strange quarks, their pi-muons and (at last) their Higgs-boson, in fantasy fiction we have, by some definitions, over 30 subgenres including steampunk, flintlock, urban and grimdark (whatever that is). Is this indicative of a genre driven to escape either its roots, or its tropes – or both?

The Sword of Shannara (cover)Later generations have judged Terry Brooks Shannara series for following The Lord of the Rings so closely in plot style and elements that many critics consider it barely original. But, for those who read him back in the 70s, Brooks was good enough. Shannara satisfied a hunger then for more Tolkien and in so doing helped expand a genre.

There is a reason why high fantasy and epic fantasy remain amongst the most recognisable of fantasy’s subgenres. In short, epic fantasy works. When written well it provides what any good story should for its readers; entertainment, escapism and engagement. While Amazon categories may not be the most reliable indication of genre, on amazon.co.uk epic fantasy titles are the third post prevalent category after urban fantasy and fairy tales.

There are some who may feel that we should move away from the epic – that these monumental storylines of times gone by should be abandoned (like the ruins of an ancient lost civilisation – one destroyed by its own plagiarism perhaps?!). The little guy (or girl) battling to save the world from overwhelming evil, the discovery of a hidden talent or heritage, the great weapons, the wise mentors, the school/university to hone skills and find life-long companions, these have all been done to the nth degree and that they are truly the dinosaurs in modern story-telling. Rather than endless resurrect them, people should just get over it and move on.

A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré FragonardI’m not against moving on, I’m not against new ideas. Story telling inevitably has to evolve in style and content. Books and films of old had captive audiences, there was no Pokémon Go to drag people out of doors for an evening. Readers in Victorian times would settle into a good book in the same way and indeed at the same time as they settled into a comfortable armchair. In our present day short attention span world with literally millions of books available at the touch of a Kindle button, stories have far less time to grab and engage the reader before being consigned to the Did Not Finish pile.

Writing and stories have evolved under these changing environmental pressures, driven both by public perception and author inventiveness. Yet evolution itself was never a matter of change for changes sake – a process of constant replacement as old styles and stories inevitably become extinct. Some stories, like some species, endured alongside their ore complex evolutionary descendants. Of all the reptiles alive today, crocodiles and alligators may be the least changed from their prehistoric ancestors over 65 million years ago and the reason is simple – in evolutionary terms the crocodile as a creature works – it does the job (that is to say enough creatures survive to produce the next generation of offspring – or at least lunch). These creatures are essentially the dinosaurs that survived. In the same way the fundamentals of epic fantasy continue to work.

Mad Max (poster 2)That is not to say that the same story should be regurgitated time after time. Cliché’s should be twisted, trope’s updated, pace adjusted to suit modern tastes and circumstances. All writers and their writing are products of the times in which they live. When studying O’level English Literature it seemed burdensome to me to have to consider the context in which Shakespeare wrote his plays. To explicitly appreciate that Richard III had to be the villain for a playwright and an audience ruled by his usurper’s descendants. But the more I have written and read – particularly authors notes and acknowledgements – the more I have realised how understanding context helps appreciate what you read and develop what you write. Mad Max: Fury Road and Ghostbusters have both got their third millennium makeover and epic fantasy should be no different.

My parents had a fondness for Victorian houses – an architectural style that modern design could neither emulate nor replace. But they would have had no affection for the reality of drab draughty interiors where dark wood and oppressive colours matched a lifestyle lit by oil lamps and coal fires. Victorian houses of the 21st century have bright modern interiors within the impressive shell of a previous era. They are hybrids and so too should modern epic fantasy be. Let our dark lords be less anonymous, our morality more grey, our heroes more flawed and diverse, our magic more transparent, our plots still surprising. But let us still have our epic challenges, our sweeping grandeur, and the fate of the world carried on the shoulders of our protagonist.

In any case it is a much quoted maxim that there are only seven stories in fiction and that all others are based on them – though there seems to be some disagreement as to which those seven fundamental stories are. However, I prefer Tolstoy’s shorter list.

“All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.”

And much epic fantasy is both of those.

Title image by TylerEdlinArt.

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5 Comments

  1. Speaking of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland . . . a couple of years ago, back when I was an adventur– um, I mean book blogger – I used to join in with a weekly feature called ‘Tough Travels’. Invented by Nathan of Fantasy Review Barn, a whole bunch of bloggers used to share our own examples of a different trope each week. Much fun was had!

  2. Avatar Splicer says:

    There are times when I want a new taste to excite my palate and then there are times when I want the familiar. The reason I enjoy eating a peanut butter sandwich is because I remember what it tastes like and want that flavor again. The same goes with my enjoyment of the arts. Yes, much of Fantasy follows the tried and true. Same can be said for a Mystery novel or a Police Procedural or Space Opera. Television series are popular for a reason because they provide new tales inside of a recognizable formula. We enjoyed what Jerry, Elaine and Company did last week and we know we’ll probably enjoy it this week.

    I agree there’s room for playing within genres; Joe Abercrombie does an interesting job messing around with them. However, if there can be “comfort food” or a style of music that puts us at ease, there can be stories that do the same. No shame in that.

    If only we can do something about zombies and vampires. I’m getting a little tired of those.

  3. Avatar Sean HInn says:

    Love this article.

    I believe it comes down to preference – what’s new and trendy versus takes on older classics. Both have their place, provided they are done well, and a good story really can appeal to both camps. Classics are “classic” for a reason, but let’s always endeavor to break new ground.

    A similar controversy is one of the characters themselves – must *every* character today be completely morally ambiguous? One of the great appeals of fantasy, to me, is that the lines between good and evil are, traditionally, more clearly defined. I read to escape the reality show that is “real life”; being able to root for a clear champion and hate a villain is a satisfying experience, IF it’s done in a believable fashion. Yet, without an understanding of *why* a villain is a villain, or *why* a hero is so driven to act morally, it’s just a fairy tale.

    As I say that, however, I remind myself that fairy tales have an important place in literature.

  4. Avatar David Liss says:

    I actually think the headline of this post has it backwards – is it time we stopped worrying about moving on. I don’t think there’s another literary genre where readers and critics fret so much about originality. If a fantasy novel is established in a universe, or has races or a magic system that we’ve seen before, people are pretty quick to dismiss it as unoriginal. So what? I happen to like a pseudo-medieval universe. Wizards and dwarves? Why not? The fact is, we’re just talking about setting, right? You don’t complain about a mystery novel because it’s set in New York or London. You don’t object to a thriller because spies are meeting in Geneva and Cairo. Sure there are plot elements, or writing styles, that can feel cliché, but that’s another matter. I applaud writers who want to expand what fantasy can do, but I don’t think a more traditional setting is a reason to dismiss a novel. Yet, right now, I think it’s very hard for a fantasy in a more traditional setting to be taken seriously.

  5. I’m afraid I’m one of those who read – or tried to read – “Sword Of Shannara” when it first came out and was furious with its Tolkien imitation. As a result I haven’t read a Shannara book since. My loss, perhaps, but Tolkien did it best, IMO.

    In fact, I’ve become picky about my fantasy. No multi-volume series unless, like Terry Pratchett’s books, you can more or less read them standalone, or as part of a short story arc. Despite having written a mediaeval fantasy myself – a standalone book – I prefer urban fantasy or stories in which characters from our own world enter another. No more Quest by a long-lost prince, a couple of Elves, a dwarf and a farmboy for me! I had a huge giggle over the Diana Wynne Jones book and, in fact, rewrote a character too like her bosomy redhaired sorceress.

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