Where Epic Fantasy Went Wrong
an essay by gabe chouinard
Epic fantasy isn't inherently bad, nor is it particularly wrong. In point of fact, I love epic fantasy; or rather, I would love it if the people writing it would quit with the Tolkien-raping and move a bit closer to the spirit of epic fantasy.
People tend to conveniently overlook the fact that Tolkien never set out to define a subgenre with his work. A true labor of love, Tolkien devoted the majority of his entire life to the creation of Middle-earth. His aim was to create a secondary world around the mytho-structures he was continually creating, up to the time of his death.
Tolkien was a creator, not a novelist.
With popularity, however, comes commercialization.
When The Lord of the Rings exploded in popularity in the Sixties and early Seventies, no one quite knew what to do. Here was a cult phenomenon centered upon oddly enough a trilogy of novels that were absolutely, radically different from everything else. Publishers had no idea how to cash in on this popularity.
Certainly, they tried. Reissues of long-languishing works began to appear; Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, E.R. Eddison. All were devoured by a public that had read LotR and were clamoring for MORE MORE MORE.
They didn't get what they wanted until 1977, and Terry Brooks's The Sword of Shannara.
Brooks gave readers exactly what they wanted: Tolkien redux. Here were Elves and Dwarves and Men in profusion, a mysterious Druid to lead them, and a fantasy land torn straight from the cloth from whence came Middle-earth. It also gave Del Rey exactly what IT wanted a massive cash-cow juggernaut to climb the bestseller lists.
And then came David Eddings.
Employing archetypal myth in deadly earnest, Eddings created a fantasy series that drew equal parts from Tolkien and Brooks, while giving us the kitchen-boy-turned-world-savior trope, simultaneously establishing the multi-book saga.
Epic fantasy would never recover.
Now commercially successful, the face of fantasy had been mapped out by the mid-Eighties. Fans knew what they wanted. Multi-book epic sagas set in secondary (yet oddly quasi-medieval western European) lands, innocent and angst-ridden heroes, Dread Lords in profusion... and they got it all in spades. Series fantasy sprang up with insistent tenacity, and bookshelves groaned in protest.
If it's commercially successful, how can epic fantasy-cum-Epic Fantasy be deemed a failure? After all, it's the demands of the market that dictate what is successful, right?
True. But to understand the ultimate failure of Epic Fantasy, we must again return to Tolkien.
While certainly far from flawless, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings succeeds admirably in the way it was intended as an exploration of a fully-realized, wholly unique secondary world. Its true strength resides in the reality of Middle-earth, which Tolkien had crafted with immense devotion and rigorous detail.
Epic fantasy, as a genre built from a single trilogy, has failed miserably where its source had won out.
Every epic fantasy writer that has followed in Tolkien's admittedly enormous footsteps has failed to do what Tolkien did; there has never been another world created within the genre that can rival Middle-earth in originality, scope or individuality. Though perhaps unintentionally, every world built thus far has been nothing but a pale, wan, watered-down shadow of Middle-earth.
Epic fantasy may be epic, but there ain't much fantasy in it. In fact, I would argue that, to find true epic fantasy in the style of Tolkien, we need to look outside of the epic fantasy subgenre, and into other realms.
Two settings in particular blaze in my mind as the embodiment of Tolkien-esque epic fantasy and both are science fiction.
Frank Herbert's Dune sequence and Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun (and its related Urth-novels) display all the trappings of Tolkien-styled secondary world creation. Both are set within the framework of fully-realized, highly-individualized, wholly-unique worlds that display their authors' depth of devotion and attention to world building.
These three settings Middle-earth, Arrakis, and Urth are wildly different from one another, sharing little in their depiction. And yet, that is the central conceit upon which epic fantasy hinges; epic fantasy, in the tradition of Tolkien, is about the individualized creation of fantastic realms.
The sub-genre, Epic Fantasy, fails miserably at this task.
If we look at the series that now comprise the vast bulk of fantasy fiction (and, most certainly, the vast weight as well!), it is plain that Epic Fantasy as a whole is naught but a timid, clichéd variation on the generic, stock-in-trade aspects fostered in the wake of Tolkien's trilogy.
Certainly there are well-written Epic Fantasy novels, just as I'm sure there are well-written nurse novels, westerns and romances. Yet Epic Fantasy hasn't exhibited any of the power inherent in Tolkien's work. It has remained a knockoff, and an unoriginal knockoff at that.
Some people will surely feel their ire rise, including the undeniably successful authors that continue to produce derivative Epic Fantasy. And, to be baldly truthful, I enjoy some of those writers (John Marco, Tad Williams, George R.R. Martin, to name a few). But I say to them with utter conviction you aren't really writing epic fantasy. You're writing the perception of epic fantasy.
Not one of these fantasies will ever transcend the boundaries of genre restrictions as Tolkien's work has done. Not one of these fantasies has the hope of remaining a vital piece of literary culture. Because in the end, they all fail to imitate the spirit of Tolkien, rather than the content of Tolkien. One way lies originality; the other way lies oblivion.
Will we ever see a phenomenon like The Lord of the Rings again? I am uncertain, personally. Granted, there have been strides recently as Epic Fantasy slowly, gently evolves toward more individualized, sophisticated variations. Even Terry Brooks, that original imitator, has been grasping for originality within his Shannara series but those are surface changes, mere trappings of originality. Until writers stop following genre conventions from the ground up, however, we will never see the refreshingly original, unique creation that is the true strength of J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy.
Our main hope of lasting impact seems to come from that land where Tolkien dwelt, England. There has been a 'recent' spate of excellent, even borderline brilliant, fantastic tales coming from British authors. There is a range of idiosyncratic authors producing works of startling intelligence and innovation that follow the spirit of Tolkien rather than the tropes. By merging style with substance, these authors are producing works of literary merit that are still, undeniably and overwhelmingly, epic fantasy.
China Miéville is, perhaps, the best-known of these authors. With his award-winning Perdido Street Station, Miéville introduces readers to a breathtakingly strange, fully-realized world that exhibits the breadth and scope of creation needed to qualify as true epic fantasy. With his follow-up to Perdido Street Station, entitled The Scar, Miéville continues to explore that world, cementing his place as a master world-builder and innovative stylist.
Mary Gentle has created an interstitial masterpiece with her saga Ash: A Secret History (known in the US as The Book of Ash, published in four volumes). With this genre-spanning tale, Gentle has crafted the secret history of an other-worldly Burgundy, and it’s fascinating; simultaneously, she has crafted a place in the history of literature with a tour-de-force tale that hits as hard as anything Don DeLillo has written. And in my opinion, her earlier White Crow series of novels (beginning with Rats and Gargoyles) is even better.
Storm Constantine has been one of the UK's leading fantasists for some time now, but has only recently risen to prominence in the US. And with the release of her Palindrake family saga, The Magravandias Chronicles (including Sea Dragon Heir and The Crown of Silence, Constantine has proven her place among the 'new masters' of epic fantasy with a groovy mixture of gothic fantasy noir that lingers in the mind long after turning the last pages.
James Barclay doesn't really write Epic Fantasy, but he does write bang-up, revisionist heroic (aka 'sword-and-sorcery') fantasy in his Chronicles of the Raven series (Dawnthief; Noonshade). Barclay represents another sort of new breed of fantasy writer: those who write with an eye for pulsing action and moral ambiguity. Like the authors above, Barclay takes established tropes and turns them on their collective tails, producing work that shows more vitality than any cookie-cutter Tolkien knock-off.
There are others I could include (David Zindell springs immediately to mind) to illustrate this point. But the fact is, half the fun is finding out on your own who is exciting, who is trying new things with a traditionally staid, claustrophobic sub-genre. If these authors are any indication of the direction epic fantasy is going, I do have hope.
Perhaps, in the end, there will be a mass resurgence in the idiosyncratic, individualized notions that create not only great fantasy, but great fiction in general.