The following question appeared in the SciFi Roundtable Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/scifiroundtable/ of which I am an appreciative member. It caught my attention, so I decided to write an answer.
WHAT MAKES AN EPIC FANTASY?
At school, we were taught the best approach to any topic, across the entire range of subject areas, was to have a careful look at the title before embarking on a response. This was a vital step, we were told, the first opening of the door which led to a mark acceptable to teachers and parents. Whether a mark was acceptable to we students (pupils in my day) was hardly considered.
The stiff and uncompromising instruction: “The Life Cycle of the Common Brown Frog – Discuss” was never a problem. But a more friendly invitation to “Discuss the Life Cycle of the Common Brown Frog” generated all sorts of open-ended possibilities for a young person who, with a weird attitude to things in general, might begin by giving the frog a name.
This business of titles and their meaning is why the question: “What Makes an Epic Fantasy?” caught my attention. Not because it is “about” a vitally important field of human experience, but because it opens a wide swathe of possible approaches to, and interpretations of, the topic.
Here are my ideas concerning the matter of epic fantasy, and what makes this particular expressive form what it is.
We all have ideas about the meanings of “fantasy” and “epic”, and we use the terms to communicate pleasantly with other 21st-century people. But ask for precise definitions of the terms, and one tends to see hand-waving and to hear generalities: “big, heroic, unreal, weird, blockbuster stuff…” which is interesting, but hardly satisfactory.
In 1984 Isaac Asimov, the great writer of classical (what some of us now call “hard”) science fiction, argued: “It is not the plot of a story that makes it a fantasy … It is the background against which the plot is played out that counts.”
In Asimov’s terms, for a story to be a “fantasy” story, we are looking at a unique background world which has come straight from the writer’s imagination, as in the case of George RR Martin, the “Star Wars” novels, or CJ Cherryh.
This allows for many works in the science fiction lists also to be viewed as having a foot in the fantasy genre. But, as Asimov remarked: “…it doesn’t take much to switch from fantasy to science fiction…”
Fantasy boils down to the imaginative creation of unique, possibly bizarre, worlds, and the more unusual but believable those worlds are, the greater is the attraction to the reader (or viewer).
Now we look at the conditions for a fantasy to be seen as an epic fantasy. Here the plot does become important. We move away from background as the defining characteristic, because the term “epic” is to do with human behaviour, a very special behaviour which raises certain humans almost to the condition of gods.
Initially, an epic was a long story about great characters, performing great and admirable actions, told in verse. But prose has taken over, and the definition of epic has changed slightly. Now an epic is any (still long) story, set in prose, where heroes, who are larger-than-life characters in the first place, face larger-than-life situations and show the highest ethical qualities a human being is capable of as they do it.
This behaviour is important to us. It is part of the collective human spirit, protecting us from darkness, and we welcome evidence that it exists. When we see a book or film or picture showing that courageous humans can and will openly resist the forces of evil, especially when they are moving within a large background, we are looking into an epic.
One of my favourite fantasy novels is “Lud-in-the-Mist” by Hope Mirrlees, published in 1926. It follows a strange, numinous storyline which takes the reader into a world “bordering on Faery”, but in no respect is it an epic fantasy. It is too quiet, too small in scale.
Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”, is a quite different matter. Heroes abound, the action moves within a powerful, large-scale imaginative setting, the forces of light and dark are constantly in opposition and the shape of evil is clearly manifested before it is defeated. This is epic fantasy in one of its highest expressions.
People find themselves drawn to epic fantasy. More than other genres of literary and visual expression, epic fantasy deals with themes from the deep levels of the collective human psyche, with heroes and heroines, great figures of power both benign and inimical, and events that rise far beyond the affairs of normal daily lives. But, perhaps most importantly of all, even in the face of realistic doubt, it shows that in the end, good will defeat evil.