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An Author’s Journey: What is Literary Epic Fantasy? (1) The Scope and Settings

3.3.14 An Author’s Journey: Some Inspirations & Influences, Part 4.7: What is Literary Epic Fantasy?  (1) The Scope and Settings

Good Morning, Everyone!

A few weeks ago I took a break from my 28 blogs on Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, to discuss how important characterization is in any work of literature, but especially in the epic fantasy genre, which too often gets derailed into cliches and one-offs of Tolkien and Lewis.

"At Tarn Aeluin" (from J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion; art by Ted Nasmith)

“At Tarn Aeluin” (from J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion; art by Ted Nasmith)

A.J. Carlisle, The Codex Lacrimae, Pt 1: The Mariner's Daughter & Doomed Knight

A.J. Carlisle, The Codex Lacrimae, Pt 1

But, before even getting to the question of characterization, first steps should probably include a definition of  “literary epic fantasy.”  I think anyone that uses any term, especially one that defines an entire literary genre, should be able to define what it is, and you’ll get a sense from my answer where I stand and what to expect from my stories.  Note: my sensibilities about the genre are informed (1) by a lifelong passion for the form, (2) by my experience as a medieval historian,  and (3) by accepting as a given that the world-building of J.R.R. Tolkien (Middle Earth) and C.S. Lewis (Narnia) in the early to mid-20th century created what we’ve come to understand as the “epic fantasy” genre.

So, here’s my working definition for “literary epic fantasy,” which governs how I wrote my book, The Codex Lacrimae, and under which I’m currently writing the other nine novels in The Artifacts of Destiny series.

A.J. Carlisle, The Codex Lacrimae, Part 2

A.J. Carlisle, The Codex Lacrimae, Pt 2

(1) The Scope and Settings:
A literary epic fantasy is a fictional novel (or series) conceived and expressed on a grand scope defined by a storyline and/or mythology that spans a considerable period & involves the highest of personal stakes (fate of the world) for characters in the narrative (e.g., imitative of the Icelandic and Norse saga literature upon which J.R.R. Tolkien partly used to create his Middle Earth mythologies in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, etc).

Christopher Tolkien, Map of Middle Earth (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings)

World-building:  Christopher Tolkien, Map of Middle Earth (from J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings)

Edmund and the White Witch (from C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)

Edmund and the White Witch (from C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)

In respect to scope and settings, a literary epic fantasy also involves male and female protagonists (and antagonists) whose narratives are unified by a common storyline and played out in different environments than the “modern world” (20th-21st century); however, regardless of the imaginary locales, alternate dimensions, or geographical topologies in which the characters operate, the majority of settings evoke a bygone age that reflect key aspects of lands and peoples (nobility, peasantry, merchants, clergy, etc) of the medieval period in Western Europe and the Mediterranean Basin (c. 500-1500 A.D., & including the Iberian Peninsula, North Africa, & the lands of the Middle Eastern littoral).

Merlin & Arthur (from T.H. White's The Once and Future King," art by John Lawrence)

Merlin & Arthur (from T.H. White’s The Once and Future King,” art by John Lawrence)

An epic fantasy is written either as one sustained work (J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or T.H. White’s The Once and Future King), or as a series of novels that have a common character or storyline (Michael Moorcock’s Elric books or Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series), of which all must include supernatural creatures, magical phenomena, and otherworldly landscapes.

"The Tombs of Atuan" (from Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea books, art by John Jude Palencar)

“The Tombs of Atuan” (from Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books, art by John Jude Palencar)

Works written in the literary epic fantasy form also evoke traditions and motifs derived from many Western European sources, but — because of the polyglot of peoples, religions, and cultural exchange in the Mediterranean basin of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages — the works may also include attention to the multitudes of peoples who appeared on the historical stage in the medieval Mediterranean, including men and women of African, Persian, Russian, Indian, Slavic, Chinese, & Asian descent in the period 500-1500 A.D. (regionally, this would include regions commonly referred to as the Near East, Far East, South-East Asia, India, Eastern Europe, and Africa).

What do you all think about this question of scope and settings? Let’s take a quick poll:

Next Time:  Carlisle’s Definition of Literary Epic Fantasy continues!

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