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An Author’s Journey: What is Literary Epic Fantasy? (2) The Debate

3.4.14 An Author’s Journey: Some Inspirations & Influences, Part 4.7: What is Literary Epic Fantasy?  (2) The Debate

Bourke's Post-Epic Fantasy Criteria: High Fantasy

Bourke’s Post-Epic Fantasy Criteria: High Fantasy

Good Morning, Everybody,

Bourke's Post-Epic Fantasy Criteria: High Fantasy Quest ("Merlin & Arthur," Gustave Doré, 1868)

Bourke’s Post-Epic Fantasy Criteria: High Fantasy Quest (“Merlin & Arthur,” Gustave Doré, 1868)

As I continue to think through the aspects of literary epic fantasy that excite me as I writer, I thought that this week I’d be giving some attention to the importance of characterization, but yesterday’s blog made me realize that I hadn’t really defined what the term “literary epic fantasy” meant to me.

Casting the phrase into a search engine made me realize that “definitions” are on many people’s minds, especially in respect to whether the genre is inherently “conservative,”  often misogynistic, and nostalgic for a pan-Germanic(Volk), explicitly Western past.

A Twitter question posed by @Gollancz stimulated much debate last year about these issues — “Epic Fantasy is, by and large, crushingly conservative in its delivery, its politics and its morality. Discuss. And why? (Oh why?)” [7:20 pm DST, Feb 20, 2013.] — and, for my part, I recommend the following two blogs for an assessment because the authors gave thoughtful & serious considerations of the the topic and issues raised (you’ll also find links to other discussions, etc.):

Liz Bourke, tor.com (2/2013) http://www.tor.com/blogs/2013/02/
John H. Stevens, sfsignal.com (2/2013) http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2013/02/

I was late to this party, but in thinking about my own approach to epic fantasy, I do appreciate a couple of central points that these bloggers made.

For Liz Bourke, I very much thought she was spot-on with demanding that somebody actually define terms.  After assessing many different approaches & critiques, she observed,

Bourke's Post-Epic Fantasy Criteria: High "Return" (Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, from Tolkien's LotR; New Line, 2003)

Bourke’s Post-Epic Fantasy Criteria: High “Return” (Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, from Tolkien’s LotR; New Line, 2003)

The first is that we keep having this conversation, over and over again, without defining our terms. How do we define “epic”? What counts as “conservative”? (It’s a word with multiple axes of interpretation.) Let’s start with “conservative.” N.K. Jemisin says, “Because the “fantasy” most EF delivers is of white male power & centrality, as much as dragons. That *is* conservativism, now.” [@nkjemisin, 8:00 pm  DST, Feb 20, 2013] We can agree that conservative, here, is fundamentally concerned with not changing the present default cultural narratives of who gets to hold and use power, how, and why. For our genre, for our culture(s) in the US, UK, and Europe, that’s white (heterosexual) cisgendered men. Often persons who don’t fit these criteria who hold and use power anyway are portrayed as wrong, anomalous, wicked. (There are plenty of cultural narratives floating about concerning the moral and occasionally physical degeneracy of non-straight-white-men. Plenty.)

Bourke's Post-Epic Fantasy Criteria: Urban Fantasy

Bourke’s Post-Epic Fantasy Criteria: Urban Fantasy

But is epic fantasy really “crushingly conservative”? This, I think, depends on how we define “epic.” There’s a lack of firm semantic boundaries when it comes to distinguishing “epic” fantasy, the fantasy of the world-changing/saving quest, of the knight sans peur et sans reproche or its deconstruction, from “sword & sorcery”—which I think we can formulate as the fantasy of encounter*—and “high” fantasy, the fantasy of politics and kingdoms. If we consider urban fantasy as encompassing a wider range than the marketing category of that name, we also have second-world urban fantasy, even noir, city-focused fantasy. Lately we have a further modifier in “gritty” or “grimdark”—words which are sometimes used interchangeably and sometimes not.

Bourke's Post-Epic Fantasy Criteria: Sword & Sorcery as "Fantasy of Encounter" (Leiber's Fahfrd & the Grey Mouser, art by Mike Mignola)

Bourke’s Post-Epic Fantasy Criteria: Sword & Sorcery as “Fantasy of Encounter” (Leiber’s Fahfrd & the Grey Mouser, art by Mike Mignola)

Bourke's Post-Epic Fantasy Criteria: Urban/Dark (Laurell K. Hamilton's "Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter" - art by Ron Lim)

Bourke’s Post-Epic Fantasy Criteria: Urban/Dark (Laurell K. Hamilton’s “Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter” – art by Ron Lim)

If epic fantasy is second-world fantasy that shapes its arc in the form of a grand mythic quest (or several), that plays with tropes such as the return or re-establishment (or sometimes the purification) of a monarch, then it’s, by nature, conservative in structure, and by habit conservative in the political institutions it portrays. But it’s not necessarily conservative in its attitudes towards power, relationships, and orientation towards divinity

“Discussions and definitions of “epic” fantasy are inherently conservative … but I’m not convinced that epic itself needs to be, or is innately, anything other than structurally conservative … Are we, in fact, looking at a post-epic landscape?  Is epic a term of art that has lost its particular meaning, and is now applied as a marketing category … ?”

In John H. Stevens’s case —and in my bailiwick of following & then departing from the influences of Tolkien and Lewis — he made a very astute point about the myth-making of my favorite author:

Stevens's Epic Fantasy Criteria: New Mythologies from Old ("Greek Myths," by Derek Fiechter)

Stevens’s Epic Fantasy Criteria: New Mythologies from Old (“Greek Myths,” by Derek Fiechter)

“Some of these stories acquire and channel these qualities because they use tropes and narrative forms that readers recognize as epic, but those qualities alone are insufficient. An epic has to generate linkages to a historical memory that is then exaggerated and aestheticized to give the narrative mythical momentousness. Tolkien did this by creating a history of another world that was entangled with histories of our world for the purpose of making a new mythology. Tolkien had a dream of history that he actualized through the narrative of his novels. the goal was not to create a new history, but to draw from a transformed history themes and ideas that would be amplified into portentous legends … Epics transform history, culture, and time, but they do not have to follow the classical traditions to do so.

Stevens's Epic Fantasy Criteria: World-Building

Stevens’s Epic Fantasy Criteria: World-Building

… There’s much more to say about this, but for now, I merely want to plant a seed. Epic is not just a question of structure or taste; it is one of aspirations and vision. Epics of all sorts, from Gilgamesh’s saga to the newest self-published fantasy novel extravaganza, are sweeping, rambling dreams that take the reader on a journey through a reimagined history. Some of them want to remake the world, many want to maintain it, a few want to question it. What makes them epic is less their literary characteristics than the dreams that readers find in them. If we want to understand epic fantasy better we need to examine those dreams and ponder why they are portentous and momentous.”

Bourke's Post-Epic Fantasy Criteria: Urban Noir Fantasy

Bourke’s Post-Epic Fantasy Criteria: Urban Noir Fantasy

I don’t necessarily completely agree with Bourke that we’re in a “post-epic fantasy world” — um… primarily because I’ve based The Artifacts of Destiny series on the premise that epic fantasy is a genre that needs not to be “rebooted and universalized,” but not discarded! I’ll continue with “Carlisle’s definition of literary epic fantasy” tomorrow, which as my criteria unfold will show that careful and imaginative writers can still write far-reaching stories in the genre.  However, I do appreciate that Bourke’s definitions (“high,” “urban,” “grimdark”) could be useful literary distinctions to help  readers discriminate preferred content in an increasingly diverse marketplace, especially as we’ve seeing such successes in the Young Adult segment that makes claims to the “fantasy” genre.

Stevens's Epic Fantasy Criteria: Transformative Tales (Whendell Deviant Art)

Stevens’s Epic Fantasy Criteria: Transformative Tales (Whendell Deviant Art)

In his request to “plant a seed,” Stevens also expresses a reasonable sensibility that respects the transformative aspects of the epic fantasy genre, as long as the practitioners make a leap from Tolkien to the modern era with attention to themes that respect the historical scope, mythologies, and world-building which are part-and-parcel of anything that dares to call itself “epic.”

I’m hopeful at some point that each of these writers have a chance to read my own contribution, The Codex Lacrimae, Parts 1 & 2. I believe they’ll find that the genre still has plenty of vigor in its existing form, but that writers telling new stories need to tend to some very defined terrain if they’re going to share an exciting adventure with devoted fans of the form.

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

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