An Author’s Journey: What is Literary Epic Fantasy? (3) The Scope and Settings (Part 2)
3.5.14 An Author’s Journey: Some Inspirations & Influences, Part 4.8: What is Literary Epic Fantasy? (3) The Scope and Settings (Part 2, Tolkien & Lewis’s Contributions)
Good Afternoon, Everybody!
I’m explaining my approach to “literary epic fantasy” by defining the term in a variety of ways so as to let people know what to expect when they read my novels in The Artifacts of Destiny.
On Monday I discussed the “scope and settings” of what makes a story “epic fantasy” for me, yesterday I presented some of the criticisms of the form, and today I want to continue defining the term and, in this, I need to conclude by explaining how the epic fantasist needs to follow and expand upon the terrain as defined by J.R.R. Tolkien himself:
…”[‘Middle-earth’] is an old word, not invented by me, as a reference to a dictionary such as the Shorter Oxford will show. It meant the habitable lands of our world, set amid the surrounding Ocean. The action of the story [The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and Silmarillion] takes place in the North-west of ‘Middle-earth’, equivalent in latitude to the coastlands of Europe and the north shores of the Mediterranean. … If Hobbiton and Rivendell are taken (as intended) to be at about the latitude of Oxford, then Minas Tirith, 600 miles south, is at about the latitude of Florence. The mouths of Anduin and the ancient city of Pelargir are at about the latitude of ancient Troy.” [J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters, No.294, 8 February 1967, pp. 375–376]
Why am I so insistent on the need to evoke Europe and the Mediterranean Basins as reference points for the genre and bring the “father of epic fantasy” into the argument? It’s because he created the form. High fantasy, or epic fantasy, has a particular flavor to it, and informed by a very specific sensibility: the medieval worlds of 500-1500 A.D./C.E. If you’re writing about something else, that’s great, but please don’t appropriate the term for the sake of making sales without at least hanging your hat in the same pub that the Inklings frequented! Seriously, as I wrote yesterday, call it “urban fantasy,” “grim dark fantasy,” “romantic fantasy,” “low fantasy,” “space fantasy” … whatever, but don’t try to sell something as “epic fantasy” unless the work is going to at least share some part of the same room where the greats did their work (viz., Tolkien, Lewis, Le Guin, Moorcock, Cooper, Peake, Jordan, Pratchett, Martin, Brooks, Donaldson, Williams, et al).
Tolkien was a medievalist, specializing in Anglo-Saxon philology, and the sensibilities of his profession informed his entire works on Middle Earth, which he called his “legendarium.” For all of the cyber-space being filled with parsing the terms “high” or “epic” fantasy, I don’t think that you can write in that particular form and not cleave to the territorial underpinnings that made a foundation for Tolkien’s work. That means giving some “token” attention to the fact that an epic fantasy should treat the environments where the story occurs as seriously as it treats the characters who populate the novel.
To complement Tolkien’s assessment of regionality that should be evoked for his brand of epic/high fantasy, the setting for epic fantasy should also align with some of the realities of the Middle Ages (c. 500-1500) as broadly known to us modern readers. Here’s one helpful definition of the medieval period that Tolkien’s friend (and fellow Oxfored Inkling), C.S. Lewis, described in his work, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature:
“The Middle Ages had roots in the ‘barbarian’ North and West as well as in that Graeco-Roman tradition which reached them principally through books…[medieval people] are bookish. They find it hard to believe that anything an old auctor (author) has said is simply untrue. And they inherit a very heterogeneous collection of books; Judaic, Pagan, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoical, Primitive Christian, Patristic. Or (by a different classification) chronicles, epic poems, sermons, visions, philosophical treatises satires… [pp. 5, 11]
C.S. Lewis, of course, imparted many medieval themes in his own high fantasy creation, The Chronicles of Narnia, which he allowed for as an explicit Christian allegory more than Tolkien ever did for The Lord of the Rings.
The difficulty that I have with many works that currently define themselves as “epic” or “high” fantasy, is that the authors often haven’t done their homework. That is, imitators too often cherry-pick some images, themes, creatures, and settings from Tolkien and Lewis without concerning themselves in the slightest with the exceptional care and attention that these creators of Middle Earth and Narnia gave to building their worlds. Imitation and transformation are completely within a writer’s prerogative, needful elements of the writing process, and we wouldn’t have Literature without centuries of that process in action; however, when we’re trying to establish a clean definition for the genre — and in this case Tolkien created a very distinct genre — I do think that we shouldn’t stray too far from the boundaries that created the realms of epic/high fantasy in the first place.
Does that mean all epic fantasy stories should remain fixed within the geographic boundaries set by Tolkien and Lewis? Of course not. Moreover, there’s no need to, because when you think about Tolkien’s accomplishment, particularly, you realize the brilliance of his approach: by his own admission, in creating Middle-Earth, he superimposed the known regions of Western Europe onto a mythical landscaped of his own creation, but he removed the element of time. To me, such toying with known historical realities and geographies is the key to writing great epic fantasy, and a key to understanding the “scope and setting” part of the definition I’m working under. In short, you need to have a good sense of the ground rules in order to start bending or breaking them!
A literary epic fantasy, then, following J.R.R. Tolkien, the genre’s creator, might invent other worlds or landscapes in its narrative, but — to briefly restate part of Monday’s definition of location and expand upon Tolkien — for me, the majority of settings in “high fantasy/epic fantasy” must 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).
A writer of literary epic fantasy can choose any terrain, but the lands and places described in those stories should elicit the kind of grand scale and historical sense central to these areas that makes the reader feel as if she’s participating a story that’s “epic” in both conception, scope, and settings; or else, why even call it “epic fantasy,” unless you’re trying to make a quick buck by clambering on Tolkien and Lewis’s shoulders without wanting to put the same kind of effort yielded by their academic training and passion for the literary form?
And, trust me, the effort of eliciting some of the medieval vibe that Tolkien and Lewis trusted so much in is worth it. When we look at Western Europe and the Mediterranean Basin during the medieval period, what a palette awaits the artist willing to use millennia’s worth of sources to transform and craft into epic fantasy!
Next Time: Carlisle’s Definition of Literary Epic Fantasy continues with THE SOURCES!