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An Author’s Journey: What is Literary Epic Fantasy? (4) The Sources (W. Europe & Mediterranean Sea)

3.6.14 An Author’s Journey: Some Inspirations & Influences, Part 4.9: What is Literary Epic Fantasy?  (4) The Sources: Introduction

Good Afternoon, Everyone!

Multiple 21st Fantasies: "Contemporary" (J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter Series; art by Mary GrandPré)

Multiple 21st Fantasies: “Contemporary” (J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series; art by Mary GrandPré)

Multiple 21st Fantasies: "Dark" (Clive Barker's Harry D'Amour, from The Scarlet Gospels)

Multiple 21st C. Fantasies: “Dark” (Clive Barker’s Harry D’Amour, from The Scarlet Gospels)

In light of the fact that the “fantasy” genre has exploded in every direction over the last decade, I’m spending this week’s blogs on explaining how I define my little slice of the pie, “epic fantasy.”  The task needs to be done, because there’s simply so much interest and so much “fantasy” out there that it’s almost a completely different world from when I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s.

Multiple 21st C. Fantasies: "Romance" (Kristin Cashore's Graceling Series)

Multiple 21st C. Fantasies: “Romance” (Kristin Cashore’s Graceling Series)

Just check out some of the terms on a Google search; you’ve got your high fantasy, low fantasy, heroic fantasy, modern, urban, dark, exotic, romantic, science, sword & sorcery, heroic planet, etc.  There’s seems to be something for everybody across every category, with much blending of terms as sometimes publishers and movie-makers attempt to capitalize on whatever form of fantasy they think will sell the most copies and tickets.

Multiple 21st C. Fantasies: "Urban" (Kim Harrison's The Hollows Series, HarperVoyager)

Multiple 21st C. Fantasies: “Urban” (Kim Harrison’s The Hollows Series, HarperVoyager)

In an increasingly diversified entertainment world, this fragmentation of the fantasy form is natural and desirable; creators and audiences want different approaches to the “fantasy” genre, and it’s become critical for authors and publishers to define what kind of literary/animated/cinematic entertainment they’re offering.  [Check out the listing in Wikipedia for all varieties available in 2014: http://Fantasy Genres (& others)]

Multiple 21st Century Fantasies: "Science" (Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, art by Bruce Pennington)

Multiple 21st C. Fantasies: “Science” (Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, art by Bruce Pennington)

For my interests in writing The Artifacts of Destiny series, I believe that I’m writing well within the “epic fantasy” genre as I understand it, but that term has come under much scrutiny during the last few years and I want to be clear with my readers where I’m coming from.  

Multiple 21st C. Fantasies: "Exotic" (Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Dart, art by Angela R. Sasser)

Multiple 21st C. Fantasies: “Exotic” (Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart, art by Angela R. Sasser)

When I see the phrase “epic fantasy” (or “high fantasy”), whether or not I’m writing in the genre or reading from it, I expect and want a certain kind of story, and it’s a tale that sets it apart from rest of market.  To help clarify what I mean, this week’s blogs have looked at (1) how I believe the phrase should be encoded, with a specific understanding of “scope & setting” (http://2014/03/03), (2) some literary criticisms that are trying to keep the phrase clearly understood (http://2014/03/04/ ), and (3) a need to include J.R.R. Tolkien’s work as a framework for understanding the terms (http://2014/03/05/3).  

Throughout, I’ve tried to be very clear that Tolkien’s definition of epic fantasy needs to be rebooted and universalized, primarily by what I’ll call “A.J.’s definition for epic fantasy setting.”  Here’s what I mean by that:

Poulnaborne Dolmen Tomb (megalithic portal, Ireland; Rob Shaw, Irish Archaeology.ie)

Northern European Lands (Poulnaborne Dolmen Tomb, Ireland)

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 PeninsulaNorth Africa, & the lands of the Middle Eastern littoral

Mediterranean Sea at Sunset

Mediterranean Sea  (Greek Isles)

By expanding the criteria for what I call “literary epic fantasy” to those peoples and lands around the Mediterranean Sea during the Middle Ages, a fantasist can immediately capture much of the world’s population because of the thriving commercial & cultural contacts we know existed between 500-1500 A.D.  

Mediterranean Lands (Sicily)

Mediterranean Lands (Sicily)

I think that such an approach is needful in the 21st century because while the best stories work with/against aspects of Tolkien (e.g., quest & warfare motifs, medieval sense of time & space, fantastic creatures & landscapes, etc), those who work in the field need to universalize the experience in a way that captures more of a modern sensibility about literature than Tolkien had an interest in pursuing.

Mediterranean Lands (Levantine Coast, Middle East)

Mediterranean Lands (Levantine Coast, Middle East)

That is, “epic fantasy” writers of today should strive to create worlds & stories that cleave to traditional interpretations of the genre’s scope and setting, but they also simply have to be fearless in their approach, making quality tales that give equal attention to protagonists & antagonists who reflect the polyglot of peoples, genders, lands, ethnicities, cultures, and daily realities that made up the medieval world.  

To show how fun and entertaining that attention can be, we have to look at the sources available to the epic fantasy author when telling his or her stories …

Next time: Carlisle’s Definition of Epic Fantasy Continues (Sources #1-5)

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