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An Author’s Journey: What is Literary Epic Fantasy? (4) The Sources: #1-5 (Vikings, Beowulf, Germany, Scandinavia, Eddas & Sagas)

3.7.14 An Author’s Journey: Some Inspirations & Influences, Part 4.9: What is Literary Epic Fantasy?  (4) The Sources: #1-5

Carlisle's Epic Fantasy:  Partly Inspired by Sagas & Eddas of Medieval Iceland (Canyon Hengifossa, E. Iceland)

A.J. Carlisle’s Epic Fantasy Inspiration: Sagas & Eddas of Medieval Iceland (Canyon Hengifossa, East Iceland)

Good Evening, Everyone!

Now we’re getting into what really makes me “tick” as a writer and epic fantasist.  For those just joining (especially the many Twitter followers I’m gaining @AJ_Carlisle ..thank you!), I’m giving my definition of what “epic fantasy” means to me as a fan and creator. I began the week with “scope & setting,” then touched down on current “debates” about the term, and now well into what “sources” I consider fair game for inspiration as I draw from the period 500-1500 A.D. in northern Europe and the Mediterranean Basin.

How to do this? As a medievalist who trusts in the knowledge base  about the period that’s exploded in the last forty years in all fields (archaeology, anthropology, art, history, literature, gender & cultural studies, etc), I feel free to draw upon the following sources for creating epic fantasy stories that include allegories of, renaming of, or impilict/explicit references to:

Ruins at Cape Sounion (Greece)

Carlisle’s World: Ruins at Cape Sounion (Greece)

1) the mythologies of Greco-Roman antiquity:  Oh, yeah, I went there, I went to the most commonly known (yet little used) sources which are ready-made for new tales in epic-fantasy mode.  I’m not writing about the Young Adult Rick Riordan versions of the classical myths, because while they’ve stimulated many a teenage imagination, I’m wondering where are current epic fantasy adaptations and/or use of these powerhouse Greek gods and goddesses whom we all grew up with?

Roman Forum (Italy)

Carlisle’s World: Roman Forum (Italy)

I’m not urging just a retelling, but actually bringing the characters and stories into active epic fantasy story lines. Just because they’re familiar doesn’t mean that they can’t be used and reinterpreted for each new generation; moreover, the sheer scale of many of these myths lend themselves to epic fantasy versions.

Current authors & works that incorporate Greco-Roman sources (though not what I’d call “epic fantasy”):  

Meg Cabot, The Abandon Series (2011-) “Chick-Lit”/Young Adult retelling of Persephone & Hades myth
Ursula K. Le Guin, Lavinia (2008) – truly well-written work that takes a little-known character from Virgil’s Aeneid and runs with her…
Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books – Young Adult contemporary fantasy series that’s enjoying monster successes in marketplace & in film
Dan Simmons, Ilium (2003) and Olympos (2005) [well-writtten Science Fiction books in far-future settings that rely heavily on Greek mythology]

Viking Funeral (Sir Francis Bernard Dicksee; Wikipedia)

A.J. Carlisle’s Epic Fantasy Inspiration: Viking Funeral (Sir Francis Bernard Dicksee; Wikipedia)

Carlisle's World: A Bygone Viking Age (Smeerenburg Fjord, Norway; photo by Hans Strand)

Carlisle’s World: A Bygone Viking Age (Smeerenburg Fjord, Norway; photo by Hans Strand)

(2) The oral tradition of Norse myths from the the Viking Age (8th to 11th centuries):  We’re seeing something of a resurgence of interest in the same wells from which Tolkien drew inspiration in the recent Marvel Thor films, which, in turn, are based on the Stan Lee & Jack Kirby 1960s comic-book versions of Thor, Odin, Loki, Sif et al.  However, only a few authors have really taken seriously these sources as stimuli for new stories in the epic fantasy genre.

(Relatively) Current authors & works that incorporate Norse Myth sources (though not what I’d call “epic fantasy”)

Melissa de la Cruz, Witches of East End (2011) contemporary fantasy set in Long Island
Neil Gaiman & Brett HelquistOdd and 
the Frost Giants (2009); excellent children’s story that’s loosley based on Gylfaginning, “The Tricking of Gylfi”)
Neil Gaiman, American Gods (2001) Shadow and Mr. Wednesday
Greg Van EekhoutNorse Code (2009) contemporary fantasy with Norse characters

Beowulf, "The Hall of Heorot" (by John Howe)

A.J. Carlisle’s Epic Fantasy Inspiration: Beowulf, “The Hall of Heorot” (by John Howe)

Carlisle's World: Medieval Poetry ("Sir Gawain & the Green Knight," art by John Howe)

Carlisle’s World: Medieval Poetry (“Sir Gawain & the Green Knight,” art by John Howe)

(3) the Anglo-Saxon remnants of Old English (Beowulf, c. 8th-11th c.): I’m still very pleased with the 2007 Robert Zemeckis animated adaptation of this Old English poem that had such a profound influence on J.R.R. Tolkien’s world-building of Middle Earth, but haven’t seen a flood of attention to this early medieval source in the way I expected.  Yeah, I know, the expectations of a curmudgeonly medievalist might be hyper-inflated, but I thought that there’d be a dash of writers seeking out other poems (Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Song of Roland, etc.) with which Tolkien and Lewis were very familiar & aspects of which appear throughout their works!

(Relatively) Current authors & works that incorporate Old English/Beowulf sources (though not what I’d call “epic fantasy”)

Michael CrichtonEaters of the Dead (1976) interactions between a 10th c. Muslim and Vikings (basis for the Antonio Banderas film, The 13th Warrior)
John GardenerGrendel (1971) Beowulf story, from Grendel’s perspective…excellent!
Caitlín R. KiernanBeowulf (novelization of 2007 film)

The Mabinogion (art by Alan Lee)

A.J. Carlisle’s Epic Fantasy Inspiration:  The Mabinogion (art by Alan Lee)

Carlisle's World: Illustrated Folio of Parzifal (13th c.)

Carlisle’s World: Illustrated Folio of Parzifal (13th c.)

(4) the Germanic, Finnish, Welsh, and Gaelic folklore from the 12th-14th centuriesMost of these works are in translation, but they do demand a departure from most of the western canon & typically assigned Lit class readings!  However, for one striving to bring new energy to the epic fantasy form, you could do worse than familiarizing yourself with some of these sources.

Michael Moorcock

Michael Moorcock


Current authors & works that incorporate these varied medieval folklore sources
Michael Moorcock:
 In his various tales of the Eternal Champion, Moocock has thoroughly mined many of the themes and characters that appear in high- and late-medieval literary sources such as Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal, Lönrot’s compilation of Finland’s Kalevala, and other influences from northern Europe and Germanic lands.

Katherine Kurtz & Mary Stewart:  On the Welsh side of things, I believe that Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni books and Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy (with the fourth book, The Wicked Day) still remain the best examples of the high fantasy genre for these influences.

Stephen R. Lawhead:  When thinking about northern, Gaelic climes, and particularly a fascinating rendering of Late Antique/Early Medieval sources (Taliesin, Gildas the Wise, Nennius, the Mabinogion, etc.), see Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle.

A.J. Carlisle's Epic Fantasy:  The Medieval World of Eddas & Sagas (Aurora Borealis and Volcano on Eyjafjallajökull Glacier, Iceland)

A.J. Carlisle’s Epic Fantasy Inspiration: The Medieval World of Nordic Eddas & Sagas (Aurora Borealis and Volcano on Eyjafjallajökull Glacier, Iceland)

J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien

(5) the 13th literary record of Scandinavian cultures (eddic and saga literature): Although writings such as Völuspa, Hauksbók, the Prose Edda, & skaldic poetry (skalds were court poets, or wandering minstrels) are usually the preserve of academics or students of medieval literature (and nowhere on the horizon of contemporary epic fantasy interests), these Norse sources provided Tolkien with much of the foundation for his writings on Middle Earth.  As his friend, C.S. Lewis, commented on what Glorian St. Clair has called the “Northern qualities” of The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings:

C.S. Lewis (Holy Trinity College)

C.S. Lewis (Holy Trinity College)

“If we insist on asking for the moral of the story [Tolkien’s Middle Earth mythology], that is its moral: a recall from facile optimism and wailing pessimism alike, to that hard, yet not quite desperate, insight into Man’s unchanging predicament by which heroic ages have lived. It is here that the Norse affinity [in Tolkien] is the strongest: hammer strokes, but with compassion.” [C.S. Lewis, on Tolkien]

A.J. Carlisle's Epic Fantasy Inspiration: Eyjafjalljökull Volano, Iceland (National Geographic)

A.J. Carlisle’s Epic Fantasy Inspiration: Eyjafjalljökull Volano, Iceland (National Geographic)

I believe that the fantasist needs to become at least acquainted with these sources, as they include many of the motifs that Tolkien introduced; for example, Lorien as a version of the world of Nordic lands of Faerie, the family trees that marked works such as N’jal’s Saga replicated in a hobbit’s pride in knowing lineages, and, ultimately the form in which all of the books are written:  Tolkien writes as a chronicler (in The Fellowship of the Ring, he refers to The Hobbit as a history, The Red Book of Westmarch).  This attribute of Tolkien, envisioning a world of such “scope” and “setting” that that imaginary place is a key hallmark of what constitutes the “epic” in epic fantasy!

A.J. Carlisle, The Codex Lacrimae

A.J. Carlisle, The Codex Lacrimae

For the eddic & saga literature that so influenced the Viking culture and Norse myth-makers, Tolkien’s the last one I know of to incorporate many of these works in epic fantasy.  I’m also repeatedly going to them for inspiration in crafting The Artifacts of Destiny Series, beginning with the first novel, The Codex Lacrimae, which the publisher divided into two parts:

A.J. Carlisle, The Codex Lacrimae, Part 1: The Mariner’s Daughter & Doomed Knight  http://www.The Codex Lacrimae, Part 1
A.J. Carlisle, The Codex Lacrimae, Part 2: The Book of Tears
http://www.The Codex Lacrimae, Part 2

Next time:  All right, we’re underway with looking at how to re-boot this epic fantasy genre by using sources from the northern European and Mediterranean medieval worlds; next time, on to “Sources #6-10,” which canvass Hebrew, Islamic, African, & Silk Route myths & legends on the way to universalizing epic fantasy for a new generation!

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