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An Author’s Journey: What is Literary Epic Fantasy? (2) The Debate, Part 2: A Few More Critiques of Epic Fantasy)

An Author’s Journey: What is Literary Epic Fantasy? (2) The Debate, Part 2: A Few More Critiques of Epic Fantasy)

Michael Moorcock: “Time is a dream — or a nightmare —from which there is never any waking. We who travel in Time are dreamers who occasionally share a common experience.” (from, "The Dancers at the End of Time," art by Vance Kovacs)

Michael Moorcock: “Time is a dream — or a nightmare —from which there is never any waking. We who travel in Time are dreamers who occasionally share a common experience.” (from, “The Dancers at the End of Time,” art by Vance Kovacs)

Good Evening, Everyone!

Earlier in the month (http://ajcarlisle/2014/03/04/), I began defining what epic fantasy a genre means to me, & highlighted some critiques of the form.  Here are a few more to think about:

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Tolkien Reader

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Tolkien Reader

(1)  First, here’s Sarah Shoker’s blog-entry that catalogued a variety of anti-epic fantasy opinions; the following serves as a decent introduction into the topic:

…labelling the epic fantasy genre as unserious also stems from the 19th century rise of the modernist tradition that undervalues story and prioritizes style. Traditionally, epic fantasy is told conservatively and is rarely experimental, omitting surprising shifts in time or point of view. This ordered narrative prioritizes story-telling by giving readers access to familiar non-experimental style, which consequently allows them to suspend skepticism (or to even believe, as Tolkien states in his lecture “On Fairy Stories”) without awkward mental breaks that would shatter the belief of the secondary world.

Outer Hebrides, Lewish Clan Circle (pic by David Clapp)

Outer Hebrides, Lewish Clan Circle (pic by David Clapp)

In a much quoted passage, E.M Forster articulates the modernist position on storytelling, calling its relationship to the novel as “the backbone—or may I say tapeworm, for its beginnings and end are arbitrary. It is immensely old—goes back to Neolithic times, perhaps to Paleolithic. Neanderthal man listened to stories, if one may judge the shape of his skull.”

The fantastic’s historical link to oral folk ballads and storytelling is fairly obvious, but this modernist disdain for its oral roots reveals Forster’s elitism: if it’s not difficult to read, then it’s not worth the reader’s time. This position, while also being classicist, neglects oral storytelling’s influence on knowledge … In his famous 2001 essay titled “A Reader’s Manifesto” [],  B.R. Meyers writes that fast-paced stories written in un-affected prose may be deemed “an excellent read” or a “page-turner,” but “never literature with a capital L.”


King Arthur & Camelot (Gustave Dore, illustration of Alfred Tennyson's "Idylls of the King," 1868)

King Arthur & Camelot (Gustave Dore, illustration of Alfred Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King,” 1868)

The modernist backlash comes on the heels of the Victorian period’s Arthurian resurgence, a shift created by popular writers like Walter Scott, Alfred Tennyson, and William Morris. Tolkien was especially keen on Morris’ romances, stating that “other stories have only scenery; his have geography.” We have Morris to thank (and not sarcastically!) for the creation of Tolkien’s maps, revolutionary at the time of their publication and now staples in nearly every epic fantasy novel. It bears noting that even during their lifetimes, authors like Walter Scott were accused of prettifying history and creating a market for nostalgia…

See more at: Sarah Shoker, “Jailers Hate Escapism: Epic Fantasy as Subversive Literature,”]

Fantasy World (Vance Kovacs)

Fantasy World (Vance Kovacs)

(2) Next are some 2002 observations about badly written epic fantasy from Alec Austin; here’s an excerpt on epic fantasy characters:

No matter how fascinating the world a story is set in may be, if the characters it concerns are uninteresting or underdeveloped, the story will be a failure. Even more than sloppy world creation and the misuse of language, failures of characterization plague the epic fantasy novel.

A Complex Villain in C.S. Lewis, "The White Witch" (Tilda Swinton) in Disney's 2005 "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe")

A Complex Villain in C.S. Lewis, “The White Witch” (Tilda Swinton) in Disney’s 2005 “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe”)

But while the tired nature of many heroes and heroines in epic fantasy is tedious enough (a naïve/sniveling/self-pitying young boy/girl discovers that they have been Chosen to save the country/world/universe), the characterization of their antagonists is often worse. The unalloyed goodness of protagonists and rank evil of villains clearly seems to appeal to a certain kind of reader, but such hackneyed and one-dimensional characterization saps a story of any real emotional power or relevance it might otherwise possess. Even the most elevated and fantastic story must possess a certain amount of emotional realism in the way it portrays its characters, or it becomes no more than a puppet-play, with caricatures of pure good and evil battling it out while the author jerks them about on their strings. Not only is the simplification of complex human motives to black and white bad art, it’s morally reprehensible as well:  there are more than enough people in this world who believe that everyone who disagrees with them is incurably evil and misguided without authors perpetuating that toxic belief system through fiction.

Lloyd Alexander, "Chronicles of Prydain" (art by P. J. Lynch)

Lloyd Alexander, “Chronicles of Prydain” (art by P. J. Lynch)

This is not to say that all villains and antagonists should be sympathetic, but rather that those which get any reasonable amount of page time should possess recognizable human traits. The greatest fantasists manage this as a matter of course. Consider Tolkien’s orcs, and the bitterness of their bickering over what to do with Pippin and Merry, or the vindictive hatred which Achren feels for Arawn in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain.  If one must have a being of pure inhuman malevolence, it is generally best kept as a speechless, faceless presence, as Sauron was, for if evil is given a face it should be its familiarity, and not its strangeness, which frightens us — the knowledge that there, but for the grace of God, go we.

I have concentrated on questions of moral complexity and believability because flaws of characterization in epic fantasy often grow out of them. All that has been said about the necessity of antagonists being recognizable as human goes double or triple for protagonists. As the main character(s) will probably be the lens through which the reader receives the story’s events, they should probably be more perceptive, driven, or prone to dramatic action than the members of their supporting cast. After all, if they aren’t, why should we care about them?

See more at: Alec Austin, “Quality in Epic Fantasy,”

Michael Moorcock, "The Dreamthief's Daughter" (art by Robert Gould)

Michael Moorcock, “The Dreamthief’s Daughter” (art by Robert Gould)

(3) Lastly, here’s an indictment on bad fantasy writing from Michael Moorcock’s Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy

“…The commercial genre which has developed from Tolkien is probably the most dismaying effect of all. I grew up in a world where Joyce was considered to be the best Anglophone writer of the 20th century. I happen to believe that Faulkner is better, while others would pick Conrad, say. Thomas Mann is an exemplary giant of moral, mythic fiction. But to introduce Tolkien’s fantasy into such a debate is a sad comment on our standards and our ambitions. Is it a sign of our dumber times thatLord of the Rings can replace Ulysses as the exemplary book of its century? Some of the writers who most slavishly imitate him seem to be using English as a rather inexpertly-learned second language. So many of them are unbelievably bad that they defy description and are scarcely worth listing individually…That such writers also depend upon recycling the plots of their literary superiors and are rewarded for this bland repetition isn’t surprising in a world of sensation movies and manufactured pop bands. That they are rewarded with the lavish lifestyles of the most successful whores is also unsurprising. To pretend that this addictive cabbage is anything more than the worst sort of pulp historical romance or western is, however, a depressing sign of our intellectual decline and our free-falling academic standards. [Michael Moorcock, Wizardry & Wild Romance]

What’s the worst example of bad epic fantasy you’ve ever read?  Answer in the box below, and if I get enough replies, I’ll assess what you all find to be the worst transgressions in the genre.

Have a great night, and thanks for visiting!




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