Skip to content

An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (1) Introduction

An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (1) Introduction

 

Literature & Epic Fantasy: Auerbach's Mimesis: "Dante's Inferno," here in Canto 34's "Lucifer King of Hell," Gustave Dore, c. 1861-1868)

Literature & Epic Fantasy: Auerbach’s Mimesis: “Dante’s Inferno,” here in Canto 34’s “Lucifer King of Hell,” Gustave Dore, c. 1861-1868)

Good Afternoon, Everyone!

Whenever I present my work at book clubs or other gatherings, one of the questions I’m inevitably asked runs along the lines of  “how much of your training as a medievalist influences your approach to writing epic fantasy?”

The short answer is “quite a bit,” but writers & readers also know that “artistic license” is a big part of storytelling, so when writing The Artifacts of Destiny I really try to immerse the medieval historian side of myself so deeply in fantasy world-building that it’s not even seen.  In that effort, I’m helped greatly by wife and daughter; Sophia and Adriana are first editors on the novels I write, and they’re particularly skilled at making sure the prose doesn’t ever become dry, lecture-like, or, to use their term, “braniac.”

Literature & Epic Fantasy: Auerbach's Mimesis:  "Odysseus's Scar" & Eurykleia (Gustave Boulanger 1849; Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-arts, Paris)

Literature & Epic Fantasy: Auerbach’s Mimesis: “Odysseus’s Scar” & Eurykleia (Gustave Boulanger 1849; Ecole nationale supérieure des Beaux-arts, Paris)

Literature & Epic Fantasy: Auerbach's Mimesis: "The Knight Sets Forth," as seen here in "Yvain, His Lion, & the Dragon" (15th c. French ms)

Literature & Epic Fantasy: Auerbach’s Mimesis: “The Knight Sets Forth,” as seen here in “Yvain, His Lion, & the Dragon” (15th c. French ms)

When I read fantasy or science-fiction — my two favorite “hobby” genres — I want entertainment that reveals meaningful characters, high adventure, exotic landscapes, and a storyline that keeps me interested for the entirety of the book.  Those kinds of needs are best achieved when all parts of the book (people, locales, plot) enjoy a depth and resonance that “suspends disbelief” and transports the reader into another place for the duration of the read.  For my kind of writing — literary epic fantasy oriented around Tolkien’s geography of northern Europe & Scandinavia, but also introducing a new attention to Mediterranean lands  — any believability stems from a historian’s training that allows me to comfortably bounce around the late antique & medieval eras and write stories that (hopefully) do some justice to times and peoples I’m really passionate about.

Literature & Epic Fantasy: Auerbach's Mimesis: "Roland against Ganelon," here in "Roland at Roncesvalles" (Francois Guizot, 1883)

Literature & Epic Fantasy: Auerbach’s Mimesis: “Roland against Ganelon,” here in “Roland at Roncesvalles” (Francois Guizot, 1883)

For this next series of blogs, I’m going to focus on the importance of respecting those peoples and times by looking closely at how medievalists view history and literature; or, at least, how this historian values literary understandings of history.  The goal here is to make an argument for a new kind of epic fantasy than what’s been repeatedly recycled and rehashed since the mid-20th Century innovations of J.R.R. Tolkien & C.S. Lewis.  It’s an argument that’s ultimately going to demand more legwork by authors in the genre than currently the case, because it means that we’ve all got to do better in crafting stories.  If we’re trying to recapture a “lost” or “bygone” age in our fantasy writing, you’d be surprised how enhanced that effort becomes if you actually read some texts and histories from those periods you’re trying to recreate.  Besides going back to the sources of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages for inspiration, I’m advocating that those in the epic fantasy business should imitate our more “literary” counterparts — that is, meaningfully try to create worlds which express something about “times-that-never-were-but-could-have-been” and also serve as commentaries on our own “modern” cultural environments.

Literature & Epic Fantasy: Auerbach's Mimesis: "The World in Pantagruel's Mouth," here in Rabelais's "Gargantua and Pantagruel" (Gustave Dore, 1854)

Literature & Epic Fantasy: Auerbach’s Mimesis: “The World in Pantagruel’s Mouth,” here in Rabelais’s “Gargantua and Pantagruel” (Gustave Dore, 1854)

Yes, this approach is rather gadfly-like, but as I’ve shown in some past blogs on misogyny and the “exhaustively-imitative-of-Tolkien” writing in the genre, we need to do something, lest epic fantasy become a caricature of itself.  Or, as I like to say in the Twitter-verse, we need to “Reboot & universalize epic fantasy for the 21st Century!”

In short, I believe that cleaving to some “norms” we expect from capital-L “Literature” holds the potential to make for innovative and interesting stories, as well as transforming writers’ storytelling and readers’ expectations.  Let’s get started…

Next Time: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages: 12th Century Bookish Culture

 

No comments yet

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: