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An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (5) Medieval Language & Literature (Emerging from the Cave of Tolkien & Lewis)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: J.R.R. Tolkien, "Gimli & Legolas in the Glittering Caves of Aglraond," from The Two Towers & RotK, Appendix A," art by Ted Nasmith)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: J.R.R. Tolkien, “Gimli & Legolas in the Glittering Caves of Aglraond,” from The Two Towers & RotK, Appendix A,” art by Ted Nasmith)

An Author’s Journey: Epic Fantasy & the Literary Middle Ages (5) Medieval Language & Literature (Emerging from the Cave of Tolkien & Lewis)

Inspiration from Medieval Language & Literature: "Cave of the Sibyl," Ovid's Metamorphoses, pic by Corbis)

Inspiration from Medieval Language & Literature: “Cave of the Sibyl,” Ovid’s Metamorphoses, pic by Corbis)

Good Morning, Everyone!

Can a creator write epic fantasy without learning about medieval literature?

Sure, writers have been weaving fantasy stories for the seventy years since Tolkien & Lewis were in their prime.  However, as I scan the field today, and assess the many books, television shows, & films that authors, publishers, producers, & fans call “epic fantasy,” I can’t help but observe that to0-often there seems to be something of a retreading over the same lands that those two medievalists explored back in the early 20th Century.

That’s okay, too … to a point.  A large part of artistic process & literary expression involves imitation and adaptation of what’s gone before.  Those borrowings and reinventions are what ties us together culturally as human beings in space and time, both across our own international lands and with those ancestors who lived centuries before.

Current Fantasy Sub-Genre Fads ..." Vampires, Zombies, Angels, & Undead, Oh My!" (Castlevania 2: Lords of Shadow video-game)

Current Fantasy Sub-Genre Fads …” Vampires, Zombies, Angels, & Undead, Oh My!” (Castlevania 2: Lords of Shadow video-game)

However, there’s always the risk of over-saturation within any genre, and I think we’re reaching that point where the reading public is craving something new in the broader fantasy genre —anybody notice the “waves” of popularity upon which rode the various vampire, zombie, angel, & witch stories that have kept coming to the literary shore during the last decade? The quality of material in these (mostly young adult) books may vary, but there sometimes seems to be an interchangeability in characters and plots that becomes tiresome when I’m looking for something new and engaging to read in my free time.  As a creator, how do you tap into the same kind of wondrous worlds that Tolkien and Lewis discovered?  Short answer: you might want to use part of the same map they used, which was the entirety of medieval literature.

Inspiration from Medieval Language & Literature: "The Tombs of Atuan" (from Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea books, art by John Jude Palencar)

Inspiration from Medieval Language & Literature: “The Tombs of Atuan” (from Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books, art by John Jude Palencar)

The map worked.  I don’t know about you, but much of the excitement in discovering Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Lewis’s Narnia, Moorcock’s Multiverse, Kurtz’s Gwynedd, or Le Guin’s Earthsea was that the descriptions were so vivid I could feel the faux-medieval world in which the characters and stories were embedded.  Seriously — and probably TMI on how geeky I can be — until I was about 26 years’ old (or, when I started having my own family!), I annually re-read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as both a personal Nov/Dec “holiday homage” to Tolkien’s works, but also so that Middle Earth remained an active, vibrant mental landscape to which I could retreat when the “real world” got too stressful, or when I just wanted to journey with Frodo & Sam through Mordor!  I did the same thing in a more desultory way with other favorite authors (Moorcock, Le Guin, T.H. White) but usually not more than 3 re-reads over the last twenty years or so.

Inspiration from Medieval Language & Literature: J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Glittering Caves of Aglorand," art by Ted Nasmith)

Inspiration from Medieval Language & Literature: J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Glittering Caves of Aglorand,” art by Ted Nasmith)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Pevensies Enter Narnia" (from C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian, Disney 2008)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Pevensies Enter Narnia” (from C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian, Disney 2008)

The point is that, for those works whose characters and landscapes to secure a foothold and linger in our minds, a creator really has to “go the extra mile” and make sure that the faux-medieval world she creates is one that resonates with all readers across all times.  On so many levels, I’m definitely not the same person I was back in the 1970s and 1980s, but when I read Moorcock or Kurtz or Le Guin or Tad Williams, thanks to the care they collectively took with creating believable, faux-medieval worlds, there is a “younger A.J.” that returns to meet the older one and compare notes; trust me, when creators such as these do their homework, you’re more than willing to repeatedly visit their novels.

To me, that kind of world-building is the hallmark of a successful epic fantasy, and it can be achieved only by rendering peoples and worlds so plausible that you can almost hear the conversations in the pub, taste the soup at the camp, or feel the wind as you reach the summit of a mountain hike.  It won’t be accomplished, however, by reading LotR or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and drafting a story that affects originality, but which actually has a Sisterhood of the Necklace who meet a talking tiger as they walk across Higher Earth to destroy the One Locket and pursued by a Black King who has a penchant for handing out Arabian Delights to children!

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Flight from Moria" (J.R.R. Tolkien, New LIne Cinema, 2001)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Flight from Moria” (J.R.R. Tolkien, New LIne Cinema, 2001)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Beowulf Battles Grendel (art by John Howe)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Beowulf Battles Grendel (art by John Howe)

No,to achieve the verisimilitude that our Oxford professors of the 1930s and 1940s achieved, you need to know something of the subject that you’re writing about, and that means you need familiarity with the source material.  I fear that too many of today’s creators rely on the “medieval memes” Tolkien and Lewis revealed (elves in forests, dwarves in caves, kings returning, language inventing, wardrobe opening, etc.) without bothering to learn of the hundreds of other medieval “realities” that might be revealed if one turns to medieval literature’s voluminous pages.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "In Dai Chikiza," from Tad Williams, The Dragonbone Chair (art by Michael Whelan, 1988)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “In Dai Chikiza,” from Tad Williams, The Dragonbone Chair (art by Michael Whelan, 1988)

Without reading some of that wondrous material and learning about ancient/new stories, situations, & world-views, creators who want to write truly write original epic fantasy run the risk of being the ones who are content to sit at the proverbial base of Plato’s Cave and simply take the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis as the end-all of what can be done with the epic fantasy genre.  I’m a lifelong student of Tolkien, but I also learned long ago that at some point the student needs to demonstrate mastery for his own path.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Tolkien & Lewis as Epic Fantasy's Cave ...

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: Tolkien & Lewis as Epic Fantasy’s Cave …

I’m also one who doesn’t like to simply rely on second-hand information if I can go to the source!  In this case, that meant reading as much medieval literature as possible even while I was working on my The Artifacts of Destiny fantasy series.  How could I not? I wanted to roam in the same lands as Tolkien and Lewis, but I never had an interest in duplicating their work.

So, as you sit in the Cave-of-Philosophy-cum-Epic-Fantasy-Writing-Den, don’t let Tolkien and Lewis’s works inform all of your creative choices!  Shake their proverbial hands, and then walk past them to go make the climb to the cave entrance yourself.  Go outside into different parts of the 5th to 15th-Century worlds, and see what the “light” of medieval literature can offer you on its own terms.

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: "Beowulf & the Dragon" (art by John Howe)

Inspiration of Medieval Language & Literature: “Beowulf & the Dragon” (art by John Howe)

If you can at least sample some of the different lore and stories that’s available from a 1,000 years past, I believe that your works won’t simply be an imitation or derivation of those Oxford masters.  Tolkien and Lewis did plenty of work themselves to find inspiration, immersing themselves in a literary world whose remnants inform The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia resonate strongly through the present day.  If you’re dedicated to the craft, can’t you strive to do the same?

Have a great weekend, Everyone! Sophia’s warned me that Spring Cleaning, Part 3 looms, so I’ll resume on Monday!

Next time: A Must-Read List of Medieval Literature for Aspiring Epic Fantasists …

 

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