Epic Fantasy Defined, again (at Black Gate)

Huh. Saw this interesting post over at Black Gate’s blog. I agree with some of it; that whole thing about a defined evil, for example, and the world-transforming scope. But I don’t agree with… well, the rest.

Basically I think Surridge’s definition is too wedded to superficialities and not enough to content. The danger of defining an art form by superficialities is that it leaves no room for experimentation or growth. The boundaries become set by What Has Gone Before, rather than something more intrinsic. That’s the kind of thinking that allows some readers to believe that only men can write epic fantasy, for example, or that it can only be set in a European medievalish setting. That’s also what encourages some publishers to focus on a “winning formula” rather than a good story: books X pages long times Y volumes containing D Dark Lords faced by Band of Adventurers Ba(x-1) = PROFIT!! (The “minus one” is for the inevitable secondary character who dies/gets tortured/gets kidnapped to motivate the hero.)

I mean, really: Earthsea gets excluded because the books are too short? And I’m guessing C. S. Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy won’t fit because its characters are descended from space colonists and know about Science, and because its stalwart hero teams up with its defined-but-shifting-evil Dark Lord in order to face a more existentially evil badguy.

I also think it’s hard to have a discussion about something like this without considering the definitions that already exist

…Buuuuut, I’m kind of in Deadline Hell right now on a number of projects, and don’t have time to devote a solid blog post to this. So I’ll just point you at the BG blog to continue the discussion there. Enjoy!

5 Responses »

  1. Greetings,

    Thanks for the thoughts on the blog post. Obviously, I agree it’s important to avoid superficialities in talking about something like this. When Grace and I decided to work out a definition, we tried to divide superficial characteristics from elements that seemed to us to be at the core of the books we thought were some of the defining works of epic fantasy — those elements being, as a result, the defining content. On the one hand, that means that we’re looking at things that have already been done, which as we acknowledged risks being over-conservative. On the other, it has the benefit of describing what actually exists — and I generally believe that definitions follow after art’s created. At any rate, I tried to emphasise in the post that we were putting forward at most a tentative definition, which is why I titled the thing ‘Notes Toward a Defintion’, and asked for feedback on our choices at the end.

    I have to say that I do think the length of a book helps define what sort of a book it is (Earthsea in particular also had the issue of not being a unified story). There’s a difference between a novella and a novel, and I had a post on Black Gate a while ago about a length category beyond the novel, Really Long Books — whether War and Peace, or Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. Basically, it seems once a book reaches a certain length, the structure comes to feel different from a ‘normal-sized’ novel; it can accommodate much more. At least, that’s what I feel. It seems to me that an epic requires scale.

    Neither Grace nor I have read Friedman’s fantasy, though Grace has read a lot of her science fiction (I’ve read In Conquest Born). So I can’t really speak to that. I will note that having the characters make an uneasy alliance seems right in line with what we found in other epics, so I’m not sure why you think it’d be problematic in terms of our proposed definition. My question: if the characters have a science-fictional origin, and think scientifically, is it fantasy or is it science fiction? Stories on the border of f and sf were generally things that we found difficult to call; I don’t feel that, say, Zelazny’s Amber books were epic fantasy, but others disagree.

    And you’re right, of course, that it’s a good idea to look at previous definitions before proposing a new one. Rhetorics of Fantasy was one of the books I consulted, but couldn’t find anything in it about ‘epic fantasy.’ I get the sense that epics almost always qualify as ‘portal-quest fantasy,’ but the category of portal-quest is much broader than that. So more specificity for the term seemed like a good idea.

  2. Hi Matthew. Thanks for an interesting discussion! Only have time for quick responses, alas —

    I agree with you that an epic requires scale — but scale is not size. There was a great anthology experiment done a few years ago — reviewed here — that drove home to me the notion that epics can be any length. And length does not necessarily equal a grand scope; some of the short stories in that anthology had a bigger scope than many fat fantasy novels I’ve seen. (Highly recommended anth, BTW.) And keep in mind that the “fat fantasies” are more a function of economics than art; for awhile, it was cheaper/more lucrative for publishers to offer three fat books instead of a handful of skinny books. Nowadays fat fantasies, endless “trilogies” of twenty books, and other logistics that depended on cheap paper and a fanatically loyal audience are becoming more rare because they no longer pay off as well — and I suspect some of these things will eventually go away altogether. So my point is, uh, it’s not the size that matters, it’s what you do with it, and also, basing the definition on something that’s essentially a marketing trick doesn’t make sense.

    I also think that epics need to be viewed as a tapestry, not a single thread. Each Elric novel wasn’t very long, but the entire Elric saga/mythos probably more than equals any fat trilogy for size. And while the stories within them might be structurally disconnected, they form a tapestry that covers a single narrative arc centered on a single character as he progresses and changes — very much like the epics of old, a la the multiple stories that were ultimately part of the epic of Gilgamesh. So by insisting on the unified story, you’re pretty much excluding ancient epics — the genre’s roots — from your definition of epic fantasy. And you’re saying that any epic fantasy which structurally pays homage to these roots doesn’t belong. Granted, modern and ancient epic fantasies are two very different animals… but this strikes me as equivalent to excluding blues, or any sufficiently bluesy R&B, from the R&B category of music. Or excluding any computer roleplaying game that tries to emulate tabletop RPGs from the RPG category. And so on.

    Re the F/SF blends/overlaps — I haven’t read Amber. But re Friedman’s Coldfire, the characters live in a society consciously modeled on fantasy-novel medieval Europe (e.g., lots cleaner and safer than actual medieval Europe, not as complex, etc). They’ve done this in order to survive on a planet that’s using a force that might as well be magic to try and kill them. So they’re using all the tropes of epic fantasy to survive, just in a science fictional scenario (colonists on a hostile planet). It’s a fascinating metafictional analysis of epic fantasy, and lots of fun besides. But if we didn’t know they were on an alien world, the story would work just fine as pure epic fantasy. Call the aliens “elves” (oh, and your definition excludes the comic book epic fantasy “Elfquest”, as too science fictional), call the demons — well, they’re actually called demons in the story. And so on.

    I got that you were still formulating your definition, which is why I wanted to point people over there for the discussion; thought you could use more input at this point.

  3. Hi,Good morning,i am Rahul ,from INDIA,i Have to Read This Book.
    i Like science Fiction & Fantocy
    i Believe our Rebirth is also on other planets as Aliens; in that planets Aliens Life span is 1,000years,or 10,000years,or 100,000years; in that planets Aliens Live without polution(They use solar energy,not use petrol,diesel Like us);They are Looking so Beautiful compare to us(not Like as Hollywood film Aliens);God created Not only our Dirty planet,he also created,good world’s,for who people did good Things,in their past Life;if God is not Here,Then all planets,stars(suns),Asteroids,Black Holes are collapsed (crushed by Accident);
    i Think There is No Hell and No Heaven; God created only Hell Type of planets(Like our planet)& Heaven Type of planets;
    i Think There is No Ghost. if There is Ghost, Then God Didn’t created our planets&universe; Because,Ghost Destroy our planets & universe; only ourr past Life karma is Deside our Luck or Bad Luck; But suicide is Not Death,it is Against To GOD.
    Note:There are 9 planets,100 moons in our solar system,There are 10,000crores (100 Billions)above solar systems in our Galaxy,There are above 10,000crores (100 Billions)Galaxies in our Universe; There are Lot of universes in space;

  4. I’ll make a seperate post on BG, but is he really talking out BOTH SIDES OF HIS MOUTH? Or is it just me?