What is Epic Fantasy?

Shamelessly mooching an idea from one of the Amazon discussion forums, in which user J. E. Johnson defined epic fantasy with this list:

I would say in order for a story to be considered ‘epic’ to me, it would have to have the following elements:
1. A multiple book series
2. A quest of some sort that must be fulfilled
3. A main character who must face dangers, overcome foes and somehow change throughout the series (either become a better person or become the villain)
4. A great evil, often times one that uses its several minions to challenge the protagonist
5. A cast of supporting characters who offer our struggling hero friendship, support, laughter and sometimes sacrifice
6. (optional but highly recommended) A journey across a great landscape to take on earlier mentioned evil
I know, sounds rather cliche, but it doesn’t have to be on a grand scale. Some stories I consider epic: LOTR of course, the ‘Eragon’ trilogy, the ‘Green Rider’ series by Kristen Britain, the ‘Tiger and Del’ series by Jennifer Roberson and even Emily Rodda’s ‘Deltora Quest’ series :D.

Johnson is shilling an epic fantasy of her own — nothing wrong with that, we’re all shilling stuff here — so I do wonder whether this has informed her list (i.e., maybe she’s defining epic fantasy this way because that’s the kind of epic fantasy she’s written). In any case, it’s not at all how I would define epic fantasy, personally.

I don’t think it has to cover multiple books, for one thing. I would consider Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist to be a perfect example of a one-volume epic, or Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn. Or to use a more recent and atypical example, Stephen King’s The Stand (which, granted, was big enough that it could have been published as multiple volumes). I don’t think a quest is necessary, either, nor do I think the antagonist — if there is one, because I’m not sure even that’s required — needs minions to impede the protagonist. I think secondary characters can exist for purposes other than just to support the protagonist — and since Johnson uses the word “hero”, I think that protag can be male or female. And I do, absolutely, believe that a grand scale is necessary. I think that’s what makes something “epic”.

But it occurs to me that my tastes are weird. I like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but I’ve never read George R. R. Martin’s books — partly out of disinterest, and partly because I have such a distaste for unfinished ongoing stories that I’m waiting for the Song of Ice and Fire to be finished before I start reading it. Never read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time either, though I’m thinking about it now that Brandon Sanderson — whose books I have read, and liked — is taking over the franchise. (Maybe when it’s done, too.) I’ve read several other series popularly considered to be canonical for epic fantasy these days, but I haven’t really liked most of them. (Eddings’ Belgariad, for example.) And I’ve bounced hard off some of the newer epics, like Erikson’s Malazan books; whatever it is about them that so many fans seem to love, I just… don’t. Some quirk of my personality, maybe.

What I seem to prefer are epic fantasies that break the mold in some way. I’ve gushed here before about C. S. Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy, which fits the strictures of epic fantasy in every way except in that it has science fictional roots, and they show throughout the series. Well, and it’s a buddy story. Sanderson’s Mistborn saga initially hooked me with its characters — felt very much like “Ocean’s Eleven does fantasy” — but I have to admit I gradually faded on the series over time as it became more and more about just the protagonists. I love love love Storm Constantine’s Wraeththu saga, which is almost anti-epic-fantasy: it’s got the structure and feel of epic fantasy, but is set in a totally gonzo world of hermaphrodites using sex magic to build their empires. (The series’ most notable hero/ine, Calanthe, is variously a thug/killer/gang member, a vagrant, a kidnapper, a “kept concubine”, a prostitute, and a god, throughout the trilogy.) By the same token I love Louise Cooper’s “The Time Master” trilogy, which is more conventional but still a direct challenge to many of the established forms of the genre. Her protagonist, Tarod, is the focal point of a battle between the gods of Order and Chaos, with a none-too-subtle inversion of the expected good vs. evil dynamics therein. Cooper’s not the only one who does this, but her take on this trope is my favorite, and it definitely had some influence on The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. They’re great books, BTW; I highly recommend them. (RIP, Ms. Cooper.)

So basically, I’m weird, and any attempt I make to define epic fantasy should be taken with a pillar of salt, because I dislike so much of the field’s canon. But what the hell, I’ll try to define it anyway. I think the things that make a fantasy “epic” are as follows:

a) Scale. Needs to cover The Fate Of A Nation at minimum. (Better if it’s The Fate Of All Existence.) I’m not even sure a single nation is enough; I’d much prefer to see it be the fate of at least a couple of nations, if not an economic bloc. I also think this should include several groups of people banding together, note — not necessarily multiple races, though that does illustrate the scale nicely; it can just be city folks and country folks of the same nation, though, or the closely-related-peoples of neighboring nations. They may not all be directly involved in the story, but they’ll all be affected if things go pear-shaped.

b) Epic is as epic does, or did. Basically, I think a modern epic fantasy needs to show some respect to the epics of myth and lore. This can be a journey or quest, as Johnson suggests — but it can also be a series of deeds, a la the Twelve Labors of Hercules or Coyote’s many trials and triumphs; or a series of buddy stories a la Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Doesn’t have to be directly related to myth, but it should have the feel of a myth; I, the reader, should be able to imagine future generations of this world reading about or listening breathlessly while a storyteller relates the saga.

c) Must involve a massive challenge, Nigh Impossible even, which if completed will change the world in some way. That challenge can take the form of a villain, Dark Lord, whatever — but it can also be the difficulty of the task itself. Quests work, but they’re not the only sort of difficult task I had in mind. Since I’ve got a book to shill too, I’ll say here that I think the central challenge of the Inheritance Trilogy is… huh. Spoiler patch needed (highlight to view). …repairing the rift between the Three, which triggered the apocalyptic Gods’ War two thousand years before the series started. This is a uniquely personal task — basically requiring epic marriage counseling — but it’s still a task that’s nearly Herculean in its difficulty. The people who take it on, over the course of the trilogy, have definitely got their work cut out for them. And I almost feel like there has to be a moment when the protagonists contemplate the difficulty of their task and are wigged out by it, at least briefly. The “one does not simply walk into Mordor!” moment.

d) Span. In addition to a vast physical scale, I think the story, or the story’s roots, need to cover a long span of time. The old epics had this because they were usually part of an ongoing narrative about the gods, the creation of the world, etc. While the immediate tale might not cover that long of a time — Lord of the Rings was what, a few months altogether? — the story’s origins should derive from waybackwhen. The One Ring didn’t just become a problem when Gandalf threw it into the fire; it was a problem from the time Sauron forged it thousands of years before.

e) A showdown. The climax must involve the protagonist(s) facing down their challenge in some singular scene — the kind of scene where, in a movie, you’d be hearing the swelling crescendo of music that means “Aww, yeah! This is it!” Or boss battle music, in a video game. Doesn’t actually have to involve a fight, IMO; confrontations can take many forms. (e.g. Frodo’s struggle against himself at Mount Doom.) But it needs to be a moment when the protagonist shows his or her mettle, and genuinely might fail.

Those are all the markers of epic fantasy I can think of offhand. Feel free to share your own thoughts on this; I’m genuinely curious now, because it occurs to me that many fantasy readers may feel as Johnson does — in which case some of them will have trouble thinking of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and its sequels as epic fantasy. I’m fine if they don’t; I’m a Virgo, but I’m not that anal about taxonomy. But it would be interesting to know what readers think.

11 thoughts on “What is Epic Fantasy?”

  1. Many people I know have been joyfully recommending 100K lately, and I have been wanting to read it but thinking “…but I’m not really into epic fantasy…”, so I’m finding it rather reassuring that you dislike like much of the epic fantasy canon.

  2. I guess there are those who read anything with an Epic Fantasy tag and those who search in all genres for stories that move them. It’s harder to find the latter, I think, unless you have a trusted source to steer you in the right direction. The genre and sub-genre mashup approach that some authors seem to employ lately make it harder to classify those works as well.

    I’m thinking out loud a bit here, but I guess that’s why I love this post because it has caused me to think about this in earnest. Thanks for that.

    I have enjoyed GRRM’s Song of Ice and Fire despite its unfinished nature. The characters and setting are just too rich for me to lay off – to the point that I’ve read it more than once.

    Sanderson’s effort on the latest WoT book is awesome. The story is moving again, quickly and in the right direction.

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  4. Hmmm. Lots to chew on here, some of which I agree with, some of which I disagree with.

    Rather than get tit-for-tat-y here, though, I’ll point out that the post made me ask a more fundamental question: “Is epic fantasy really a useful term anymore?” If you look at a lot of the books that are selling big right now, (Lynch, Abercrombie, Erikson, to a lesser extent Martin), they owe at least as much to Leiber or Howard as they do to Tolkien. The most successful works of our current generation of ‘epic fantasy,’ in other words, are half-breeds of sword & sorcery.

    I therefore find terms like ‘heroic fantasy’ or ‘adventure fantasy’ more accurately describe much of what dominates the field right now. Though those tags have their own connotations. Daniel Abraham’s Long Price series is probably the best epic fantasy I’ve ever read, but it’s not big on adventure or heroism, per se…

    I also think social class(ism?) is an essential and overlooked element in conventional epic fantasy (part of the reason we used to call it ‘high’ fantasy). I find that 90% of epic fantasy — even today, and even in those books that ostensibly ‘twist’ the genre — puts royals at the center of its concern.

  5. Well, I haven’t read most of the epic fantasy canon, to clarify. I might very well like them when I get around to reading them, but I have to admit that they’re constantly kind of low on my “gotta read” list. This kind of stuff just doesn’t sound extraordinarily appealing to me; groups of stalwart adventurers fighting the Dark Guy or the Scary Ones or whatever across a vaguely European landscape… yawn. LotR was in this vein and great, but it was also enough for me; I’d rather read subversions/deconstructions of that vein, going forward.

  6. “Is epic fantasy really a useful term anymore?”

    That’s a really interesting question. It also speaks to the fact that sword and sorcery isn’t dead yet, even though most of the S&S short fiction markets have died and not a lot of (or any?) longfic gets published under that subgenre label. All those S&S fans have to get their fix somewhere; maybe they’re the ones driving this successful hybrid material.

    I’m not fond of the term “heroic fantasy”, though. Leaving aside the gender bias inherent in the term, which makes it sound like not the sort of thing you’ll see a lot of women in (“heroic/heroine [heroineic?] fantasy” sounds awkward and ugly), it also makes me think that the sole focus of the story is on a single character. A la Howard, yes — but I never liked Howard’s stuff. I can see how there might be some who’d like to see a retro resurgence, though.

    “Adventure fantasy” works for me. But that’s not the same thing as epic fantasy. I still believe an epic doesn’t necessarily involve sallying forth to Do Deeds in the martial or dungeon-crawling sense; it can be about diplomacy or economics or engineering (e.g., KJ Parker). Some of the most interesting ancient epics involved these topics; we should explore that territory too.

    Is classism really an overlooked element, these days? I’ve been reading more and more of the — er, deconstructive? — epic fantasy lately and it hits those class issues right on the nose. Thinking offhand about Brent Weeks’ Night Angel trilogy, which starts off in the slums and underworld of a deeply corrupt city and pretty much stays there even as The Fate Of Nations starts to take over the story; it doesn’t skimp at all in showing the ugliness of life for the poor in any medieval society. And Marie Brennan’s Elizabeth-and-elves books (er, does that series have a name? can’t recall, too lazy to Google, but the first book is called Midnight Never Come) focuses on the nobility but doesn’t fantasize/idealize them, so she shows that most of them were in debt up to their eyeballs and pretty much prostituting themselves to this or that interest in order to afford their privileged lifestyles. Just thinking of two recent examples offhand.

  7. I consider a fantasy epic when it’s about dealing with a large scale problem. Everything else doesn’t matter to me (when it comes to defining whether it’s epic fantasy or not).

    I’m not known for being exact in my sub-genre definitions though. I pick something near enough and leave it at that.

  8. “Is classism really an overlooked element, these days?”

    In a word, yes. But I’ll save the long version for our next FTF BS-and-work session. :)

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