Quality in Epic Fantasy
By Alec Austin
24 June 2002
Two of the most common complaints about epic fantasy are that it is dominated by series, and that most of those series are formulaic and of low quality. As a longtime reader of the genre, I cannot argue either point. Most of the fantasy series I've read over the course of my life have ranged from mediocre to downright wretched. And yet the few excellent books I found were sufficient to keep me sifting through an endless morass of Tolkien clones and gaming-derived fiction, wondering all the while why so much of what I found was so awful.
The traditional response to why much epic fantasy is bad is that the genre is exhausted, with each new book or series drawing on the same patterns as its commercially successful predecessors. But while there is more than a grain of truth in that complaint, the explanation is insufficient. After all, Tolkien drew extensively on Celtic and Norse mythology as well as the patterns found in the works of authors like Lord Dunsany and E. R. Eddison when he wrote The Lord of the Rings, and writers have rehashed the legends of Camelot and King Arthur for centuries. Modern works as such as Sean Stewart's Nobody's Son and George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire are only further evidence that nothing is inherently wrong with stories that use magic swords, dragons, and other elements from fairy tales and folklore. Ultimately, the problems which plague many epic fantasies are not a result of the exhaustion of the traditional elements of fantasy as much as a symptom of the inexcusably crude manner in which they are used on the page.
All fiction requires a balance between elements of the strange and the familiar. But where strangeness in a contemporary novel may be restricted to personal idiosyncrasies on the part of the characters, in a fantasy it must be more pronounced, as evinced by significant differences between the world of the story and that of contemporary reality. Over years of commercial exploitation, however, many elements of strangeness in fantasy have been used so badly they have come to seem mundane, and where once readers thrilled to tales of knights and dragons, they yawn at cover copy promising thrilling quests and look for something less tedious to read about.
As I stated earlier, I do not believe there is anything inherently wrong with even the most overused elements of epic fantasy. Magic swords, dragons, destined heroes -- even dark lords and ultimate evils can legitimately be used in literature of serious intent, not just mocked in satirical meta-fiction. To claim that they cannot would be much the same as claiming that nothing good can ever again be done with fiction involving detectives, or young lovers, or unhappy families. The value of a fictive element is not an inherent quality, but a contextual one, determined by its relationship to the other elements of the story it is embedded in.
In other words, whether a scene in which a dragon is introduced is affecting, amusing, or agonizingly dull depends primarily on the choices made by the scene's author. I say "primarily" because dragons have appeared in thousands of stories over the centuries, and almost any reader may be presumed to have been exposed to at least one such. The reader's reaction will naturally be influenced by how they feel this new dragon compares to the dragons which they have been introduced to in the past. (Favorably, one would hope. A dragon must learn to make a good first impression if it is to do well in this life.) Such variables are out of the author's control, as are any unreasoning prejudices against dragons on the part of the reader. All that can be done is to make the dragon as vivid and well-suited for its purpose as is possible. If all the elements of fantasy and fiction in a work are fitted to their purposes and combine to create a moving story set in a convincing world, that work will presumably be a masterpiece.
This is, of course, much more easily described than done.
The purpose of this essay is to describe the factors that produce good epic fantasy in useful terms; or at least, terms more useful than, "one must use every fictive element in one's fiction as well as it can be used," which is about as immediately clear and helpful as a Zen koan. Towards this goal, I will essay a working definition of epic fantasy, discuss some of the genre's common failings, and further examine the relationship between the strange and the familiar in fantastic fiction.
Any extended discussion of a genre begs the question of exactly which group of works the author is addressing. A discussion of epic fantasy is further complicated by the fact that one must define not only what one means by fantasy, but by the adjective attached to it as well.
For some help with this business of definitions, I turn to Professor Tolkien's essay "On Fairy-Stories," in which he tells us that "the definition of a fairy-story . . . does not [depend] on any definition or account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faerie: the Perilous Realm itself." Very well, then; what is the nature of Faerie? "Enchantment, [which] produces a Secondary World into which both designer and spectator can enter, to the satisfaction of their senses while they are inside."
While Professor Tolkien's definition is helpful, it bears more than a passing resemblance to those koans I promised to avoid earlier. Let us turn to Ursula K. Le Guin for clarification. Regarding young fantasy writers, she tells us that "they all know instinctively what is wanted in fantasy is a distancing from the ordinary." [Emphasis Le Guin's.] This, combined with Tolkien's definition, tells us what fantasy stories are: stories set in secondary or invented worlds which are distant or otherwise distinct from the world in which we live our everyday lives.
To this definition we add the adjective "epic." To describe a work as epic implies great scope, literal or emotional. Epic fantasy, then, addresses the sweeping and significant -- grand passions, fundamental issues of morality, the fate of the world -- displaced from the context and concerns of modern life. Such a definition is perhaps over-inclusive, as it includes much science fiction, but though my examples will focus on commercial fantasy, excluding works such as Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun from discussions of quality in epic fantasy would be absurd, for they draw on the same sources as epic fantasy and share many of the same qualities.
The question of what makes an epic fantasy bad is a misleading one, as it implies that the criteria for quality in epic fantasy are separate from those of any other realm of literature. There is nothing more harmful to the literary health of a genre than the belief that its works are subject to special standards of evaluation. Though, as John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction, every work of literature "must be judged primarily, though not exclusively, by its own laws," this is not the same as saying that the author of an adventure story is relieved of the obligation to portray emotionally convincing characters because characterization is not the main focus of their work. Epic fantasy can reasonably be expected to possess a distinctive setting, realistic characters, and a coherent and interesting narrative structure. This list is far from exhaustive or complete, but an examination of much of the epic fantasy on bookstore shelves will show that it fails to satisfactorily fulfill at least one, if not all, of the criteria listed above.
Before I go further, I should add the appropriate use of language to my list. Le Guin discussed some aspects of this very problem in her essay, "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie," found in The Language of the Night, but as that book is out of print, many of her points bear repetition. I will briefly discuss the most common ways in which epic fantasies fail in their use of language, setting, character, and narrative structure, and how such failures may best be avoided.
There are two primary ways in which authors can misuse language in epic fantasy. The first is to have the narrative voice slip into a tone inappropriate to the subject being discussed. The second is to have the characters speak in a way that is inappropriate to their character and circumstances.
My use of the word "inappropriate" is vague, but attempting to specify the ways an author could misapply language in an epic fantasy would be both futile and interminable. The use of anachronistic phrases and speech patterns is but one example. The words "okay" and "cool" would be out of place in any serious work, as would any other modern colloquialism or turn of phrase. In general, the narrative voice should be kept consistent, simple, and relatively formal in tone, while dialogue should fit both its speaker and the tone of the story. Peasants speaking in dactylic hexameter would be as improper as a civilized king lacing his speech with fricatives. Indeed, if an author is pursuing the elevated, dreamlike tone of a fairy tale or myth, it may be inappropriate for even the basest villains to pepper their speech with vulgarity. Aristotle's golden mean should be the author's guide: Narrative and dialogue should be neither too flat and journalistic nor too ornate and clotted with forced archaisms or words like "ichor" and "tenebrous." Nothing undermines a story more quickly than a failed attempt to sound like Chaucer or Lovecraft.
Even if an author manages to keep anachronisms and ichor from drenching their prose, they still must depict a world that is not only distinct from the generic fantasyland of much recent fiction, but also emotionally and logically convincing. Once again, the tone an author is striving for is crucial. A high fantasy with an elevated tone and clear moral distinctions between the protagonists and their opponents will call for a dramatically different backdrop than a story of ambiguous morality and realistic social concerns. The first will lie closer to the idealized world of fairy tales than the latter, which calls for a world more like the historical middle ages, mired in excrement, violence, and poverty. The works of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis's Narnia books are high fantasy, for example, while the works of Sean Stewart and George R. R. Martin are not.
Furthermore, unless the story being told is a fairy tale or fable, the world it is set in should be firmly based in some combination of history and myth, not merely copied from the world of another writer or vague memories of high school history classes. So familiar and well-trodden have the fields of Middle Earth and its imitators become that all it takes is the shorthand of castles and elves and ancient ruins and horse-people to bring a world to the minds of many readers: an impoverished, cardboard world, with all the joy and magic drained out of it by decades of exploitation. Certainly some readers are content to read stories set in variations on the stock worlds of fantasy, with their romanticized versions of feudalism, but it is saddening that so many books fail to exploit the possibilities that even a cursory examination of actual medieval history reveals.
Indeed, the relative homogeneity of the worlds and societies in which most fantasy novels are set seems to betray a failure of imagination and education on the part of many authors. With the near-infinite variety of religious beliefs that people have held over the centuries, ranging from Gnostic heresies to all the varieties of Buddhism, why do fantastic religions invariably separate into familiar variants on Christianity, neo-paganism, and polytheism? With the variety of relationships to government that have evolved over the years, why do so many enlightened feudal monarchies, evil empires, and corrupt oligarchies crowd the shelves of bookstores? A little research will turn up an endless variety of governmental and religious practices: The electoral monarchy of the Spartans, the medieval commonwealth of Iceland, and the near-anarchic feudalism of the Holy Roman Empire spring to mind, as do the Hindu caste system, the original philosophy of Taoism, and the pseudo-magical religion that grew out of it.
A knowledge of classical literature and history is thus vital to any writer who wishes to make their world distinctive -- the religious practices misreported in Herodotus's Histories, for instance, are more bizarre and thought-provoking than those of a dozen modern novels, while T.H. White's translation of a medieval bestiary provides its reader with the surprising knowledge that the panther's sweet breath attracts its prey but drives off dragons. Not only do books and poems like the Ramayana, the Icelandic Sagas, and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms provide material and ideas that can be absorbed for later use, but by studying the source material behind previous works of art, a writer can trace the threads of allusion and reference that run through them and enrich their understanding of how they were written. Through the recombination of familiar ideas and specific details taken from one's studies, an author can make the country of knights and castles and dragons seem fresh and new, or create even stranger worlds to set their stories in.
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.
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.
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?
We come at last to the issue of narrative structure, which is usually either the foundation of a work's success or the primary reason for its failure. What is often referred to as a story's "plot" is an extremely abstracted description of a story's narrative structure, telling the person who hears it little to nothing about the actual arrangement of fictive elements that form the text. This is why though two stories may be share essentially the same "plot," they may vary widely in their actual texts and the quality thereof. It is all but impossible to generalize about successful narrative structures, since any time a novel demonstrates how one may be used to good effect, another one will come along and use a similar or identical structure very badly. Truly bad ones are somewhat easier to pin down: Despite the claims of the disciples of Lucas and Joseph Campbell, the pattern of the Hero's Journey is a fairly bad narrative structure, if only because its rigidity makes it agonizingly predictable. Indeed, predictability is the greatest defect in the narrative structures common to epic fantasy. The average modern fantasy novel reeks of industrial mass-production. One can practically reconstruct the checklists and flowcharts which some authors were working from after a cursory examination of their work.
The problem with predictability, of course, is that it utterly destroys any possibility of genuine suspense. Very young children or the terminally na´ve may believe that the heroes of an interminable fantasy series might die at the hands of the enemies who have captured them, but the more cynical of us know that if that occurred, the series could not continue to rake in money for its author and publisher. Even if the characters die, the probability that they will be arbitrarily resurrected approaches unity, and so, no matter what happens to them, nothing is really in jeopardy, because we know that good will triumph over evil in the end. Everything that transpires between the moment our heroes hear of the evil that threatens the world and their inevitable triumph over it is just filler.
It is not difficult to avoid this trap. All the author has to do is signal early on that their world contains real danger for their protagonists, and that their victory, even their survival, is not assured. This can be done with various degrees of subtlety, ranging from having characters come from unhappy origins that demonstrate the world's risks, to killing a well-developed and sympathetic character without warning; but in one way or another, something must clearly be at stake in a story for it to grip the reader's attention. Since clichéd fantasy conventions such as prophecies and powerful companions swarming around the main characters undermine a sense of real danger, they should be dispensed with, or else used in such a way that their goals do not necessarily correspond to the main characters' best interests. Without jeopardy, after all, there is no suspense; without suspense a story has no emotional impact; and without emotional impact, there is no reason for a serious story to be read.
The above comments are generally directed at problems of suspense in individual works of fantasy. However, because of the current publishing climate, it is rare that a work of epic fantasy will be complete within two covers, or that it will escape unsequeled, as authors and publishers attempt to build up profitable franchises. While there is nothing wrong with the multi-volume fantasy if all the volumes function independently or were planned as part of a single work, I submit that the pursuit of fantasy franchises is one of the greatest enemies of quality in the genre, because the influence of market forces often results in having a popular novel or series of novels rehashed ad nauseum, with plot arcs suspended indefinitely by the neck until dead.
I will refer to the two easiest means of extending a fantasy series beyond its natural lifespan as the Jordan method and the Eddings method, though neither method is exclusive to or was originated by the writer I have named it for. The Jordan method involves the maintenance of the status quo from book to book in the same way a television series aiming for syndication maintains the status quo: putting the characters through a combination of trivial events that change nothing, or a series of "important" events which cancel each other out, changing nothing and advancing the story only minutely. The Eddings method involves a repetition of story structure from book to book or series to series, so that even if the characters involved in a book or series are different from those in the author's previous work, the reader can immediately recognize them and their situation as parallel to that of the work they enjoyed last time. Both methods are reassuring to the reader, promising them more of what they enjoyed before, which accounts for their appeal. Both methods also undermine the literary and emotional power of the stories they tell, because they rely upon the robotic repetition of story structure. And since these methods are the easiest methods of continuing a successful series, their fruits requiring less thought to produce than books with original narrative structures or genuine conclusions, they have all but drowned the few sequels or connected works of value on the shelves.
Le Guin argues in "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" that the products of such assembly-line literary production are not fantasy because their authors "use all the trappings of fantasy without ever actually imagining anything." Sadly, the day that such a definitional argument might have had any power is gone, as the works of Jordan, Brooks, Goodkind, et. al. are already marked as fantasy on their spines. Genre critics must content themselves with the observation that they are bad fantasy, not only because they fail as literature, but because instead of making the commonplace strange and wondrous again, they turn the rich ore of myth, folklore, and magic into mundane lead.
What the perpetrators of the endless trilogies which clog bookstore shelves do not seem to grasp is that their attempts to reproduce the wonder of, for example, The Lord of the Rings are doomed by the very methods they employ. Just as the qualities of a summer night cannot be reduced to a formula or a checklist, the insight and passion which move us in works of great literature cannot be canned, shrink-wrapped, or faked. Frankenstein's monster might have had all the bones, organs, and muscles of a living man, but without the breath of life, it would only have rotted on the good doctor's slab. To treat the elements of myth and nightmare as if they were as interchangeable as computer parts is as incompetent as it is crass.
Strangeness and Familiarity
As I said in my introduction, all literature depends on a balance between the strange and the familiar; between the ideas and images that capture the attention of readers, and those necessary to construct the context and emotional framework which keeps their more exciting cousins from dissolving into incoherence. Works of fantasy naturally tend to lean more heavily towards elements of the strange, as they are, at least theoretically, their stock in trade. But while it is elements of strangeness and originality which make readers wake up and pay attention to a story, the power of those elements to move readers and keep their attention is a matter of how well integrated they are with fictive elements that readers can recognize from their own experience. Tolkien wrote that "fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it." Certainly Middle Earth and its kin among imagined worlds have the power to awe us with the depth and detail of their construction, but the reason we read the books which are set in them is the stories they tell: stories which, if they are to move us, must deal with recognizable human problems and be true to either our experience of life or our sense of how things could or should be.
Familiarity, then, is not a bad thing, either in fantasy or elsewhere. Not only does it give readers a sense that they understand what is going on, but it allows the author to use that assumption for their own ends. Furthermore, the reason the elements of fairy tales and folklore are familiar to us is because they have lasted centuries, even millennia, which is a testament to the power they have over the human imagination. Our familiarity with the elements of fantasy only becomes a problem when we take the familiar for granted and cheapen it by treating it as if it is merely what it seems on the surface. Despite the peculiar arrogance of our age, our knowing the rough shape and species of a tree does not mean we know about the nest a bird has built in the hollow between its branches, or how long it has stood there, or what other secrets it hides. In the same way, familiar elements of fiction often possess great depths of potential which are not immediately obvious. A dragon is not just a big snake, and a magic sword is not merely a very sharp piece of steel; at least, not unless an author fails to make anything more out of them. The stock elements of fantasy are only as dull as we allow them to be.
What, then, are the sources of quality in epic fantasy? An unwillingness on the part of an author to settle for work that is shoddy, incoherent, clichéd, or otherwise trivial or superficial, joined to a commitment to the research and invention necessary to make an imagined world come to life on its own terms. This requires an awareness not only of the field's current state but of its history and original sources, in order to be aware of which elements of the genre have been abused and overused, and know how one might make readers see them as new again. It requires diligence, taste, and craft. It requires, in short, writing as seriously and as well as possible, for attempting to write good epic fantasy is much the same as setting out to explore the wilderness beyond the fields we know with only a tattered scrap of parchment for a guide, its words both a warning and a promise:
Here there be dragons.
Sources and References
Aiken, Joan, The Way to Write for Children. New York: St. Martin's, 1999.
Delany, Samuel R., "Some Notes for the Intermediate and Advanced Creative Writing Student," from Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts and the Politics of the Paraliterary. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1999.
Gardner, John, The Art of Fiction. New York: Vintage, 1985.
Le Guin, Ursula, "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" from The Language of the Night. London: Women's Press, 1989.
Tolkien, J.R.R., "On Fairy Stories" from The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine Books, 1966.