Before last week, I had one question I wanted to look into while working on this post. FI feel like most fans of fantasy know what Epic Fantasy is. What I wanted to really look into was how epic fantasy became the “default” fantasy.
After writing the High Fantasy post last week, however, I was left with another question I apparently had to look into. How does Epic Fantasy differ from High Fantasy? I have always thought of them as different things but many, many places said they were the same thing. Now I have to dig into this.
I’ve spent the last two days reading long, dry academic papers for this post. I’m only a little bit sorry I did that.
I’m not certain which is the biggest characteristic attached to Epic Fantasy, the Hero’s Quest or the Scale of the story.
Let’s start with Scale, because it is in the name, “Epic”. I found a great article by Chloe Smith written for Fantasy Faction titled “What Makes ‘Epic Fantasy’ Epic?“. It is worth the read in full. It starts off by saying that Epic Fantasy shares a lot of characteristics with other genres before going into differences.
If an epic is a story about how a world changes, it has to be able to give a sense of the entire world in which it is set. Epic fantasy novels must have a grand scale. Their plots are often complex and multi-stranded, with a cast of thousands, a host of different narrators, and plot arc that can take years, if not generations.
Then there is The Quest. Believe it or not I found a 43 page honors thesis by Dillon Waggoner on “The Six Elements of Fantasy Epic” which goes very in depth on this topic and other characteristics of Epic Fantasy. Though long, I enjoyed reading it. Waggoner makes the case that each of the rest of characteristics of Epic fantasy are “piloted by the quest and fueled by each following component sequentially”. He spends a lot of time defining what a quest is, which essentially boils down to “it is a matter of scale”. I loved one quote he added from another work, Mythology: The Voyage of the Hero by David Leeming:
“The quest myth in one sense is the only myth-that is, all other myths are part of the quest myth. The hero’s whole life from birth to apotheosis is a quest.”
In brief, the other characteristics in Waggoner’s thesis:
The Hero: “The simplest answer possible within the context of fantasy epic is that the hero is the only one who can complete the quest. ”
Conflict Between Good and Evil: “Creates the necessity for the Quest to take place. […] These paradigms may not always be explicit, however.”
An Enchanted World: “It is important for fantasy epic to take place in a world that is immersive and believable; supernatural and magical phenomenon can happen in this world, and while it has clear rules and parameters, they are certainly different from the world we are used to. ”
Adventure: “One aspect of the quest itself is that it is divided into episodes, and these episodes can be defined as adventures.”
Towards the end of the story the time comes what the Quest must finally be completed. The hero will triumph and his initial goals will be fulfilled. At this point only one adventure is left for him, in many ways a small quest itself, and that is the return journey, the ultimate return to order. The status quo must be restored, and while the world may have changed or developed, the hero returns it to a state of peace and familiarity.
Epic Fantasy vs. High Fantasy:
Much to my surprise last week, I found that a lot of people combine Epic Fantasy and High Fantasy. Like Wikipedia. And TV Tropes. And a whole host of other places, but those are two of the biggest. So I went looking for what separated or combined the subgenres.
I never did find any place that really explained why they were the same subgenre, which probably isn’t surprising. I did, however, find one source that suggests that Epic Fantasy grew out of High Fantasy, though. Content in Fantasy takes this stance, and adds that “Epic Fantasy takes the High Fantasy elements and ramps up the magnitude of the story”.
Best Fantasy Books has a good list separating the two. Mostly it breaks down to scale of conflict vs. setting. And characters. They also touch on how Epic Fantasy has changed over the years, which helps what Content in Fantasy said:
The focus is more on complex characters that are morally ambiguous and situations that cannot exactly be cast as entirely black and white. The villains, even, have undergone a change. No longer are they inanimate objects of evil, but often very human, very complex characters with real motivations to their supposed evil.
Also, Epic Fantasy can be some real chonkers.
The Default Fantasy:
It is to me a bit sad that epic fantasy is almost treated like the default fantasy. When you go to fantasy communities, it is treated as a sort of high standard. There are so many more types of fantasy out there than just epic.
I could guess why, though. I tried very hard to find an answer that wasn’t just “because Tolkien”. But the truth is, it is entirely Tolkien’s fault. He wasn’t the first author of fantasy, but he certain has had a lasting impression on the genre. And became popular at just the right time.
I found an amazing article by Eduardo Lima, titled The Once and Future Hero: Understanding the Hero in Quest Fantasy, that may have helped me go a bit deeper. And to think, I was sad that I didn’t think this would help me at all, because it is so well written!
The process of the decline of the Epic hero and the rise of the realistic protagonist reached its culmination in the twentieth century, until finally confidence in the powers of mimetic narrative turned into disillusionment. […] As the unbridgeable gap between consciousness and reality made itself more apparent, Western society eventually reached a breaking point where “we” no longer believed in heroes or stories (Joy and Ramsey xxxi).
This break in the belief of the human mastery of the world largely coincides with the World Wars (Garth) in which the wholesale slaughter of human beings on both sides of the conflict led to the reinvestigation of humanity’s most basic beliefs and assumptions about the nature of reality […].
That’s right, I can now blame WWI and WWII for the popularity of Epic Fantasy.
There are so many criticisms of Epic Fantasy that it was easier to find them than any of the other things I brought up so far. So I thought I would include them.
This article by Alec Austin in Strange Horizons titled “Quality of Epic Fantasy” is perhaps the greatest thing I have ever read. In fact, if nothing else, I want you to read this article, mine is over now. The only thing to note is that it was written in 2002 and some of the points made are less severe now than they were when this was written. This article is pure and utter fire 🔥. It lays bare all of the problems readers often have with the genre. I can’t even list bullet points because there are just so many! However, here are a few:
- “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.”
- “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.”
- “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.”
- “One can practically reconstruct the checklists and flowcharts which some authors were working from after a cursory examination of their work.”
That’s not all, folks!
There are many claims that Epic Fantasy is racist and sexist. And they aren’t really wrong. A lot of the tropes surrounding popular fantasy creatures are built off real life racist stereotypes. The first thing that comes to mind is something that came up recently in my sphere: the goblins being anti-semitic in Harry Potter, which is arguably Epic Fantasy. Or Dwarves being antisemitic in Tolkien. The list goes on. And Johnny Silvercloud makes up good points in his article on Onyx Truth titled Why I don’t Care for The Epic-Fantasy Genre, including this:
It’s almost like, you are given a profound load of European identity matter (coined it here) by how Eurocentric and white supremacist our society is, only to have it viciously pulled from you, like, “Silly Rabbit, Trix are for kids!” But it’s more like, “Silly darkie, whites are for whites!”
Then there is the matter of sexism. Even if you don’t know about Sad Puppies, a quick google search pulls up so many posts:
I read the 100 “best” fantasy and sci-fi novels – and they were shockingly offensive: Why are so many of NPR’s list of best science fiction books so misogynistic, and why can’t we move past our nostalgia for them? by Liz Lutgendorff
Why Is There So Much Sexism in Epic Fantasy? WHY?! by C.G. @ Paper Fury
NK Jemisin: the fantasy writer upending the ‘racist and sexist status quo’ Interview by Noah Berlatsky
Historically Authentic Sexism in Fantasy. Let’s Unpack That by Tansy Rayner Roberts
The Fantasy Genre Hates Women by Garrett Robinson
There’s a Weird, Sexist Problem in Fantasy That We Need To Talk About by Mya Nunnally
And while we’re on the subject, let us talk about the Sad Puppies. NPR Talks about the campaign in detail in their article How the Sad Puppies Won – By Losing. “The Puppies claim the Hugos have been taken over by affirmative-action-driven voters pushing a diversity agenda by nominating women and non-white writers, regardless of the quality of their work. ” It backfired on them, but it is a sad reality that a certain, not nonexistent portion of authors and readers in fantasy are… well, against diversity.
But maybe we can credit them for what has been the greatest few years in fantasy I have seen. This year alone, I have seen amazing fantasy written by men and women and nonbinary alike. The new releases aren’t just Eurocentric, they draw from cultures around the world. Fantasy has changed in the past few years, and I’m here for it, are you?
Some more reading:
I found some textbooks I thought might give some more reading.
Newly revised and expanded by the author, this seminal study of epic fantasy analyzes the genre from its earliest beginnings in Medieval romances on through practitioners like Tolkien up to today’s brightest lights.
The Shape of Fantasy is an in-depth look at Heroic Epic Fantasy. It depicts structural and narrative patterns with models stemming from science and philosophy. Although Fantasy Fiction is generally defined by its impossibility, Fantasy Fiction not an illogical form. It is, in fact, governed by a sense of rules and structure, one that reflects our current understanding of space-time and cosmology. These models are an integral part of the structure of Heroic Epic Fantasy itself. Thus, this book introduces new ways of perceiving current productions of the Fantasy genre. In doing so, it also explores how Fantasy Fiction exhibits a conscious awareness of its own form.