Epic Fantasy: A Personal Definition

Over at her blog, Helen Lowe has had an interesting discussion taking place of late on the topic of what makes epic fantasy what it is. Its been quite an informative discussion to say the least (more). The descriptions and definitions that people attach to this seemingly simple 2-word phrase have provided a lot of new perspectives, many of which I have never considered before.

And that made me think about how I define “epic fantasy”. What are the components of it? What are the essentials? Like with any other discussion about the definition of genre categories, there are no easy answers here either and that has a lot to do with personal biases and preferences. I’ve seen a lot of books come out in the last few years that have been hailed as epic fantasy but that I wouldn’t necessarily classify as such, since for me there are some basic requirements for a book to be hailed with that genre label.

Which is what this post is about.

Warhammer Online 0001As someone who raised himself on traditional fantasy, so to speak, my definition of epic fantasy is somewhat of a narrow one, by choice. There are some essentials that I feel clearly identify themselves as components of epic fantasy. Given my love of traditional fantasy, it should be no surprise that these essentials are:

  • stories about wars between kingdoms and empires, where the fate of the world rests in the balance.
  • stories that have a strong “quest” feel to them and are about adventures against impossible odds and monstrous villains.
  • elves, dwarves, dragons, and other typical fantasy races that give the settings a unique flavour.
  • struggles between gods and demons (or even just between gods themselves), often involving their agents, of one sort or another.
  • coming of age stories where the heroes start off as regular people and then transform into legends.
  • stories that are ultimately about good and evil through a combination of the above.

Note: Of all these essentials, the one I hold up as almost necessary is the third one, the fantastical “alien” races.

It is undeniable that J. R. R. Tolkien has had the greatest and most-lasting effect on fantasy fiction through The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings. He’s often informally credited as the grandfather of the genre because of the legacy that he created, the people that he has inspired, and so on. His work was far-reaching and it (incidentally) codified some of the above essentials. He laid such a solid bedrock that so many who have come since have sought to build on those foundations. Warhammer Fantasy has done that. WarCraft has done that. The various Dungeons & Dragons settings (Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Dragonlance) have done that. Raymond E. Feist, Michael J. Sullivan, Kevin J. Anderson, William King, Janny Wurts, Martha Wells, Kate Elliott and many others have done that. It is a list that is endless.

They have all mixed and matched the essentials that I have laid out and have done their own spins on it, in one way or another. And that’s what’s so great about this genre, that it can have some clear defining elements, and yet be so nebulous as well.

Would a novel like Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora qualify? How about Paul S. Kemp’s sword-and-sorcery rooted Egil & Nix series?

There aren’t any easy answers to these questions. In my estimation with my… restrictions, these novels don’t qualify, but I’m sure that it is different for other people. One thing is clear though: epic fantasy as a genre continues to redefine itself every few years as newer authors enter the market, each with their own views and biases and thoughts.

For example, consider a book like Amish Tripathi’s The Immortals of Meluha. It is epic fantasy in a fully Indian setting, inspired by the mythic stories of Lord Shiva, one of the Trinity of Gods in the Hindu Pantheon. It has no “alien” races, just different human tribes and empires. But I would personally class it as an epic fantasy.

Consider Aliette de Bodard’s Acatl noir historical fantasies which are set in a time when the Aztec Empire was at the height of its power, just before the arrival of the Spanish in the region. They involve the entire Aztec Pantheon and the protagonist is a priest of one of the gods struggling to restore the balance of light and darkness in the world. And they have a very strong supernatural bent to them. These too I would personally class as epic fantasy.

Consider even Matt Forbeck’s fantasy noir trilogy Shotguns & Sorcery which features dwarves and elves and dragons and even zombies. Its got some great typical epic fantasy action, all the typical flavour and everything. But its a straight-up noir mystery too, so that muddies things a bit. But all the same, this too I would personally class as epic fantasy.

Epic fantasy is something that speaks to the hero inside of you, the one you want to be, the one you wish you were. It pulls you in with its grand scope and it tantalizes you with all the fantastic things that you find in the story. That’s what I love about epic fantasy the most. Its why I love reading the above mentioned authors so much, and the others of their ilk. The adventures that can be had in epic fantasy are quite different from the ones you can have in the other genres, as a reader, as a participant, as someone inspired to do more.

Sullivan's Dragons 0001Epic fantasy is also a genre that has, informally, been around for far longer than any other genre I’d wager. Creation myths in the various religions, mighty heroes facing off against monsters of myth and magic, such as in the Norse sagas or Greek mythology. They’ve been around for a long, long time, and they’ll still be around for a long, long time after we’re all gone. The genre will continue to evolve and change, but I think it will still maintain the same core essentials as it did when Tolkien began to give it a definite look, when the writers of the 60s through 90s built on it and took it in different directions, when the writers of our current time are continuing that development and doing new things with it.

I don’t know. I’m just listing off various thoughts here.

I’ll be honest. The people who are having this entire discussion on the interwebs are people with an experience in the genre that far outstrips mine. They are also much more eloquent with their thoughts. My explanations only pale in comparison to theirs. I would seriously recommend checking out their discussions.

Posted on November 4, 2013, in Editorial and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Great post, but there’s one line that stood out to me.

    “elves, dwarves, dragons, and other typical fantasy races that give the settings a unique flavour.”

    Considering how much fantasy novels, films and games uses elves, dwarves and dragons, I don’t really think it’s entirely accurate to say that they give settings a *unique* flavour. Hell, half the time if I see a fantasy setting having elves, dwarves and dragons et al I generally brace myself for more cliches coming in on their tailcoats.


    • I hate the expectations and rules that come with such ‘races’. Then the backlash that comes with trying to break those rules and redefine what those characters are.
      It has been too long since this genre has seen a revolution… the same characters have been used and reused for decades. For me it has become old and tiring every time I find these in a book.


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