Tuesday, September 17, 2013

What's an Epic Fantasy

Epic fantasy. What is it, and how do you define it? Everybody can point to a few examples. Lord of the Rings is pretty well-known to be epic fantasy, but why?

It seems that everyone has different ideas. Heck, I write the stuff and I couldn’t give an easy answer to this one.

Myth #1: I’ve heard it said that what makes epic fantasy definable is its length. Everybody knows that epic fantasy takes at least three volumes to complete and those volumes are the kind that break toes if you happen to drop them on your bare feet. In other words, they’re really, really long. Think the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson in all its fourteen volume glory.

Umm. Then a little voice says The Hobbit is a complete story in one volume. And there are certainly more examples out there, including Silverlock by John Myers Myers.

And wait. The Dresden series of fantasy is really, really long. Something like ten volumes and climbing. Doesn’t that make it epic? But it’s set in a city so wouldn’t it be urban? Everybody knows epic fantasy is set in some made up world, not in the real world.

Myth #2 Doesn’t epic fantasy have to inhabit a unique world of elves, dwarves, and trolls? You know, like The Sword of Shannara or Lord of the Rings.

The Dresden series is set in Chicago, but it has fairies, trolls, and other assorted magical races. What does that make it? The same with Harry Potter in a very real England, that series is mostly humans, but there are also elves and goblins and giants. And Narnia is based partially in this world and partly in an imaginary world. Does that make them epic or urban?

Then the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson is set in an imaginary land—without mythical species. The same for The Wheel of Time. That series is certainly epic fantasy, but not an elf in sight.

I’m starting to get dizzy. So there can be elves or maybe not. It can be set in this world—or somewhere real. It can take many volumes to complete the story or maybe only one.

Yikes! This is really complex.

What’s left?

Myth #3 Epic fantasy always has so many characters that I can’t keep track of all the names. That must be what makes Lord of the Rings the ultimate example of epic. The characters themselves in this story even have several names, after all Aragon is also Strider and Elessar and Heir of Isildur and a Dunedain. Whoa. You have to have an epic memory just to keep track of all the names.

Oh. But wait again. Anna Karenina and Roots had big casts of characters. Gone with the Wind couldn’t be called a small cast. There are plenty of books with large casts that don’t have anything to do with epic fantasy. Ugh.

Myth #4 Epic fantasy is a story of a really good guy versus a really bad guy.

Wouldn’t that make Sherlock Holmes against Moriarty an epic fantasy then?  Or Cruella de Vil? I’m mean her name spells evil, right. And she’s up against a bunch of cute puppies. You can’t top that. But those and other examples with very bad characters versus good ones aren’t always epic.   

So what does make epic fantasy epic?

Could it be maybe … their shoes are too tight or their heart is three sizes too small. Oh darn. That’s the Grinch.

What about the scope? Could it be that an epic fantasy is about something that affects the entire world?

Gone with the Wind was a book about how an epic situation affected one particular character and changed her, Scarlet. Maybe an epic fantasy is how one particular character (or perhaps a small group) can change the whole world.

Isn’t that what Harry Potter did when he faced Voldemort? Harry changed the world by saving it from Voldemort.

Frodo saved his Shire and everywhere else when the ring went into Mount Doom. With help from Gollum.

Was the world saved when Cruella went in the ditch? Nope, just some pretty darn cute puppies.

That’s my definition anyway. An epic fantasy is one where the entire fate of the world hinges on the change, no matter whether the change takes one volume or three or affects this world or an imaginary one.

So do you agree or disagree?     


  1. No surprise, but I agree. What makes an epic fantasy epic is that the world will end.

    This is what makes it different from Swords and Sorcery (High fantasy, low stakes), or urban fantasy (low fantasy, high or low stakes).

    Of course, I know that chatting about the basic definitions of genre really seems to rile people up, so I always like to leave room for nuances.

    **Note, low fantasy is a catch all for fantasy elements mingled with our world, such as portal stories (Narnia) or urban fantasy settings, whereas high fantasy is a completely different world with no mention of Earth.

  2. I think you hit the nail on the head :)

  3. Well, Wikipedia says it's "defined either by its taking place in an imaginary world distinct from our own or by the epic stature of its characters, themes and plot."

    So, I think you nailed it, too :)

  4. I've always defined epic fantasy as a story set in a largely-developed alternative world in which the fate of that world rests squarely on the shoulders of the main protagonist(s).