July 15, 2011

Epic Fantasy, guest post by Elizabeth Moon


You forum readers will have already seen E Moon’s response to last night’s post/link.  When I saw it this morning I emailed her instantly, saying, May I PLEEEEEEEEZ have it for a guest post?!?

            She blinked once or twice . . . and then rewrote it to be a little more guest-posty and a little less first-reaction-at-the-end-of-a-long-day-y.  

I don’t keep track, I have very little idea who the epic fantasy writers of today are.  I know the work of a few of the writers in the Clarkesworld post, but I don’t know a lot more of them.  A group like this is always going to be incomplete (I can think of a few round-ups and round tables I think I should have been on and wasn’t) but I looked through the list of contributors in this case twice, expecting to see Elizabeth Moon’s name there.

            But this is even better.  We have her here.

* * *

Yes, I write epic fantasy. Yes, I know what epic fantasy is, and I write it. Not ONLY epic fantasy, but yes, epic fantasy. And I’m not ashamed to claim it, and you can’t argue me out of saying that’s what I do, and of all my invented worlds, the one of the epic fantasy is closest to my heart.

Some of the people talking at the topic over at Clarkesworld got it right. Some were…inadequate (not of course our Hellgoddess.)

It’s not style–though a good epic fantasy will create the style it needs. You can’t make an epic fantasy with fancy language (that’s not how Tolkien did it, fancy languages though he invented.)

It’s not setting–or, as with language, a gorgeous setting, richly detailed, is not enough. A true epic fantasy will generate the setting it needs, from the bones of the earth up to the stars. Plenty of stories have richly-detailed gorgeous settings but lack the epic quality of the story itself.

It’s not the kind of scope that means lots of people, lots of territory, lots of action: that’s Cecil B. DeMille cinematic extravaganza. It IS the kind of scope that connects a human heart to its deepest depths to a great problem most cannot connect with. All the way down, all the way in, to the roots of the heart, linked to all the way out, and all the way up to the stars and beyond. 

It’s not a great problem alone.  A story can blow up planets and not be an epic.  It’s a problem with consequences that affect many–whatever “many” is in the era the story’s written–and faced by one or a few individuals who accept the challenge and succeed against enormous odds.

It’s not grand characters–kings, queens, wizards–in extravagant costumes with armfuls of magic items and shiny weapons…though somewhere in there, someone may have any of those. It’s one or more individuals who are ordinary in themselves–or apparently so–and must do the extraordinary with whatever resources they have or can find. 

It’s the inverse, in that sense, of classical tragedy as defined by Aristotle, where he said the appropriate protagonist was a king or queen.  In epic fantasy, the appropriate character is a hobbit, a woodland elf not a high elf, an apparent vagabond ranger…or a sheepfarmer’s stubborn daughter.  If there is a king, it’s a king-to-be, such as Aragorn, or one who, in the minds of the populace, isn’t capable enough.  Seemingly ordinary people matter in a way most of us can’t believe we do.   They are chosen–not the great–to do the great deeds, and for that very reason they enable us to feel a flicker of greatness in ourselves as we recognize both their humanity and their ability to stretch beyond. 

And yet the structure IS Aristotelian.  Although in epic fantasy the great problem is external to start with, the struggles the characters have are also, in the sense of “fatal or near-fatal flaws,” internal. It’s not enough to have superheroes who battle supervillains, pitting their superpowers against the supervillains’ superpowers–that’s not epic. No, the hero of an epic fantasy has daunted courage, fumbling intelligence, clouded judgment…must overcome his/her own traits and make them into something else, all while coming to grips with that grand outside problem. 

Robin got it right: first, the epic is Story, and must pull through, like a phrase of music, however long or short that epic may be…one volume or twenty, the story’s impulsion must move on, gaining power as it goes, making the incredible inevitable when seen back up its stream.  A gravitational pull (which is why Robin’s “Miltonic” is exactly the right adjective) carries it and its burden of characters, setting, challenge, events through the long journey without a pause, never letting the connection between character and challenge be lost. 

Transformation, in epic, is as much bigger than the “growth” the usual story protagonist manages as the epic challenge is greater than the problems of ordinary characters.  Transformation goes deeper, affects more of the character.   At the end, the once lumpy and awkward caterpillar in the confining chrysalis breaks out, and has that triumph…but is so changed that it’s rare for an epic hero to go home and live a quiet life–sit by the fire, grow a few vegetables, settle down with the family, bore the grandchildren with familiar stories.   

Frodo couldn’t.   (Sam could, and that’s particularly interesting since without Sam, Frodo wouldn’t have been successful.   Tolkien was showing something very, very interesting about character in that.)  Aragorn couldn’t go back to being the mysterious Strider, free to move about anonymously.   Merry and Pippin outgrew (literally)  hobbits, and were “lordly” now–but they weren’t Men, either.   Gandalf’s work in that age was over.  The very world they saved was not the same world after being saved…no more Lothlorien, timeless dream of beauty.  No more hidden and unscathed Shire, that safe haven for little people.  

Victory’s consequences include loss.   Epic fantasy allows the eucatastrophe, the victory and the victory feast, but does not tolerate cheap grace.   For all the apparent exaggeration from ordinary stories, epic fantasy is brutally realistic about the costs of greatness, the way a great mountain is brutal with climbers.  For writer, as well as characters, the risks are high.  

For the reader?   Since epic fantasy reaches down in the deepest, darkest, oldest parts of the human heart and spirit, it can touch those ancient fossils buried in each of us…what we think of as dead, petrified…with the power inherent in epic.   Coils shift once more; ancient eyes gleam through the dark:  and the reader’s own transformation begins.   Up from the depths and out to the skin the signals run: breath and heartbeat quicken, hairs lift on the arms.  But not with fear alone…with hope as well.  Dulled senses awake, as if on a spring morning at dawn;  color returns to the inner and outer world.  The lost is found: the oldest courage, the youngest hope, break free again, come into consciousness again, if only for a time.  

So. To claim that I write true epic fantasy is to risk being laughed off the stage. Who am I, to be on the same stage as Tolkien and Homer? Nobody. Not in the same league. Nonetheless…I do claim it.  I write epic fantasy.  

 * * *

* Hey,Elizabeth!  There’s going to be Part Two in August!


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