When I wrote the review for Helen Lowe's Heir of Night last week, I started thinking about epic fantasy--what it is and what does it mean in relation to my own novels. I know fans and authors have a lot of definitions of "epic fantasy" but I just wanted a good literary description of "epic." In my search, I came across this:
"Epic" refers to long narrative poems portraying adventures. The adventures consist of episodes which contribute to the formation of a race or nation. The "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" are two folk epics attributed to Homer. Other examples of epics include "Beowulf," and "Mahabharata."
Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia; 1996, p324-324, 1/5p
If we remove "poem" from this definition and change the term to "story," then we have: "'Epic' refers to a story portraying adventures. The adventures consist of episodes which contribute to the formation of a race or nation."
Epic fantasy would then be a story that portrays adventures. The second portion of the definition is where we sometimes shift our focus from the people (or intelligent non-human race) to the world. World building can easily overshadow the human or racial elements of the story, depending on both the reader’s expectations and the author’s intent.
Everyone refers to Tolkien as the archetypal epic fantasy, and occasionally the discussion becomes so mired on the epic nature of the story and world building that people sometimes forget that Tolkien's characters shaped the story through their choices. Boromir's ambition overcame his better nature and he failed to make the right choice whereas Aragorn remained true to the Fellowship from beginning to end.
Tolkien spent a lot time on his characters' respective backgrounds and he did it for a reason--how an individual is brought up can very easily shape his or her nature. Aragorn lost his father when he was too young to remember him, but he was raised amongst the elves with Elrond as his adoptive father. He was surrounded with positive influences. That is not to say he was perfect. Aragorn was given to self-doubt, yet he always struck me as a humble character, one whose early misfortune was counterbalanced by Elrond's steadying influence.
Boromir, on the other hand, had a much different upbringing and personality. His father was a grim man. Boromir desired the trappings of a king rather than the more humble position of a steward. He craved honors and questioned the leadership of Gandalf and others within the company. Although his intentions were not evil, his behavior often placed the Fellowship at risk.
Here, it seems I've slipped off course, but not really. The fate of Frodo and the ring (and therefore the fate of Middle Earth) hinges on these two men and the decisions they make from the core of their integrity. To me, that is much more epic than the world building.
Another excellent example of relationships in an epic fantasy is Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon. Here, the relationships and decisions of Morgaine and Gwenhwyfar shape the course of Britain. The entire culture is affected by who wields the most influence over King Arthur. Yet Bradley keeps the focus of her work deeply attuned to the relationships between the women in Arthur’s court.
In both of these stories, and many more, the characters shape the course of the world through their decisions. For a very long time, I avoided using the word epic in regard to my own work, because I don't write about worlds--I write about people. Worlds bore me. People, on the other hand, hold an infinite number of possibilities. Our choices are more often based on emotion than we would like to admit. Allegiances can change on the spur of a moment, based on logic, impulse, and the proverbial gut feeling.
Is Miserere epic? In many ways it is. Rachael and John's choices influence Woerld's events. The course of the war with the Fallen depends on the choices that Rachael, John, and the other Seraphs make. Lucian switches his allegiance from the Citadel to his sister, then decides to switch his allegiance back to the Citadel. His decision changes the course of the war and shifts the balance of power, yet he changes his allegiance not for the good of Woerld but for very personal reasons.
Under this definition, Garden in Umber is much more epic than Miserere. Guillermo, Diago, and Miquel must overcome their pasts in order to shape the course of their world and ours; however, unlike Miserere, the ramifications of any decisions in Garden will have more immediate impact on the characters and their world. Since Garden is still on submission, that is all I can say about it right now, but even more so than Miserere, Garden falls within the definition of epic.
Epic fantasy is about how worlds and cultures are shaped, but only in the most peripheral sense. Epic fantasy is really very much about the people who shape those worlds.
Does this mean that all fantasy is epic? No. There is a great deal of breadth within the sub-genres that leave room for all types of fantasy, but epic fantasy is, in all probability, the best known.
One of the most wonderful aspects of epic fantasy is its many faces: some stories are the more traditional epics such as the ones written by Lowe and Brooks and others are of the darker* variety such as those of Martin and Lawrence. My work falls somewhere between the two extremes, but leans more toward dark fantasy than the more traditional versions. I avoid nihilism, because I simply am not nihilistic myself. Yet I don't shy from the hard facts, the terrible scenes, because to me, these are the quintessential moments that shape our lives.
It is only in our darkest moments that we find our true light, and I believe very much in redemption. Boromir recanted his failure to act nobly when he recounted his crime against Frodo to Aragorn. People can change, and those changes often do affect the course of nations. Likewise, an individual's decision not to change his or her behavior can also create turbulence not just in the personal realm, but in the greater world as Mark Lawrence shows us with Jorg.
Once upon time, I avoided the "epic" tag to my work for fear that people would mistake my novels for young adult forays into the genre. I don't feel that young adult novels are bad; however, I saw the negative feelings that YA readers had when they read my work. I don't want to misrepresent what I write. I certainly don't want people to read a book they won't enjoy.
My work is dark and sometimes borders on horror. My friend Peter Cooper once dubbed me with the tagline of "deliciously creepy" fantasy. I'll take that.
Drop your "epic" opinions into the comments if you like, or share them on Facebook, Twitter, or your own blog. I'm always interested in hearing your views on the subject. If you want to tell me why you think Miserere may or may not be epic, I'd love to hear your thoughts.
*I avoid the use of the terms "grimdark" and "gritty" fantasy. These two terms are meaningless.