As we gear up to tackle epic fantasy as part of our WtF a Broadcast series on subgenres, I’ve spent a good bit of time thinking about what separates this tenet of fantasy from all the others. Some would say it is a matter of style, that the thick, pedantically descriptive prose of Papa Tolkien or Robert Jordan is what makes a novel, or series of novels, epic. Yet high style alone does not an epic fantasy series make, or Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy would not belong in this subgenre. Some make it a matter of a preponderance of characters, but who would call NK Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, which focuses on only a few, anything but epic? Others would say these stories are only retellings inspired by well-loved epic poems, but where, then, could we place Brandon Sanderson’s Way of Kings?
The answer to these questions is more than I can answer in any one blog post, for all fantasy fiction crosses subgenres with naked abandon, even Papa Tolkien’s. However, in a quote from one of his few essays on his own writing, Tolkien talks of the story of Middle Earth being his attempt to make a new history for England, a new mythology and progression of geography all her own. Epic fantasy, at its heart, is world-building, stories set in secondary geographies that touch the primary world we live in just enough for the reader to not feel too out of place.
Writers use a landscape made from the building blocks of our own topography: mountains, seas, rivers, islands, trees. These parts are arranged in new and interesting ways. Some, like Tolkien and Jordan, tweak them only enough to make the world feel other to us. In more recent works of epic fantasy, writers have found ways to twist what we understand of the natural world to a greater extent. They expand our horizons while staying connected to the laws of the primary world with tenuous threads. This makes the reader able to believe their new world is a living, breathing reality. Sanderson’s Shattered Plains, Jemisin’s World Tree, Hobb’s Rain Wilds, these are things we know, made fantastical through magic and slightly exaggerated natural laws.
To me, the mark of the epic fantasy subgenre is a world created by the writer, only connected to this primary world by certain shared natural laws and topography. What are these laws, and how can you build your own word to tell history of?
That, my friends, is a story for another blog post.