Epic Fantasy needs to explore Epic Ideas

A Dribble of Ink has a great post up about epic fantasy.  The G., from Nerds of  a Feather, Flock Together, dives into the perceived  conservative strain that is claimed to plague epic fantasy. This conservatism is natural in the structure of epic fantasy. The genre has certain tropes of structure that inherently define it. But this structure, with its journey and great epic struggle on top of a fantastical second-worlds setting, does not demand similarly conservative takes on perceived social norms.

In fact, I’d suggest it is the area most ripe for new storytelling. Epic fantasy has a role to play in exploring creative and deep looks into how society and individuals can exist. It is the very existence of new rules, of a second-world that only needs to conform to its own internal consistencies, that allows epic fantasy to break those societal tropes. Mr G. stresses the value of the possible impossible (magic) :

What’s more, epic fantasy worlds are by definition places where the unreal becomes real. Sometimes there are dragons in the mountains, or elves, orcs and gnomes living amongst us. Occasionally there are malevolent gods who want to come back to rule; more often there are malevolent sorcerers who wield god-like powers and seek to do the same. Nearly always there are powers beyond the control of regular folks, though some gifted or enterprising young types might learn to master them. These are, by definition and in name, fantastic spaces where magic and metaphysics render the impossible possible. Epic fantasy worlds do selectively borrow from real world histories, mythologies and cultural norms, but they are rarely comprehensive or terribly accurate in those borrowings. The ideal aim is for authenticity and internal consistency, because realism is pretty much off the table.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the a) invented nature of epic fantasy worlds; b) heterogeneity of what falls under the epic fantasy rubric; and c) presence of user-definable systems of magic, metaphysics and the otherwise made-up would, taken together, also encourage authors to adopt a speculative perspective on social arrangements. Yet somehow keep going back to the same old medieval European settings and patriarchal, ethnocentric and heteronormative assumptions of how societies “should” look like.

As he continues to say, while acknowledging that there is nothing inherently wrong with euro-centric epic fantasy, that there is more to explore.  He is right to note how “Nora Jemisin, Doug Hulick, Saladin Ahmed and Elizabeth Bear signal that epic fantasy has discovered that worlds beyond the geographic, mythological and sociological borders of alt-Europe can be just as, and often more, compelling than the stuff we’re used to. Scott Lynch, Catherine Valente, Kate Elliott, Trudi Canavan, Daniel Abraham—these authors and others like them are effectively using the medium to ask complex questions about human nature.”

These are the types of authors and stories that will help expand the genre of epic fantasy and keep it vibrant into the future. The grand romantic tradition of epic fantasy is ripe for deep and complex storytelling. It can morph and change and twist into anything the imagination can conjure. The time is ripe for more epic fantasies to escape the clutches of gender and power norms, to explore new ways for a society to develop, to explore how such changes would alter a civilization. It is time to explore new ways for societies to resolve conflicts at the epic scale and to resolve power struggles. Epic fantasy has all the structure to tell powerful and compelling stories.  By mining the full possibilities of existence, outside the trappings of human prejudice and ingrained structural normas (along side magic and the impossible), these stories are capable of exploring all kinds of exciting possibilities, ones that can more keenly reflect and look back at ourselves.

In many ways, epic fantasy is still in its infancy, and that is a good sign. It shows that there is more to explore, there are new stories to tell, there are new readers and there are new writers. Let’s hope they dream some more, and imagine new worlds and new heroes, ones that will surprise us and make us laugh and love and cry and then, ponder what it all means.

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One Response to Epic Fantasy needs to explore Epic Ideas

  1. Pingback: Are these really the most essential epic fantasy books ever written? | Musings of a Mild Mannered Man

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