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Post-Tolkien Fantasy

May 4, 2012

Like a lot of fans of Fantasy literature, and especially of the Epic Fantasy subgenre, I grew up on what today you might call “Tolkienesque” fantasy.  You likely know what I mean: Dragons and Elves and Fairies and Wizards and Magic Swords and Hidden Heirs and Noble Destinies.  I could take a year off your life just by linking to the relevant “TV Tropes” pages.  (Don’t worry, I won’t do that do you.  I love you too much.  You can get lost all by yourself if that’s your inclination. Oh ye gods, I almost got lost myself just by linking the home page!)

One of the first fantasy novels I ever read was Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three, the first in his “Prydain Chronicles”.  It wasn’t much longer before I’d read Tolkien and Dragonlance and a slew of other Tolkienian fantasy works.  Although Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy didn’t feature all of the major tropes and archetypes we now associate with fantasy of this type, his work was nonetheless so seminal in the foundations of this genre that we now consider him to be arch-progenitor of the form and genre, even if some of these tropes actually predate him.

And yet, it’s all the fashion and rage, these days, to dismiss Tolkienesque-style Epic Fantasy, to bemoan the woeful and backward state of the genre, and to denounce as tired, and trite and boring all of these old tropes.  Most of the big names in modern Fantasy Literature make a big deal about how about how they’re not writing Tolkienesque Fantasy.  When Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings came out he wrote an essay called “Postmodernism in Fantasy” (and got a lot of attention in the blogosphere grumbling that he’d misused the term “postmodernism”), he was essentially making this point.  Perhaps what Brandon was really talking about wasn’t Postmodern Fantasy.  Perhaps what he was really talking about was, to coin a phrase, Post-Tolkien Fantasy.

To hear the Post-Tolkienists talk, the world of fantasy has heretofore been nothing but a sad and endless stream of cheap Tolkien knock-offs and drudgery.  But at last, they promise, there will be an end to this otherwise endless tide of backward fantasy literature.  At last, they will create something new, something that challenges the old, familiar tropes.  At last, we will shed the shackles of Tolkienism!

Me… I don’t think that way.

If you’re a fan of Epic Fantasy, it almost goes without saying that you read and loved Tolkien, and a number of other Tolkien-like stories.  Stories in pseudo-medieval worlds and with all those trappings and tropes I mentioned above and more.  If you’re like me, you fell in love with those things.  But I’m still in love with those things.  I don’t pick up a book that has elves and dragons on the cover and think to myself “Oh look, it has elves and dragons.  How quaint.  Don’t worry poor little Tolkienesque Fantasy Book.  One day you’ll grow up and become a George R. R. Martin epic.”  A good epic fantasy story isn’t about elves and magic swords and dragons and all the rest.  Those things are window dressing – you can have them or not, whichever flavor you prefer.  The thing about a good epic fantasy story is that it’s a good story with good characters.  I happen to like that particular variety of window dressing, but the presence or lack of those elements will not make or break a story for me.  Ultimately, I’m looking for something deeper.  And I seek that same connection in my own writing.

The novel-that-I’ve-been-writing-since-forever (which I call here “Project SOA #1″) is an unabashedly and unapologetically Tolkienesque flavor of Epic Fantasy.  It has dragons.  It has magic swords.  It has elves-that-I-don’t-call-elves.  It has its Dark Lord.  It has a Hidden Heir raised in obscurity and ignorance of his birthright.  It has all of those things. 

It is still my goal actually to write and finish the novel-that-I’ve-been-writing-since-forever.  I call it my Magnum Opus, even though I’m not in any position to have anything anyone can call a Magnum Opus.  And yet, “Project SOA #1″ sits quietly and mostly untouched these days, simmering softly on a very back, back, back-burner.  I haven’t given it a lot of thought in over a year. 

You see… I’ve come around to a certain way of thinking.  Writing a Tolkienesque Epic Fantasy: anyone can do it.  Writing a good one?  Well, that’s as hard as writing a good anything.  But the problem is, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of relying too heavily on the tropes and archetypes of the familiar Tolkienesque style.  It’s all too easy to get lost or dismissed as “just another Tolkien knock-off”.  It’s all too easy to fail at writing a Tolkienesque Epic Fantasy – and to fail for things that have nothing to do with your ability to write well.

My current Work-in-Progress, “Book of M”, is an Epic Fantasy.  But it’s also a Post-Tolkien Fantasy.  There are no magic swords.  There are no dragons.  There are no elves or classical mythic races.  There is no Dark Lord.  There is no Hidden Heir.  There is no Noble Destiny.  But if it lacks all these things, how then is it an Epic Fantasy?

It is Fantasy because it is a world touched by magic, a world that turns on the implications of its own mythic origins, a world where the people still grapple with the mistakes of their ancient ancestors.  It is Epic because it has a large scope and high stakes, because the protagonist has to travel to many far-flung places and because, at the end of the day, the world needs saving.

On a deeper level, this gets me wondering about what exactly is Epic Fantasy, and whether this distinction Tolkienesque Epic Fantasy and Post-Tolkien Epic Fantasy really matters.  Genre boundaries are fluid and muddy and very dependent on the eye of the beholder.  I’ve not yet seen a definition of Epic Fantasy that fully satisfies me.  You ask Wikipedia and it thinks Epic Fantasy and High Fantasy are the same genre.  (I do not agree.  Although, I do concede that there is a significant area of overlap between the two, with many works held in common by both subgenres.)  That definition focuses on the “secondary world” aspect of fantasy fiction, but even that foundational element is, I believe, flawed, and it flows at least in part from a flawed or incomplete understanding of Tolkien’s own body of work and contribution to the Epic Fantasy genre. 

On a certain level, distinguishing between Tolkienesque and Post-Tolkien Fantasy is probably not a useful exercise.  The differences concern mainly trappings and window-dressing to a large degree.  Whether your hero or his/her companion is an elf or not doesn’t dramatically change the nature of most stories.  In the Tolkienesque tradition, trappings like elves have become a sort of code or short-hand for a collection of aesthetics and concepts that do not strictly require the word “elf” to convey them.  Nor are those aesthetics and concepts wholly necessary for the function of an Epic Fantasy or a High Fantasy.  The same holds true for other tropes and trappings of the Tolkienesque Fantasy.

The danger in crafting a Tolkienesque, then, lies in the superficial treatment of these tropes and trappings: in not engaging their core meaning in a more intentional way and exploring that potential.  The tropes and trappings of Tolkienism are popular in many regards because many people have developed an appreciation for their aesthetic value.  But the genre also sometimes gets short shrift because too many authors have employed those trappings and tropes purely for their aesthetic values without engaging, interrogating, and remixing the underlying concepts, or without adding anything new or relevant.

And that’s why on another level it is useful to distinguish.  My ultimate goal as a writer is not to write either Tolkienesque or Post-Tolkien Fantasy.  It is neither to adhere to nor eschew those trappings and tropes.  Rather my goal is, more broadly, to write powerful, moving Epic Fantasy that I enjoy – and that also leads my readers to think.   This is what Tolkien accomplished in his work – and what many other great Epic Fantasy authors have likewise been able to accomplish whether by hewing closely to Tolkien’s structural and aesthetic template, rejecting that template altogether, playing against the expectations of that template, or ignoring the template in the first place. 

I do not deny that I have a strong appreciation for the aesthetics of the Tolkienesque Fantasy.  On a more narrow level, I still desire to take those aesthetic tools and apply them in my own stories, my own settings, and my own characters.  But by stepping away from those specific trappings common to the Tolkienesque Fantasy and forcing myself to engage with Epic Fantasy on a more meaningful level, I’m forcing myself to think.  I cannot accomplish the goal of making my readers think if I do not first think about things myself.  I don’t want to rely on the shorthand of those common tropes without understanding what those tropes mean or how they can be combined and recombined to add meaning. 

I still have a lot more thinking to do about genre and genre tropes and conventions and trappings and aesthetics.  I’m hoping to focus more of my blog’s attention on these questions.  So this post is by no means the end of my thoughts on the subject.  But before I go on, what do you think, dear reader?  Are you a fan of Fantasy generally, Epic Fantasy more particularly, and/or Tolkienesque Fantasy especially?  What do you think about these different iterations of the Fantasy genre?  What are your favorite examples of these genres, and why do you classify them that way?

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. May 4, 2012 1:26 pm

    Oh my, those are some meaty questions! I’ll try to answer briefly…

    Are you a fan of Fantasy generally? Absolutely! I write it too.

    Epic Fantasy more particularly? Yes, but then I define epic in the classic sense as the scope of the conflict: it’s world changing, involves many peoples, or covers a great physical distance.

    Tolkienesque Fantasy especially? Not so much. I do have a soft spot for elves and dragons, but I’m more interested in fantasy that opens up my mind to things I haven’t imagined before.

    What do you think about these different iterations of the Fantasy genre? I think its a gradual evolution, because culture is not static, and the lines between genres are fluid. They blur and cross pollinate. People will continue to mine mythology for ideas, so I don’t think elves, dwarves, or dragons are going away, nor would I want them to. I’d like to see them used in fresh ways.

    What are your favorite examples of these genres, and why do you classify them that way? EEEH that’s a hard one! You can look back at my genre posts for that!

    • May 4, 2012 1:35 pm

      I actually did look back at your genre posts as I was writing this post. ;) I wasn’t fully satisfied with my own definitions for what constituted Epic Fantasy and High Fantasy or what the difference was, for one thing, and that’s part of what got me thinking in this post. I realized as I was writing this that I could easily write a great deal more on this subject and still not be satisfied with the results. One thing I’m after in asking the questions I asked is in trying to come up with some idea of what the corpus of Epic Fantasy, specifically, actually looks like today, and where its center is and where its fringes and blurred edges and farthest borders lie. And possibly how that’s changed over time. Maybe if I can understand that corpus a little better, I can understand the genre a little better.

  2. May 5, 2012 11:20 am

    What excellent post. We are like-minded in many ways. There’s a lot to say, but if you don’t mind, I’ll actually take that up in my next post on my own blog instead. What I was already planning to write next is relevant to this (and also to the following link: http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/epic_interview1/).

    • May 7, 2012 11:11 am

      Well, I’ll look for that blog post of yours. The Clarkesworld discussion you linked is one of several things I’m slowly working my way through and reading as I think about this topic. I’ve got several such links saved for a future post (after I finish reading the articles linked and can process my thoughts on those articles and write it up).

  3. May 6, 2012 9:41 am

    I’m not a huge fantasy fan. Other than Tolkien, I’ve read a few things. Off the top of my head… Hambly, Marston, Kay, Eddings (in descending order of preference). Some of Zelazny’s stuff had fantasy elements, but I wouldn’t classify any of it as “fantasy.”

    I don’t have any idea of classifications within the overall genre (of course, I don’t think about that very much with other genres either).

    What’s unique in fantasy (AFAIK) is how much the genre exists in relation to one author. That’s certainly not true of sci fi or mystery. Maybe that’s because fantasy is a newer genre.

    The thing that strikes me the most is that the people who are consciously (or self-consciously) rejecting Tolkien are orbiting around Tolkien’s body of work just as much as those who embrace it — just in the opposite direction. They are still writing in reaction to Tolkien.

    • May 7, 2012 11:26 am

      I think you’re right about that, in many ways. Every genre has its giants: the ones that new authors try to live up to or are influenced by. But I think Fantasy in general is more strongly affected by a single giant probably more than other genres are. Most genres, I think, have a small pantheon of titans to which they owe allegiance – two or three or four or even more – but Tolkien is the titan of Fantasy, and there are other big names and genre greats, but each of those is a lesser creature when compared to Tolkien’s overall influence. However, Fantasy as a genre actually existed before Tolkien did and clearly it has and will continue to exist long after Tolkien’s passing. What’s also interesting in the fact that, in most genres, those titans and giants are typically known for producing a large number of titles over a period of time. More than anything, Tolkien is known primarily for only two closely-related finished works (taking LotR as a single unit of literature and counting The Hobbit separately, and not counting The Silmarillion since that’s only best known by Tolkien enthusiasts). So there are some interesting dynamics going on there that differentiate Fantasy from other genres in the way it’s evolved.

  4. May 7, 2012 9:49 pm

    Interesting read… I must honestly say that I’ve not really thought that deeply about it. I’ve always enjoyed fantasy, I think in part because it leaves room for the mystical and the unknowable. It is also the realm in which I find my own dreams taking place and my stories taking form. As a writer however, I don’t think about it. In fact, I think it can be dangerous for me to analyze it too deeply. I find myself as much a recipient of the story as I am a shaper of it. I’ll let other people analyze, debate, and chew it If that brings them joy. As for me, I’ll hope that trope or not, similarity to Tolkien or none, I will tell stories that touch truth, love and life. If I get too concerned with not being or doing something, it is thus far always destructive to the story.

    • May 8, 2012 9:21 am

      Well, yes, I’m one of those who does derive some enjoyment from thinking and analyzing these kinds of things. I’m very analytical, in general. But that analysis doesn’t take place immediately within the writing process itself. For instance, as I’m writing my WIP I’m not thinking to myself “this or that is too Tolkienian or not sufficiently Tolkienian”. The story remains true to itself, and I don’t compromise it or second-guess myself in the artistic sense because of other goals external to the story itself. On the other hand, my decision to shelf the-novel-I’ve-been-writing-since-forever for a while and start a new project was at least partly motivated by the fact that the project relied too heavily on common tropes and cliches without adding anything new or valuable to the mix. When I made that decision, I had a variety of story ideas I was already rolling around in my head that I could try and pursue. Which one I picked up and became my current WIP was also partly inspired by my evolving thinking on genre and tropes and cliches.

      • May 8, 2012 1:10 pm

        I share that analytical leaning in some areas, this just doesn’t happen to be one of them. It can be great fun when it’s not an obstacle, a malady I sometimes suffer from. In this case, it makes me glad that someone else is doing the work. ; ) You’ve tickled an idea I plan to flesh out a little in a post later tonight. On a slight tangent I began to think how the depth of our lives impacts the depth of our work. Anyway, as regards defending ourselves against these things, I think the danger of cliche work is the reason that Stackpole counseled against taking the the first 2 or even 3 answers that come to mind when asking questions about characters and conflict. Those, he noted, are often cliches. Makes me think that often I’m just being lazy when things come out that way.

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