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?