Epic Fantasy: Archetypes & Window Dressing

A couple months ago I posted a short essay in which I began examining the ideas and archetypes that are particular to the Epic Fantasy genre.  This is important to me, because while Epic Fantasy is my first and primary literary love, I don’t want to write in it simply out of habit: I want to make the choice of writing Epic Fantasy an informed and intentional choice.

In the essay, titled “Post-Tolkien Fantasy“, I questioned the decision by many latter-day “Post-Tolkienists” to eschew the common tropes, archetypes, and aesthetic trappings of Tolkienesque-flavored Epic Fantasy, and I questioned my own relationship with those same tropes and archetypes.

My purpose was to point out that neither Tolkienesque Epic Fantasy nor Post-Tolkien Epic Fantasy is inherently a superior mode, and that both have potentially valuable aspects as well as potential pitfalls and challenges.

I’d been thinking about the subject, in general, because my current WIP is an Epic Fantasy of the predominantly Post-Tolkien variety: inasmuch as it lacks things like a pseudo-medieval setting, magic swords, dark lords, hidden heirs, and other such archetypes and tropes.  But it was my contention that my WIP is still, despite these things, an Epic Fantasy.

In writing that essay, I referred to some of the common tropes and aesthetic trappings of Tolkienesque Epic Fantasy as “window dressing”.  My contention was that some tropes and trappings add to the aesthetic “flavor” of a given literary work, but don’t fundamentally interact with the core foundational archetypes that constitute the being of Epic Fantasy.  In other words: elves, dwarves, and dragons, knights, kings, and castles – these aren’t foundationally important elements of Epic Fantasy.  Their presence or absence doesn’t make or break an Epic Fantasy.

In referring to these things as “window dressing”, I entered into an exchange of ideas with a pleasantly articulate fellow named Jeff (Confidentially: I found your last name from your LinkedIn profile… but since “Jeff” looks a little like an alias I figured I’d respect that and refer to you just as Jeff) who responded to my article with his essay “My Plea for Philological Fantasy“.  Jeff approaches the topic from an angle decidedly more in favor of Tolkienesque Fantasy – a choice that I can’t disagree with.  At the same time, it’s clear that he doesn’t advocate for this choice based solely on an appreciation for the aesthetics of a Tolkien-like fantasy. 

In his post, Jeff argues, on one hand, that Fantasy can serve as a reflection of our present-day realities.  But more forcefully he argues that Fantasy needs to be a reflection of its own true self: that a fantasy story told faithfully will accurately reflect the world it portrays, in terms of language, culture, customs, and the whole host of idiomatic and ideological ramifications that entails.  The bulk of his essay focusses on the difficulty of doing this well, and of balancing effective story-telling with this goal.

But I found that question to be one primarily of the depth and sincerity of the worldbuilding that supports a fantasy story.  And that same question is relevant to any genre.  To half-paraphrase and half-quote (and add to) the comments I left there (italicized passages indicate further additions to my original comments; the typical italics for emphasis are therein replaced with non-italics; click here for my comment in its original context):

In many ways, I think your plea for “philogical” fantasy is equally relevant to almost any genre. To me, a philological sensibility is part of what immerses me, as a reader, in the world and environments of the stories I read. I think a lot of contemporary fiction loses this in some ways: because they are told in a contemporary setting and employ the contemporary language.  I mean it loses something because a writer in contemporary fiction has no reason to second-guess their own use of contemporary language, idioms, expressions, and cultural artifacts. It’s easy to do that without thinking deeper about the subject.  The classics and the great literature of our day – the enduring classics, regardless of whether set in then-contemporary settings or in fictional secondary worlds – are partly so, I think, because great writers do think about such things, and their use of language reflects that.  Many contemporary authors of average of even of very good quality might not even realize what they are doing.  I’m sure I myself, frequently in my own writing, fall prey to this.

Perhaps it’s easy to ignore the importance of these aspects of our writing.  It’s even possible, I think, to tell a satisfying Fantasy story without having given this much authorial attention.  But the moment you begin to stray from the here-and-now into elsewheres and elsewhens – whether past or future, our world or an invented world – I think you’ll find a fully satisfying treatment of the subject will be one that has given some thought to the language of that world.

I don’t think every non-contemporary story needs its own conlang to be full and complete. And certainly, one very important key to reader enjoyment is the space for reader engagement and reader comprehension. So to a certain degree the language has to be accessible. But the best writers, in my opinion, are those who can take the language of writing itself and adapt it to model the world of the story itself. The right words draw the reader into the world. The words can be sculptural; the words can be musical; the words can be lyrical; the words can be functional. Using the language with intent in this way is, I believe, substantially more difficult than simply sitting down and writing a story.

Then, to my mind, the subject of Epic Fantasy and its attendant archetypes and tropes isn’t a question of language, per se.  There’s something deeper I’m after.  My comment continued:

And I agree that I’m not interested in the common trappings of fantasy merely as window dressing. I’m looking for something deeper and more engaging. At the same time, I don’t discount the validity of that window dressing as an integral part of a fully immersive fantasy story. It just can’t be the only part. Take, as an example, the Lord of the Rings films. In theory, you could’ve made the movies without the astounding special effects, wide-panning shots, top-notch costuming and make-up, and so on. It would still, after all, have had the heart of the story, the real depth and meaning that makes Lord of the Rings so powerful. But the movie would’ve been a disaster. The window-dressing made the movie palatable, at the very least. It goes both ways, though: a movie like Eragon had the visual trappings and special effects, but it was an utter failure because there wasn’t any substance. This goes by way of metaphor, I suppose – an author has an “unlimited” special effects budget, they say. But the various aesthetic aspects of the story (not including the aesthetics of the words themselves, mind, which I think goes back to the “philological” discussion) are still important – so long as all that window dressing actually points to something, and isn’t just there for being there’s sake.

The discussion continued and we agreed that the phrase “Window Dressing” has certain derogatory or negative implications – and I think I settled on an answer to that issue in my comment, vis-a-vis the term aesthetics.  The more I thought about it, the more I came back around to the question of what are the essential, irreducible archetypes and tropes of Epic Fantasy, and how those inter-relate with archetypes and tropes that are more aesthetic in nature.

I hinted at this same dichotomy before, on the subject of the “Steampunk” genre.  One of my most perennially popular posts was the essay I called “A Steampunk Society” and the corollary article I wrote called “Now Hiring in the Airship Lounge: Fantasy Archetypes get Steampunked“.  In the former of those two essays I wrote:

First of all, Steampunk has been described by people smarter than I in the subject not as a genre but as an “aesthetic”…  The idea behind defining it thus is that you can skin the steampunk look on something from virtually any other genre – fantasy or sci fi and beyond – and describe the result as “steampunk”.  This is a half-truth, though, because you can skin the components of advanced technology and space exploration over anything and call it sci-fi or of magic and pointy-eared humans over anything and call it fantasy.  But the thrust of [my] argument is that a proper “genre” of fiction touches on certain consistent and discernible thematic elements.

Over the remainder of that essay I rejected the notion that a literary genre can be defined solely on its aesthetics and instead went in search of the underlying archetypes, values, and morals that constitute the essence of what is steampunk.  Implicit in that search was the understanding that, as an example, it was ridiculous to reduce fantasy to “magic and pointy-eared humans”.  (Although, in all honesty, I would argue that “magic” as a characteristic trope of fantasy is an irreducible one.  More on that later.)  In the second essay, I explored in some detail the evolving relationship between Fantasy, as a literary genre, and Steampunk, also as a literary genre – and how the strands of character archetypes weave between the genres and reflect one-another.

But having made that implicit assumption that Fantasy as a genre (and by extension Epic Fantasy as a notable sub-genre of Fantasy) is not reducible merely to its aesthetic components, I never did go back and verify that assumption.  And of course, it’s much harder to demonstrate that assertion as fact than it is to cast it out there in a throw-away line.

I daresay it’s likely a trivial matter to find examples of Fantasy and Epic Fantasy that owe little to the genre except in terms of aesthetics, window-dressing, and skin-deep tropes.  I say “likely” because I haven’t put in any effort at all to come up with easy examples of books that do this.  As I’ve pointed out, I’m not interested in that kind of treatment, and when I encounter it, I often grow bored of it and quickly move on.  If and when I’ve encountered it, I’ve counted it easily forgettable.  More often, I’ll make some assumptions about a work – deciding whether I think it’s to my tastes or not –  and move on before ever even reading it.  It’s rare I actually choose to pick something up and then find I have no interest for it.  At any rate, this is a sliding scale at the very least – it’s not an either/or proposition in these terms – and subject to personal biases and tastes as well.  What for me is a sufficiently considerate engagement with the core tropes of Epic Fantasy will for another be mindless pablum, and vice versa.

The thing I’m trying to figure out, though, is what I called above those “irreducible” tropes and archetypes.  What is the generic idea below which you cannot descend before you’ve left the genre entirely?  What is that essential je ne sais quoi that you must have to be considered an example of the genre? 

What I’m distinguishing between, here, is which tropes are merely aesthetic and which are defining traits. 

But then, as I’ve said before, genre boundaries are fluid and as I said above personal biases, tastes, and preferences play a role in those shifting lines.  I’ve also said before that I’ve never seen a definition of Epic Fantasy that fully satisfied me.

Yet, if I’m rejecting certain aesthetic tropes as non-essential, what am I then left with?  I’ve got to have some standard by which I measure my own success or failure as an author of Speculative Fiction generally, Fantasy more specifically and Epic Fantasy most particularly of all.

Well, let me try to boil it down the best I can.

First of all, Epic Fantasy, it should come as no surprise, is a sub-type of Fantasy.  By what do I mean when I say “Fantasy”, then?  Since I’m a fan of Speculative Fiction generally and Fantasy especially, I’m inclined to accept a fairly broad interpretation of “Fantasy”.  Consequently, there is really only one “irreducible trope” that I think is a core essential element of Fantasy, which is this:  A Fantasy story is a story which touches on the Numinous or the Mythic in some way, be that in having Magic, God or Gods, Spirits, Ghosts, Angels, Demons, Enchantments, Cosmically Inexplicable Coincidences, or any other manner of thing that is not explainable by modern rational science.   You can be a Fairy-tell retelling, an ancient myth writ large, an alternate version of our own world, or a wholly invented secondary world.  It’s my firm contention that the Numinous and the Mythic – which to me are really different aspects of the same thing – is the heart of what Fantasy is.  In terms of the core of the Fantasy genre, everything else is simply aesthetics. 

By which you might interpret me as saying that Epic Fantasy is nothing more than an aesthetic variation of Fantasy more broadly.  Which is not what I’m saying at all.  Epic Fantasy is a sub-genre, which means that every example of Epic Fantasy is also an example of Fantasy.  But it’s also it’s own genre, which means it has its own constraints and core, irreducible tropes.

I’ve racked my brain and thought and thought about this issue.  My position on it may yet evolve.  But there are only two additional tropes that I can confidently say are irreducible to Epic Fantasy, and they are these: Scope and the Journey.  Scope means that the story of an Epic Fantasy is not spatially, temporally, or characteristically constrained.  In more laymanesque terms: an Epic Fantasy is a Big Story. It doesn’t take place in a single small village, or a single neighborhood of a city.  It doesn’t take place over a few short days.  It doesn’t concern just a small cast of important characters.  Or if it does any of those things, there are clear implications of the story that ramify at a much larger scale.  The second trope is the Journey, which may be either literal or metaphorical: the story takes its main characters from one state or place of being to another usually with many stops in between.  Putting it that way may seem like an exercise in stating the obvious.  But there are plenty of stories that lack both a literal and even a metaphoric journey: where the characters never go anywhere, where they are emotionally stunted, where their life experience is not meaningfully expanded.  Combined with the Scope, the implication is that the Journey must be big and it must be important.  The final aspect of Epic Fantasy that I consider primarily essential is a variation on the essential trope of Fantasy itself: Fantasy must touch on the Numinous or Mythic; in Epic Fantasy the Numinous or Mythic must be integral to the plot.

And that’s where I’ve found myself.  I can imagine innumerable variations on these themes that don’t look anything like what many of us have come to expect of an Epic Fantasy but which, upon a close reading and engagement with the text, almost inarguably are Epic Fantasies.  Beyond that, everything else is at the author’s discretion and tastes.  They are, to use the language of this essay, aesthetics.  An Epic Fantasy, therefore, doesn’t need to be about war, though they often are.  It doesn’t need a lost heir to an honorable monarchy, though they often have those.  It doesn’t need magic swords and dragons, however common those might be.  It doesn’t need to adhere to a Campbellian Monomyth structure, though they often – whether intentionally or more-often-than-not unintentionally – do.  It doesn’t need to be inspired by Arthurian or Ancient Roman or Ancient Greek or Ancient Norse or Judeo-Christian mythology, though they often are.

Good Epic Fantasy, however, that’s another question.  Good Epic Fantasy – the stuff that I’m interested in reading – considers each of those tropes and archetypes.  It does not necessarily reject them.  Nor does it necessarily accept them.  It considers them.  A good writer of Epic Fantasy is making choices between all these aesthetic tropes and archetypes and is developing an understanding of how to use those tropes and archetypes, of what they mean and how they influence a story and how they’ll impact a reader and what they say about the world the story takes place in.  A good writer of Epic Fantasy isn’t just throwing tropes in because that’s what they’re used to seeing or that’s what they think Epic Fantasy is.  A good writer of Epic Fantasy is trying to understand the power of their own medium and the message they are transmitting in their work.  It’s possible to use any and all of those common tropes and archetypes poorly, and I suspect a random sampling of avid Epic Fantasy readers will find no shortage of examples of works they feel did so.  But a good Epic Fantasy writer uses those tropes they choose with care, consideration, and intent.

7 thoughts on “Epic Fantasy: Archetypes & Window Dressing

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  2. Wow. That was one hell of a post! Thank you for the link, too. 🙂 I’m not trying that hard to remain anonymous, by the way, it’s just that my true identity is not that important in the context of my blog, so I decided to keep it rather indefinite. Incidentally, Jeff is just half an alias: in spoken French Canadian (my native language) it is the usual shortened form of my true first name.

    Now, I have a follow-up question to your essay. How do you define a sub-genre? Take this question as friendly trouble-making, since I’m asking from the point of view of finding sub-genres neither necessary nor useful. 🙂

    • With regard to your question on sub-genres, my definition is perhaps a little bit technical for something that is essentially a fuzzy and artistic thing, and owes to my background way back in my Undergrad experience of being a Computer Science minor (I now no longer regularly do computer coding, except on occasion writing Macros in VBA for Excel and Access as needed in my day job). Basically, it’s this: a sub-genre is a literary genre that inherits the delimitations of its parent genre, which is to say that it’s an example of an “Is A” relationship: meaning that a given sub-genre “Is a” type of it’s parent-genre.

      A current example would be “Urban Fantasy” as a sub-class of the broader “Fantasy” genre. A work of Urban Fantasy “is a” work of Fantasy, in that all the characteristics of Fantasy likewise accrue to Urban Fantasy. Using my own defined characteristics from this essay – my “irreducible tropes” – that would be the element of the Mythical, Magical or otherwise Numinous as present in an Urban Fantasy.

      But the relationship is one-way. You can’t say that any given work of Fantasy “Is a” work of Urban Fantasy, because there are additional tropes and constraints and characteristics that further refine the definition of Urban Fantasy (to wit: an “urban” or city setting and most typically in a contemporary “real-world-in-the-modern-day-but-with-a-fantasy-element”; as an aside, I think there is increasingly greater evidence to suggest that “Urban Fantasy” as a category is further fractioning thanks in part to the influence of, and reaction against, the Paranormal Romance genre that is largely an outgrowth of the Twilight phenomenon). Ergo, Urban Fantasy “Is a” Fantasy, but the reverse relationship “Fantasy ‘Is an’ Urban Fantasy” does not hold true.

      There are further complications to this categorizing schema: namely sub-sub-genres (which, within the larger sphere of “Speculative Fiction”, are legion) and Cross-over Genres (likewise also legion). In the former case, for example, you might say an Urban Fantasy is a sub-genre of Contemporary Fantasy (i.e. a fantasy story that takes place in a modern-day, contemporary setting, but not necessarily an “urban” one) which is a sub-genre of Fantasy. The latter, cross-over genres, really muddies the waters. But, going back to those Computer Science roots, this suggests a class of genres that “inherit” multiple delimitations and characteristics from multiple parent genres. And of course, it’s further perfectly reasonable for a cross-over genre to be a sub-class of mutliple sub-genres that are either all within the same larger parent genre category or which inherit aspects from completely different parent genre categories. “Historical Romance”, for instance, inherits characteristics of both the “Historical Fiction” category and the “Romance” category: i.e. it is both an Historical Fiction and a Romance.

      Which, at the end of the day, doesn’t buy anyone a loaf of bread.

      But for a certain class of nerd (i.e. “me”) this is fascinating to think about. And it helps me think about what I write and what I’m trying to accomplish in what I write. Being cognizant of the limitations, defining tropes, etc. of various genres and sub-genres and sub-sub-genres and cross-over genres helps me understand what my own strengths and weaknesses are, as a writer. I know, for instance, that writing an Historical Fantasy (i.e. a cross-genre Historical Fiction and Fantasy novel; see, for example, Thieftaker by D. B. Jackson or Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal) will require amounts of research that are, quite probably, beyond my capacity to achieve, so it is unlikely that I’m well-qualified, at this time in my life, to write a well-received Historical Fantasy.

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