This week, I’ll be presenting at Tampa Bay Comic Con, and the title of my panel will be “What Makes Epic Fantasy Epic?” Specifically, I’ll be digging into how the fantasy genre has evolved over time, why I think it succeeds as a genre, and why I write it. In terms of publishing viability, epic fantasy is most definitely a subgenre staple. By that, I mean some subgenres will come and go (examples of subgenres: sword and sorcery, comic fantasy, grimdark—shoot, there’s even “weird west fantasy”), but I think the epics will always remain. And to understand why, we need to trace epic fantasy back to its roots.
In 1937, J.R.R. Tolkien published The Hobbit, and in the 50s he followed up with The Lord of the Rings. Many folks will say that Tolkien started epic fantasy, but that’s not true. There were many fantasy writers before Tolkien; the “genre” had been around for thousands of years, existing first in the form of notable epic poems such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Beowulf. What Tolkien did prove, however, was that a viable publishing market existed for fantasy literature. Shortly before he published The Hobbit, though, Tolkien delivered a lecture called Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. The poem Beowulf takes the reader through the great warrior Beowulf’s adventures, in which he first faces a monster named Grendel, and then Grendel’s mother (it’s like a bad episode of Jerry Springer), and then finishes by opening a can of whoop-ass on a dragon. However, at the time many literary scholars didn’t take these fantastical elements of Beowulf seriously. They’d say, sure, Beowulf is a fantastic period piece because it allows us to better understand the intricacies of Anglo-Saxon history, for example—what roots and tubers they threw in the soup for dinner, what sort of things they’d talk about around the campfire, how they turned wolf pelts into furs, and any number of relatively dreary attributes that hang around in the background of the poem. They would downplay the part that the monsters like Grendel and the dragon play in the story—but Tolkien argued that these fantastical elements were not only a critical part of the story, but that they also made it successful. In short, he said that fantasy is something that appeals to people, something that they would be willing to read and others to write. Call it an old-fashioned TED talk about why fantasy novels matter.
Though the lecture was relatively well-received—because academics enjoy playing intellectual exercises—I suspect there was a healthy degree of skepticism on a lot of fronts, specifically, as to whether this was merely an interesting theory, or if it held water. Well, publishing is first and foremost a business—not an art form—and what matters to publishers is whether or not books sell. The Lord of the Rings sold very well, though, and in doing so proved Tolkien’s point that there was a market for fantasy literature. What followed was an explosion of fantasy literature between the 1980s and 2000s, during the likes of which authors such as Terry Brooks, Tad Williams, David Eddings, and Robert Jordan came to the forefront. This has continued into the present day with authors like George R.R. Martin and Brandon Sanderson consistently hitting New York Times bestseller status with each new release. Not only has fantasy succeeded in the literary world, it has also become successful in both film (The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter) and television (Game of Thrones). In short, a genre that used to have a narrow, niche appeal has become mainstream.
The crux of the matter, then, is why? Why is epic fantasy successful? What makes people read it? Tolkien delivers an intriguing analysis in his Beowulf lecture, but as far as my own observation of the genre goes, both in reading it as well as in writing it, is that I feel epic fantasies tell us that we are living life for more than just ourselves. Here’s what I mean: epic fantasies always revolve around characters who are thrust into situations that are much bigger than themselves, where the stakes are high and the consequences far-reach. The world is ending, the dark lord is coming, et cetera. And when these characters find themselves in these situations, these very real people with strengths as well as failings, they find out that they are the ones who are able to make a difference in the world. I think that taps into a fundamental part of the human psyche; it’s natural to want to think our lives mean something, that we are doing more than just existing from one day to the next, and that we’ll do something that leaves an impact after we’re gone. For many people, this is why religion exists, because it tells us that there is a higher purpose to our lives, but even when somebody’s not religious—take a prominent atheist like Stephen Hawking—we still search for meaning. Atheist or not, Stephen Hawking wanted to find out why the world ticked, if there was a reason, even a simple mathematical one, behind why we are all here. In the end I think we’d be hard pressed to find a person who is willing to sit back and say: “I’m okay with my life being nothing more than what we see on the surface: I live from one day to the next, nothing I will do will make a difference, I’m simply here, I will be gone when I’m gone, and I’m good with that.” Epic fantasies are the polar opposite of nihilism; they tell us that we’re doing more than just existing, that we’re making a better place for those that follow us, and that’s a powerful message.
Though I write literature to entertain first and foremost, I also hope that at the end of the day, a good story allows folks to take a nugget of something else home, too. I think of how the works I read when I was younger helped me grow, and therefore hope in turn to offer someone else a similar experience, and the message is thus—that people matter, and that our choices matter, and that it’s always possible to do the right thing, even when a dark wizard is trying to blow you up. We’re all in this together, so let’s go out with our magic swords, slay those dragons, and make the world just a bit of a better place.