There’s an interesting post by Matthew David Surridge over at Black Gate about defining epic fantasy, and an equally interesting response by author N.K. Jemisin. Being as how this is a subject near and dear to my heart, I can’t help but contribute some thoughts of my own. Surridge concludes his article with the following definition:

“An epic fantasy is a very long and fundamentally serious story set mostly or entirely in a fantastic secondary world, typically defined by the existence of magic and often fleshed out with maps, appendices, and other paratextual devices; it’s usually an encylopedic, stylistically direct, structurally uncomplicated story in which characters notable for their active agency combat a defined evil, often by forming an alliance, and generally are involved with a world-transformative event.”

It’s a comprehensive definition, and the article itself makes some very good points – and yet, I can’t quite bring myself to agree, because the more I think about it, the more it feels like a definition of one particular type of epic fantasy, and not the genre as a whole. To begin with, I’d like to consider Surridge’s suggestion that epic fantasy is fundamentally serious: that the world and story cannot be comedic. At first glance, this struck me as a reasonable requirement – until I remembered Redwall, a lengthy series of books created by the recently deceased Brian Jacques. Given that Surridge is willing to include William Horwood’s Duncton Wood in his epic canon – which, insofar as animal protagonists are concerned, falls within the same thematic territory as Redwall – Jacques’s work becomes a very interesting test case. For starters, and perhaps most importantly, it is indisputably aimed at young adults. One thing never discussed as part of Surridge’s definition was whether a series should be excluded on the basis of being YA, presumably because most people consider the answer, whatever they think it is, to go without saying, and perhaps also because, if we accept his requirement (I don’t) that epics be not only written in trilogies at a minimum, but trilogies with a combined minimum wordage of 250,000, then most YA books are automatically disqualified.

But Redwall, which runs to more than 20 stories set in the same world, is a definite contender. The vast majority of novels feature overlapping characters – that is to say, characters who appear in more than one book – and at least four whole volumes are dedicated to the lives of historical characters whose exploits underpin the mythology of all later adventures. Paratextual elements abound in the form of poetry, songs and maps. The crisis and conflict of each book is always a world-transformative event, the evil is always well-defined, quests are quested and alliances are most definitely made. And yet the series is also defined by its humour. The hares of Salamandastron, who count among the fiercest warriors in Jacques’s world, are innately comical creatures, affecting the mannerisms and speech patterns of the British aristocracy to such a degree that many of them, sans the fact of their species, wouldn’t be out of place in a P.G. Wodehouse novel. Though the lead villains are always dastardly, their vermin armies of rats, ferrets, stoats and foxes are equally as prone to slapstick and fearful blubbering as they are to ruthless brutality. Comedy is built in to the bones of Redwall, not only as a means of softening characters and concepts that might otherwise be too frightening for younger readers, but because Jacques actively chose to write stories that were equally as capable of eliciting laughter as they were tears.

Beyond the comedy question, and with an eye to further unpicking the Black Gate article, Maria V. Snyder’s excellent Poison Study series stands as strong contender for the notion of YA epic fantasy – as, quite arguably, do the works of Tamora Pierce. But rather than build my definition only in accordance with existing titles, I’ll stop here and consider the question in abstract. The one aspect of Surridge’s definition with which I wholeheartedly agreed was the requirement that epic stories be set either mainly or entirely in a secondary world, one which is frequently (but not necessarily) typified by the presence of magic. In fact, I would go so far as to make it the starting point for my own definition, minus his clarifying remark that most such worlds are similar to medieval Europe. But in order to do that, I must first ask a different question: what are the other fantasy genres, and how are they different from epic? Surridge makes passing mention of heroic fantasy and gritty fantasy, and high fantasy is certainly a known term, but all of these share the secondary world qualification, and having chosen that single factor as a building block, I’ve brought myself to a place where any novel can constitute epic fantasy, regardless of scope, focus or direction, provided it belongs to a secondary world.

This makes for a helpful starting point: nothing more. Because, as tempting as it might sometimes be to have done with the whole question of fantastic subgenres by autocratically declaring everything set in a magical, non-earth world to be epic fantasy, with any other label like heroic or gritty relegated to the nomenclature of individual taste, doing so would be both an oversimplification of epic (hah!) proportions and a gross unfairness to writers who want to find their own, distinct use for secondary worlds. Were I to stop now, for instance, Catherynne M. Valente’s breathtaking Palimpsest would end up categorised as epic fantasy, which it isn’t. And here we encounter the real crux of the matter: a dilemma I’m tempted to refer to as the shelving problem. As things stand, even specialty SFF bookshops will have very few sections, despite the large number of admissible genres. Fantasy, SF and Horror will be honoured with their very own shelves, as, increasingly, will Paranormal Romance – though since coming to the UK, I’ve seen more than one bookstore boasting a Dark Fantasy section, which seems to be a rough equivalent. But the thing about shelving books is that, regardless of content, you cannot put them in two places at once*. Obviously, this is a stricture that applies only in the physical world, and not to definitional debates. And yet, when we think about genre, there is a tendency to behave as if the former principle – the shelving problem – is still the most important consideration; as though, in shaping our notions of genre, we must establish our definition after the fashion of international borders, trying to control not only what goes in, but what can be taken out.

This is not an entirely illogical endeavour, as shown by the above flirtation with an exclusively secondary world definition of epic fantasy. Cast the net too wide, and you end up trying to argue that black is white just because homogeneity is easier to describe. But by the same token, the borders of genre cannot be rigid things. Enforce them too stringently in accordance with too specific a set of principles, and last week’s debate is the inevitable result. Because ultimately, the most common conventions of genre should not be mistaken for the genre itself. The fact that many epic fantasies run to multiple volumes and hundreds of thousands of words, for instance, does not mean that length must be a defining characteristic of epic fantasy. To steal from scientific parlance, that is an instance of confusing correlation with causation. Definitions should not hinge on establishing what is most common; rather, they should ask what is most indispensable.

And so – tentatively, as I am not a perfect, all-seeing, all-tapdancing omniscient – I would suggest that epic fantasy can be defined by the following conditions:

1. Any story which is set, either mostly or totally, in a secondary world; and

2. Which is concerned, either mostly or totally, with the politics and/or history of that world; and

3. Whose arc and resolution, either mostly or totally, involves the use of either magic or technology specific to that world; and

4. Whose characters, either mostly or totally, are instrumental in bringing about the conclusion.

Of all those points, the one I’m least confident in is 3. To my knowledge, I’ve never read a fantasy novel that lacked for magic of some description, or whose fantastic elements weren’t justified by some type of mythic, unobtanium-fueled or genius-dreamed technology. However, that is not to say that such a novel is a thematic impossibility, and if one was written that still met the criteria for 1, 2 and 4, I would be hard-pressed not to term it epic fantasy. For me, the question of whether magic is a necessary component of genre lies right on the borderland between a common characteristic and an indispensable characteristic. For now, I’m working with the assumption that it’s slightly more the latter than the former, but in the end, given that the act of creating a secondary world is automatically an engagement with the fantastic, regardless of whether that world functions exclusively according to the laws of Earth science, I could be persuaded otherwise.

So, that’s my two cents. What’s yours?

*Unless you’ve got multiple copies, but that’s not really the point.

  1. This is a strong post, and gives me lots of food for thought. Hope you don’t mind, but I have a couple of minor clarifications about what I wrote. I should note, for example, that I didn’t mean to say that an epic is necessarily three or more books — I mention the Sword of Shannara as a single book that counts as an epic, for example. Mainly, though, I want to emphasise that I don’t think there’s any necessary reason for epic secondary worlds to be reminiscent of medieval Europe — it just seems that’s frequently been the case so far. But then that itself may simply be a function of the texts that we immediately thought of as epic; I would not be at all surprised if that point becomes less and less relevant as time goes on. (Oh, and since I’m here, I should note that my name’s actually Matthew David Surridge.)

    Redwall’s an interesting series to bring up. I have to admit I haven’t read any (I have the first book on my shelf to be read); I missed them on first publication, being of slightly the wrong generation. I don’t think Grace and I had YA specifically in mind one way or the other when we came up with our definition. (Actually, since I read The Sword of Shannara when I was a pre-teen, I have a tendency to think of it as YA. Wrong-headed, I guess, but there it is.)

    I really agree that it’s important not to get too strict with genre definitions; there are always going to be a some things that end up on the borders. And I certainly agree about looking for what’s indispensable as opposed to what’s common. The thing about length, though, was that it seemed helpful not only in pointing to certain structural characteristics of books that are obviously epics, in the same way that it’s possible to say a novel’s different from a novella due to its length, but also in eliminating certain things that clearly aren’t epics. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories would be one example. Or Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris novels. It seemed worth trying to separate ‘epic fantasy’ from just ‘fantasy’.

    But this is really an ongoing conversation, with lots of room for reconsidering things. I really like your point three, for example, since it makes sense that if a writer introduces magic as a major element of the story’s setting, that element should affect the story’s climax. I’ll be interested to see where this discussion goes from here.

    • fozmeadows says:

      Not at all – I’m glad you dropped by! Apologies for the name gaffe, first and foremost – will go back and fix it in the original. I take your points, particularly the one about Europe: I didn’t think you were saying that there was any reason for the secondary worlds to be reminiscent of medieval Europe, but so far as my own definition went, I wanted to make that point particularly clear, because while I agree that there’s certainly a lot of Eurocentric epic fantasy out there, I don’t think it’s a defining characteristic, and the idea of even nodding, however obliquely, to the idea that it might be doesn’t sit well with me.

      Redwall is definitely a generational read – I’m not sure I’d enjoy it even half so much as an adult if I hadn’t already read it as a kid. What you say about thinking of Shannara as YA because you read it as a preteen, though, is something that really interests me, particularly in terms of how we draw the line between what constitutes a YA story and what doesn’t. This is a separate issue to the epic question (and one I might blog about in the future), but I definitely read a lot of what we might call adult (as opposed to YA) fantasy when I was an adolescent – certainly, I read Sara Douglass’s Axis and Wayfarer Redemption trilogies multiple times before the age of fifteen – and so have a similar tendency to think of such novels as, if not YA, then more universal in terms of potential readership than they might otherwise be. Which, as you say, is wrong-headed in one sense, but also intriguing in another.

      Here’s hoping the conversation continues!

  2. evilsoup says:

    I know it’s comically late to comment on this post, but I’m trawling through your blog at the moment (love it btw) so…

    I think it’s instructive to look outside the SFF box and see how ‘epic’ is used in other genres. Family sagas, spanning multiple generations, Dr. Zhavago, that kind of thing — I think the defining characteristics of ‘epic’ in a novel are: multiple viewpoints, where characters have their own arcs that sometimes overlap with each other and sometimes don’t; and a sweeping scale and timescale. The story can take place over many years, or even multiple generations, and over large geographical areas.

    In short, if you can draw up a chart like this…

    …then the work probably counts as ‘epic’.

    I think if you then add in the second-world element, that turns it into ‘epic fantasy’.

    I don’t know how well that correlates with how publishers market the books, though, which is ultimately the only thing that matters in all this sub-genre defining nonsense 🙂

  3. […] with the book itself, but rather with its description as ‘epic fantasy’. There is some debate about what exactly that means. I would generally define ‘epic’ as ‘you need a chart to keep track […]

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