Posts Tagged ‘Brian Jacques’

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‚Äôs 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.

This past weekend, British author Brian Jacques, creator of the Redwall series, died of a heart attack. He was 71.

My grandmother gave me a copy of the original Redwall novel for my ninth birthday. She didn’t know it was the first book of a series, or that it was first published the same year I was born; she’d simply seen it and thought of me. Being a stubborn, contrary child, my usual reaction to being told I’d like something was to try and dislike it as swiftly as possible, just to prove how unpredictable I was,¬†but grandma didn’t go down that road. She just gave me the book, and waited. The front cover showed a rearing horse hitched to a rat-filled wagon. The sky and surrounding air were tinged with purple, and in the background was a red stone abbey situated in a lush forest. It drew me in. And so, because it was a birthday present, because nobody had tried to preempt my tastes by telling me I’d like it, because the cover intrigued me, I started reading.

And was instantly hooked.

I can’t remember how I found out about the rest of the books in the series. What I do know is that I bought every single one, read them in order, then waited and waited and waited what felt like an interminable length of time for the next book, The Pearls of Lutra, to be released, a pattern which went on to dominate my childhood. Just as Jacques wrote slightly more than a book a year for twenty years, so did I reread his work on what averaged out as an annual basis, only slowing down as the gap between my own age and that of the intended audience grew too large to ignore. Even so, I kept up with Redwall until 2004, the year I started at university; the last five books are the only ones I’ve never read. That’s a long time to be under an author’s wing, but when the author is somebody like Brian Jacques, it’s definitely a good thing.

In the world of Redwall, protagonists were as often female as male; the same was true of villains. Though there were plenty of warrior characters, there were also healers, historians, builders, recluses and spiritual leaders: strength and courage had many different definitions throughout the series, and were never the sole prerogative of sword-carriers. Slavery, greed and warmongering were always the goals of various enemies; Redwallers and their allies fought for egalitarianism, charity and peace. Crucially for a young storyteller, Jacques never shied away from killing his characters, even when they were children, elderly or in love: I must have cried a hundred times reading his books, furious at the deaths of Rose and Methuselah, Piknim and Finnbarr, and yet I always came back for more. Even though it wasn’t safe, I cared about the world; and even though I feared losing them, I loved the characters. Just reading through plot summaries of his novels has brought tears to my eyes, so that suddenly, I’m nine years old again. And who knows? Maybe that means I’m not too old for Redwall, after all. Maybe I never was.

Farewell, Brian Jacques. You’ll be missed.