I have some thoughts on epic fantasy (Spiritwalker Monday 7)

In July and August 2011 the excellent Clarkesworld ran a massive two part series on Epic Fantasy (Part One here and Part Two here) in which the intrepid Jeremy L. C. Jones heroically interviewed a ton (at least) of writers of epic fantasy and then collated these reams of material into two huge amazing sets of reflections on the genre.

The answers were there divided by question rather than author, so here today (because I once again have a couple of half written posts that I’m not yet done with but meanwhile I need to make my Monday deadline) I’m excerpting my answers all in one place for your delectation. Bear in mind that the answers are a snapshot from two years ago. Yet many of these issues and discussions are ongoing and not, perhaps, much altered even though two years on.


—What is at the heart (or core) of epic fantasy?

I think every writer is going bring a different perspective to epic fantasy.

I’m not personally much into definitions; they can get awfully constraining. Often a definition seems either needlessly prescriptive or it seems to express the needs, desires, and prejudices of the person doing the defining. I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way; we all have our views and opinions but we also have our blind spots and unexamined assumptions and expectations.

I can tell you what I enjoy most about epic fantasy. I like the sense that you’re getting a wide lens view of a world, one that is punctuated by closeups and medium shots. The word I would probably use to describe what I’m looking for in an epic is “sweep,” defined in my American Heritage Dictionary as (variously) “to move or unbalance emotionally; to cause to depart, remove or destroy; to traverse with speed or intensity; to extend gracefully or majestically.”

What that means is that for me the heart of epic fantasy is the emotional response it engenders in the reader. That emotional response is going to be something different for each reader rather than a static characteristic required for all. For me it’s a teenage girl standing on a wind-swept promontory overlooking a vast landscape and distant ocean; she’s got a bow and arrows slung over her back and a falcata at her hip, a faithful dog and horse at her side, sturdy boots and a cloak, and a long journey ahead of her. By which I don’t mean that any story–not even mine–has to have that scene in it to be epic fantasy. I mean that when I read epic fantasy, I want to feel a sense of discovery and adventure and anticipation and vista.

—And why do you write it?

I was an outdoor, athletic child: I preferred to play physically active imagination games outdoors. But, against that, the cultural norms of the day reminded me constantly that the things I loved to do were appropriate for boys, not for girls. Sometimes people forget this.

So in the beginning, as it were, fantasy novels were a way for me to escape the rigid constraints put on girls. More importantly, I could write my own stories and build my own worlds. If you’ve not grown up being told you shouldn’t be who you are, I’m not sure you can quite understand why world-building and writing epic fantasy is so attractive and in its way a form of chain-breaking. But it was, and it is.

As an adult, I’ve become fascinated by cultural change, cultures in conflict, and the rise and collapse of complex societies, with a special place in my heart for the life cycle of empire. Epic fantasy allows the scope to really dig into these questions; the form creates an expectation that the reader will venture through layers and enjoy a certain level of complication, so I find it appealing for that reason.

I also love tracking multiple characters through a changing landscape. I don’t say that to suggest other genres and subgenres can’t do exactly the same things, just that those are some reasons I write epic fantasy.

I am not, by the way, a monarchist nor do I yearn for the halcyon days of yore with a secret reactionary bent to my heart. The idea that epic fantasy is by nature a “conservative” subgenre is, I think, based not only on an incomplete reading of the texts but also on an understanding of the medieval or early modern eras that comes from outdated historiography.

I don’t doubt specific works can be reactionary or conservative (depending on how you define those words), but more often than not I suspect–although I can’t prove–that if a work defaults to ideas about social order that map to what I call the Victorian Middle Ages or the Hollywood Middle Ages, it has more to do with sloppy world-building in the sense of using unexamined and outmoded assumptions about “the past” as a guide. I really think that to characterize the subgenre so generally is to not understand the variety seen within the form and to not understand that the simplistic and popular views of how people “were” and “thought” in the past are often at best provisional and incomplete and at worst outright wrong.

Historian Judith Bennett calls this the “Wretched Abyss” Theory, the idea that the European Middle Ages were a wretched abyss from which we modern women/people have luckily escaped. It’s one of the founding myths of modern feminism as well as the modern world. Me, I want to live now, with internet, antibiotics, and that nice intensive care nursery that saved my premature twins. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t also responsible to depict a more nuanced and accurate representation of “a past” as it was lived and experienced as a dynamic and changing span.

—What is the relationship between characters and settings in epic fantasy?

People exist in a cultural context. Characters live within their landscape both in the ecological and the societal sense. The society/societies the characters come from will inform how they see the world, approach the conflicts they struggle with, and interact with others.

As a writer, I do not see character and setting as separate; I see them as intertwined in exactly the way my own character and person is intertwined with the world I live in. I write from that place, so even though it’s also true that my approach, and thus the plot and character decisions I make, are necessarily informed by my own experience of the world, I must always attempt to see their world from their immersion in it.

—At what point is it necessary to kill off a recurring (and perhaps much loved) character?

When they die.

I may be interpreting the question in a way it’s not intended, but I don’t find it to be “necessary” to kill off a character except at the confluence of events and setting where that character ends up dead. Characters have lives and things happen for any number of reasons, and sometimes what happens is that they die. I don’t write series in the sense that I have recurring characters from book to book; I write a single novel in multiple volumes and when it’s done, it’s done. So any given character will either survive to the end, or won’t.

—How have you kept your series fresh and lively?

By finishing and moving on.

—Do you have any advice on dealing with violence when writing Epic fantasy?

I think writers shouldn’t flinch from writing violence. One has to be cautious, though, about using violence as the only way to build stakes, tension, conflict, and emotional reaction. It can get boring. Vary your palette.

I would wish writers to be honest about the degree of violence war inflicts on the actual combatants, and I particularly would wish writers to be honest about the degree of violence that war, empire, and political, religious, and economic conflict inflict on non-combatants and on the fabric of societies. We don’t need to look to the past for examples of this; we need only look at the news today.

Yet at the same time, violence needs to be seen as part of a larger picture. To use one example, I’ve read/heard both writers and readers comment that epic fantasy isn’t really about, doesn’t really “include,” female lives unless they’re rape victims, sex workers, mothers of heroes, or nubile young women waiting to be married off for dynastic or economic alliances–in other words, purely about sex, which frankly to me suggests a failure to understand the profound and far-reaching effects war and the various sorts of destabilizing conflicts have on the societies they touch as well as ignorance about the lives women actually led in the past in world history.

The way history was approached and written in decades past rendered many lives virtually invisible, but that does not mean those lives weren’t woven into the fabric of the events of their day or that people we may think of as passive, ignorant bystanders to the history of Men did not have a measure of agency and wit or even a great deal more than that in terms of economic or political clout if they were in the right social group.

There is, for instance, an entire subgenre of little stories written in the European Middle Ages in which clever women fend off the unwanted attentions of strong, armed men by wit and intelligent argument alone. The famous Aristotle, so very respected and influential and of course strikingly sexist in his view that women were literally physically, intellectually, and spiritually inferior to men, was also mocked and reviled in the Middle Ages, not least for what was recognized by some at that time as his misogyny–and this by clerical writers who were themselves part of a misogynistic culture.

Cultures wrestle with their own cognitive dissonances; they are not monolithic, static, and unchanging. Indeed, they contain multitudes.

—Any parting words?

To be honest, I find that too much of epic fantasy and concomitant opinions about how societies of the pre-modern era function is based on historiography that is 30 years old.

For instance, depictions of European medieval-like women and indeed of many medieval-like societies in some fantasy is woefully outdated. This outmoded historiography does not just pertain to women, it pertains to gender, it pertains to the church, and–because I’ve been focusing my comments on the European Middle Ages–it pertains very much to non-Christian and non-European cultures which were and are societies just as complex and advanced and layered as the European template so much fantasy defaults to.

We can tell new, interesting, and exciting stories if we extricate ourselves from old and increasingly tired assumptions and expectations about life in the past, and if we expand our horizons. I would still love to see more ethnic and cultural variety. And I would hope writers are giving thought as to whether their books pass the Bechdel Test.

Having said that, I think there are a lot of compelling and fascinatingly diverse writers working in the genre today; it’s an exceptionally rich and rewarding time to be reading epic fantasy.

4 thoughts on “I have some thoughts on epic fantasy (Spiritwalker Monday 7)

  1. Thanks, Kate.

    One of the appeals of your epic fantasy *is* that you don’t stick to one series, but come up with multiple series, multiple worlds, multiple sets of characters. It doesn’t feel like you are tired of Liath after fourteen books because she never wound up in fourteen books. You decided to create Marit, and Cat, and other characters yet unborn, and worlds yet unmade.

  2. I’m not sure I could write about a character for 14 books. I admire people who can and I think with proper set up and narrative framing it can be done. I could certain read about, say, Peter Grant’s adventures (Ben Aaronovitch) for a dozen books and I feel like London is big enough to maintain that.

    But I do like making up new worlds.

  3. Great post, Kate!

    I’ve always been more drawn to the ‘indoors’ portion of epic fantasy – the court and palace politics, discussions of dynasty, and all that stuff – more than the ‘outdoors’ (quests, warfare). This holds true for when I’m reading history and historical fiction too, and I suspect this comes from my strong grounding in Ancient Roman history. Basically, women tend to have more power indoors than outdoors in history thus far – and with the Romans in particular, dynastic monarchy was more interesting to me than their attempts at Republican government because while there’s no reason to exclude women from republics, it happened most of the time, but you CAN’T have dynastic politics without involving women at all.

    So yes, it was programmed into me early that the more interesting stories, and the more interesting female characters, were to be found ‘indoors.’ I love me some lady knight action, and it’s exciting to read fantasy that includes women actively in travelling/quests etc. But I do have a soft spot for dynastic monarchies.

    Of course, you can write dynastic monarchies in which the women are nothing but broodmares and hapless pawns but you kind of have to WORK at giving them nothing relevant to do. The best historical fiction (and fantasy) shows that women’s contribution to a dynasty is not just about producing children, but that they can be relevant and invested in all sorts of interesting ways.

    The big difference between the Romans and the later medievals, for example, was the social idea that adoption was equivalent to blood kin relationships. So instead of Augustus divorcing his wife Livia when their marriage was childless, he adopted her sons from her former marriage instead. Dynastic pacts, marriages etc. were made, but they weren’t essential, and so he was able to keep Livia (one of the most savvy and politically aware women of her generation) at his side for his long rule, where she could be useful. Compare that to Henry VIII, so desperate for a son of his own blood that he wasted most of his energies on destroying clever women who could have supported him in his reign (and never realised or recognised the talents of his daughters).

    I’d love to see more alternative governing systems explored in fantasy fiction which go one better than Roman/medieval history and include women. Even the Romans had women involved in civic politics once you look at towns that were far from the capital. Even horribly patriarchal societies had women who rolled their sleeves up and got the work done, and not just as wives and mothers.

    But the skeptic in me would not be surprised if, in a theoretical wave of fantasy novels avoiding dynastic king and queenship, we would see a trend towards governing systems that forgot to include women at all.

  4. Yes so much to all this. It’s interesting to me how much in the early medieval period — in certain regions — both patrilineal and matrilineal relations matter to marriage alliances, and yet I still see this idea that only the male lineage matters (or the woman’s father, in some cases), that a woman married in to a royal (or other) household is now at the mercy of the man she married when in some/many cases the importance of her family might give her a deal of protection or more importantly make her crucial to the new husband’s success.

    You are so right — it is easy to talk about the crushing conservatism of epic fantasy while at the same time ignoring how stories set not in monarchies can be as or far more conservative, only in ways that is ignored or not noticed.

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