Why does most epic fantasy involve war?

At least, in it’s post-Tolkien, post-Sword of Shanara world were every fantasy seems to be a rewritting of the same OMG BATTLES BETWEEN GOODIES AND DARK LORDS. It’s only gotten worse, what with the video game saturation of our media- which of course also boils it all down to this simplicity of fighting and war and etc.

I just wonder why this has to be- even the books that are challenging and trying to change Epic Fantasy, they seem to focus even MORE on the wars, to bring them closer into focus and to celebrate the violence even moreso than before (Abercrombie, Martin, etc). Rather than, going back to a time when Epic Fantasy could also include things like Riddlemaster of Hed, Forgotten Beasts of Eld, the Earthsea books, etc, etc. When GIANT WARS wasn’t exactly a prerequisite for what was considered epic. When adventuring and fantasy could be something else, could involve something else (I mean, even the Hobbit, in ways, wasn’t a war story until the very end, and that was perhaps the most boring part of it).

Sure, stories (esp genre stories) exist mainly on the pendulum crux of conflict, but does that conflict need to be warfare? Or can it be something else? Not that I have anything directly against war stories. They can be interesting, and climactic, and fun (battle of Camlaan!), but it makes me wonder if we are too saturated with these warstories. I just wonder if things have become too focused on these things. I mean, what if war was in the background? What if war wasn’t the purpose of the stories? Ah me, well, maybe I’m just being silly.

Why, when we talk of epic and things being epic, our minds automatically head to War as a shorthand?

All of this is in response to this-
http://www.orbitbooks.net/2011/04/07/the-two-tolkiens/

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7 thoughts on “Why does most epic fantasy involve war?

  1. I think this is a terrific topic for discussion. Abraham does talk about war as a rather troubling backdrop, but that certainly seems to conflict with his new book, where war is motivating the characters. I wonder if his idea of seeking some “comfort” makes complete sense, however. I think there may be several different reasons why war is more prevalent, but we also cannot look at fantasy in a vacuum. I mean, how does this jibe with the immense popularity of FPS games, particularly ones such as Call of Duty?

    I think that there is, indeed, a predisposition to violence and conflict inherent in the prevailing ideas surrounding the epic. And there has been a lot of discussion about issues surrounding this over the past year (from that whole “morality” kerfuffle to lengthy ruminations in places like N.K. Jemisin’s blog; I wrote something about it over at SF Signal at one point). The term suffers from the same problem of precise definition that most fantastic genres do (as I noted in my column today ::cough::), but there are a number of significant issues outside of the purely definitional that could do with more discussion and analysis.

    I wish I could write a non-fiction book on this stuff. sadly, I doubt most folks would read it.

    • Well, conflict IS important in genre fiction, no doubt. But conflict doesn’t mean war, you know? People can fight and bicker. They can chase after magical whosits. But why does war have to be the main motivation? I mean, yes, war has always been a part of our lives, but…does it have to be the focus of our stories? If we can emulate our lives, we can emulate lives were war is in the background, and the main focus of conflict is not with characters at war itself.

      Thats one thing I loved about Forgotten Beasts of Eld and Tehanu. The war is happening elsewhere.

  2. I don’t know that epic fantasy always *does*, or *must*, involve war. I think what’s changed is whether epic fantasy readers are willing to call something epic fantasy if it doesn’t.

    Like you said, back in the day, epic fantasy could involve a lot of things — things that actually emulated the epics of old. They could be quests to defeat a monster or achieve some personal milestone (or, in the case of Earthsea, both at once); a hero’s struggle to keep his soul (Elric) although maybe with war as a backdrop; a buddy saga a la Gilgamesh and Enkidu; etc. But nowadays stories like that would be dismissed as something other than epic fantasy — “prefix-less” fantasy in general, maybe, or New Weird, or something. Readers simply wouldn’t accept them because they’re not fat enough, or don’t involve the standard Five Man Band, or something. I don’t know what caused this change — I’m tempted to blame D&D — but somewhere in the Eighties the form of epic fantasy froze into an amazingly resilient rigid form. I’m beginning to wonder if it can ever be thawed.

    • The sad thing is, a lot of New Weird does return to war and rebellion and all that stuff. Shriek ends with a war, Iron Council has a huge war in the middle of it, Scar Night, etc all involve wars of some sort or another.

      I’m not 100% sure on D&D being the culprit- early D&D was about individuals adventuring into stuff, not about large scale wars…it wasn’t until DragonLance that it changed. And before Dragon Lance we had Sword of Shanara, Sword Of Truth, etc. So maybe it was those books that fed into D&D, and then D&D fed back into that. So it become this echo feed, this loop that builds and builds on itself.

      But really though? It’s probably Star Wars’s fault. I mean, I love Star Wars, but the typical EPIC FANTASY with war and evil and fighting mimics Star Wars more than anything else. (at least Star Wars from the 1970’s and 1980’s). Maybe somehow that influenced and created this mutant genre.

      Although I hope we CAN thaw it. I think we can. Genre is a liquid after all, not a solid, it can morph and slide around and sit up and sing. Just look at all the phases Space Opera went through as a term! First it was a positive term, then negative, then positive, the meaning changing, the tropes sliding because of how people (mostly critics- who wield the genre lens) changed it to fit their meanings. Look at Urban Fantasy! A genre that means something COMPLETELY different than it did not even five years ago.

      And it’s not just epic fantasy…I see this mode of epicness creeping into everything. Epic Mickey, that video game involving mickey mouse fighting hordes of evil monsters, etc

      Not to say that you’re wrong- you might be right. I just hope against hope we can expand the genre and fill it with a different form of life.

    • side note- a book I absolutely love more than anything is Tombs of Atuan. To me, that is the perfect epic fantasy novel. Where the epic is on the inside, breeding between the characters. And it still has a magic ring, and a kingdom that is saved, and prophecies, and ancient gods. So it is epic, but the epic is fit inside a story so claustrophobic and personal, one that is epic on a personal scale, on an internal scale.

  3. Pingback: Gender and the shifting definitions of epic and urban fantasy | Cora Buhlert

  4. I don’t know if this is a perfect answer, but we do live in a time when we are over-saturated with wars that don’t make sense, and it is quite comforting to discover wars that do make sense. When I think of most modern epic fantasy, I think of placebos. They are comfort pills, designed to be the sugar that ease our social hypochondria instead of our actual diseases. How comforting to be able to wrap your head around a whole war, see good and evil, and pretend like we can do that, too, when we watch the news.

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