On my lunch break at work I read Peter S. Beagle’s into to his Secret History of Fantasy book. I feel like some of it isn’t relevant anymore (eg- since the 90’s Epic Fantasy hasn’t been the blockbuster genre of clones it used to be, and has been replaced with Urban Fantasy as the genre patterning de jour*), but it is an interesting capsule on a time that a lot of current writers and readers probably either missed out on, or just caught the tail end of, or were immersed in as children growing up.
This codification of Epic Fantasy during the 80’s, turning out blockbuster after blockbuster of books with interchangeable parts, all based on a template derived from Tolkien. Beagle mentions talking to one of the Del Rays about Sword of Shannara, and how that was the start of the end. And how after this book they would be looking for books that had a young male saving the world, a dark lord he must over come, and a wise mentor. Because the audience didn’t just want more fantasy (as was originally thought), they just wanted more Lord of the Rings.
Of course, this epic fantasy sort of fell out of fashion awhile back but it keeps kind of muttering forward, zombie eyed and looking for new life with new takes on the same old concepts and ideas that was the pattern he mentioned here*. The interesting part, to me, is the rise of gritty epic fantasy, like the likes of Abercrombie, et al, who emulate Song of Ice and Fire. When you look at the slow boiling rise of this genre, they seemed to have stripped most of what made epic fantasy what it was, in other words they stripped out the coda.
Even Mistborn seems to do this- remove those elements that was once considered key to the original blockbusting epic fantasy. Dark Lord being overthrown, young male leading the rebellion, old wise mentor- in almost any epic fantasy post 1990 these elements are gone. Yet, they still remain recognizable as Epic Fantasy, and that seems interesting to me.
What also seems interesting is the thought of taking those original key elements and making something wholly messed up and completely different from it. I mean, the cloth is basically simple, the structure so basic that it will fall over if you blow on it too hard. Yet- within that scaffolding could come something far different and weird as all get out.
Either way, that form of Epic Fantasy is dead, long live Epic Fantasy! And it seems once you strip out the elves and the gandalfs and the dark lords, what you get is…war. Violent, bloody, war. And this mistaken idea that anti-heroes mean more well rounded realistic characters (they don’t- anti-heroes are basically one note as well, just a different note).
Is there another way to do it? Is there another way to take these structures and mix them up, mash them up, change them around? I’m pondering on this. And weaving the thoughts into a story…
*not that there is anything wrong with that. These template books exist for a reason- and have always been around. Space Opera used to be very strictly codified. Then Epic Fantasy was. Now Urban Fantasy is. I always get irked when people cynically dismiss whatever the hot genre is, as Beagle did in the start of this, and as I’ve heard people say countless times. Stuff like, I don’t like fantasy, all those elves and dwarves. Or I don’t like UF, all the vamps and sex. Usually derisive names follow (fang fuckers, etc). And it usually is mentioned in a state of shock of looking at a bookshelf at X bookstore and seeing covers looking all alike. I find this kind of discourse cringeworthy, and I don’t like the idea that the value of Y genre is made lesser by it’s popularity, or adherence to rigid structures.
**Which explains my confusion when people don’t consider what I consider epic fantasy as epic fantasy, heh. I usually pull my favorites from before or after this coda was made popular.