Tag Archives: Malazan

The Origins of Epic Fantasy

This month’s fantasy genre is “Epic Fantasy” but where did it begin? We’ll talk about that today!

To start, I think it’s a good idea to break down the term Epic Fantasy into its two separate definitions. These definitions were taken from Dictionary.com

Epic [ep-ik] = heroic; majestic; impressively great

Fantasy [fan-tuh-see] = imagination, especially when extravagant and unrestrained.

Put them together and what do you get??? An impressively great imagination. This is a great short definition for what we would consider Epic Fantasy today. Just naming a few epic fantasy books off the top of my head: George R. R. Martin’s, A Song of Ice and Fire; J.R.R. Tolkein’s, Lord of the Rings; Robert Jordan (pen name), Wheel of Time; Steven Erikson, Malazan, Book of the Fallen etc.

All of these books are MASSIVE. They’re tomes. Literally. Every single one of these authors has, what I would consider, an impressively great imagination. I’m not saying that no other authors do, because every author needs to have a great imagination to write, I should know I am one 😉 But, the scale of these books is just phenomenal. There is so much depth and richness and history behind all of these series. I want to go into detail about how each of them have a lot of depth but chances are if you are reading this then some of those books are already on your bookshelf (and if not put them there) and you know firsthand how much depth there is to them. Just a few quick examples, Tolkein’s series Lord of the Rings is made up of elves and dwarves but he took the time to create an Elvish language for them to speak in his books, he plotted out their history, etc. In Martin’s ASOIAF the story itself rotates around 7+ character perspectives. Each of them is needed in order to tell the essential parts of the story that is Westeros and Easteros.

Okay, so where did this all begin then? Well, although I find it common knowledge because I’m an English Major, many people do not know that the word epic actually has another connotation. Here is another definition of the word:

“noting or pertaining to a long poetic composition, usually centered upon a hero, in which a series of great achievements or events is narrated in elevated style”

Classics of literature such as Beowulf, The Odyssey, or The Iliad are examples of “Epics” usually referred to as Epic Poetry. These epics were preserved orally despite that they were long and complex. They had heroes and battles and wars and, most importantly, a world different than our own. They told of stories that made the people listening imagine they were there, fighting the war with the hero. They talked about the mysterious, the mythic, and the magnificent and, like most stories do, they helped explain the nature of the world.

The three examples I showcased also have another great commonality, and this, I think, is where the difference should be noted from epic fantasy to other genres of fantasy. The time period. No, I don’t mean when they were written, I mean the span of time the story takes to be told. These events take place on a world historical scale. Things just don’t happen in one year, they take several years to progress and the heroes find that parts of the world they know are gone or changed at some point in the book. For example, when Odysseus returns home, Troy has been destroyed and the mythic age of heroes is over. In Beowulf he needs to kill Grendel and he does so in one night and then battles the mother soon thereafter. However, Grendel had been a problem to the town for years and years beforehand. Also, it doesn’t stop there, the final battle (with a dragon) takes place 50 years after Grendel is slain when Beowulf is now king of the Geats.

So, when we talk about defining Epic Fantasy, it should be noted that these stories do take place on massive scales not only with the people involved, but with the time involved as well. Also, we should look at a few questions: How significant is the change it marks on its world? How big is the scope of its conflict, and how significant the power of its eventual resolution?

In the next blog post we’ll be looking at answering some of those questions but using some of the more modern epic fantasies that I have acquainted myself with and others that I’ll research online. If you want a particular Epic Fantasy novel researched a little more or you have a book that you think may fit into this category, comment below I’d be happy to take a look into it and see what I can discover.

Hope you enjoyed the blog post. Until next time!!!