More thoughts on Epic Fantasy, War, and the myths of monarchies

So, yesterday I asked what was the big deal with epic fantasy and war. It just seems (to me) to be the go to short hand for creating something that can be slapped with the epic fantasy label. But it wasn’t always necessarily so- as I pointed out before. It seems that during the Epic Fantasy boom in the 80’s too many people copied Brooks and Tolkien and came up with a formula that is a bit binding when you ponder it too much. And probably had to do with it crashing and burning as a genre in the early turn of this century.

So when Epic Fantasy started crawling back to life, it decided to keep the War aspect, but remove the good/evil aspect that churned the wars forward, making it more gritty/real/bleak/etc. Of course, for me I suspect “gritty” is not necessary “real”, but more a short hand for creating one note characters that are just dark.  Not emotionally conflicted, or ones that resonate as real people. More on that later.

I just wonder why the epic has to be tied to war. And it’s not that war can’t be in an epic book, but it makes you wonder why it has to be the focus of an epic fantasy. That in the end, even the more modern takes on it, the books are focused on the conflict of large scale war and when that conflict ends, the story ends. Until another conflict begins. Why is this?

We can have things epic in scope but not have to focus on the war as the primary conflict.  Peter S. Beagle’s Innkeeper’s Song is a great example of a story that feels like epic fantasy to me, yet isn’t about War. It has deeper, more engaging themes, and resonates more clearly. Or the Earthsea books, were each one has a different focus, but each one feels epic and long and engaging, and I don’t think any of them focus directly on war. In Forgotten Beasts of Eld there is  a war, but it’s happening elsewhere, and the main character is just irritated by it.

I could go on and on and on. But I think really, the epic can exist and be Epic and be Fantasy and have a huge scope, and characters, and drama, and melodrama, and screams of joy and pain, and going on adventures without it needing to focus on War as the central conflict to the story, the end all be all focus of the story.

Now, for a side rant-
Monarchies, to me, feel strangely symbolic and disconnected from actuality in Epic Fantasy (even in Song of Ice and Fire they feel one note, undeveloped) to the point of where it feels like Monarchy Worship.  We don’t seem to have the complex character depth of something like Hamlet. Here was a monarch that had a psychological portrait that was deep and conflicted and profound. Where are the Hamlet’s of Epic Fantasy?

Is it the fairy tale influence? Are Kings/Queens existing only as things that dispose plot coupons and magic quests, partake in wars, be overthrown? Be cruel to people, or kind to people, or murder, or nice, or whatever? Why can’t they have that deep level of character depth that Shakespeare imbued the Prince of Denmark? Here is loss, melancholy, people weighing the full terrible of weight of what must be done. Sure, it’s bleak, but as for a character study it speaks volumes. Bleakness is not a unique trait in and of itself. Bleakness for bleakness sake is just boring.

6 thoughts on “More thoughts on Epic Fantasy, War, and the myths of monarchies

  1. Hmm, The Innkeeper’s Song doesn’t feel like epic fantasy at all to me. It feels very close, very personal to the characters involved and not really on a world scale at all. I guess to me epic fantasy is defined by the world-scale of its conflict, whether that conflict is war, extreme politics, or outside forces (natural or unnatural).

    • Interesting- because that’s not what epic fantasy means to me….I mean scope needs to be big, but it can be big on the inside (like for example, someone using magic to defy death, etc). I think it’s possible to be big in scope but not world-scale…I’m grasping at something here, and it’s hard for me to pin it down. I think things can be BIG and EPIC and large scale and still be close, intimate and personal, because it can be large on the inside, or epic because of the amount of time, the way it crosses generations, etc.

  2. Interesting points. For me, epic fantasy (or epic anything really) just means the conflict is bigger. It could be an epic conflict between competing philosophical viewpoints and the “war” aspect could be resolved in some kind of arena guided by rules. But it’s the scale, the risk, and the reward of the conflict that gets bigger when you start talking about epics.

    Take the Black Panther, for example. He’s the king of his people and acts as their champion. If he falls, the kingdom falls with him. That’s epic. Failure is less of an option, though the scale is bigger and it’s still one on one or small group vs. small group.

    Have to ponder this a bit more…

    • But why war? Why does “large scale” automatically point towards war? Towards combat? Even if it is settled between individuals, can’t epic scope mean something else? Large scale can be stories that span generations, correct? Scale and largeness can also be time and not just land or conflict.

      Just some thoughts…

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

  4. Pingback: RPG News from Around the Net: 15-APR-2011 | Game Knight Reviews

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