I’ve been meaning to write this post for some time, as it’s a subject of much debate, and if we’re gonna call ourselves Epic Fantasy Fanatics, well, we oughta at least have a position on what that means. Let’s break it down, shall we?
What is Fantasy?
First, let’s talk about what capital-F “Fantasy” is – and isn’t. If you Google the term you’ll see that there are myriad definitions, but the consensus seems to be that a story must have something to do with magic to qualify. That’s a good start. But not all magics are alike. If you consider The Force in the Star Wars universe, you could call that magic… but is it really? The Force is based on Midichlorians – intelligent microscopic organisms that allow the Jedi to do fancy magic-like stuff. That’s not fantasy – that’s biology. Specifically, made-up biology. Science Fiction. So I’ll rule out Star Wars as Fantasy (though it is certainly Epic, but we’ll get back to that.)
J.K Rowling’s apparent disdain for the genre notwithstanding, Harry Potter is Fantasy. Period. I declare it. It’s somewhat urban fantasy, in that it’s post-industrial, but it’s Fantasy nonetheless. The Arthurian legends are Fantasy. Lord of the Rings is Fantasy, as are A Song of Ice and Fire, The Wheel of Time, and anything written by Terry Pratchett. We can all agree on those, I think, and medieval fantasy is easiest to identify. Swords, dragons, dwarves, sorcery… but medieval fiction isn’t all necessarily fantasy. The Princess Bride, for example, is much beloved by Fantasy fans, but it’s not Fantasy. No magic*. And there are other boundaries. At what point does dark fantasy become horror with elements of magic? Stephen King has skirted that line quite a bit. Take Carrie. She’s got some magic, certainly. But Carrie isn’t Fantasy – it’s horror. The Dark Tower? Certainly Fantasy. Trippy mind-bending urban fantasy, but Fantasy nonetheless. The point is, just because something is fantastical doesn’t make it Fantasy. If that were the case, every zombie book out there would be considered Fantasy. Ah, you might ask… but what about vampires? What about werewolves? Well, that depends. A wolf-shifter, man-chest covered romance book isn’t capital-F Fantasy. Sparkly vampires? I mean, how sparkly?
Clearly there are lots of places one can draw the line, but I think for “serious” fantasy readers (yes, I am fully aware of how silly that sounds) the required elements are these:
- Magic, dragons, and/or mythical creatures play a part
- Not horror. There can be horrific scenes, Fantasy can be dark, but if it’s more like Carrie than The Dark Tower, it’s horror.
- Can be pre- or post-industrial, but the more technology plays a part in the story, the less it’s Fantasy and the more it’s Science Fiction
- There can be romance, but it’s a part of the story, not the primary focus
Now, what makes a Fantasy an Epic?
There are a few elements that I feel are necessary for a tale to qualify as Epic Fantasy. An epic tale is a long tale. Usually quite complex, with lots of characters and settings. The systems of magic are well-defined. (All the better if they are unique.) Magic need not play a huge part (think Malazan – Steven Erikson’s epic is more military fantasy than sword-and-sorcery) but it has to be there, or it’s just speculative fiction (NTTAWWT.) Again, let’s start with the stuff we know best. Tolkien, GRRM, Sanderson… easy. All Epic. But is Harry Potter Epic Fantasy? I would argue that yes, it is. It’s a coming-of-age Epic, it’s a Young Adult Epic, but the scope of the story is huge, the books are doorstops, magic plays a huge role… it’s Epic Fantasy. Is HP set in a different world? No. But it does involve a considerable amount of world-building, and that’s important. It’s on Earth, but there’s a whole other world hidden in plain sight that’s entirely the creation of the author. That’s enough to be Epic, in my opinion. Star Wars? It’s a space opera. Take an epic, set it in space, it’s a space opera. Awesome, but not Epic Fantasy.
So, the elements of an Epic, in my opinion, are…
- A long story, usually spanning multiple volumes
- Lots of unique, well-developed characters
- Multiple protagonists (even if there is a “main” protagonist, the other heroes in their orbits are more than just window dressing)
- High stakes – the world must be saved
- A world of the author’s creation
- Big battles! (yes, this is a must)
So, there you have it. Now you know. Next time someone asks you “What does ‘epic’ fantasy mean?” you’ll be prepared to answer with authority and thus be the first person in history to win an Internet Argument. By all means, disagree below if you like, or if there are elements you think I should add, please let me know and I will credit you with the suggestion.
(btw, in Epic Fantasy Fanatics, we focus mostly on Medieval and pre-industrial Epic Fantasy, which are each of course better than all other types of Epic Fantasy.)
*Author JC Kang pointed out that Wesley was revived by magic when he was almost dead. This is incorrect. That was not magic. It was a miracle. Hence the name Miracle Max. Thanks for coming out, JC. You are awarded no points.
Sean Hinn is the author of The Days of Ash and Fury.