All fiction is lies, varying only in scope and audacity. Epic fantasy is lies turned up to eleven. It is the outcast, living in the margins of our literary maps where fearful scribes have written, “Here be dragons.”
Perhaps this explains the persistent resistance it finds among critics and mainstream audiences. Have you ever met an inveterate liar, full of sound and fury? Entertaining for ten minutes, twenty maybe. But why would you spend a thousand pages poring over the froth of a fevered imagination? Even Tolkien faced this—critics who wished to hang literature on a wall and bracket it with thick frames that might cover up the embarrassment of that silliness at the edges.
But every genre is a contract. There are demands made of an audience, and expectations of an author. If you write historical fiction, and you set your story in New York City on September 12, 2001, there are certain events you simply cannot ignore. If you write romance, and the girl decides to become a nun, you’ve betrayed expectations. If you write mystery, and it turns out no one died—that instead, dastardly, twice-divorced CEO Tom is really merely vacationing happily in Fiji—you’ve given your audience a stone when they asked for bread. If you write police procedural, and the suspect is beaten senseless by the cops in a Seattle alley and never read his rights, you’d better have a great reason why this doesn’t get him off the hook. (Where the same scene wouldn’t raise an eyebrow, even if set in the same city, if the novel’s a Western set in 1860.)
That contract is simply broadest in epic fantasy: Tell me a great story, the audience says. I’ll work to remember lots of names and foreign terms and odd cultures and strange ways if you sweep me away.
And these authors oblige.
There is, as you will see even within this volume, enormous range within epic fantasy. From conciliatory stories that show the good guys winning (though often at great cost) in a Tolkienesque tenor to the challenging “there are no good guys, much less winning” in an Abercrombian argot, but all seek to tell moving stories in immersive worlds.
When an author of grand imagination who is capable of adroit explication meets a perspicacious reader, something magical happens: the scale of the story changes the experience of the story qualitatively. What we worked so hard to digest now swallows us. Epic fantasy is uniquely immersive. We enter a new world, and all too often, we don’t want to leave. (Part of why it tends to such length.)
But doesn’t that very immersive quality simply prove that fantasy is escapist? Best suited for children and those unable to face the real world?
In “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien said that those who dismiss fantasy as escapist are confusing “the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter….Why should a man be scorned, if, in finding himself in a prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”
The frame focuses the whole painting, and when you set the frame too narrowly, so that the frame covers up that “nonsense” at the edges of the map where it says, “Here be dragons,” you’ve excluded an essential element. Not only would we lose everything from Homer to Virgil to Dante to Beowulf from our literature, but we also would lose some of the range of human creativity. It would be as if we told artists that no True Art could feature violet. Doubtless a lot of great art could be created without violet, but why accept such a limitation?
If we can accept a map beyond our traditional critical frames, fantasy can take us on a journey beyond our traditional frames of reference. It can give us respite and consolation; it can challenge; it can tell us the truth by slipping right past our prejudices. It is often only in hindsight, as we have absorbed a story and been absorbed by it, that we recognize how it is molding us. When we read a story that sticks with us, it becomes part of our frame of reference. A small Jewish kid trying out for a sports team might feel like David facing Goliath—and take consolation from the fact that David won! The Lord of the Rings isn’t a novel about the environment, but Saruman’s defilement of the natural world has struck millions with horror. The Odyssey isn’t about drug abuse, but Odysseus’s encounter with the Lotus Eaters has been warning audiences about the dangers of narcotics for 2,800 years.
Great stories don’t change minds, they change hearts.
G. K. Chesterton said it whimsically: “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.”
There are dragons. And here they be.