Introduction—John Joseph Adams

Epic fantasy has become the literature of more. We equate it with more pages than the average book, more books than the average series. There are more characters, more maps, more names, and more dates. The stories and the worlds are bigger to contain all of this more. And when all the books have been devoured, the fans want more.

Fifty years ago, there was precious little. Modern epic fantasy was non-existent in the early twentieth century until J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings came along. A few scattered classics would be added to the pantheon in subsequent years, but notable exceptions aside, no one believed epic fantasy was a viable commercial genre. Publications within this field were rare. That all changed in 1977, when The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks became the first work of fantasy ever to appear on the New York Times bestseller list, and the rest is history.

But that is only modern history. Epic fantasy has extremely deep roots. Drawing on the traditions of the great extended poems and oral tales that are the origins of literature, epics represent some of the most beloved tales in human culture. Even in these ancient stories, we can see the trappings of the modern epic: exotic fantastical settings peopled with larger-than-life characters, where fates of entire worlds often rest on the shoulders of protagonists who are forced to become heroes or crumble under the pressure.

The oldest existing written literature is the Epic of Gilgamesh, from ancient Mesopotamia, about a king who uses his power to harm his own people. His adventure causes him heartbreak, conflict with the gods, and even forces him to face his own mortality…until he returns home and realizes the virtue and beauty of the civilization he should have been ruling and protecting. He is changed into a better man by his quest. This cycle, of a simple or flawed man facing peril in order to preserve his world, appears over and over in literature. Mythology scholar Joseph Campbell called this cycle the monomyth, or more aptly, The Hero’s Journey. He argued that stories about figures in many religions and myths all follow the same cycle of the hero rising to the occasion to save his people or his civilization.

Along with modern epic fantasy’s growth into the all-powerful more, the literature has evolved in ways that would have fascinated Campbell. While the genre exploded during the 1980s, much of that decade’s output—at least in book form—followed the model set down by Tolkien: an ancient all-powerful evil, usually a Dark Lord, is stirring and will destroy a secondary world filled with magic and wonder, unless a small band of heroes can recover a powerful artifact to aid the armies of good in the final battle. This model, right down to the same races of mythical creatures, flooded the shelves as publishers churned out bestseller after bestseller.

Although epic fantasy exploded in the ’80s, with most of it following the above-described template, there were some other notable earlier entries in the genre that broke the Tolkien mold. Ursula K. Le Guin’s protagonist Ged, in A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), hearkened back to the ancient stories of a prideful, flawed protagonist who causes great harm with his powers, and must learn to master his magic and his values before he can resemble anything like a hero. And then fantasy anti-heroes like Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant (1977) and Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné (1961) were precursors to the morally ambiguous protagonists many twenty-first-century readers have come to prefer in their epic fantasies.

Tyrion Lannister in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series has become the poster-boy for ambiguous or gray protagonists in the genre, and Martin’s books—consisting of sprawling, thousand-page doorstoppers—are the epitome of the all-powerful more, though it was Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books that first shattered the trilogy model established by Tolkien and his publishers, and was instrumental in shaping the contemporary epic fantasy marketplace.

In addition to the above-mentioned moral complexity, today’s epics are also usually founded on strong worldbuilding and deep insight into the human condition. Another popular component is the struggle against overwhelming odds and/or an overwhelming power(s), which results in significant changes to the world. While this final element often makes for good epic fantasy, the monumental struggle is not absolutely essential, as some of these stories will demonstrate. “The Burning Man,” “The Mystery Knight,” and “Homecoming” all take place in epic fantasy worlds their respective authors have written about in multiple books; these stories take place on a smaller scale, but setting them in the same world makes them feel just as epic. In addition to the Tad Williams, George R. R. Martin, and Robin Hobb stories just mentioned, longtime fans of the genre will note several other stories in the anthology that take place in the same milieus as their respective author’s novel series. Carrie Vaughn’s “Strife Lingers in Memory” provides another twist to the monumental struggle argument, presenting a tale that begins after such a battle is over. There are also stories in here without connections or allusions to apocalyptic battles, but somehow they are no less epic.

The stories in this anthology are epic because of exotic worldbuilding and the remarkable humanity of the characters as they struggle with their situations. Every epic begins and ends in the hero’s heart. When we know what forces in the world have formed that heart, and learn what pushes that character to his or her very limit, we learn the shape of his or her own personal crucible.

Any story that can show us that is truly epic, regardless of page counts or whether or not sweeping battles are rocking the realm…and when we find something truly epic, it should be no surprise so many of us want more.