Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Serial Epic Fantasy?

I mentioned in my last post that I've been finding epic fantasy somewhat boring lately. That's got me thinking about what epic fantasy is (or ought to be) and why precisely I'm finding it boring. Unfortunately, I'm something of a dinosaur (or would it be a paleontologist?) in my tastes, and anything I say is automatically about thirty years out of date, if not more.

(But wait. I thought fantasy was literature for the dinosaurs. When did it become all edgy and contemporary and topical? Wasn't there a time when fantasists prided themselves on looking backward? I guess that's a topic for another post, though. Back to epic fantasy.)

I've been reading Stephen Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane this summer. It's been slow going. I tried reading it once a good while ago, but put it down because of That One Scene. But it's a fairly well-respected book all the same, and an example of post-Tolkien fantasy that didn't fall into the cookie cutter approach of some other authors at the time. (You know who you are.) So now I'm giving it another go.

And I'm finding it kind of dull.

I don't think my problem is with the novel, exactly, but with the subgenre in general, or maybe with myself. There was a time when I ate epic fantasies up. The thicker the better. But I realized one day that the particular series I was reading at the time wasn't going anywhere, and that there was no reason the author couldn't keep spinning them out forever. What got me started reading doorstops and paper weights was, of course, The Lord of the Rings. But LOTR had three things that these others lacked: a beginning, a middle, and an end. It had a sense of wholeness, of completeness. And that's rare in the subgenre called epic fantasy.

Which is kind of ironic. An epic, properly so-called, is a narrative recounting the deeds of larger-than-life characters taking part in great events of universal import. There's an expectation of roundness, of unity and completeness. Think of the Iliad. Its action take place in a matter of weeks, but its perspective encompasses the entire Trojan War, from the judgment of Paris to the razing of the city. Any other epic worthy of the name is similarly comprehensive.

The two great original works of epic fantasy of the twentieth century – The Worm Ouroboros and The Lord of the Rings – take that approach, though describing the end rather than the middle. The Book of the New Sun, which in my opinion is up there with those two, is more like the Iliad in that it narrates the middle of its great events, pointing toward the end without altogether explicating it. Afterwards, each of these authors continued to write in his invented world in various ways, but none sought to actually add to his epic, because it was clearly finished.

Obviously, the more commercial aspects of the fantasy genre militate against that kind of completeness. What people call "epic fantasy" nowadays is often really serial fantasy, which in a way is the opposite of the epic. An epic requires wholeness, with build-up to climax and aftermath. It can't just be arbitrarily prolonged like a soap opera.

Of course, it's premature for me to pin all this on the Thomas Covenant novels. They do seem to have a certain wholeness, though they're also a kind of commentary on the subgenre to which they belong. And I'll admit that I'm interested in seeing where it's all going, at least as far as the main character is concerned, despite my utter contempt for him. I couldn't care less about the Land. But maybe I'm supposed to not care.

Or maybe, like Thomas, I've just gotten too cynical to care. That's a scary thought.

Cf. my long-ago post Literary Fantasy and Ecological Comedy.


  1. Serial fantasy - what a great term. Doorstopper series' interminability more than anything else makes me nuts. Rarely, very rarely, is the length justified.

    I am curious to learn your view of Covenant when you're done. I was happy I forced myself thru the first trilogy. It is overblown, ridiculously portentous, and way too concerned with commenting on the genre, but I found parts powerful and moving. Sometimes, even beautiful.

    1. I do plan on reading the whole trilogy. I can't say I'm not enjoying it, exactly. But sometimes you have to read a whole book to decide whether you have enjoyed it, which is kind of strange.

      This week I'm being bad, and reading Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy instead. I think I first saw that on your blog, come to think of it...

  2. just in case you missed it - every time Lord Foul bogs down, find the chapter as discussed and enacted here -