What Makes an Epic Fantasy

By Aaron-Michael Hall

When most people hear that question, common images come to mind. We usually think of fantastical, imagined worlds with knights, sorcerers, exceptional creatures, new species, and in some cases, new languages. There are heroes and heroines, life-changing quests, battles with swords and magic, and evil-doers plotting to destroy mankind and obliterate life as we know it.

Those are some of the images evoked when most people think of this genre. But what is Epic Fantasy? That question appears innocuous enough. In the age of Google and instant information, it’s simple to find the answer to such queries. Or is it? When typing “epic fantasy definition” into my search bar, the first response is Wikipedia. Ah yes, the wealth of information that it provides is astounding. However, when I click the link, “High Fantasy” is the result. For some reason, High Fantasy and Epic Fantasy are presented as interchangeable genres, having exactly, or nearly identical meaning. From my perspective, the concept of Epic Fantasy has become simplistic and marginalized over time.

Let’s look at the short definition Wikipedia provides: High fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy, defined either by its setting or by the epic stature of its characters, themes, and plot.

The EPIC in Epic Fantasy should be an indicator of something deeper and more multifaceted than a fantastical world encompassing heroes and like themes. In an Epic Fantasy, the cast is large, the world building is intricate, it’s usually expressed in several viewpoints, and the success or failures of the “heroes” has a substantial effect on the entire world. That level of intrigue elevates the story and increases the breadth and controversies (moral and otherwise) associated with it.

The word EPIC itself is in reference to an epic poem, epos, or epopee. These lengthy works detailed exploits of heroic deeds and events significant to differing cultures and nations.  Classic Epic Poems recount the journeys of their heroes and the physical and mental fortitude brought forth to overcome and subsist during devastating trials. They were lengthy and complex works depicting great battles, mystical forces, intervening deities, and malefic beings. The Epics weren’t meant to merely entertain; their meaning was greater than that. They not only told these masterful stories, they revealed the impact these adventures had on the world as a whole. A few examples of such works are Beowulf, Gilgamesh, Aeneid, Mahabharata, The Iliad and Odyssey, Story of Ramayana, and Paradise Lost.

So, what’s classified as Epic Fantasy in 2017? That definition has certainly altered over time and will probably continue to remain malleable to a certain extent. Evenso, there are specific criteria that we look for in fantasy as a whole. I’m not speaking of the common tropes readers and unfortunately many authors have begun to rely upon: elves, dragons, ogres, and dwarves. I’m referring to much broader elements and concepts. Some examples are the story’s time-span encompassing years or more, a new and engrossing world or setting, a well-defined magic system, devastating conflict, complex characters, and mythos. Those common aspects are almost universal and applied differently depending on the author.

The world itself is contrived by the author and requires time to acclimate the reader to this fantastical creation, its magic systems, mythos, species, deities, and histories. Most Epics are grand in scale, structure, concepts, and prose. Thusly, Epic Fantasies usually span several volumes, covering multiple years, and depict the growth of characters and their mounting conflicts.

When discussing Epic Fantasy, one author is mentioned before any other. J.R.R. Tolkien is usually revered as the master of Epic Fantasy. His novels, unique languages, and fantastical worlds have fascinated readers for decades. With his exceptional world building, characters, and structure, Tolkien is an accepted standard for many fantasy authors and readers alike. But even Tolkien received inspiration from other sources. The exceptionally written epic poem, Beowulf definitely fits that bill just as the Elder Edda, Leiden Riddle, Macbeth, The Pickwick Papers, and greats like William Morris, George MacDonald, and Owen Barfield.

Recently, I was a panelist with Christopher Paolini and Michael Livingston at a convention. It was enlightening to hear their viewpoints about Epic Fantasy (classical and otherwise). Both are accomplished authors in their own right and draw inspiration from Tolkien and others. During our conversations and audience questions, the definition of what constitutes Epic Fantasy varied immensely.

What is Epic Fantasy? That question will probably be debated for years to come. Epic-ness isn’t defined by merely the length of a story or even by how many battles are fought and how much magic is used. Epic tales definitely encompass a new and fantastical world facing perils and destruction. There’s a well developed magic system, complex and flawed characters, unique world building and species. But if it lacks a definable and significant change to this world and what its denizens must undergo, relatable and complex characters growing to achieve this common goal, and how this failure would impact the world, it’s lacking in Epic-ness. Epic doesn’t speak of the verbosity of the author. Epic speaks to the depth, significance, intrigue, scope, characterization, and plot created by the author to draw us into this fantastical world and care about the outcomes of its characters.

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