After a playtest session last night (playtest report coming soon!), Lenny Balsera challenged me with the question: “What do you love about Epic Fantasy?” It’s a good question that I don’t have a well-articulated answer for, but I should since it’s my favorite literary genre, I’m designing an epic fantasy game, and I’m writing epic fantasy novels. I’m still working out exactly what I believe, but here is what I’ve come up with so far.
I have a few quotes that will hopefully help me make my point. The first is about fantasy in general, rather than epic fantasy in particular, but I really like it. In the denouement of the brilliant Hogfather by Terry Pratchett, Susan and Death (who speaks in ALL CAPS) discuss why it is important for the children of the Discworld to believe in the Hogfather, their equivalent of Santa Claus:
“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying that humans need . . . fantasies in order to make life bearable.”
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little–”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET– Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME . . . SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point–”
MY POINT EXACTLY.
Fantasy helps us believe in important, real things – things that we might feel hokey about expressing in our modern, cynical world, but things which are nonetheless vital to us. Fantasy is a way of looking at ideas, ideals, themes, and philosophies that are all-too-easy to believe don’t fit in our everyday lives. So what about epic fantasy? That’s a bit harder since the genre isn’t well defined, but everyone agrees that The Lord of the Rings qualifies. Here’s a quote from the movie version of The Two Towers:
Frodo: I can’t do this, Sam.
Sam: I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo; the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end… because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was, when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going… because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding on to, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.
For me, what distinguishes epic fantasy is the scope of the threat. I think that the core of an epic fantasy story is a protagonist defending what is good about the world (for some definition of “the world”) from forces that would destroy it. It’s about linking personal action and personal virtue to bigger and broader things, things worth saving. In the cynical world we live in, for big issues and small, it seems like there is a constant pressure to be small-minded, hopeless, and complacent. Dishonest politician? They’re all like that. Your boss wants you to start cutting corners to hit an impossible deadline? Nobody will trace it back to you. There’s a problem that will fester if you don’t have a conversation about it? Best to avoid the potential conflict… Epic fantasy heroes don’t give in to that: they stand against the tide of evil. Epic fantasy stories don’t tell us that it’s easy to do that, because it’s usually not, but they tell us that it’s right to do that, and it’s nice to get that reminder from time to time. Fantasy helps up believe in difficult ideas, and the difficult idea that epic fantasy asks us to believe is that individual virtues matter, that doing the right thing matters. Sam Gamgee saved a world by being a good friend. Sure, it was a fantasy world and not a real one, but Tolkien made it real enough for us to see the truth and importance of that idea. When so many forces in the world want us to believe that everything is going downhill and there’s nothing any of us can do about it, I’m glad that Epic Fantasy is out there saying “You shall not pass!” and reminding us that we all have the capacity to stand for what’s right, in big ways and small.
Plus, there’s wizards and magic and sword fights and a bunch of other awesome stuff.
I completed 50,000 words on my novel “King of Beasts” in November. I created it based on an outline derived from the play procedures of my RPG, which was an interesting experiment. The outline ended up with far more action than I enjoy writing (I much prefer dialog). Additionally, I was focusing on two topics (sailing ships and animal behavior) that really require more research before writing about them. I’m not sure if I’ll come back to this story or not. I’m glad I won at NaNoWriMo (one more “life accomplishment” I can check off on my list!) but I doubt that I’ll do it again, at least not without being better prepared next time.