Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora books made me notice something. Nobody saves the world. Now, they’re not the first fantasy novels where nobody saves the world, but it was such a given of fantasy for such a long time, post-Tolkien, that there was a time when if you’d told me there was an epic fantasy novel where nobody saved the world I’d have wondered how that even worked. There’s a whole set of fantasy series which are under the shadow of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books, which take a particular kind of realism and a particular level of discourse from Martin. But in ASOIAF there’s no question that the world is in the balance. Winter is coming, and it’s because winter is coming, because ice and fire are out there that we’re interested in the “knights who say fuck.” We expect the books to end in an epic confrontation, and if they do not we will be disappointed. But A Game of Thrones was published in 1996, and The Lies of Locke Lamora in 2007. There has been a change in the kind of stakes we have in our fantasy, and although there were always fantasy novels that were on a smaller scale (Swordspoint positively leaps to mind, 1987, and the Earthsea books are on a very interesting cusp) they were very much the exception, and I don’t think that is the case any more.
Where did saving the world come from anyway?
It isn’t in fairytales, where what’s at stake is usually personal survival or personal happiness or at most half a kingdom. It isn’t in Lud-in-the-Mist (1926) or Lord Dunsany or George Macdonald or E. Nesbit, which all have fairytale kind of stakes, and the same applies to other Victorian and early Twentieth Century writers of fantasy stories for children including The Hobbit, in which the only thing at stake is a little corner of wilderness up near Dale—and don’t tell me what Gandalf said about it in Gondor in Unfinished Tales, because that was clearly nowhere in Tolkien’s mind in 1938.
Where saving the world came into fantasy was with The Lord of the Rings, and where Tolkien got it from was from Christianising Ragnarok. In Norse Mythology, the world is going to be destroyed and that’s all there is to it. It’s the inevitable end. There are versions where a couple of Thor’s sons will survive to see a new world, but in any case, this world that we love and care about will end in battle and destruction and dead heroes will rise again to fight at the side of the gods and be destroyed again and that’s the end. It’s inevitable. It’s always there. In writing LOTR Tolkien went with this kind of end of everything—if Sauron wins, there won’t even be anyone left to sing songs or tell stories. The ultimate victory of good, which happens through the operation of grace and not through the will (never mind power) of the heroes, is Tolkien’s Christianising of this deeply pagan myth. It was a very original thing to do, that eucatastrope.
It’s possible to argue that one of the reasons LOTR had the wide appeal it did in the sixties was because the readers knew that for the first time humanity actually did have the ability to destroy the real world. The stakes were that high. I think it’s fairly obvious from Tolkien’s writings about the Silmarils and the end of the Second Age that this wasn’t in his mind—that not only did he think it silly to see the Ring as the Bomb but that he wasn’t seeing Sauron’s potential destruction of Middle Earth as a nuclear holocaust either. I do think it may have been part of what made LOTR such a compelling story in the Cold War, and I think it may have influenced why this part of the story—the whole world at stake—came to be such a core part of post-Tolkien fantasy.
Even the strand of fantasy that came through the family tree of Leiber adopted the fate of the whole world. It’s particularly obvious in Moorcock.
It’s further possible to argue that the end of the Cold War and the complications of the post-Cold War era world have also influenced fantasy, and that this may be why we’re seeing so much urban and paranormal fantasy (which often imply fantastical conspiracies controlling the world), and so much secondary world fantasy with smaller stakes. Equally, it might be that people are bored with saving the world when it always and inevitably gets saved, when it has become become a cliche, so people want to do other things with fantasy.
Furthermore, saving the world sucks for sequels. It has to turn into “didn’t really save the world” or “world didn’t stay saved, dammit” or “that ultimate menace was only the apprentice of this ultimate menace” or “now you have to save the entire universe.”
If I had to pick a changeover point it would be Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice (1995) which was an extremely successful and influential fantasy novel that didn’t involve saving the world.
However, I do think there’s a problem with not saving the world.
There’s not generally a problem with people writing kingdom level fantasy. The shape of the story works, and the heroes save the kingdom. The same goes for most fairytale retellings. They have their own story shape already, and the retellers generally follow it only with more psychological realism.
The problem is when people do other kinds of stories in fantasy worlds—as with The Lies of Locke Lamora, and Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths, and Bujold’s Sharing Knife books. Here there’s something odd happening to the shape of the story—as if just by being fantasy the world naturally wants to be saved, and the personal story gets distorted. A really good example is Le Guin’s Tehanu, where it’s clearly being pulled in two different directions.
What distinguishes fantasy from other kinds of fiction is the existence of magic. Once you have magic, you have inevitable questions about the role and significance of magic, the status of magic users, the way this affects the world. Barbara Hambly has thought about these things a lot, and it’s why she’s one of my favourite fantasy writers. Daniel Abraham goes at it straight on and does it brilliantly. The way the balance works in the Long Price books is one of my favourite things about them.
Magic existing alters everything. And story has a weight of its own and when you’re writing it’s like rolling a stone along, downhill is always easier. What I’m seeing in some of these cases is a story where the downhill fantasy groove is taking it towards evil wizards and saving the world, or at least the kingdom, when the story’s trying to be a caper novel, or a Jacobean Revenge Tragedy, or something. This kind of balance issue tends to throw off the end, so that the personal ending doesn’t hold down the right weight. I think this is definitely the case with The Sharing Knife: Beguilement, where the fantasy plot is over in the first half of the book and the romance plot carries the rest of it. I think what we’re seeing here in the case of Bujold and Le Guin is absolutely top notch writers trying to make story go uphill and not entirely succeeding, because it’s really hard to do.
So, how does that even work? It can definitely work. But I think it’s one of those things where it’s not as easy as it looks.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.