I’ve been thinking about a question asked by @Gollancz on Twitter. “Epic Fantasy is, by and large, crushingly conservative in its delivery, its politics and its morality. Discuss. And why? (Oh why?)” [7:20 pm DST, Feb 20, 2013.]
Following, and participating in, some of the conversation that followed—which either took the statement for granted or argued that it was an incomplete characterisation of the subgenre—several things occurred to me. The first is that we keep having this conversation, over and over again, without defining our terms. How do we define “epic”? What counts as “conservative”? (It’s a word with multiple axes of interpretation.)
Let’s start with “conservative.” N.K. Jemisin says, “Because the “fantasy” most EF delivers is of white male power & centrality, as much as dragons. That *is* conservativism, now.” [@nkjemisin, 8:00 pm DST, Feb 20, 2013] We can agree that conservative, here, is fundamentally concerned with not changing the present default cultural narratives of who gets to hold and use power, how, and why. For our genre, for our culture(s) in the US, UK, and Europe, that’s white (heterosexual) cisgendered men. Often persons who don’t fit these criteria who hold and use power anyway are portrayed as wrong, anomalous, wicked. (There are plenty of cultural narratives floating about concerning the moral and occasionally physical degeneracy of non-straight-white-men. Plenty.)
But is epic fantasy really “crushingly conservative”? This, I think, depends on how we define “epic.” There’s a lack of firm semantic boundaries when it comes to distinguishing “epic” fantasy, the fantasy of the world-changing/saving quest, of the knight sans peur et sans reproche or its deconstruction, from “sword & sorcery”—which I think we can formulate as the fantasy of encounter*—and “high” fantasy, the fantasy of politics and kingdoms. If we consider urban fantasy as encompassing a wider range than the marketing category of that name, we also have second-world urban fantasy, even noir, city-focused fantasy. Lately we have a further modifier in “gritty” or “grimdark”—words which are sometimes used interchangeably and sometimes not.
If epic fantasy is second-world fantasy that shapes its arc in the form of a grand mythic quest (or several), that plays with tropes such as the return or re-establishment (or sometimes the purification) of a monarch, then it’s, by nature, conservative in structure, and by habit conservative in the political institutions it portrays. But it’s not necessarily conservative in its attitudes towards power, relationships, and orientation towards divinity. We can find counter-examples, depending on which part of our definition we choose to emphasise—Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts is fairly clearly epic, and so is some of Kate Elliott’s work. Alma Alexander’s Changer of Days/The Hidden Queen may qualify. Jacqueline Carey’s work, particularly her deconstruction of LOTR. Is N.K. Jemisin’s work epic fantasy, or high fantasy, or some combination thereof with other influences? How do we classify Bujold’s Paladin of Souls or The Sharing Knife quartet?
Martin Petto pointed out that there might be more than one thing at work: “a small amount of epic fantasy that deliberately subverts conservativeness of genre but also... a much large[r] chunk that has absorbed epic fantasy as one facet [of all the other fantasy influences on their work]. I think a lot of the supposed counter examples are latter.” [@nine_below, 8:40 pm and 8:43 pm DST, Feb 20, 2013.]
The quintessential epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, was itself in many ways and for all its many flaws a revolutionary reworking of myth. Patrick Nielsen Hayden points out, “[T]he arc of myth is conservative. That’s why it’s myth.” [@pnh, 2200 DST, Feb 20, 2013.]
But I’m caught, here, once again, on our lack of semantic certainties. (I’m not a strict structuralist, but I can’t quite convince myself to take post-structuralism seriously. Humans make patterns and then analyse them, it’s what our brains are for.) “Epic” in discussions like these frequently means whatever each individual participant wants it to mean: examples that don’t meet a participant’s own personal criteria are dismissed as insufficiently epic, while other participants may wish to claim them. We’re going by feel: what makes GRRM or Peter Brett or Joe Abercrombie or Sam Sykes (to pick some names that came up on Twitter) more epic than Michelle West or Kate Elliott or Sherwood Smith or Scott Lynch? Our vocabulary for discussing the distinctions and permutations of second-world “immersive” fantasy as she is writ has no easy way to discuss gradation.
Discussions and definitions of “epic” fantasy are inherently conservative, it seems to me, but I’m not convinced that epic itself needs to be, or is innately, anything other than structurally conservative. (I’m not going to digress here into epic traditions in premodernity and how we can relate them to genre, though I’d like to: I’m not sure I know enough.) We come back again to a lack of a broad consensus in definitions: I like epic, you like grimdark, they like crap.
Are we, in fact, looking at a largely post-epic landscape? Is epic a term of art that has lost its particular meaning and is now applied as a marketing category that encompasses a much wider range of thematic and structural arcs than the world-saving/changing quest and re-establishment/purification of monarchical institutions? What does that mean for our conversations?
What does that mean for the epic quest?
*To clarify my thought: sword & sorcery isn’t defined by the quest, even when quests are taking place during it. For me, it’s defined more by its tension between quest/magic as a means of making a living (or as intrusions into regular means of making a living), and its encounters with things numinous, strange, and threatening. This is not the strictest definition in the world, I admit. Petto has a brief discussion of ways of distinguishing sword & sorcery and epic at Everything Is Nice, from 2010. (I personally think The Steel Remains and its sequel hew much closer to active deconstructions of epic heroes rather than to S&S, but the two veins of traditional fantastical conversation lie very close together there.)
This sort of thing keeps Liz Bourke awake at nights, wondering.