Monday, June 1, 2009

Tara Maya on Epic Fantasy

This week The Literary Lab presents a series of guest posts exploring the conventions of different genres and what writers love and loath about each of them. We're starting off with Tara Maya on...

Fiction is brain food.

Different parts of our brain crave different flavors of fiction. We label these flavors genre. It's common to say that genres are the invention of Marketing, and perhaps this is true, but then the same could be said of the deli and the bakery sections of the supermarket. Different aisles are set aside for meats and breads because the differences between these kinds of foods are real; the same is true of brain food.

Some writers can't stand genre restrictions. Fine -- this is what goulash is for.

I like genres. I'm curious to know why there are certain flavors. I, for instance, write epic fantasy. But why is fantasy pleasing to some palettes (and not to others)? Why is it often dismissed as adolescent wish-fulfillment (and is there any truth to the allegation)? I think the key to finding out involves asking what part of the brain craves the nourishment of epic fantasy.

The roots of fantasy are in the fairytales, legends and epic sagas which are found in all cultures all over the world. On the surface, fairytales look much like religious stories, in that both involve strange, miraculous events, unusual people, sometimes even gods. But there is a difference. Religious beliefs are held to be true by the communities which propagate them (even if outsiders may call those same stories "myths" or "superstitions.") Fairytales are not believed even by the people who tell them, no matter how "primitive" the people may be. In a sense, fantasy is THE oldest form of fiction.

Clearly, the appeal to the brain of ordinary objects doing impossible things (flying rugs, pumpkin coaches), people who shift shape (swan maidens, wolf men) and heroes who battle monsters is quite strong. Modern fantasy shares all of these tropes with ancient fairytales.

Perhaps the closest to modern fairytales is Paranormal/Urban Fantasy, which presents the "real" world, with the slight addition of a surreal element. The appeal of Twilight may be that it is a modern fairytale, pure and simple. (Sorry, no layers! But does Cinderella need layers?)

I would like to suggest, however, that epic fantasy goes beyond modern fairytales. There is another layer.

Epic fantasy draws on sagas and histories and even anthropologies of other cultures. Masters of the field, such as Tolkien and Lewis, were actually medievalists who had read many of these works (in their original tongues, no less). Tolkien, for instance, studied Beowulf, the Norse sagas Volsunga, Hervarar and Edda, the Finnish Kalevala, and of course, the German cycle of the Nibelungenlied (of Wagnerian magic ring fame).

However, in creating an entire world with its own mythology (which, in this imagined world is not a fairytale but a history), the epic fantasy writer is actually demanding more of the reader than to imagine a single fantastic element in the otherwise ordinary world. The epic fantasy actually demands that the reader consent to becoming an anthropologist or historian of an imagined world. The reason so many epic fantasies portray quests is because the travel structure enables the reader to explore the world, just as a visitor to a new country would; likewise, the reason so many fantasies involve kings and knights fighting great wars is because this is precisely what tends to go down in the annals of real histories. Why do fantasies insist on polysyllabic names, which begin with "Xh-" and include apostrophes and umlauts? Because foreign and ancient tongues are strange and difficult to pronounce, yet exotic, beautiful and ultimately logical in their own way.

Crack open a fantasy book, and you will be asked—with greater or lesser graciousness, depending on the skill of the writer—to pronounce odd names, learn a specialized vocabulary, remember convoluted genealogies, appreciate arcane details such as how dwarven armor differs from elvish armor, envision the anatomy of impossible zoologies and unravel byzantium magical systems. It’s uncomfortable at first, even for experienced fantasy readers.

I think this discomfort is deliberate. For fantasy readers, it is -- ironically -- indispensable to the pleasure of the genre. One of the primary rewards of fantasy is the same reward we get when we travel to a new and totally strange culture. In other words, it's a whole genre devoted to recreating Culture Shock.

There's an old saying attributed to some Great One in The Field that "the Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve." (Amusing discussion found here.)

Many more people read fantasy and science when they are young than latter in life. This has always puzzled (and annoyed) writers in the genre, who obviously represent the few social nimwits who didn't outgrow the phase. My theory is that children and adolescents are naturally more adept at exploring new cultures. Adolescence is a time when new cultures, including new names, new vocabularies, are tried on and discarded again in quick succession. Most people will tire of this fairly quickly, and move on to other genres. The remainder will be cursed to read, and maybe write, fantasy.

This may also be the reason much fantasy is (considered) puerile. If the last time one read a fantasy, one was twelve, one will have only have taken from the story what a twelve year old would. (Those whose only experience of literary fiction is what they were forced to read in school have a similar problem). And, of course, much of the genre is written for twelve-year olds. There's nothing wrong with this. I love to visit Narnia and Hogwarts. There is also such a thing as fantasy written for adults however, although even this is often mistakenly foisted on children. For instance, I read The Last Unicorn in Middle School, and didn't much care for it, except I liked the cartoon version of the unicorn girl, because she was pretty and angsty. Not until many years later did I re-read the classic and realize it wasn't a children's story at all, nor a coming-of-age story as so many epic fantasies are, but a coming-of-middle-age story. I enjoyed it much more on the second reading.

When I write fantasy, my goal is to keep all the mind candy: the shape shifters, the absurd battles against outrageous monsters, the unbelievable coincidence that the hero is really the heir to the lost throne and the only one who can save the world. I also try to build a world with bizarre names, strange foods, customs, clothing and attitudes, to induce culture shock in my reader, followed... if I am ever successful... by the odd sense, known to any sojourner in a strange land, that the new culture has over time become the more familiar, and it is our world, mundania, which gives us culture shock when we close the book.


  1. Tara, this is an amazing post. If anybody needed to read this, it's me, the Fantasy Hater. Okay, so I don't hate fantasy, but it's at the bottom of my food preferences, so to speak.

    You've managed to explain this in such a way that helps me understand why I get so uncomfortable in those fantasy worlds (because exploring new places, even while pleasure traveling, is downright frightening to me even though I enjoy it by the end), why I really didn't like Twilight (because I loathe most fairy tales), and why I cringe every time people go on and on about how they love to write and read fantasy (because deep down, I view it as juvenile play-time and not serious reading or writing, which is a completely juvenile and ridiculous of me!).

    So, yes, you've managed to answer all the questions I've had bottled up forever. I've always loved LOTR because I read it at a time in my life when exploring a new place was absolutely necessary to escape my current situation in life. And the fright from exploring that new place paled in comparison to what I was dealing with in real life. I never realized that before!

    So what about other fantasy? I will, of course, try it more. I usually enjoy it once I give it the chance! I'm afraid, however, that the mundane real-world will always hold the most comfort and pleasure for me. Maybe this will change over time as I let myself have a little more fun in the amazing worlds of fantasy.

  2. Tara,

    You did an excellent job of explaining where the layers are to those who may be looking in the wrong places. There is a lot of thought that goes into a fantasy world when you design it from the ground up.

    I'm not a fantasy junkie, but I've read LOTR and the Silmarillion, and while the latter was not an engrossing read from a narrative point of view, I fount it amazing to see how deeply rooted were the seeds of Middle Earth.

    We all have our biases, and tearing down preconceived notions can be difficult.

  3. Nice post. I never thought I'd read much less write Fantasy, but due to critiquing my writing partner, Beth, who is a FANTASTIC writer of Fantasy and this post, who knows? I too, always felt uneasy in the fantasy world. Never really understanding it or liking it. Now, I have a little, itty, bitty, idea down in the very far reaching back of my mind. Who knows, huh? :)

  4. Very informative--especially the breakdown between urban fantasy and epic fantasy. When I read fantasy, I prefer epic. There's something wonderful about being in an entirely different world.

  5. Hooray for brain-busting epic fantasy!

  6. Nice post Tara. You totally ganked some of what I put in my post for sci-fi. >:D

    I'm the same way. Mundania is just that. Creating other complex worlds is the realy fun.


  7. What a great explanation. I appreciated you laying out the differences within the genre. The concept of 12 as the ultimate age for fantasy is interesting. I can see the point, but I don't believe people's love for the genre changes that much as they age. They just hide it more to seem older and more cerebral or maybe their interests just expand with experience and exposure and so they read other stuff as well as fantasy.

  8. This post came at the right moment for me. My 12 year old daughter, who is BTW a terrific writer, is an avid fantasy reader. All day long she talks about these weird named characters, with special powers and strange appearances. She is also a great artist, so all her drawings are the same odd creatures she is so much in love with. And I stand there, trying to understand and feel her passion, but somehow it doesn’t come to me. She has several proboards set up with fantasy RPGs and I even tried to have my own character, but I get lost.

    Your post is just wonderful. It makes me realize why she loves fantasy so much. (And why I don’t.) My husband is a fantasy fan too, with his WOW craze all the time, so when he and my daughter talk, nobody really understands them. Now I will have a little more insight, or at least understand why they are so fond of all this, thanks to your post.

    And yes, I will, one day, read Twilight, if for nothing else, for the happiness of my daughter. She has insisted so much.

  9. As a burgeoning author in the midst of an epic fantasty, this post was a dream come true.I have long been a fan of the fantasy genre. The idea that someone can take you to a completely new world, create something that no one else has created before, and bring you there with them has always appealed to me. I like swords, and magic, and elves. I like huge forests not decimated by logging and vast, flowing rivers never tainted by modern pollution.

    I adore the idea that on your thirteenth (or fifteenth or sixteenth or twenty third) birthday, you can awaken to the knowledge that you have power.

    This post was eye-opening in ways I'd understood before, had I ever thought to ... well, think about it. I knew what was involved in my trilogy before I started it; I knew that if I wanted my book to be successful, I had to do more than stick a couple characters in a different universe and call it fantasy. I had to create this world, from the ground up, visualise every blade of grass, every crevice in every mountain, every animal that inhabits this new universe. Even if the main character - and therefore, the reader - never gets to a specific place in the world, I have to know what it's like there, what happens, who the people are; it has to be real for me before it can be real for anyone else.

    Your comment on the fact that fantasy draws so much on ancient mythology (a closet obsession of mine) suddenly made all of the fantasy novels I've read spring to life in a new light. Jacqueline Carey is a good example of giving you everything you need; her Kushiel trilogy is set in a world that's basically a renamed Europe.
    Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy recreates familiar religions with new names. It's by these very familiarities that makes the worlds in each book so real.

    This was, in short, a one hundred percent perfect post.

  10. OMG I just LOVE your analogy of different types of genres to different types of foods, because that is exactly the way I feel when I am at the bookstore - sometimes I am having a craving for a sweet and fluffy romance, at other times I want something a little denser like a memoir or literary fiction, and sometimes I just want to experiment with something I've never tried before.

    Your explanation of epic fantasy was wonderful as well, and while I wouldn't call myself a Fantasy Hater like LG did, I have to admit that it isn't the first genre I turn to. However, your obvious passion for the genre makes me think I need to give it another chance.

  11. There are some very flattering comments here. I'm almost afraid to write something because I want to make sure Tara sees all of the other compliments! But, I also thought this was a great post. In the genre vs. no-genre debate, Tara sort of confirmed something I've been suspecting. I think some people--not necessarily Tara herself, view non-genre fiction as bland, the way some people view vanilla ice cream as "plain" ice cream. Genre is on its own another layer of writing. Or it can be. I also really liked what she said about the classic sagas and histories. I think that connection is very real and very accurate.

  12. I loved this essay!!!

    "The epic fantasy actually demands that the reader consent to becoming an anthropologist or historian of an imagined world."

    I couldn't agree more with your comment about fantasy and discovering another culture. That's what I write for, and I suppose, to make people think or question what is going on in our own culture.

    So many great thoughts. I might just have to print this one out and stick it between the pages of one of my books on the craft of writing fantasy stories, for future reference. Thanks!

  13. Fantasy - much less epic fantasy - is something I've never really gotten into. What great information this is, especially for those of us who are a bit fantasy-ignorant :) Thanks.

  14. I grew up reading fantasy. I blame it all on my 6th grade teacher for having us read The Chronicles of Narnia, and my sister for buying me The Hobbit. For years, I read only fantasy skirting all other generes. I just couldn't be bothered with other genres. Slowly, my disdain for other genres changed and I expanded my reading horizons.

    The main problem, in my opinion, with fantasy right now is that it is truly hard to find a good, epic fantasy. Do we blame Harry Potter for this? In the aftermath of Harry, there's a glut of fantasy books on the market, few of which could be considered epic. What happened to the great epics of Tolkien, Kay, Feist (when he first began the Magician series) and even David & Leigh Eddings? Oh, Marion Zimmer Bradely and The Mists of Avalon. Now those were the foundation of my fantasy reading.

    More often than not, such books are not to be found. So, I wish Tara all the success (and thank her for a great article) so that I may once again find the bookshelves crowded with true epics and not the poor imitations that currently reside there!


  15. Tara, this is a great post. Thanks so much for going into such depth. It's clear that you don't find the conventions of fantasy limiting, and it's wonderful how you've shown that those conventions aren't a cage for writers, but a sort of imagistic framework upon which rich works can be built. Which is cool, and sheds new light on what some folks might dismiss with, "huh, elves and stuff?" I think the popularity of fantasy might point up to the lack of living, meaningful myths in current society, so thanks for talking about the real literary connection between fantasy writing today and our mythic past.

  16. Fabulous post--very insightful and informative for such a short space. I'm glad that I have a better rein now on epic fantasy, a genre I can read sometimes, but not always (it fits smack dab in the middle of my "food preferences").

    Thank you!

  17. For those who don't read much fantasy, and aren't likely to do more than taste it from time to time, I hope this still gives some ideas of what kind of fantasy writing techniques can be imported into other genres.

    Just as this blog explores how literary wriing techniques can improve *any* genre, I think there are certain strengths to each genre writers can study. Probably the biggest strength of fantasy *is* the world building. But "mundane" stories can use some of the same techniques to create a vivid sense of place, culture and community, on the scale appropriate to the story.

    If I made it seem that I think fantasy has no weaknesses, this is not the case. But I admit that in the past, I did indeed tend to distain stories set in the "here and now" as too "vanilla" -- a perfect word. I had no respect for such stories. Just as many literary readers/writers might view fantasy readers/writers as acne-faced half-wits, I tended to think those who couldn't handle fantasy (and especially, hard sf, which I haven't discussed here) as simply lacking the IQ points to get the genre, and hiding this behind a smokescreen of pretensious snobbery.

    It was a real revelation to me when I read about a cognitive approach to literary criticism. This made me think about what kinds of fiction appealed to different parts of the mind. It also made me aware that there are certain kinds of stories you can really better explore through here and now stories, particularly stories with an extreme-close up focus on character.

    Now I think of character-oriented fiction (is this a better or worse term than "literary" fictiton?) as more psychology as opposed to the anthropological approach of fantasy. (Yes, I still come at it from a completely nerdy approach.) This new way of thinking about what I'm reading has really opened a whole new genre to me, for which I'm grateful.

  18. This post is awesome. I love reading about your knowledge of and passion for the genre. As I've grown older I've become snobby about fantasy and sci-fi, staying away from it as "not real" writing. I felt it was too easy for those writers to throw a bunch of elves and swords and hard-to-pronounce names together, that it's all a formula and they don't have to try. But I guess the same could be said for non-genre work. "Oh, the author wrote about a family. That's so hard. There's hardly a plot. This is too easy." I see it can go both ways.

    This post makes me feel differently about fantasy and its writers, and it reminds me that I have loved some fantasy books. I really enjoyed some of the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe series, and I loved Terry Goodkind's Wizard's First Rule. I actually read it twice, but by the second book was immersed in lit fic in college and gave it up.

    I love your analogy about food and genres satisfying different tastes.

    And, this post illustrates what I have learned most since I began following writers' blogs. I don't have to be such a genre snob. And most writers, no matter what genres they're writing in, are hard-working and intelligent and care just as much about writing and reading as I do, with my literary preferences.

    So, I'm really going to quit with the stereotypes and just judge each story for itself. And, I may pick up a fantasy again.

  19. What an amazing assessment! I thrive on change and in fact move quite regularly thanks to my husband's job and I also love fantasy and have found that it never grows old. While others whom I grew up with have a hard time reading it now, I still devour it. Your post seems to be the perfect reasoning behind this. Nice to know I'm not completely juvenile still. lol

  20. Tara, what a great post! You've even made some converts :)

  21. Lady Glamis, you made my day.

    Rick: Thanks. I love the Simirillian.

    Robyn: I am so tickled that you might have an idea for a fantasy story yourself. That's probably the best way to learn the difficulties and joys of any genre!

    Jill: I do prefer epic fantasy, although I don't want to knock urban fantasy. I've noticed that urban fantasy, perhaps to add another layer of complexity lost in the switch to the here and now, often borrows from suspense or thriller conventions.

    Justus: That reminds me, I forgot to provide an explanation of the tendency of epic fantasy writers to write stories the length of Encyclopedia Britannica.

    Guppy: Sorry. :) But yeah, obviously a lot of what applies to fantasy also applies to sf, especially utopia/dystopia or sociological sf.

    Lotusgirl: My taste for fantasy hasn't changed, but I know many others who used to read it but stopped. In my case, my tastes have broadened as I've grown older. Part of that has been a conscious decision I've made that as a writer I should read outside my genre. I find it helps me escape a rut when I'm floundering for inspiration.

    Krisz: That is so cool your daughter is a fantasy fan. Do read Twilight. It's not a hard read. Although I doubt very much you'll feel about it the same way she does. *grin* At least you can discuss it with her, which definitely has to count for some Cool Parent points.

    Kori: I think you've really put your finger on it. You have to know every corner of your world. Sometimes, I think about it as if I were writing a computer game of my world, and I knew the reader could *actually* visit any corner of my map. I have to know that my entire map is filled in, as is the entire calendar. And if you're world building, remember the clone of a clone degrades. Some fantasy writers just read other fantasy books, and model their own worlds on those (or on RPG games or manga) and so their worlds come out like clones of clones. It's always better to look to real histories and sagas, in my opinion, for inspiration.

    I'm going to respond some more later. :)

  22. This is a great post. One that I am going to share with many people. As an amateur writer of epic fantasy (who is trying to transition to becoming a professional author) I think you have really hit upon some interesting insights into the whole genre of epic fantasy. Thank you.


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