Extruded Fantasy Product
Mark Newton has been thinking about “gritty” fantasy. As you would expect from a shorthand that has grown organically from the grassroots, no one is that clear on what it actually means or which works it could be applied to. I’m not particularly interested in pinning down gritty – I’ve made my comments in that thread – but it did get me thinking about epic fantasy more broadly and I quickly ran into another taxonomical issue.
A half-baked theory had floated into my mind that grittiness was a symptom of epic fantasy entering its third wave. Trying to expand this I soon ran into the problem that I didn’t know that much about the history of the subgenre. So I turned to A Short History Of Fantasy by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. Now, you may remember that this books classifies Joe Abercrombie as a New Weird writer so there were always going to be issues but I was still surprised at just how unhelpful it was for my purposes.
To start with, they don’t actually use the term epic fantasy. It doesn’t appear in the glossary and if you turn to the index you will only find an entry for “epic”. In contrast to this, the glossary contains entries for – amongst many others – heroic fantasy, high fantasy, immersive fantasy and medievalist fantasy as well as sword and sorcery. (On the other hand, the glossary also fails to include edifice fantasy and full fantasy, two Clutisms which appear in the index.) It seems a conspicuous absence so to check I wasn’t mistaken about the popularity of the term “epic fantasy” I did a quick straw poll. The results are an overwhelming consensus for epic fantasy. Not very scientific but a bit of research nonetheless. Perhaps James and Mendlesohn had a good reason for excluding the term though, epic fantasy is, after all, fairly loosely defined and A Shorter History is a critical text; perhaps they needed more precision. Unfortunately, if you look at their other definitions, this doesn’t appear to be the case:
Heroic fantasy: fantasy set in a world which often resembles the ancient or medieval past, drawing on their epic traditions of heroes; barely distinguishable from high fantasy or sword-and-sorcery.
High fantasy: fantasy that deals with the activities of heroes, drawing on the literary tradition of epic; immersive fantasy, and not set in our world (as low fantasy is).
Immersive fantasy: a story set entirely within an imagined world, without any overt reference to the the world of the reader. [This term is imported from Mendlesohn's Rhetorics Of Fantasy.]
Medieval fantasy: a story set in a world based in some loose way on the world of the European Middle Ages, often drawing its inspiration from medieval romance and the Matter of Britain, and frequently in the form of a quest fantasy.
Quest fantasy: a story (frequently in multiple volumes) involving one or more people travelling through a landscape, learning about the world, and fulfilling some quest or destiny.
Sword-and-sorcery: fantasy set in a pre-industrial world, involving warriors in conflict with magical or supernatural forces; largely indistinguishable from heroic fantasy or high fantasy, although perhaps better seen as a subset of them.
Not very helpful. It is even less helpful that, despite the minimal and ill-defined differences given above, almost all these different types of fantasy each have their own entry in the index. Therefore to follow the history of what most people would see as a single subgenre you have to constantly cross reference multiple terms, although it does allow the reader to guess the authors’ preferred terms by counting the number of references:
- Quest fantasy: 30
- Medievalism: 25
- Sword-and-sorcery: 16
- Epic: 10
- Heroic fantasy: 5
- Immersive fantasy: 2
- High fantasy: 0
This preference means that we read, for example, that “the three major medievalist writers of the 1990s are Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind and George R.R. Martin.” This is perhaps understandable given the backgrounds of James and Mendlesohn but it is still pretty perverse given its lack of popular currency (particularly since elsewhere Mendlesohn has said that epic fantasy is, in fact, her preferred term). You might argue that an academic work should use technical language rather than casual, fannish language, however, as we’ve seen above, the language isn’t really technical enough. The other obvious rebuttal is that the book should be read forwards, rather than backwards; true enough and I am yet to read the whole of A Short History but a reference work is infinitely more useful if it can be dipped into in this way. There is greater explication within the text though. For example, they begin the chapter on the Eighties by saying:
If we are contend that quest fantasies became the dominant tradition in the 1980s, we need to explain the difference between quest fantasies and the older sword-and-sorcery… Quest fantasies come to an end, usually with some sort of healing of the land, and either a restoration or dissolution of magic, whereas sword-and-sorcery fantasies always have room for another adventure. (p. 119)
I am not especially persuaded by this but, even so, it would have been nice if this distinction had been picked up in the glossary. This seems to be indifference born out of contempt as James and Mendlesohn give the strong impression they don’t really care for epic fantasy. That is fair enough as a matter of personal preference but it becomes a bit of an impediment when you a writing a history of the genre of which it has been the most commercially successful and visible subgenre for at least two decades. Take, for example, the case of Steven Erickson, one of the most acclaimed epic fantasy writers of the last two decades. There are two references to him in A Short History which read in their entirety:
George R.R. Martin’s more realistic and hardcore mode has influenced a number of new writers including the Canadians Steven Erikson and Scott Bakker. (p. 146)
We have already mentioned a number of Canadian writers whose careers began in the 1990s or earlier, such as Steven Erikson… We do not intend to discuss them in detail here. (p. 199)
That is it. The caveat “short” in the title is well taken but perhaps a better word would have been “partial”.
By the way, if you are still pondering what dark fantasy might be, they have a definition of that too: “A fantasy story which borrows elements from horror, and which typically does not end in eucatastrophe.” So that’s that cleared up.