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Extruded Fantasy Product

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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.

Written by Martin

19 February 2010 at 09:08

14 Responses

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  1. The problem is that the terms were arrived at inductively, by the labelling of different books or series of books, and thus there’s no clear distinction.

    So while it seems clear to me that The Belgariad is Quest and the Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories are Sword and Sorcery not everyone will agree, and any definitions will be retroactive and blurry.

    Andrew Ducker

    19 February 2010 at 09:51

  2. I don’t think anyone would argue that The Belgariad is epic fantasy and the ‘Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser’ stories are sword and sorcery, they are quintessential examples of each subgenre. It is clear you have two parallel traditions of epic fantasy (from Lord Of The Rings) and sword and sorcery (from Conan). Things get more blurred the further away you get from the progenitor texts which is what I was thinking about with the third wave of epic fantasy.

    I’m not convinced there is a need for any futher divisions than those two though and given this fairly clear division it doesn’t seem helpful to describe sword and sorcery as “largely indistinguishable from heroic fantasy or high fantasy”, particularly when the text itself then contradicts this.


    19 February 2010 at 11:00

  3. I’m sure someone would argue. Someone always does.

    I’ve never been a big fan of tracing creative works back to an ancestor in order to work out what they are. While it works well for fish and fowl, books are more complex beasts that swap their genes in far more interesting ways. Tags work better than tree-like ontologies for me.

    For instance, is Conan not Epic? He’s not really quest-based, being more of a wanderer (amongst his varied professions), so we can exclude him from that area, but he certainly has adventures that feel epic in stature to me.

    Andrew Ducker

    19 February 2010 at 11:15

  4. I can’t quite tell from your description whether James and Mendlesohn are using these terms to classify fantasy, or merely to describe aspects of it.

    But surely these are intended to be descriptive rather than taxonomic terms? Quest is about plot, medieval is about one aspect of the setting (technology and social organization), and high/low is about another aspect (relationship of invented world to real world). These are completely orthogonal aspects of a work, so authors can mix and match them as they choose. Any attempt to use them to classify works would end up being incoherent.

    Gareth Rees

    19 February 2010 at 13:34

  5. These are completely orthogonal aspects of a work, so authors can mix and match them as they choose.

    It is not at all clear to me that they are completely orthogonal. Quest does indeed describe a particular type of plot and is a usual useful term. However, quest is then set in opposition to sword and sorcery; sword and sorcery is described as being the same as heroic and high fantasy; there is little meaningful difference between heroic and medieval fantasy.

    You are right that it isn’t a taxonomy and some of my problem probably stems from the fact I haven’t read Rhetorics and my lack of understanding of how the classifications of immersive and portal-quest have influenced the authors thinking here. However, I don’t think this detracts from my two problems with the descriptive power of these terms:

    a) There is generally understood to be a subgenre of fantasy which I will call epic fantasy (because that is what everyone calls it) and the authors do not have a term for covering this in its totality; and
    b) The terms they do use are more specific but not much more so and, apart from quest, I don’t understand why these differences are important.


    19 February 2010 at 14:33

  6. I would have thought that “medieval fantasy” was a subset of “heroic fantasy” as the latter includes stories with settings drawing on ancient Greece or Egypt or whatever as well as the European Middle Ages.

    Perhaps a significant dimension along which to classify fantasies is how central the characters’ story is to the world’s story. This would seem to me to distinguish, for example, “sword-and-sorcery” stories, in which the plot is about what adventurous people tend to do in that particular world, from things like “The Lord of the Rings” or “The Belgariad” in which the plot is central to the world’s history or even cosmology.


    19 February 2010 at 15:25

  7. It is not at all clear to me that they are completely orthogonal

    It seems possible to come up with examples of all eight combinations of the three tropes I picked.

    Quest, medieval, high: Lord of the Rings
    Quest, medieval, low: The Light Beyond the Forest
    Quest, non-medieval [Elizabethan], high: The Worm Ouroboros
    Quest, non-medieval [18th century], low: The City in the Autumn Stars
    Non-quest, medieval, high: Gormenghast
    Non-quest, medieval, low: Lyonesse
    Non-quest, non-medieval [industrial], high: The Iron Dragon’s Daughter
    Non-quest, non-medieval [Renaissance], low: Damiano

    Gareth Rees

    19 February 2010 at 15:41

  8. Rich: it does seem like the distinction between epic fantasy and sword and sorcery is worth getting into. This is why the treatment I’ve highlighted above is a bit disappointing. James and Mendlesohn seem to take their cue from Clute who said that “there may be a useful distinction between Heroic Fantasy and Sword & Sorcery, but no one has yet made it”

    In my review of The Chronicles of the Black Company I suggested that Glen Cook “blends the urban, intimate, slightly seedy tradition of sword & sorcery with the pastoral, epic, expansive tradition of heroic fantasy”. There is also the role of the characters’ story in the world’s story, as you mention. There is the issue of closure which James and Mendlesohn mention. Perhaps this needs another post…

    Gareth: as my comment makes clear, I am refering to all of the terms, not just the three you picked. Your list of medieval examples does make my point though: why would a history of fantasy want to group those works together? What purpose would it serve to describe both Terry Goodkind and Melvyn Peake as medievalist writers? That said, I’m not sure I would say Gormenghast was actually medieval. Nor am I convinced that either it or The Iron Dragon’s Daughter are that high.


    19 February 2010 at 17:05

  9. I think that your differentiation there is a good one – Conan is not a hero, he’s in it for himself. Similarly Fritz Leiber’s protagonists. The worlds of the two types could be the same, but it’s the ends and means of the characters and their relationship with that world that makes the difference.

    And I see your point about the works you’re talking about – it’s telling that Farah refers to this whole genre as “the stuff I don’t read”. Someone who has no interest in this area isn’t going to be able to slice it up as well as the aeras they are well read in.

    Andrew Ducker

    19 February 2010 at 17:14

  10. I think that The Black Company novels are a great example of a blurring of the line between Sword and Sorcery and High Fantasy.

    Another angle worth considering is the impact of RPGs upon fantasy. Dungeons and Dragons, for example, has long combined a focus upon roguish individuals on the make with exhaustive and elaborate world-building. So I wonder to what degree gaming has shaped the evolution of the fantasy genre, particularly the more recent gritty style of novels.

    In some cases the influence is direct (Scott Lynch for example) but I also think that there’s a good deal of indirect influence going on too.

    Jonathan McCalmont

    19 February 2010 at 17:49

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  14. […] arrived this morning and the first thing I did was flick to the index. This was because I was a bit taken aback by the short shrift epic fantasy received in their Short History Of Fantasy and wondered if the […]

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