What Is Epic Fantasy? (Guest Post by Ty Johnston)

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ty-johnston-ebook-coverSince I’m off traveling for a couple of weeks (with very limited internet connectivity), I’ve called in some guest posters to entertain you. Or educate you. I’m hoping it’s one of the two.

Today, indie fantasy author Ty Johnston is here to talk about epic fantasy as a part of his book blog tour.

Fantasy author Ty Johnston’s blog tour 2011 is running from November 1 through November 30. His novels include City of Rogues, Bayne’s Climb and More than Kin, all of which are available for the Kindle, the Nook, and online at Smashwords. His latest novel, Ghosts of the Asylum, will be available for e-books on November 21. To find out more, follow him at his blog.

What Is Epic Fantasy?

As a writer, for the most part I work in epic fantasy literature. I dabble in horror here and there, and I’ve been known to pen some literary material from time to time, but as a writer and reader my heart keeps pulling me back to epic fantasy.

Why this is so depends much upon my own expectations of the epic fantasy genre. And to define those expectations is to define epic fantasy itself.

So, what is epic fantasy?

It is a sub-genre of the much larger fantasy genre, usually with a setting based in another world, one that is similar to our own in some ways but often enough quite different. Fantastical elements are a necessity, such as the existence of magic and sometimes non-human creatures. The stories themselves are often epic in scope and in the span of physical ground covered within the tale; generally events happen across continents, sometimes with characters traveling long distances.

That is my basic definition of epic fantasy. No such definition will be approved by all fans, readers or authors, nor do I mean my own personal definition to be all encompassing. Despite what outsiders often seem to believe, there is a lot of latitude within epic fantasy, allowing for expansion of the genre.

It is not even uncommon for the mere name of this sub-genre to go questioned. I call it epic fantasy. Others prefer the term high fantasy. Still others use the term heroic fantasy. Then there is the relation of epic fantasy to Sword and Sorcery literature, which can mix things even further. It does not help such classifications that the general reading public sees little difference between these titles for fantasy sub genres, and often enough labels all these sub genres under the single title of “fantasy.”

The truth is, there is no definitive source for giving titles to genres of literature and their lesser-known equivalents. Readers and writers and fans come up with their own labels. Sometimes the stick and sometimes they do not. Afterward, fandom and the blogosphere use millions of words to discuss and even argue for or against these names of sub genres.

Most readers don’t care. They just want what they want, and they know it when they see it.

Which is fine with me. I’ve given what is my basic definition of epic fantasy, and anyone is free to argue for or against that definition and even my use of the term “epic fantasy.”

Now back to my love of epic fantasy.

I suppose I am drawn to this genre for the very things I find in my personal definition of it. Epic? Yes, I love epic themes. I enjoy studying the ins and outs of matters that make us most human, of philosophy, personal and beyond. As far as the physicality of the tales, I also enjoy the epic breadth, of traveling to new lands and meeting new, at-first unusual peoples and characters.

But the definition I’ve given so far could cover other forms of fantasy literature. I’d like to add one more detail to my defining of epic fantasy, a detail that in my mind sets it apart from many other forms of fantasy, and literature at large.

What is it? In my mind, the protagonist of epic fantasy is willing to stride forward against great odds in an attempt to not only face down an outside evil, but in an effort to correct a major flaw within ourselves.

Admittedly, overly simplistic, and other forms of literature could argue they also do this. But to me, there is a difference, one I see lacking in other genres.

Yes, the epic fantasy hero has an outside force with which to reckon, usually a great villain. But that villain represents not only his or her or its individual evil, but a greater evil within the world, an evil of a civilization or of a culture. Or an evil of the human race entire. That villain can be as human as the hero, sometimes even more so.

It is that combination of the epic hero and the epic villain which can make fantasy epic, in my opinion. Other genres have heroes and villains, true, but rarely in the other genres do these characters reach the heights of representing the eternal battle between not only good and evil in the outer world, but good and evil within ourselves.

The best epic fantasy does so, from Tolkien to Steven Erikson. Frodo faced great odds against Mordor, but ultimately it was his own inner self with whom he was battling. Even Harry Potter was facing another version of his own potential evil in Voldemort. Such should be obvious in the characters of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader (Star Wars being basically epic fantasy among the stars).

Is my own definition of epic fantasy perfect? By no means. And if you ask me about it in a week, my thoughts might be slightly different. But for now, I’ll stand by it. To me, the inner struggles are most important within epic fantasy, the outside wars against evil being but a window into our personal contests.

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Comments (3)

Lindsay, thanks so much for hosting me today. Enjoy your travels!

Thanks for the post, Ty. Hope the release goes well!

the terms are an academic subject in their own right. I use Heroic fantasy as an umbrella term.

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