This December, my merry colleagues tackle questions on Heroic fantasy. Comment here on the blog before the end of December, and one of you will receive a free copy of Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, Queen of Thorns, King of Chaos, or Winter Witch from audible.com.
If you missed last week’s responses, catch up here.
What was the first heroic fantasy novel you remember reading? Has your own writing emulated it or responded with an alternative take on the genre?
Jeff Grubb: Forgive me for kicking at your applecart, but I don’t know if I agree with the definitions of genre and subgenre.
But let me answer your question first: I started out reading mythology in grade school—no, wait—I started out reading about astronomy and wanting to know about the stories of the constellations and planets and from that got into mythology. From there I would say that my first Fantasy novel was Lord of the Rings, which for me came first, then backing up and reading The Hobbit (and then C.S. Lewis’ Silent Planet trilogy, but never Narnia).
But from looking at your second question, I think you’re using the broad definition of Traditional Fantasy as Heroic Fantasy, and then subgrouping it as Epic and S&S. I would divide Epic and Heroic as two separate parts of Trad Fantasy, and tuck Swords & Sorcery under Heroic. Under that definition the first Heroic Fantasy of the modern era that I encountered was Fritz Leiber’s Fafrhd and Grey Mouser stories.
Here’s my difference between the epic and heroic varieties: Epic is aimed at the outside world, Heroic and the internal and personal world. Epic is big stuff happening—The Illiad, the first Dragonlance Books, the Game of Thrones, Narnia, Lord of the Rings. You switch viewpoints often and individual characters may drop out or die entirely along the way.
Heroic Fantasy is dialed much further down, to the actions of individuals—Conan, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, The Odyssey, Cugel the Clever, and the vast bulk of Forgotten Realms books. (Yes, we have epics in the Realms, but even they tend to be strained through the Heroic lens.)
In any event, one has to run long and hard to escape the shadow of Grandfather Tolkien. So much of what is written in fantasy, particularly in the shared worlds we have occupied, are descendants from LotR, sometimes by several generations, but his influence is hardwired into us. Multiple races, strong moral or ethical concerns, mixtures of tech levels under myriad nationalities, changing the world through your actions—yeah, all of that comes JRRT.
I have written both—The Brother’s War for Magic: The Gathering is definitely in the epic category, and the Alias books are very heroic in nature. I have also played around with additions of other strains and varieties—The Wyvern’s Spur looks to another British Author—P.G. Wodehouse, for inspiration and characterization. Giogi and Bertie Wooster could get together at some pub and compare their awful aunts. Cormyr: A Novel was initially pitched as the fantasy version of a James Mitchner novel, where you get the history of Nebraska or some other land-locked state through the actions its people. I would go with epic for Cormyr, but its pieces are heroic.
Chris A. Jackson: I was much more into science fiction than fantasy as a kid, so the first novels that I read that could be called a heroic fantasy was the John Carter series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. That was a very long time ago, and a very long time before I started writing.
I think I’ve taken the heroic fantasy a different direction than Burroughs. I like my heroes to come from nothing, to struggle to attain their heroism, and to sometimes be on the wrong side of the “good vs bad” equation (at least as far as the law is concerned) at the beginning of the story. I also very much believe that heroes need to be flawed, fragile, imperfect, and fallible. I have difficulty with stories where the hero is always right, has the best solution to every problem, and always comes out on top.
Stephen D. Sullivan: I’m not entirely sure what my first heroic fantasy novel was. It may have been a fantasy book I read in 4th grade. I don’t remember the name of it, but I do remember that it had at least one knight and a friendly dragon named “Poof” that no one thought really existed until the hero found it. That year, I also read Secret Under the Sea (Gordon R. Dickson), which was about a boy a his dolphin trying to protect their sea lab—kind of a science-fiction fantasy novel.
If you discount books about monsters and SF, probably my earliest fantasy reading was about Greek and Roman myths, and then the Norse as well. Those formed the backstory to everything that came after. It was Lord of the Rings, though, that really changed my reading habits and put fantasy on my reading list equal to (or maybe ahead of) science fiction, monster books, and detective stories. Perhaps ironically, it was love of LoTR that kept me from playing that “knock-off” game D&D for at least a couple of years. I eventually started playing D&D to date the DM’s sister, who was also a player, in January 1977—and that was an even bigger life-changing event, as anyone who knows me (or checks Wikipedia) will attest.
Howard Andrew Jones: My first was Fritz Leiber’s Swords Against Death, which wasn’t exactly a novel, but it was a book, and I’m going to count it because it had a huge impact upon me. I still hold that it’s the finest of the Fafrhd and Gray Mouser collections, and it opened a whole genre of adventure for me. But if we must get technical, the first novel I read in a sword-and-sorcery vein was Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber, which also blew my doors off. The two of those novels had such an immense impact upon my preferences in writing. I love the witty banter and camaraderie to be found in Leiber, and the astonishing world building and hidden secrets in Zelazny. In a lot of ways Zelazny remains the alternative take on fantasy; few have really followed in his wake. His influence isn’t as apparent in my tie-in fiction, but I think it will be immediately obvious to anyone reading my upcoming series. As for Leiber, at his best, say in “Bazaar of the Bizarre” he’s so damned good he’s nigh untouchable, and you can only stand back and marvel about how everything works on a sentence level and a paragraph level and plot and character level… We’re still trying to catch up.
I’ve tried to bring a little bit of that Leiberish focus on characters into everything I write, although I’m always more interested in heroes than rogues, which means, I suppose, that I’m stepping out of his mold a little. It’s hardly alternative, it’s just the application of some of the things I liked in his writing and twisting them a little to fit in with my own preferences.
Heroic fantasy is a blanket term that includes popular genres like epic fantasy and sword & sorcery. Do you feel epic and S&S are mutually exclusive? Or can (and should) we mix them like peanut butter and chocolate? Are there some other, overlooked subgenres of heroic fantasy? And does grimdark fit under this blanket or lie outside?
Jeff Grubb: I think Epic Fantasy and S&S are both parts of Traditional fantasy, and that it is more of spectrum than a binary switch. We can say that a story is more heroic or low fantasy or one tends toward the high fantasy/epic end of the scale. It is more of a measurement than a classification of type.
Does your definition of Heroic Fantasy (which I’m going to call traditional) include such Urban fantasies as the Harrys—Dresden and Potter. Harry Potter also heads up a horde of YA Fantasy. Grimdark has a booth at the Tradfantasy fair, and even New Weird Fantasy, like China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station or Jay Lake’s Trial of Flowers have something to say to greater discussion. Magical Realism like Umberto Eco also has its say.
What would I keep out of Traditional/Heroic Fantasy? I would probably put Horror in its own pavilion, though even that has fantastic elements—The American Fantasy/Dark Fantasy tradition with Poe and Lovecraft and King, all uses fantastic parts but finds its way to different part of the bookstore. Its attempt to evoke something different that traditional fantasy. The sense of horror as opposed to wonder—the awful as opposed to the awesome, the sense of dread as opposed to triumph, all set these stories into another category that ignores whether they have orcs and/or dragons in them.
Chris A. Jackson: I’m a big fan of both peanut butter and chocolate, and the analogy. The edges of genres are breaking down so much now that splitting hairs between subgenres like “heroic fantasy” versus “swords and sorcery” seems to me rather like picking apart the ingredients in a dish like chili and trying to decide if it should be characterized as “Southwest cuisine,” “Tex-Mex,” or something else entirely. As with the food analogy, from a culinary standpoint, I understand the distinction, but I’d much rather simply make my chili and enjoy it.
Subgenres, from my point of view as a writer, can be traps. When I draft a story, I don’t sit down and decide if this story is going to be swords and sorcery or epic fantasy. I think of the premise, the characters, and the plot that needs to drive the story forward in a logical direction that real people would take. If the story goes epic, the novel or series could fall into the epic fantasy category. If the story stays small and not world-changing, we’re talking more swords and sorcery. Having my work characterized into these subgenres, or labeled with marketing categories like YA (And don’t get me started by trying to tell me that YA is a genre.) is always entertaining. Arguing whether it fits into one genre or another is rather like arguing with a reviewer; it’s an exercise in futility. Without any effort on my part, my work has fallen into many subgenres. I don’t argue about this issue at all, and never will. If a reader prefers to call my work “romantic fantasy” because there are always human (and sometimes not so human) love interests in the story, that’s fine with me. As long as they have fun reading it, my job is done.
Howard Andrew Jones: I don’t think that they’re mutually exclusive at all, although I’d much rather see S&S elements in Epic than Epic elements in S&S. To my mind at least, Epic often means bloat, and I am so very tired of vast sections of books that don’t really do anything but add page count. I tend to be impatient with my reading, though. Now if you could grant sword-and-sorcery pacing and put that in an Epic length novel—stripped of sword-and-sorcery’s worst characteristics like frying pan to fire plotting and sexism—that would be something to read. I’ve been hammering away at something that I suppose is an approach on that, but even at 120k it’s not really Epic size.
If sword-and-sorcery is old school metal edged out by Epic’s glam rock, then Grimdark is sort of like the punk assault on Epic’s glam rock, with roots in sword-and-sorcery. I’m all for it, but I tire a little of too much grit on my heroes so that they’re not actually heroic. Also, I get enough nihilism and brutality when I read the news. I want to read about heroes who dare to rise above all that.
Dave Gross is the erstwhile editor of such magazines as Dragon, Star Wars Insider, and Amazing Stories. He has written novels set in the Forgotten Realms, Iron Kingdoms, and the world of Pathfinder Tales. His latest novel is Lord of Runes, and his most recent story “The Wendigo” in Gods, Memes, and Monsters.
Jeff Grubb is a best-selling author and award-winning game designer. He is one of the founders of both the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms settings, and has written for Magic: the Gathering, Warcraft, and Star Wars. He currently keeps and maintains the world for the Guild Wars 2 game from ArenaNet. He lives in Seattle with his wife Kate and two horribly spoiled cats.
Chris A Jackson’s genres of choice are nautical fantasy, magical assassin stories, and now contemporary horror/fantasy. His novel “Dragon Dreams” was just released by The Ed Greenwood Group, his next Pathfinder Tales novel, Pirate’s Prophecy, will release in February, and his award-winning Weapon of Flesh series will continue next summer with Weapon of Pain.
Howard Andrew Jones is the author of three Pathfinder novels, the most recent of which is Beyond the Pool of Stars, and a critically acclaimed Arabian Fantasy series. He can be found lurking at www.howardandrewjones.com, where he blogs about writing craft, gaming, fantasy and adventure fiction, and assorted nerdery.