Delayed by the busy aftermath of our holiday season, here’s the fourth and final Heroic Fantasy Roundtable. When you see an interesting answer, click through to the author’s website and see what other wonders await your inquiring eye. Those who missed the previous installments can find them here, here, and here.
One randomly chosen person who comments before the end of January 2016 here on the blog—not on one of the social media sites to which I push this notice—will receive a free copy of Prince of Wolves, Master of Devils, Queen of Thorns, King of Chaos, or Winter Witch from audible.com.
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?
J.F. Lewis: Robert E. Howard and Michael Moorcock will have to share the blame for setting my brain on fire. Kholster (a prominent character in my Grudgebearer Trilogy) may not be an exact melding of Elric, the doomed albino prince with his soul stealing blade, and Conan, shouter of “Crom!” and way-smarter-than-people-assume-him-to-be-slayer-of-all-comers, but if you checked his DNA, I am sure the test would show them to be related.
I picked up the first of the Elric books and the first Conan collection on the same trip to the bookstore. Both were revelatory. Moorcock’s ideas of a multiverse were definitely the source of my initial thought around that concept (colored strongly by Zelazny’s thoughts on the shadow worlds trod by Amberites and Chaosites). Though, characters like Rae’en and Wylant (female protagonists from the Grudgebearer Trilogy) are seriously dangerous warriors, Conan’s oft glossed over deep intelligence and cunning, combined with excellent combat skills, shine through in the core of what makes them strong.
Jane Lindskold: My first response was “I don’t know.” My second was, does mythology count? I had read both The Illiad and The Odyssey by the time I was nine. Both are great heroic fantasy. Can you beat the casts? There are magical items. Meddling deities. Tragic fates.
Influence… Oh, yeah. I’ve written a variety of stories using mythic elements. My When the Gods Are Silent makes up its own myths. The influence of heroic fantasy is very strong on that one. I was at a bad place in my life, and needed heroes, so I made them.
The roleplaying game I’ve been running these last three years is very deliberately S&S, rather than epic or high fantasy, as so many are.
Nicole Luiken: The first heroic fantasy I remember reading was The Hobbit. I did a novel study on it in Grade 7. (I distinctly remember having to draw a picture Beorn’s Hall.) Honestly, I found it a bit of a slog until I hit the scene with the trolls. I don’t know that I have an alternative take on the genre so much as a more modern one: faster pacing and a 50/50 male/female ratio.
Douglas Niles: I had to think about the first fantasy I read. I came to Tolkien kind of late, as a college student, and he opened up the worlds of classic heroic fantasy. But I was already a fan of adventure stories and science fiction. When I read The Wizard of Oz and other books in the series as a kid, I really enjoyed them, and became aware of the whole concept of fantasy. Grimm’s Fairy Tales were also a childhood favorite of mine.
I was a teenager when I became a fan of adventure fantasy, and I primarily cut my teeth on the genre with Edgar Rice Burroughs—first with the Tarzan series, and then to ERB’s other works. Tarzan of course began as pure adventure but when the stories delved into mysterious Opar and other strange realms, as well as the world of the Ant Men and the hollow world of Pellucidar (which Tarzan visited, though Burroughs originally created it for another character) it definitely became fantasy. Other Burroughs series, notably John Carter on Mars, I think also qualify as fantasy, not science fiction.
Of course, I read Tolkien and Lloyd Alexander and other classics as a young man, and they inspired me a lot in my work—and they still do, right up to the era of J.K. Rowling whom I very much (and enviously) enjoy. It seems like the genre of heroic fantasy is primarily shaped by those British writers. But I think the formative works in shaping my career came from American authors. Their works are certainly less “epic” than, say, the Lord of the Rings; and Burroughs, with his in-your-face racial character typing, is a tough read these days. But I believe his works, and certainly L. Frank Baum’s tales of Oz, should fall under the umbrella of heroic fantasy.
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.
Marc Tassin: In fifth grade, I stumbled upon Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. I’m pretty sure neither my teachers nor parents would have approved of them for me at the time, but I found them mesmerizing. The intimate, personal stories were completely unlike the epic fantasy tales I was familiar with. The immediacy of these stories and their focus on the here-and-now of the character’s existence are something I strive for in my own writing.
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?
J.F. Lewis: Genre always gets me into trouble. I mix them together to suit the needs of the characters and plot, so, of course I enjoy it when other writers do the same. Books like K.J. Parker’s Engineer Trilogy and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld are both Fantasy novels and both enjoyable, but they are very different animals. A Discworld novel, in particular, may contain elements of sword and sorcery, police procedural… You name it.
Jane Lindskold: Not exclusive, but I think that epic tends to have a “cast of thousands” approach, while S&S is more focused on the individual. My preference is for the small casts, especially “buddy stories.” Elric’s story would not be so tragic without his desire for friends. Fahrd and the Grey Mouser play off each other in so many ways.
My fondness for Elric aside, I don’t care for grimdark. Elric was tragedy. Too much grimdark is self-indulgent. I have repeatedly heard anecdotes about authors who were out to “one up” each other, not tell a good story that happens to have dark elements.
Nicole Luiken: Rather than a blanket term, it might be better to look at heroic fantasy, epic fantasy, sword & sorcery and grimdark as overlapping circles in a Venn diagram. Before grimdark came along all of epic fantasy fit under heroic fantasy, but while grimdark can be epic I’m less convinced that its antiheroes belong in Heroic Fantasy.
I’ve been intrigued lately by the emergence of the fantasy romance subgenre, such as Grace Draven’s books or Jeffe Kennedy’s Twelve Kingdoms series. I would definitely argue that Kennedy’s Talon of the Hawk falls under both the heroic fantasy circle and the fantasy romance circle. (My editor asked me to play up the romance subplot in my Kandrith books so it could be marketed as fantasy romance.)
Stephen D. Sullivan: In my mind, Sword & Sorcery is a somewhat more intimate genre—and has more limited magic—than what we think of as Epic Fantasy. With my fondness for Conan and the works of Robert E. Howard, it’s perhaps not surprising that I really prefer S&S. Even my “epic” fantasies—like my L5R books, or Dragonlance, or even Tournament of Death—tend to be more intimate in nature than archetypal epics. (At least, I hope they are!)
Currently, I think epics are overdone. Why can’t we have smaller tales without a “the world is ending” overarching story arc? Frankly, I’m tired of the world ending in both SF and fantasy stories. Life isn’t like that, most of the time. Life is mostly dealing with your own issues while the bigger world rolls on. Fantasy, SF, and horror should be more focused on smaller stories, in my opinion. Unless, of course, you’re dealing with giant monsters. Then maybe it really is the End of the World.
So, I guess you could mix S&S and epic fantasy, but I’m not really sure I’m seeing a lot of that out there. Unless, of course, maybe I’m doing it myself, without entirely meaning to.
Marc Tassin: For me, monikers like Epic Fantasy or Sword & Sorcery are more about the setting, scope, and scale of the adventure whereas Heroic Fantasy is about the tone of the tale and underlying truths of the story’s universe. In heroic fantasy there are definitively right and wrong choices, even if the right choice isn’t immediately clear to the protagonist. Whether the protagonist stumbles upon the conundrum in a back alley or is thrust before it by destiny isn’t important. Rather, it’s the protagonist’s eventual recognition of the right choice and the decision to make the right choice that makes the fantasy heroic.
So a lot of different types of stories might be classified heroic fantasy—even grimdark. Just because the right action requires the protagonist to engage in unspeakable acts, that doesn’t mean it’s not the right choice. If the protagonist does what needs to be done because it’s the right thing to do, often at a time when no one else will do it, then the story is every bit heroic as one where the solution is more noble.
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.
J.F. Lewis is the internationally published author of the Void City series and The Grudgebearer Trilogy. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with a family he loves dearly and does not deserve. Jeremy will not bite you, though his characters might.
Jane Lindskold is the award-winning, New York Times bestselling, internationally published author of twenty-five novels, including the six volume Firekeeper Saga, the three volume “Breaking the Wall” series, and, most recently, Artemis Awakening and Artemis Invaded. Other new releases include Wanderings on Writing and the short story collection, Curiosities.
Nicole Luiken wrote her first book at age 13 and never stopped. She is the author of ten books for young adults and a fantasy duology for adults: Gate to Kandrith and Soul of Kandrith. It is physically impossible for her to go more than three days without writing.
Douglas Niles is an award-winning game designer and author of more than 50 books. His most recent work is A Noble Cause: American Battlefield Victories in Vietnam.
Stephen D. Sullivan has been a monster kid all his life, and a professional one since 1980, when he joined the creative team for Dungeons & Dragons. Steve is a frequent guest on Monster Kid Radio. His recent books include Daikaiju Attack, White Zombie, and Manos: The Hands of Fate.
Marc Tassin is a writer, a game designer, and the founder of the SF/fantasy entertainment company Mechanical Muse. Their first fiction title, Champions of Aetaltis, is due out early next year, and it contains eighteen new heroic fantasy stories by some of the best authors in the business.