JFA 29.1 (2018)

Introduction: Epic Fantasy

At the beginning of N. K. Jemisin’s award-winning trilogy The Broken Earth, the narrator sets the stage in the grandest possible way: “Let’s start with the end of the world, why don’t we?” Later, after talking about more personal tragedies, this is amended to “Let’s try the ending again, writ continentally.” That seems to me to be a good definition of epic fantasy: a story writ continentally (or oceanically or astronomically). Conventional fiction takes a narrower view of its task: to tell the story of an individual or a marriage or a career. It sometimes uses those individuals as filters through which to consider moments of historical change: a reform, a battle, a revolution. But an epic thinks globally: its protagonist is the world. Even as it invites us focus briefly on this personal interaction, that heroic effort, it keeps the big picture in front of us.

Any use of the term “epic” directly or indirectly refers to the Greek oral narratives that we ascribe to Homer.  Epos meant a song, but not just any song. These were the big songs: stories of battles and sea voyages and squabbling gods and heroes. Fusing secular history and scripture, they were compendia of knowledge about the world of Bronze Age Greece and its environs. Two survive; others we know from fragments and contemporary references. We understand from the work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord how they must have come about: talented singers recreating the stories in performance, drawing on formulaic phrases, lines, and scenes. They are the product of a particular social system involving courtly sponsorship and a long apprenticeship, recorded by scribes during the overlap between oral culture and literacy.

The word epic was applied to written imitations of Homer in Greco-Roman culture and thence to Christian-era adaptations of the form like The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost. At the same time, the term began to be extended to long narratives from other traditions: Old English and Sanskrit and Babylonian and eventually the South Slavic songs that Parry and Lord were able to explore as a living tradition. By now we know that most narratively sophisticated cultures have something like an epic cycle: there are African and Central Asian and Meso-American and Austsralian Aboriginal epics. People everywhere hunger for epic grandeur and assurance. J. R. R. Tolkien considered himself to be supplying the English epic that did not yet exist. And thus modern fantasy was born.

But though epic was always the big story, it was never the only story. Alongside the Homeric songs, and sometimes incorporated into them, there were smaller tales. While the bard was chanting an epic in court, someone was telling magical folktales in the kitchen or singing bawdy songs out in the fields. Contemporary fantasy can draw on any and all these versions of oral narrative, repurposing structures and recombining motifs to give us access to the rich soup that simmers still in what Tolkien called the Cauldron of Story.

I began this introduction with N. K. Jemisin because she, along with Steven Erikson and scholar Edward James, was slated to be one of the Guests of Honor at the 2017 International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, which was devoted to the theme of epic fantasy. Jemisin was unable to attend because of a personal loss, and the Conference was the poorer for her absence. Her fiction speaks for itself; those who want a sample of her fiery brilliance as a speaker can seek out her Guest of Honor address from the 2015 Wiscon, the feminist sf convention held every years in Madison, Wisconsin. It is available in the conference volume, the Wiscon Chronicles, volume 9, edited by Mary Ann Mohanraj and can also be found on Jemisin’s website at http://nkjemisin.com/2014/05/wiscon-38-guest-of-honor-speech/ .

Luckily, both James and Erikson were present at the Conference, and they are represented in this issue by their respective luncheon addresses. James looks at a particular expression of fantasy’s epic ambitions, the trilogy. Partly by historical accident—the need to break J. R. R. Tolkien’s huge novel into three volumes for publication—“fantasy” and “trilogy” seem inextricably linked, like “screwball” and “comedy.” Yet James suggests there might be a more natural link between the three-ness of a trilogy and the introduction, exploration, and resolution of a world-spanning conflict. He points out that The Lord of the Rings was not the first such triple-header: before Tolkien there was Dante. Looking at an impressive 156 trilogies published starting in the 1970s, James points out that the best of them are successful not in spite of the formulaic nature of the genre but because of it—like its Medieval predecessor, the romance, whose kinship with epic was long denied by doyens of literary taste.

Steven Erikson speaks in very personal terms about the forces that formed him during a difficult childhood and youth in Canada and England. As he says, “Our histories are complicated, an accumulation of private experiences hidden away inside silent worlds.” The broad landscapes, convoluted political scenarios, and philosophical battles of his ten-volume Malazan Book of the Fallen are ways of coming to terms with some of that private experience. Though he doesn’t draw point-for-point connections in his talk, he ends by observing that “In writing epic fantasy, I turn-about. I face the real world head-on.” Previous guest of honor Terri Windling made much the same point about her brand of fantasy, which is modeled after fairy tale more than epic, but which likewise faces reality by departing from it. (Windling’s address is in JFA volume 28, number 1).

One of the articles in this issue examines a work of epic fantasy. David Ashford’s “’Orc-Talk’: Soviet Linguistics in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth” looks at The Lord of the Rings through the lens of Tolkien’s own discipline of philology and finds that one of the invented languages in the book, the Black Speech of the Orcs, can be seen as a trace of an epic conflict in the real world: the East/West conflict that, by the time the books were published, had coalesced into the Cold War. Philology’s way of equating languages and racial identities shows up in the portrayal of the Orcs and their speech, surprisingly, Ashford suggests, reflecting Tolkien’s awareness of the work of his Soviet contemporaries.

The other two articles move away from the epic and into more intimate versions of the fantastic, although Christopher Sims’s “The Ontological Task of the Hero in Philip K. Dick’s The Cosmic Puppets” could be considered to be a study of a fantastic epic if one were to take Dick’s entire output to constitute a single narrative arc. The forces at work in Dick’s 1957 novel The Cosmic Puppets are there throughout his oeuvre: an authenticity grounded in empathy fighting against the forces of disintegration and illusion. Sims asserts that the novel’s overtly fantastic, rather than science fictional, framework makes it a sort of reading key to the larger Dickian universe. He uses terms drawn from Martin Heidegger’s existentialist ontology to highlight Dick’s views on technology and knowledge. Paraphrasing Heidegger, Sims reminds us that “Technology is not just manipulation of beings in the world to produce gadgets and gizmos, but rather the force that determines the very way we perceive beings and reveal meaning.”

Christy Williams explores a short story by Kelly Link in her “Ambiguous Villains and Fairy-Tale Monsters in Kelly Link’s ‘The Cinderella Game.’” Link’s story is, says Williams, about the way we use stories like “Cinderella” to try on identities in the form of story-frameworks. Rather than simply updating “Cinderella” or retelling it from the point of view of one of the minor characters, as many writers have done, Link’s meta-tale “blurs the lines between […] genres, and positions each character as a possible villain of the story in the absence of a heroic protagonist.” The small tale takes on larger implications—one might say epic ones—as its characters work through various permutations of hero, villain, and victim. Such roles, like those of warrior and antagonist, lover and trickster in Homer, help us define ourselves but also, if we are not careful, allow us to delude ourselves into thinking we know who we are.


Epics in Three Parts
Edward James

Stand Fast
Steven Erikson

“Orc Talk”: Soviet Linguistics in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth
David Ashford

The Ontological Task of the Hero in Philip K. Dick’s The Cosmic Puppets
Christopher Sims

Ambiguous Villains and Fairy-Tale Monsters in Kelly Link’s “The Cinderella Game”
Christy Williams


James Gunn’s Paratexts: Introductions to Science Fiction and Fantasy
Rev. by Katherine E. Bishop

Rob Latham’s Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings
Rev. by Cait Coker

Scott Cutler Shershow and Scott Michaelsen’s The Love of Ruins: Letters on Lovecraft
Rev. by Greg Conley

Jared Lobdell’s Eight Children in Narnia: The Making of a Children’s Story
Rev. by Anelise Farris

Anya Heise von der Lippe’s Posthuman Gothic
Rev. by Anelise Farris

Jessica R. McCort’s Reading in the Dark: Horror in Children’s Literature and Culture
Rev. by Anelise Farris

Catherine Spooner’s Post-Millennial Gothic: Comedy, Romance, and the Rise of Happy Gothic
Rev. by Stephanie Flint

Daniele Fioretti’s Utopia and Dystopia in Postwar Italian Literature: Pasolini, Calvino, Sanguineti, Volponi
Rev. by Sarah M. Gawronski

Zachary A. Rhone’s The Great Tower of Elfland: The Mythopoeic Worldview of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and George MacDonald
Rev. by James Hamby

Oliver Hepp’s Der Bekannte Fremde: Der Vampir in der Literatur des 19. Jahrhunderts [The Familiar Other: The Vampire in 19th-Century Literature]
Rev. by Corinna Lenhardt

Lucy Fraser’s The Pleasures of Metamorphosis: Japanese and English Fairy Tales Transformations of “The Little Mermaid”
Rev. by Sylvia Veronica Morin