Art by Jim Steranko
“Dude, that was EPIC!”
It’s a term that people throw around a lot these days. “Epic.”
Epic Fantasy has even become its own genre, even though fans (and writers) often disagree just what constitutes an “epic fantasy.” Can sword-and-sorcery be epic? Can you write a horror epic? Has the term been overused so much that it has lost all meaning? To answer these questions we have to explore where the word “epic” came from, and how it has changed over the ages.
Scholars established centuries ago that an “epic” was a a long narrative poem which told the deeds of a legendary hero. Yet modern dictionaries have updated the term to include “any work of literature, film, etc., having heroic deeds for its subject matter or having other qualities associated with the epic.” So originally the word “epic” applied only to long poems about heroes. In ancient times these poems (i.e. songs) were performed by bards, skalds, and minstrels, usually accompanied by harp music. In fact the word actually comes from the Greek word “epos” which means speech, word, and song.
From this classic tradition come the epic poems of Homer, the Iliad and The Odyssey. The Iliad, or Song of Ilion, tells the story of the Trojan War, and it dates back to the 8th Century BC. The Odyssey, of course, follows the 10-year heroic journey of Odysseus as he attempt to return home after that war. Although attributed to Homer, both of these epics were part of a longstanding oral tradition that was later codified and set into writing by Homer. Similarly, an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet set into words the legendary tale of the Norse hero Beowulf somewhere between the 8th and 11th Centuries.
Art by Enrich Torres
Ancient India gave birth to the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The Mahabharata weighs in at 74,000 verses, making it one of the longest epic poems in the world, and probably the oldest. The epic of the hero-king Gilgamesh came out of Ancient Mesopotamia and is one of the earliest known works of literary fiction. Like other classical epics, the story of Gilgamesh was passed down orally for generations, yet it eventually wound up engraved onto twelve clay tablets in 7th Century Assyria.
What do all of these ancient epics have in common with today’s epic fantasies? The epic format has changed from poetry to prose, but the basic quality of the epic remains true: It is the chronicle of a hero (or heroes) who performs heroic deeds. Instead of really long poems, we have really long novels and multi-volume epics. The latter has become the standard of today’s fantasy publishing world.
In ancient times these stories were considered cultural truths, whereas today audiences know their epics are fiction. A willing suspension of disbelief is required to enjoy any work of fantasy, yet good fiction reveals many truths. As Stephen King put it: “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.”
So what are today’s great epics? And what separates them from traditional epics?
Art by Darrell K. Sweet
Certainly Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings set the paradigm for the modern fantasy epic. How appropriate that a scholar who spent his life studying the great works of early literature brought the epic firmly into the modern age. Professor Tolkien was uniquely qualified to update the epic tale and make it palatable for 20th Century audiences. In LOTR we have an extended story of heroes performing heroic deeds. Yet Tolkien updated the concept by adding a strong sense of humanity to his heroes, along with a dash of English flavor.
Tolkien’s Hobbits are unlikely heroes—simple folk who would rather have good food and comfortable beds than perilous adventures. In Tolkien’s epic the Elves represent the ancient world—their legends reflect the qualities of Beowulf and Odysseus—the Elves of Middle-Earth are immortal warriors with a mystical understanding of the universe and often supernatural powers. In the early epics, the heroes weren’t “normal” humans—they were more like Tolkien’s Elves. Gilgamesh, Beowulf, and Achilles are larger-than-life bastards who slay monsters and survive a thousand deaths. Odysseus was such a bad-ass that not even the gods could destroy him. Ancient heroes stood far above humankind. The Greeks explained this with the idea that heroes like Hercules actually were half-divine, the offspring of lustful gods.
Tolkien’s genius is that he took the classic epic tale and gave it a deep core of humanity. The Hobbits are far more human than the imperishable Elves. Frodo, Sam, Bilbo, and the other Shire-born folk reflect flawed human qualities, but they also reflect the potential for nobility and heroism that lies inside us all. Tolkien’s actual humans are also flawed and so very human: Boromir’s heroism is tainted by his weakness, his lust for the power of the One Ring; Aragorn’s heroic status is something he fears to embrace, and LOTR is in large part the story of how he finally accepts his destiny as the hero-king of Gondor. It’s also worth noting that Tolkien gave us our very first epic heroine in the form of Eowyn, a shieldmaiden who rises up to slay the Lord of the Nazgul—something which no mortal man could ever do. In the ancient epics there were no female heroes; so when it comes to heroism Tolkien was mightily progressive in his thinking, and his story was much the richer for it.
E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros is an often-overlooked epic fantasy that is a pillar of the genre. It actually preceeds Tolkien’s achievements, since it was published in 1922. Yet its characters are not actually human—they are more akin to the indestructible epic heroes of old. Labelled as Demons, Witches, and Goblins, Eddison’s heroes are supernatural analogues of humanity fated to wage an unending cycle of war. Ouroboros may be the “missing link” between classic epic fantasy and modern epic fantasy.
Eddison’s diction is intentionally dated, reminiscent of Shakespearean English, but his literary vision is stunning and fantastic. His tale of the warring kingdoms of Mercury, fought by superhuman warriors, does not attempt to explore the nobility and faults of human nature as Tolkien would do a decade or two later. Yet his heroes aren’t fighting for any noble cause above their own sense of glory and fame, which does separate them from the classic epic heroes.
Most 20th Century authors followed Tolkien’s example rather than Eddison’s, offering epic heroes with wholly human qualities. The modern epic does not vary in its essential concept of the hero’s journey. What has changed is the nature of the “hero” itself. This change actually began with Tolkien’s oh-so-human protagonists undertaking a classic epic adventure. The modern epic fantasy speaks to its readers on a fundamentally human level, telling stories of imperfect heroes. Unlike the ancient-world audiences who actually believed in Beowulf’s invulnerable will or the unmatched cleverness of Odysseus, we demand our fictional heroes to be as human as possible. Even when—especially when—they have tremendous powers.
Tyrion Lannister, a thoroughly modern epic hero
Modern epic heroes are usually flawed (like Tolkien’s were), and often they are anti-heroes. A hero can be many different things in today’s world, as long as he or she is human at the core. This human-ness is an essential quality, even when you have an inhuman hero. Again, we fall back upon Tolkien’s example of the Hobbits, who are incredibly human emotionally and spiritually, while actually a non-human race. A hero can be completely non-human on the surface, as long as he or she is human at the core. Modern readers must relate to these epic heroes on an emotional level, or they simply won’t care much about the epic itself.
In George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire the heroes are so real and vulnerable they can hardly be called “heroes” at all (in the classic sense). Martin’s protagonists are people caught in impossible situations, those who cling to their honor and personal convictions in the face of pain, suffering, and death. Ned Stark’s impeccable sense of honor led to his beheading in the first book of the series, and everyone of Martin’s characters walks in Ned’s immense shadow, for his sacrifice provided the ultimate example of heroism for this fictional world.
Martin’s work reminds us that what defines a hero is not just how he/she lives, but—even more important—how he/she dies. A world where anyone can die is a world where anyone can be a hero. Martin’s world is not the black-and-white of Good vs. Evil, but is comprised of continuous shades of grey. In this, it resembles our real world far more than most fantasy worlds. In Westeros and its surrounding realms, self-motivation usually trumps altruistic “good deeds.” Martin has taken what Tolkien started to the next level: Bringing the epic hero down to earth, smearing him in the mud and blood and filth of reality, and making his heroism all the more real by contrast.
Art by Michael Whelan
Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone may have been the first anti-hero in the Epic Fantasy genre, born out of the tumultuous 1960s. Elric is an evil prince descended from a wicked race of conquering, torturing, demon-worshipping non-humans. Yet Elric is unique among his villainous people—he has a conscience. He knows he is evil, and it torments him. He often despises himself and falls into deep depression because of the horrible deeds he has committed. Yet he has a destiny: He is a tool forged of Chaos by the forces of Law because only a thing of Chaos can defeat Chaos. Elric is destined to bring about the apocalypse so a new world can be born out of the old one’s destruction. He is the hero as destroyer, though he often plays a more traditional hero role—sometimes as a mere side effect of his true purpose.
Elric is conflicted to the extreme, a living paradox, a complex creature on a journey that lasts six volumes (and more). In this respect he represents modern man himself—the confused, imperfect being fated to survive a violent world and make sense of a senseless universe. His story would never have played in the ancient world, when epic heroes were simple, straightforward, and single-minded. Although it may have made a nice Greek Tragedy if it was a whole lot shorter.
The concept of the humanized hero in Epic Fantasy continued across the 20th Century in the works of C.S. Lewis, Gene Wolfe, Tanith Lee, Stephen R. Donaldson, R. Scott Bakker, A. A. Attanasio, Steve Erikson, Terry Brooks, Stephen King, David Eddings, R.A. Salvatore, Tad Williams, and almost every other writer of the genre. The concept remains with us in the epics of the 21st Century as well. The more our modern heroes suffer, the more heroic they are to us.
The epics haven’t really changed, but the heroes have. They are now representations of ourselves.
So what makes a fantasy “epic”?
One: It is a story of heroes (even flawed heroes or anti-heroes) doing heroic deeds.
Two: The story is told in an extended form, whether it be a single thick volume or a series.
Beyond these two defining qualities, there is plenty of room for innovation, originality, and reinvention.
So who are YOUR favorite epic heroes?