Epic fantasy combines dark fantasy with sword and sorcery, then works these diverse elements into a story with the scope, theme, characterization, and plot of a serious modern novel. As in dark fantasy, the element which is being contested between heroes and villains is something of great import, a fundamental clash between good and evil for the future of all mankind. The epic story takes, as its second concern, the plights of its individual characters; unlike the sword and sorcery novel, the epic would never be entirely, or even chiefly, concerned with the rescue of a single maiden, the banishment of a particular curse, the retrieval of one magic totem. The maiden, the curse, and the totem will probably all play important roles in the epic, but no one of them will be the entire core of the story.
Epic fantasy, in short, demands three qualities: an especially rich tapestry of characters, several sub-plots to add depth and breadth of vision to the main storyline, and a background of considerable "alien" detail. Each of these things is, really, one of the original five elements of category fiction; yet each deserves a closer look, according to its function in the epic fantasy novel.
Character's. In the epic, you will have one lead protagonist, of course, in order to focus your reader's attention and concern. However, in addition to this hero, the epic should contain at least half a dozen secondary protagonists who are nearly as important as your hero. These will play less crucial parts in solving the major story problems, and they will appear onstage less often than your lead, but they will be sympathetic people with whom your reader can identify and about whose struggles he can care. For instance, if your epic hero is to be a young king whose empire is beset with strife and whose enemies have let loose a plague of evil magic on his subjects, your secondary protagonists might include these: the Court Jester, a funny little man on the surface, a sensitive and romantic man beneath the greasepaint, a man who deeply loves his king and insists on going along on the Great Quest, no matter how dangerous that journey is; The king's Chief Knight, an aging warrior who is no longer much good in the heat of battle but whose genius for strategy is unequalled; a Young Knight in love with the king's sister, who has been taken by the adversary's hired warlocks; the king's Lady, a beautiful, tough minded woman who appears quite fragile but can wield a dagger and a whip with ease.
Furthermore, these secondary characters must all have major character problems or hangups which they work out during the course of the novel. This is a requirement of all category fiction, of course, but it is even more essential in the epic fantasy than in the other genre forms. The epic is broad and lengthy; characters lacking this special depth cannot hold a reader's sympathy and interest for all this extra wordage. Taking the set of protagonists mentioned in the previous paragraph, let's see how they could be made richer with the addition of these deeper character problems: the Court Jester wants to go on the Great Quest to help his king, but he has always been a coward and shies from dangerous circumstances. At the same time, he realizes that this is the best chance he will ever have to overcome this flaw that has forced him into a life of placation as the "funnyman" no one can get angry with. The Chief Knight was, all through his youth and middle-age, a man who judged other men according to their strength and prowess in a fight. Now that age is sapping most of his own strength, he must, during the Quest, re-think his long-held criteria for manhood. The Young Knight, in love with the king's sister, has always placed great value on "virtue" and especially on sexual virtue in the woman he will marry. Now, the king's sister has been kidnapped by unprincipled people and is very likely a member, against her will, of the evil king's court harem. Her innocence has been erased, her virtue destroyed. The young knight must now decide which is most important—his love for the girl, or his need for a virgin bride. The king's Lady has always taken pride in her ability to defeat men in most competitions. Now, however, on this rugged trek
and dangerous quest, she is faced with situations where only male strength can save her.
At first humiliated, and then enraged, she must eventually come to terms with this new and unavoidable dependence.
Just as the secondary protagonists must have character flaws, so must the lead in an epic fantasy. The sword and sorcery hero, the strongman who can always be depended on to save the day, is rarely acceptable to the epic audience and should be avoided at all costs.
Villains should also number half a dozen or more, in addition to the lead antagonist. If your major villain is the evil king, then your secondary villains might be his number one Black Knight, his castle Warlock, his twisted and despicable brother who is the spawn of a human-demon love tryst, and so forth.
The character clashes between a large cast of heroes and villains provides that breadth of vision which, as mentioned earlier, puts the epic fantasy in the same class as the really important modern novels.
Sub-Plots. The major storyline, in an epic, usually cannot sustain the entire book without becoming tedious and strung-out. Therefore, the writer must explore every solid, potential sub-plot, any secondary storyline which can also provide suspense. The best sub-plots are not grafted onto the main story, but arise naturally from the personal problems of the secondary protagonists, which we discussed earlier. For example—if we remain with the hypothetical fantasy novel that has supplied us with examples so far—the story of the Court Jester's cowardice would provide an excellent sub-plot. Suppose that one of the good king's knights is a rather unpleasant character named Rollo, and suppose that Rollo is the only one in the entourage to realize that the Jester's wit is a cover for weak knees. If Rollo is developed as a first class bully, who constantly harasses the Jester, we have a good, secondary sub-plot in this man-to-man confrontation. During the course of the book, the Jester would take less and less guff from Rollo, until they were finally matched in a duel which, naturally, the Jester would win, perhaps not because of his strength but because of his superior cunning and determination.
In the epic fantasy novel, the length can easily support a major sub-plot for every secondary protagonist.
Alien Background. Unlike the dark fantasy, the epic fantasy takes place in a completely imaginary world; it bears little or no resemblance to present-day society and is rich with its own customs, religions, languages, countries, and geographical peculiarities. However, the epic is also unlike sword and sorcery, in that action is not the end-all and be-all of its existence; the background, here, must be as carefully detailed as any in science fiction, and according to the same methods that a science fiction background is worked out. The only difference, of course, is that the epic fantasy does not have to have, as its setting, a world that is a logical, scientifically justified outgrowth of today.
With these things in mind, you would do well to read carefully the work of J.R.R. Tolkien whose Lord of the Rings Trilogy(The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return ofthe King) is perhaps the greatest series of epic fantasies ever written. Other popular epic fantasy novelists are Mervyn Peake (Titus Groan, Gormen-ghast, and Titus Alone) and Talbot Mundy (Tros, Helma, Liafail, Helene, Queen Cleopatra, and The Purple Pirate).
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