The heart of the epic











In 1740, Lord Chesterfield wrote regular letters to his son in Latin, French, as well as English. Many have heard of his famous letters, but alas, few have read them.

I say alas, because I think they are awesome. I reread all four volumes every few years. They read like a blog, with acerbic, formidably educated and witty commentary on all subjects of the mid eighteenth century— politics, culture, custom, relationships, the latest medical theory, literature, archeology and history— in several languages.

note the jokes

note the jokes

My copy is an 1806 reprint, three decades after he died, leaving time for corrections and a few extra letters to have been found. On an October Thursday, he wrote to his nine-year-old another letter in French. Here’s a bit translated by his Regency-era editor:

I am in doubt whether you know what a Novel is: it is a little gallant history, which must contain a great deal of love, and not exceed one or two small volumes. The subject must be a love affair; the lovers are to meet with many difficulties and obstacles to oppose the accomplishment of their wishes, but at last overcome them all; and the conclusion or catastrophe must leave them happy.

Sound familiar? He goes on:

 A novel is a kind of abbreviation of a Romance; for a Romance generally consists of twelve volumes, all filled with insipid love nonsense( fadaises amoureuses), and most incredible adventures. The subject of a Romance is sometimes a story entirely fictitious, that is to say, quite invented; at other times, a true story, but generally so changed and altered, that one cannot know it. . .  The greatest Heroes of antiquity are they are represented in the woods and forests, whining in silly love tales to their inhuman Fair one, who answers them in the same style. . .

Except for the forty-verse rhymed speeches, he could be talking about fat fantasies.

orlando furioso

The old Romances, written two or 300 years ago, such as Amadis of Gaul, Orlando the Furious, and others, were stuffed with enchantments, magicians, giants, and such sort of impossibilities; whereas the more modern Romances keep within the bounds of possibility but not of probability.

 For I would just as soon believe that the great Brutus, who expelled the Tarquins from Rome, was shut up by some magician in an enchanted castle, as imagine that he was making silly verses for the beautiful Clelia, as he is represented in the Romance of that name.

The elegant small novel versus the fantasy blockbuster . . . I wonder if there were classical writers preferring a tightly written Dialogue to the fantastical ramblings of Horace, a couple millennia before Chesterfield?
The Lure of Castles and Kings

I’ve seen disparaging comments about how epic fantasies always seem to be about wars between kings. Well, yes. If the story was about a young scholar seeking to enlarge her knowledge of botany, and stumbling on the magic of trees, that could be a very cool story, but nobody is going to call it an epic fantasy . . . unless the trees pull an Isengard and attack a city. In which case we’re right back to battle, only it’s human versus tree.

There are some epic fantasies that are pretty much wall-to-wall battles, but I think the “epic” modifier implies that  the conflict is big stakes with big ideas, which causes the ramification of big consequences. And personal conflict as well, heroes (and I’ll get to heroes) who began question their own paradigm, with those far reaching results.

Why the appeal of castles? I think that castles denote power the way anonymous bread-box buildings of the modern era don’t. Castles perch up on hills, which was a matter of practicality in the Roman camp days—you needed to be able to see if enemies were coming, and also, with no plumbing, you wanted your sewage running downhill.

But castles have struck enough awe and interest in the eyes of beholders since their military utility became outmoded that they still feature in stories. And not just in stories. Rich people will buy and build castles purely for their coolness factor, even though as defensive structures most wouldn’t stand against a siege of weekend warriors.

Then there are the inhabitants. Sweeping cloaks, bright colors, elaborate dress—all the signs of nobility of the past, when you wore your wealth partly because there weren’t any banks, and partly as PR—that too still works.

There’s a sensory pleasure for many of us in getting out of the constraint of modern clothes (some of that constraint being perceptional, as in sensible hues and business-like style) to feel the sweep of flowing fabrics, and to look at oneself in strut-your-stuff colors, glamorous accessorizing, and extravagant style. There’s fun in reading about the sort of clothes that we couldn’t possibly wear every day, even if we could afford it: look at all those YA fantasy covers centered around girls rocking shoulderless ball gowns with 467,879 yards of floofy silk or velvet, rather than equal-opportunity job interview suits.

As for kings, let’s face the truth, human beings are all about hierarchy. A lot of the political debate going on right now is about presidents who want to emulate dictators. And we can point to a number of figures with unlimited power who didn’t call themselves kings, but behave like them.

Within the context of those kings and castles, the epic fantasy writer can (and has, for hundreds of years) worked in satire about current events. Spenser’s Faerie Queen, Ariosto . . . heck, go all the way back to Gilgamesh. We get kings, battles, monsters, heroes and heroines, and a bucket-load of reflections about current power tensions. And a lot of our fantasy writers today are doing the same thing.











At center is often the war leader, an image deeply rooted in our history. Almost all these heroes have been men—they’ve had the superior strength for successful one-on-one combat, and the training that makes that strength successful. The war band leader who can lick any of his band is probably the oldest form of king, and this guy is certainly the easiest to find at the center of epic fantasies that are basically battles from the slaughter of the innocents on page one to the crowning of our hero as king on the last page. (Or the peace treaty declared over his corpse, if it’s tragic.)

There are varieties of this tale—the magic sword so that one doesn’t have to have the training being one—but the hero figure also uses his wits, as Odysseus does, and Lord Krishna in the Mahabharata. In today’s epic fantasies, female heroes are getting equal time, outthinking foes as well as out-fighting them, whether with magic or other weapons.

Heroes are larger than life. What does that actually mean, larger than life? It’s the person who sees or initiates or leads the big changes. The most successful heroic characters convince the reader as well as the characters inside the story.

The hero of an epic, as opposed to a modern novel that reinforces our own ineffectiveness in the eyes of the indifferent masses, is able to stand up in a crowd and rant passionately, stirring others to leave their daily routine and join him, or her, in their goal.

Most of us, if we stood up in a coffee shop and started ranting passionately would be ignored, derided, or arrested for disturbing the peace.

When we read an epic fantasy, we can ride along on the shoulder of the hero whose smarts, skill, and bewitching competence is going to change everything. Isn’t that why we’re drawn to read about the so-called great figures of history, because these individuals, born naked and helpless just as we were, many from obscure backgrounds much like ours, talked or led or plotted their way to insane levels of power and/or influence?

Narrative Variety

This is probably more of a personal preference, but my favorite epic fantasies can swoop narratively from low comedy up through tense action to tender moments to the debate of complex ideas and ethical dilemmas, using a narrative voice that can range from the god’s eye view of a battle plane down to the tiny moment someone brushes their fingers over someone else’s hand, and two lives are changed, which in turn changes everything.


classical fantasy



The heart of the epic — 11 Comments

    • Do you see a difference between high fantasy and epic fantasy?

      I do, but it’s difficult to pin down. Lord Dunsany seems to me a fine example of high fantasy, featuring a style that feels archaic, but I don’t think of his work as epic fantasy. That would be LOTR.

      • Well, time was that they were considered pretty much synomons, and the REAL definition was — what was solemnly said in essays — “works like The Lord of the Rings” (just as sword & sorcery REALLY is “works like Conan the Barbarian”), but nowadays it seems to have diverged enough that high fantasy has all the same criteria as epic fantasy except one: epic scope.

  1. I do enjoy the epic–easier to find in fiction than in history. Sadly history provides too many examples of the tragic. Even when issues are resolved there is a pile of innocent corpses. I just finished teaching World War I to ninth graders, so . . .

    • Phew. The older I get, the surer I am that Tolkien wrote LOTR as an antidote to the horrors of that war. Even though he was writing it amidst an equally nasty one. (Some historians now claim a continuation of the same one.)

      • Many historians believe said claim, and World War I still casts its shadow 100 years later. And I agree, JRRT was searching for beauty and nobility in the midst of stupid ugly blood and slaughter wanting to believe there were things worth fighting and dying for.

  2. And the seeds of WW1 lie in the period of the migratory tribes of the ‘dark ages’ – which concept hit me between the eyes back when I was finishing up a series of midieval art courses and reading Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August o0n the side. The whole pattern of the battle lines was an echo of the events and alliances of a thousand years before.

    • It’s very clear when one starts from young Prinzip’s assassination of the archduke and his poor wife; the swift divisions along age-old tribe lines, now spheres of influence, and the mutual declarations of war. The entire apparatus of peace, so tenuously built during nineteenth century diplomacy, unraveled in days.

  3. Thanks once more for wonderful insight into history and literature! I, too, love that narrative range in these epics — very different from the way I write, so a refreshing change for me.