The Evolution of Fantasy

Fantasy as a genre has its origins in the myths and legends of ancient times.  These myths are often seen as primitive man’s attempts to explain the unexplainable.  Yet in modern times, we have explainations for almost everything… so why the interest in such things?  Personally, I think it is some attempt by us to recreate some of the mystery.  Some people turn to tabloids and conspiracy theories to spin wild tales… and the more mentally stable of us look to spin wild stories in other worlds.  But… I digress.  For this entry, I’ll go into a brief history of the genre of fantasy, talk a bit about some of the current trends of Epic Fantasy I’ve seen as a reader and a writer, and then write a bit about where I see the genre is headed.  I’ll also recommend some authors whose works I think are worthy of checking out.

The first ‘real’ fantasy authors included Rudyard Kipling and Edgar Rice Burroughs who pioneered the field.  Tolkien and Robert E Howard’s many stories broadened it and yet opened it out into two very different areas.   Tolkien’s works gained more wide-stream attention, for a number of reasons, but Robert Howard’s various works still maintain a substantial following.  Other authors like C.S. Lewis and Lloyd Alexander also had their parts.  These earlier authors often featured themes of good versus evil and heroes whose journeys and quests caused profound changes upon their worlds.  The overall themes and concepts tended to be heroes doing good things (or in the case of Conan, living by a barbarian code) as well as the tendency to reject technology and industrialism.  This was the general theme for the more popular and lasting epic and high fantasy for a while.  This changed somewhat with authors like Terry Brooks and David Eddings, who wrote less idealized stories, and more morally ambiguous characters.  Terry Goodkind, George RR Martin, Harry Turtledove and Robert Jordan led the way in the 1990’s with a host of epic fantasy series.  Fantasy became mainstream almost overnight, and the current round of epic fantasy began.  These authors virtually cast the mold for the ‘ideal’ Epic Fantasy series, with overnight blockbusters that continue to sell twenty plus years later.

That leads us into the current setting for Epic Fantasy, with my topic being about the current trends.  The changes brought on by the surge in readership in the 1990’s is still seen.  Authors like George RR Martin continue to sell books in the millions, have TV shows or movies, and have a massive fan base.  Their writing often includes morally ambiguous characters, convoluted plots, and severe, often drastic consequences for the characters as a consequence of their actions.  The pioneers of these types of books are often extremely proficient at both storytelling and manipulation of the reader’s emotions.  A disturbing trend, as I see it, is flood of books and authors who are not up to those standards.  The Epic Fantasy surge has led to dozens of series that come across as formulaic or rote.  There are a wide variety that follows the Campbellian Monomyth to the letter.  They have the main character on the Hero’s Journey.  They have the love interest.  They have the morally ambiguous companion/guide.  They have the mentor.  These stories check off all of the boxes, but they lack the passion and creativity of their predecessors.  Some authors have tried to replace that passion with grittiness or realism.  They often use anti-heroes or simply use lesser villains as the heroes (which can work, if done well) who turn the theme still darker and more ponderous.  In the rush to make money, fantasy has become exactly what we seek to avoid in real life: boring.  Other writers have sought to do something new or bold by changing the rules: fantasy worlds without magic or magic systems that work in some new or innovative way.  Yet I think in the roots, Fantasy started as escapism, a rejection of the world, if only for a short time, and a means to explore the imagination.  The trend of books that I’ve seen are book after book churned out by the big publishing houses, each looking for that next Robert Jordan or George RR Martin.  To me, at least as a reader, that gets old.  Fantasy, by its nature, is something that thrives on new and interesting, which is one reason we’ve seen the shift to urban fantasy around the turn of the century and more recently the expansion of steampunk.  Epic Fantasy has become too dark and too boring to be the inspiration to imagination it once was.

So what do I see in the future of epic fantasy?  As a genre, I think it hasn’t changed enough in recent times.  I think that new authors and new ideas will soon force it to change.   Evolution is a natural thing and something that will help that evolution along is the self-publishing market.  The variety of books that have become available means that new ideas and new blood is bound to shake things up.  Traditional publishing has stuck to what worked (which makes sense, they’re in the business of making money), but individuals, if they want to stand out, can’t afford to do that.  As a whole, I think we’ll see a lot of new ideas and concepts and hopefully some big changes overall in the market.

As a reference, here’s some authors and their books, both old and new, that are worth looking into for Epic Fantasy:

Robert Howard’s Conan series

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings

David Eddings’ Belgariad

Terry Brooks’s Sword of Shannara

Ryk Spoor’s Phoenix Rising

Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time

Lloyd Alexander’s Prydan series

David Weber’s Oath of Swords

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