Is High Fantasy Still Viable?

The question I have asked myself recently, as I have explored agents, publishers and their genre interests, is this: is a traditional high (or epic) fantasy in the vein of LOTR, Narnia, or Prydain going to appeal to agents and publishers? Is it even a viable market anymore? Most publishers and agents are flocking to Urban Fantasy, or Magical Realism, or genre-benders that mix and match or in some other way combine fantasy, science fiction and/or horror.

Ultimately, for me, it doesn’t matter what the market is looking for – I must tell my story – but it would be nice for it to be something that they’re not going to simply yawn off as “been-there-done-that.”

Harry Potter is the closest thing we have seen to a classic fantasy tale in a long time, but its unprecedented success has, I think, made it even more difficult for traditional stories. In the first place, Potter isn’t technically high fantasy. It certainly doesn’t start there, anyway. I’d argue the last book, Deathly Hallows, is as close to epic fantasy told in the classic tradition as anything we’ve seen in the last thirty years, but it’s still not a high fantasy genre, a term usually applied to stories that take place in a different world than ours. Hogwarts might feel like a different place, but it’s still on the moors of Scotland. Even Narnia left this world to go to a different place.

In the second place, Potter is so popular that anything remotely bordering on similarity to it in theme, story, or structure, will be negatively compared to it. You know, like J. K. Rowling invented the magical school or something and has copyright claims to it. (No, my story does not involve a young wizard being trained in the arts of magic at a magic school. Just clarifying.) The point here, though, is that Rowling integrated an incredible amount of folklore and mythology, let alone classical faerie story elements, and codified them into a single series. Thus, because she had a great big magic mirror in her story means that I can’t have a great big, magic mirror in my story – even if it is totally different. Like Rowling was the first to use a magic mirror that reveals truths about people. Yet because Rowling was the first place many young people encountered these themes and images, they will assume HP is the source for them.

Granted that the yawn by most publishers is the result of thirty years of poor and pale shadows of LOTR and Narnia. So is the problem with the traditional elements themselves (orcs, lost histories, Rangers, elves-don’t-like-dwarves-and-dwarves-don’t-like-elves, Dark Lords) or is it more with the long string of bad derivatives?

I would like to suggest the latter. I mean, have you read The Sword of Shannara? You can name how each character is woodenly mirroring the characters of LOTR. Yup, there’s Wormtongue. Ahh, and Aragorn. Even the plot was nearly point-for-point the same as LOTR. It wasn’t a case of occasional broad overlaps (oh, they’re going on a quest and trying to slip under the Dark Lord’s gaze to destroy a magical thingy), but of plot-by-plot comparison. Yet, it launched Terry Brooks into being one of the premier writers of high fantasy and built him a successful career. Brooks is no hack, either; his stories are well written and each one in the Shannara series has gotten better. Or how about Eragon? I can walk you through the parallels between it and the Star Wars trilogy in my sleep. The comparisons are almost one-to-one with regard to character and plot structure. Yet it sold amazingly well.

To me these problems are illustrative of the problem generally with what we would call epic fantasy. I do try to keep up with what’s being published, at least the big stuff and the debut authors, and a lot of what I see is simply modernist authors sticking modernist American or European characters into 10th century clothing. In one sense, this is inevitable. We are, after all, living in our time and not in the 10th century. In the same way we are all postmodern writers – what other sort could we be? – because we all live in the postmodern age.

To me, though, what made Tolkien great, what made Lewis and Alexander and Lawhead great, and to the same extent what makes Rowling great, is their depth. Their characters aren’t PoMo plastic people walking around in 10th century clothing and looking as uncomfortable as all get out. I don’t know much about Alexander or Lawhead’s education, but I know that Lewis and Tolkien were avowed Medievalists and that Rowling received a classical education in the great works (including the great romances, epics, and treatises of the Medieval period). The works written in our century that people respond to are essentially Medieval in outlook and in thematic material.

The biggest obstacle to high fantasy, the obstacle that has decreased its viability, is not that “it’s all the same.” The problem is how it has been treated. The foundational fantasy stories were built by telling the Great Stories, the Medieval romances and epics. Behind them stands the Christian Bible, the Greatest Story. Shallow moderns cannot tell that story; they cannot dock in that noble harbor. They can travel the path, get their characters through the stages of the Hero’s Journey, but unless you have breathed in the Great Stories and the Greatest Story, I do not think fantasy is for you.

Ultimately, what is the reader expectation when it comes to fantasy? Or any other genre, really. What’s the expectation for horror? When a reader picks up a book in the horror section, they come to it with certain expectations that the genre has built in. If author after author doesn’t meet those expectations, the reader eventually stops reading them, and possibly changes genres altogether. Science fiction promises that the story will revolve around science or technology in some way. Action/adventure books have car chases and CIA agents. Romances are focused on the love (or lust) of two people (or more, these days).

So what are the promises you are making by writing fantasy? Remember Tolkien and Lewis are the foundations of modern fantasy, but they but the middle of a long line that reaches back through Lord Dunsany and the Romantic Gothic novel to the Medieval epic, and beyond that to the Christian Bible. Readers, even unconsciously (and these days I suspect the expectation is mostly unconscious), are expecting your work to deal with the stories of the Great Works. They expect fantasy stories that deal with nobility, honor, loyalty, piercingly beautiful tragedy, and all the rest.

You can stick modernist characters into Elvish costumes, but they’re so small compared to Galadriel. It’s like a ten-year-old dressed in his father’s suit. If you’re not well versed in the Medieval epic, no matter how many wizards you have, you’re only chipping at the surface of fantasy. If you’re intentionally trying to subvert these western and Christian themes, you’re just not writing fantasy. Your story might have elves, or alternative universes or daemons or whatever, but it ain’t fantasy. You’re not meeting the expectation of the genre.

I think that might be at least partially responsible for why editors seem to think fantasy isn’t viable. It doesn’t meet the expectations. So people move on. That explains the reluctance of many publishers to print Rowling’s Potter novels. It also explains why the books were so successful. It might not have technically been high fantasy, but it acted like it was. It had all the thematic and structural depth of the Great Works. Here was a book that enriched people and drew them in flocks and herds to get the next one. Here at last was a fantasy that delivered on what it promised.

That is what makes high fantasy viable. The required depth of meaning was there. It lay deep in the stream of the river Arthur and Guinevere, Sir Gwain and the Green Knight, Narnia, Prydain, the Pearl, and the Faerie Queene. What made it successful ultimately was not being utterly different from everything else, but speaking the great, old truths in a new way.

And that is what will make high fantasy viable again.

It’s what makes all literature viable.

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