Wednesday, July 23, 2014

An Exploration in Fantasy -- Part One: The List

Prior to Tolkien, fantasy writing was sparse. At least, what we think of now as fantasy was sparse. Because of that, Tolkien is widely considered the "Father of Modern Fantasy" or, specifically, the "Father of High Fantasy." Along with the title has come the assumption that it was Tolkien who established our model of how fantasy ought to be written, that it was Tolkien who originated the tropes. People, often people who have not read The Lord of the Rings, look at what Tolkien did and ascribe the origins of all that fantasy has become to him.

Now, I love The Lord of the RingsThe Hobbit, as you'll know if you've checked out my "Of Significance..." page on my own StrangePegs blog, is one of the three books that I think everyone should read. And I don't undervalue Tolkien's importance. There would be no fantasy genre as we know it today without him. However, I don't think that we can "blame" Tolkien for today's fantasy tropes. In fact, many of the things we think he did, he did not, in fact, do. No, for the origins of fantasy, we have to look elsewhere.

And we will. But not today. Before we get to that, we need to figure out what are the key elements of fantasy literature, and these tend to hold true whether it's high (epic) fantasy or not.

With that in mind, I've come up with a list. This is my list, mind you, because I couldn't find anything that resembled a definitive list or even lists with many things in common. I'm just going off of the fantasy I've read (which is a lot) and the things I've found in common amongst them.

1. The protagonist (I'm just going to say "hero" from here on out; it's shorter) is not an adult (and usually male).
2. The hero is an orphan (usually both parents are dead, although there is sometime one (usually the mother)).
3. The hero is "special" in some way.
4. There is a prophecy, generally related to the hero.
5. There is an old mentor of some sort, usually a male. (We recognize this character as "the wizard.")
6. There is a quest of some sort involved that only the hero can complete.
7. There is some kind of descent
8. The hero has companions who help him on his journey.
9. There is some sort of "dark lord" who can only be defeated by the hero.
10. There's an absence of technology.

These are the ones that come to mind as being part of the general "fantasy ideal." I could include other things like:
There are other races like elves and leprechauns.
The setting is generally medieval.
Magic of some sort is involved.
But these things seem to me to be decorations for the story, not actually necessary to the functioning of it, so I'm not including them on the list (unless you can convince me otherwise), although I'm sure I'll talk about them as we go along.

Speaking of convincing, I'm not trying to say this is a definitive list, just the list I'm going to work with in looking at the origins of fantasy and, when I say "origins," I actually mean the blueprint that we use as the basis for modern fantasy writing. If you have other things that you feel are essential, please let me know what they are, and I'll look at them.

Oh, and just to be clear, I'm not dealing with any sub-genres like paranormal or vampire or anything like that. Even though those often use these same basic "rules," they have their own twist on them.


  1. Reminds me a lot of the Hero's Journey by Joseph Campbell.

  2. Actually - although I basically agree - I have several authors I read where those things are not true. Glenda Larke springs to mind as well as Brandon Sanderson.

  3. Sandra: Only a couple of these would relate to Campbell's work, though much of fantasy uses the Hero's Journey as a plot structure.

    Jo: I haven't read either of those, but Sanderson definitely used these in working with Jordan on The Wheel of Time.

    1. Well WOT was not really his story, he just finished it for Jordan.

    2. That's true.
      Sanderson is on my list to read. Some day.

  4. I read a TON of epic fantasy when I was younger, and eventually I got tired of the trope. Why couldn't they mix up the mentor aspect, and choose a MC that WASN'T the chosen one. Seriously. It would have made for so much more interesting a story. Truth, I can't read epic fantasy anymore, but I still love it.

  5. Crystal: My wife doesn't really read fantasy, either, because it's all basically the same.

  6. Ah, Crystal hit on the one cliche you left out - The Chosen One. I hate that one. I much prefer heroes who are the "every man" and rise to the occasion "Die Hard" style. And I would just once like to see a Medieval Fantasy novel portray the dirty, diseased, flea-ridden times correctly. The real Middle Ages weren't romantic unless you like chamber pots, open sewers, spectacular BO, rotted teeth, and a life expectancy of 40.

  7. Lexa: The Chosen One is #4 on my list. Chosen one/prophesied one, kind of the same thing.

  8. Dammit. I'll never make a coherent response using my phone. My thumbs can't keep up with my brain. It makes for crappy commenting.

    But I'm very much looking forward to this series of posts you're doing. I would point out that a lot of modern fantasy is on the business of subverting these tropes - my tbr pile is full of novels told from the perspective of the orcs, goblins, dwarves... And not just the perspectives change, Sanderson took the 'prophecied one' trope and turned it on its head in his Mistborn novels. George RR Martin keeps finding ways to folks that otherwise are heroes keep get their heads chopped off just when your sure they're going to overcome (playing with my expectations based on my reading experiences in the past).

    And there are tons more, those are just what came to mind right away. So anyone who isn't into fantasy now because it's so derivative of older fantasy might like some of the new stuff.

    I've tried to read some of the more famous older stuff (like Jordan and Goodkind) and have struggled to finish them. They don't have anything new to add to the genre. Of course, I might not feel that way if is been reading these when they were new, but that's how I feel now.

  9. Speaking of Martin, he's actually making use of a lot of the things on my list; he just clutters his work up enough with story fragments that don't matter. I'll be talking more about him.

    I didn't finish Jordan or Goodkind. I couldn't deal with them.

    At some point, I'll get to Sanderson.

  10. I agree that most of this fits in with the concept of the monomyth. Is it weird that I can give you a detailed list of tropes in 19th century gothic and romantic literature? I wonder if I used those conventions in a story if it would end up being absolutely fabulous even though it was so formulaic. Wait - maybe that's what I'm doing and I didn't realize it because it's filtered through to my subconscious - wouldn't that suck to be controlled by the literature we read. Too much coffee....Great post.

  11. Tonja: I think people wouldn't recognize a 19th century formula. As endemics vampires are today, if someone wrote a book like Dracula, people would think it was unique and original.

    And, yeah, I think most of us are controlled by what we read, which is why we get so much stuff that is all the same

  12. It's an interesting model.
    It doesn't really work for me, though because all of my favorite fantasy characters lean pretty heavily outside of convention.
    One of my favorite classic sword and sorcery fantasy heroes was Robert E. Howard's original Conan--a character who predates Middle Earth by something like half a decade.

  13. Russ: I've never read Conan; I'm not even sure it was included in the fantasy section at my book store when I was a kid. But, yes, it does not follow the fantasy model.

  14. Another favorite of mine that doesn't get mentioned nearly as often as it should is Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar series. It started appearing in pulp fantasy magazines in 1939. Leiber's heroes Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser don't exactly fit this model either.

  15. Russ: I read the comic adaptation of that but not the books. It's been a long time, though.