Friday, September 23, 2011

High Fantasy!

It's still one of the most popular story forms in the fantasy genre, and probably the most well known of any.  When one hears "fantasy" with regards to fiction, thoughts of castles, wizards, great warriors, elven forests and dwarven mines immediately come to mind.  One almost can't think of such fiction without immediate comparisons to the Lord of the Rings, either movies or books.

And why not?  J.R.R. Tolkien completely reinvented the genre with the book The Hobbit, forever changing the lives of generations of fantasy nerds, including you and me.  His writing led directly to a resurgence of the genre.  He's the ultimate authority on all things high fantasy.  He's been copied and mimicked by countless authors, from the most amateur writers of fan fiction to renowned bestselling authors.  He's influenced them all, and with good reason.

In Hobbiton, © Tara Hunt

But what made him successful in the first place?  What made his works break out with such distinction?  He certainly wasn't the first to write novels in the genre.  We have numerous examples of castles and knights throughout medieval history.  Countless tales of dragons and assorted monsters have survived from the earliest works of history, including Beowulf and even the Bible.  Rumors of those able to perform magic, witchery, sorcery or any other "dark arts" are equally as old.

Angry Dragon, © Jonathan Dalar

I think it's hard to say just what made Tolkien's works so great, except for the fact that everything was right.  The characters were varied, interesting, and believable.  The setting was wonderful, from the green, rolling hills of the Shire to the eerie muck of the Mordor swamps.  His childhood, schooling, and service in World War I certainly contributed to his writing.  He was first and foremost a linguist, which would have immensely broadened his writing palate.  And he published in a time when the world seemed desperate to escape into an alternate world of fantasy.

Since then, much of the fantasy published has been derivative, at least in some form or another.  And that's alright.  It helps define the genre and give it boundaries.  After all, what is high fantasy without those elves, dwarfs, goblins, and orcs?

Bamburgh Castle, © Nigel Chadwick

We need certain elements to remain in fantasy, but what helped Tolkien's works stand out and endure was his creativity and imagination.  He went beyond what was established in fantasy at that time and made his own boundaries.  His creativity went beyond his peers and into new territory.

Wulfgar, Celtic Warrior © Jonathan Dalar

And that's what we need to see in fantasy today.  We need it to blend with other genres, creating a variety of new sub-genres.  We need authors to break the established molds and let their imagination separate from that which they grew up reading and spread into new territory.

We need heroes to fight dragons, but we also need them to fight other, as yet unnamed monstrosities.  We need fresh voices to spark new interest further into the unknown, as the early pioneers Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, William Morris and others did.

We've gotten that to some extent already.  J.K. Rowling did exactly that for young adult fantasy, blending the mundane world with the wonders of Hogwarts.  And even if some of us older and more cynical readers aren't completely enamored with her stories of a twelve year old boy's discovering his magic wand, we have to admit it was just the boost of energy the genre needed.

Jacobite Steam Train over the 21 Arch Viaduct near Glenfinnan, © Paul Ashwin

It isn't exactly high fantasy, but it's soundly within the fantasy genre.  And it works.  Rowling pushed the boundaries by not only creating an epic fantasy story appealing to generations, but also ventured into new territory in doing so.  Before, we had stories told of alternate fantasy worlds such as Tolkien's, David Eddings and others.  We had stories with portals that took us from our world into an alternate time or reality, such as in some of the works by Stephen R. Donaldson.  And now we have the world of Hogwarts, that blends and blurs the realities of the magical realm with our own.

It seems we see literary agents, editors and publishers clamoring on almost a daily basis for "the next Harry Potter".  Everyone is looking for the next big break-out in fantasy, particularly young adult fantasy.  It's a hot ticket at the moment, and rightly so.  After all, Harry Potter made a lot of people a whole lot of money.

It's only a matter of time.  It's probably out there already, being typed out on a laptop somewhere between college classes, or in stolen moments when the kids are asleep and the spouse is watching prime time television.  Maybe it's yours.  I'd say it's mine, but only if we were talking about science fiction.  Regardless, when we find it, the genre will be a little better for it.


  1. I'm more of a fan of low fantasy, I suppose. I like a certain amount of subtlety and economy of words that doesn't exist in most high fantasy. I love Tolkien (particularly the Hobbit) but it seems to me that most of the books that have come out in the genre just run at the mouth. I don't want to start a book that's 500+ pages and is the first in a series of 12.

  2. Interesting, Scott. I grew up reading Tolkien, Eddings, the Dragonlance stuff, Piers Anthony, and other assorted fantasy. It was really my first love in the world of fiction.

    I agree, it can be overdone, thus my call to go beyond the already-established boundaries of the genre. We see far too many copycat books out there that see some commercial success simply because they have a reclusive elf, a troubled human, and an ornery dwarf in them.

    I still love high fantasy, but that may be tempered some by the fact I haven't read as much of some of the other sub-genres of it as I want.

    Fantasy, as with science fiction, usually takes some time building the world and surroundings, which is why we see some of the massive tomes in those genres.

    It can sometimes run long, but it's often good stuff all the same.

  3. I love Fantasy, but tend to agree that not that much gets published that is that great. Tolkien was my first love, and I still re-read LOTR every few years, but nothing has ever come along that really compares to it.

    Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is quite good, but I don't even consider it all that fantastical. It's mostly just politics and depravity, with barely any magical elements.

  4. Matthew, the Belgariad, by David Eddings is an old but good example of fantasy done well without having to follow the tired, reused trends established by LOTR. No elves, no dwarfs, some strange (but human) races, gods and kings and sorcerers. Great series that continued with the Mallorean. Of course, you probably already knew that, but if you haven't read it, I'd suggest a look.

  5. Great post, Jonathan - it's everything I love about fantasy. I also read LOTR every few years and love to see Tolkien's work referenced (sometimes blatantly copied) in other modern fantasy tales. I know a young writer who worries that she can't come up with something original, like Harry Potter. When she asked why was I laughing I told her about another fantasy character who was scarred by an enemy and whenever he was near the evil, his scar hurt - Frodo and the witchking. The originality comes from how we tell our story. Can't wait to see what comes next in Fantasy. Thanks again for the great post :)

  6. Thanks, Shiela. You're 100% right about it being how we tell it, not what the elements and plot are. People have theorized there are only a few basic plots, and some even say there's only two.

    If you boil it down, the key elements of Frodo's and Harry's wound was that it hurt when they came around the supernatural evil that was their nemesis. I'd never thought of that before. It isn't that obvious, and I'd say a damn fine way to take an idea for your story without making it look like a retread of the same ol' thing.