Out of the Games Cupboard

A random assortment of reflections, musings and a running commentary on life.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The problem with fantasy literature....

My favourite novel is undoubtedly The Lord of the Rings. I greatly admire what Tolkien achieved in conceiving and writing it. However, he also sort of created the genre oft referred to as "epic fantasy". Over the years I've read many novels falling into this category, I guess in the hope of finding something that hits me in the same way as LOTR does. As a genre fantasy writing has become phenomenally cliched and rarely displays much originality. Tolkien is not really to blame, however, but his imitators should maybe try to do things differently!

Here is a list of the most common epic fantasy cliches that I can remember:

  1. You can't contain an epic fantasy in one novel. Oh no... you need three. It's almost always three. Often you could have cut out the crap and have had one good novel (well, often a novella).
  2. There's always a map at the front. It will often contain every type of landscape found on earth but compressed into a small area. How would that climate work?!? Geographic and geological features often occur in unlikely or impossible places. There is rarely any truly origianl landscape; you have to shift genres to Sci-fi to find 1000' tall trees or mountains floating on seas of gas....
  3. The 'world' of the novel is almost always 'quasi-medieval'. That makes it easy for any twit who's seen an Orlando Bloom movie to be able to picture the landscape. Unless they've only seen that crap one where he's a boxer. Quasi - medieval means there will be knights, lords, a feudal system, swords, bow and arrows, small villages, larger market towns, and impressive cities often with big boats in them (to transport our hero to a new life of course). Things you'll remember from school basically, just like the author did.
  4. There will usually be elves, dwarves, men and some sort of goblinoids... who are "evil". Elves are always smug, arrogant gits who are superhumanly strong and are usually immortal... so that they can't be arsed to recreate. Therefore elves are usually diminshing in numbers. Dwarves tend to live under mountain ranges and have Welsh accents (okay maybe that's just me and Pratchett!). They usually don't get on with elves due to something someone once said about our Sharon or something similar. Dwarf women rarely make an appearance. The hero will usually come from the newest race - man. How man has survived when he is so cloddishly dense and physically puny is a mystery; sometimes it's their strength of numbers (elves take note!) or their adaptability.
  5. Men will usually exist in geographic groups whose appearance/manner/ mode of warfare/ love of drinking will feel strangely familiar. To make us feel at ease in this new fantasy world the writer (and I use this term generously) has plundered history to give us stereotypes we feel familiar with, and that he could remember from school. Vikings therefore crop up a fair bit (well they're such good fun), Romans and Greeks make a few appearances as do Machiavellian style traders and politicians. There's sometimes some plains indians and orientals thrown in for variety. That people with technology's separated by centuries can co-exist (not to mention the elves and dwarves) truly is a work of fantasy.
  6. The aforementioned hero is usually a lowly farm boy, baker's apprentice, peasant, whatever. He usually follows one of two paths; he may discover he has strange magical powers, for which he is ridiculed by the bumpkins, and so has to flee the only life he has known (which has been fairly crap up until this point) or he accidentally gets thrust into the path of great events and turns out to be a diamond in the rough.
  7. The hero will always encounter a stranger, be he a storyteller, wandering peddler or deranged loony. He will smooth the rough diamond or tutor the lad in how to use his powers discretely and safely depending on which plot we're following.
  8. This stranger will inevitably turn out not to be a wandering popcorn salesman but either a great wizard or a great warrior. He will usually have a beard (symbol of wisdom, except for dwarves for whom it is a symbol of... well... being a dwarf). He may also carry a hidden artefact of great power - a staff or suspiciously unadorned sword, or a moustache comb.
  9. A lot of epic fantasy contains magic. This is usually less fun and more irritating than it sounds. Few writers have employed magic that doesn't come with consequences (to my mind that would be the only fun sort). Oh no. In fact most magic users seem to spend most of their time rigorously not using magic. This is because with great power comes great responsibility. Or a need to remember a shed load of complex spells (a bit much for our lowly bumpkin hero). Often it requires jsut as much effort to do something with magic as to do it manually. Who thought that one up? Or, using magic alerts other magically-sentient beings to your precise location - a bit like a mental flare gun. Sometimes characters are allowed to use magic for safe, mundane tasks, but that's hardly fun.
  10. Religion sometimes makes an appearance, but a lot of writers choose to give it a wide birth. The best ones practice human sacrifice, often on a grand scale, but most are more nature-loving and are based on sound Christian morals. How sad is that? Come on, it's fantasy, live a little. Why isn't there a race in just one novel who worship ferrets, or frogs or have banned underpants as they are offensive unto their God?
  11. Languages. Tolkien's world was created from its languages upwards. He was a very clever man and so his languages had their own history and evolution which prompted him to create the history of their speakers. Oh, and it was so detailed you can believe it is real quite easily. Everyone else pretty much just copies this a bit. It's often just embarrassing. You get far more accents in epic fantasy than in any other form of fiction (apart from French language novels I expect). There are usually more acutes, graves and circumflexes than you'd find in a dictionary. Inever know how to pronounce them but it doesn't really matter as the bits written in a made up language are usually outstandingly crap.
  12. Fantasy writers mst spend ages dreaming up unearthly sounding names for all their myriad characters. But every so often one slips through the net; however you spell it it's still Kolyn, and its still Ny-gel!
  13. There might be dragons. They can usually talk, are very clever and often quite decent sorts. They tend to have been misunderstood and thus virtually wiped out. If there is a dragon there's a 95% chance he's the last one. He'll probably make friends with our hero. After a misunderstanding in which he comically almost roasdts him alive.
  14. There is usually an evil advisor stood near a good, benign monarch. He usually has spies which strikes me as quite sensible. He may have dabbled in magic, but not being a bumpkin from Clodsville he has been drawn to the powers of evil - it has better PR than the forces of good.
  15. War is usually looming. This was often true of the medieval world (not much for knights to do before TV came along) so it's hardly surprising that everyone can't get along when you add in the dwarves, elves, goblinoids and the dragon.
  16. If there are battles they are usually brutally described. Two months after first holding a sword, our hero will be wielding it like a battle-hardened war veteran. But that's usually because he isn't really a bumpkin at all! He will probably have royal blood coursing through his veins (which make his indecent thoughts about the inevitable feisty princess okay.... unless she turns out to be his sister). Of course, he is rarely welcomed with open arms (he still has the odour of the farm clinging to his peasant rags) but has to demonstrate his nobility .
  17. Most of these novels are aimed at teenage boys/young men. That means they have girls in... and sometimes even sex...or the suggestion that there might be some sex somewhere between the pages. It's not really necessary but it makes a change....
  18. Women are usually poorly written. Tolkien just didn't bother and countless others should have followed his example. Instead we have a host of identical elven princesses - cold and aloof; strong, independent women who no man dare marry (or buy depending on the culture - well, borrowed culture); seething, beautiful but twisted-inside queens locked in a loveless marriage made for strategic/dynastic reasons. She usually poisons someone. Or sleeps with her brother.
  19. Kings always go hunting and something untoward will often happen. Sometimes this will involve a wild boar.
  20. There will always be one nobleman who is harshly moral, another who is strict but fair, and one who has gluttonous tastes in all things.

When you have finished reading all three volumes you will have not a sense of achievemnt, satisfaction or even wonder. Instead you will be left feeling as if you've read it all before. Don't worry, you have!



At 1:00 PM, Blogger Custancia said...

You had time to write all this and still clean our car ready to sell?! Wow. I'll go away overnight more often!!!


Post a Comment

<< Home