The question of what epic fantasy is often arises, yet despite that, few people attempt to define it, and fewer yet believe that the definition they come up with is adequate. For the most part, however, we all know an epic fantasy when we see it. Why is it so difficult to define what makes an epic fantasy an epic fantasy? Is there even any value in trying to come up with a definition?
I’ll answer the second question first. Though some may argue that defining epic fantasy is merely a semantic concern, I think that there is value in coming up with a definition, not because of anything to do with epic fantasy, but because of the human need to understand the world we live in. Art and literature are important to many, if not most, people, and being able to understand art can help us to understand life in general. Art can often give life meaning and understanding, and such things are among the most important requirements of a fulfilling existence.
So why is defining epic fantasy so difficult? I would argue that people have attempted not to define epic fantasy as such, but rather what they like about it. One person (usually a writer, since they are the ones who get asked to define epic fantasy the most) will say it has to do with the world, and another will say it has to do with the characters. As it almost always turns out, the first person likes (either to read or to write) epic fantasy with a focus on world building, whereas the second likes those with a focus on characters (of course, this is not a hard and fast rule, and may not even be the case generally, but it is something I have seen through observation). While these things and others may have much to do with epic fantasy, I do not believe that they are its defining characteristics.
Definition is largely comprised of two conceptual processes: integration and differentiation. In order to define anything, we must first determine to what class of things it belongs, and secondly determine how it is distinguished from all other things in that class.
The class in this case is, of course, fantasy, which is a genre that is in turn defined by its use of elements that are derived purely from imagination. If it includes dragons, magic, or places that have never existed and never will, then it is fantasy.
That’s the easy part. The definition for fantasy isn’t controversial in the slightest, at least not in the circles I run in. So we’ll leave that part alone and tackle that part that everybody disagrees about, and that is what distinguishes epic fantasy from other kinds of fantasy.
The key word here is epic. What distinguishes something epic from something that is not? A lot of answers have been given, but the size of the book or the length of the tale is among the more common. So is the size of the cast; the “cast of thousands” is something that is often considered to be a hallmark of epic fantasy. I think these things are common in epic fantasies, but are not really defining characteristics.
However, there is something about these attempts to define the epic that are important in discovering what makes a story epic. Both of them talk in terms of scope, but is it really scope in terms of geography or number of characters that defines epic fantasy? Or is it something else?
There are a number of stories that take place in only a handful, or even just one, location that qualify as epic fantasy, just as there are epics that follow only a couple of main characters, where the rest of the cast is mere window dressing or simply doesn’t exist at all. Yet there is something about these stories that still feels vast. I would argue that that smoky, vague something is a story’s scope of consequence.
In epic fantasy, lives are changed, kingdoms fall, and the rules of the universe are turned on their heads. The consequences of the actions taken by the main characters affect the lives of everyone that matters, and sometimes have consequences that reach far beyond that. If Frodo had traveled across the world without interacting with anyone along the way, only to travel to Mordor to borrow a cup of sugar, The Lord of the Rings would have been seen not as an epic fantasy, but rather as an epic failure. Frodo’s story matters because of how he and his friends change everything.
Another hallmark of epic fantasy is the clash between good and evil, and indeed, it is very prevalent, though an number of examples of epic fantasy can be found where this is not the case (A Song of Ice and Fire chief among them). But I think there is a very good reason why many of these stories feature this kind of conflict, and that is because when it all shakes out, the world is changed. Either good triumphs over evil, or evil triumphs over good. Everyone in that world has a stake in the outcome, and everyone’s lives will be changed whether they were featured in the story or not.
Contrast this to stories where a character or set of characters travel across the world but only fight monsters or gather loot in caves and dungeons. It doesn’t matter how many places they go or how many people they meet; their actions, in the big scheme of things, are meaningless. Now matter where their adventures take them, the world is still more or less the same. This kind of story fits in the category swords and sorcery, as distinct from epic fantasy, and it is distinct primarily because of its lack of scope of consequence.
Ever since the term epic fantasy was first coined, there has been a rough, ostensive definition of it, or else no one would have bothered to come up with it. Hopefully, what I have said here will either help clarify this concept, or at least promote more discussion on it. While I think scope of consequence captures the essential differentiator of epic fantasy, I am very interested in hearing what you have to say on the topic, since two of my favorite things are philosophy and fantasy. If you have anything to add, or if you want to dispute my definition and say it’s complete foolishness, please comment below. Thanks!