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How do you define epic fantasy?

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Mar 23, 2012, 4:24pm Top

The last few days I've been getting conflicting answers to the question. Do you define it based on material or on length of novel? Or is it a combination of both?

Mar 23, 2012, 5:05pm Top

In classical terms an 'epic' refers to a heroic poem or poetry. A novel is prose and by definition not an epic.

Mar 23, 2012, 5:20pm Top


Random House Webster's College Dictionary:

1. of or pertaining to a long poetic compostion (etc.) 2. resembling or suggesting such poetry: an epic novel.

So the term is, in fact, used for prose forms and has been used in the term 'epic fantasy' for quite a long time. I know how I define the term when it's related to fantasy novels, but I'm curious to see how others who write and read epic fantasy, also use the term.

Mar 23, 2012, 6:05pm Top

3> I was thinking more in the line of epic as a noun. You are of couse correct that epic as an adjective is more inclusive. But even your definition the novel should resemble or suggest poetry.

Mar 23, 2012, 6:14pm Top

4 --

The part of the description I didn't write had to do with the hero rather than the poetry aspect, and I believe this pertains more to epic fantasy (and of course epic would be an adjective there) rather than the poetic factor itself.

Do you read epic fantasy?

Mar 23, 2012, 9:42pm Top


That may be true by the classical definition, but language has in fact evolved in the last few hundred years, and if you insist on claiming that the last epic fantasy written in English was Beowulf you'll get some odd looks and a lot of people rolling their eyes at you and continuing the conversation without you.


By modern usage, I'd say that "epic fantasy" is defined more by scope than by length, though the two can be related; while you can easily have a lengthy novel that isn't epic, it's harder to have an epic fantasy that isn't lengthy (though not impossible; see the anthology Twenty Epics, for instance.) Epic fantasy, as I'd use the term, refers to fantasy where the events are world-shaking, frequently involving a decisive conflict between Good and Evil. The geographic scope of epic fantasy is also often large, though this is a secondary consideration.

Edited: Mar 23, 2012, 10:30pm Top

6 > if you insist on claiming that the last epic fantasy written in English was Beowulf you'll get some odd looks and a lot of people rolling their eyes at you and continuing the conversation without you.

I don't insist that Beowulf was the last. Here are some examples that are a little more recent. Please don't assume what other people believe or you will be getting the odd looks and being ignored.

Lahuta e Malcís by Gjergj Fishta (composed 1902-1937)
Drake: An English Epic (1905–1908), The Torch-Bearers (1917–1930) by Alfred Noyes
The Ballad of the White Horse by G. K. Chesterton (1911)
Mensagem by Fernando Pessoa (composed 1913-1934)
The Cantos by Ezra Pound (composed 1915-1969)
The Hashish-Eater; Or, The Apocalypse of Evil by Clark Ashton Smith (1920)
The Bridge by Hart Crane (1930)
Kurukshetra (1946), Rashmirathi (1952), Urvashi (1961), Hunkar by Ramdhari Singh 'Dinkar'
Savitri by Aurobindo Ghose (1950)
The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel by Nikos Kazantzakis (Greek verse, composed 1924-1938)
Dymer by C. S. Lewis (1926)
A Cycle of the West by John Neihardt (composed 1921-1949)
"A" by Louis Zukofsky (composed 1928-1968)
Paterson by William Carlos Williams (composed c.1940-1961)
Victory for the Slain by Hugh John Lofting (1942)
The Maximus Poems by Charles Olson (composed 1950-1970)
Libretto for the Republic of Liberia by Melvin B. Tolson (1953)
Aniara by Harry Martinson (composed 1956)
Mountains and Rivers Without End by Gary Snyder (composed 1965-1996)
Helen in Egypt by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) (1974)
The Changing Light at Sandover by James Merrill (composed 1976-1982)
The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You by Frank Stanford (published 1977)
Tears of Lalita.67 (In Hindi: Lalita Ke Aansoo8 by Krant M. L. Verma (Published 1978910)
The Legend of Te Tuna by Richard Adams (published 1982)
Genesis: An Epic Poem by Frederick Turner (1988)
Omeros by Derek Walcott (1990)
The Levant by Mircea Cărtărescu (1990)
Astronautilía Hvězdoplavba by Jan Křesadlo (1995)
The Descent of Alette by Alice Notley (1996)
Cheikh Anta Diop: Poem for the Living by Mwatabu S. Okantah (1997)
The Dream of Norumbega: Epic on the U.S. by James Wm. Chichetto (c. 1990; p. 2000- )

Mar 23, 2012, 10:41pm Top

To answer #5- Yes, I have read quite a bit of epic (or high) fantasy. Not as much as I used to, but I get the idea of it. Heroic battles pitting good versus evil in some alternate world. Been there, done that, have the T-shirt.

Mar 24, 2012, 1:58am Top

#6 --

Excellent point on the battle between good and evil (which implies the presence of two sides which can be distinguished as one from the other). I think 'heroic' includes this sort of material as the basis, but it's good to remember to think in those terms.

I've had people argue that a fantasy epic has to be longer than a normal (whatever that may be) book. Like you, I think of epic more in terms of the storyline, rather than the length. I do think the term can be overused, though, and I'm even guilty of doing so sometimes. I am just curious to see how others define the term as it applies to fantasy novels.

Mar 28, 2012, 6:38am Top

I would definately define epic fantasy by content, and style But it is one of those nebulous things that very much depends on who is doing the looking, they'll know it when they read it.

Something, grander? Larger? more invovled than the "standard" quest based fantasy. Where more than just the fates of the characters are involved. But also darker and grittier somehow - maybe more 'real'. The Belgariad is never epic fantasy. It superficially meets many of the criteria. It is long, and does invovle the fate of the universe, as well as a battle between Good and Evil. But it's essentially trite. And Epic fantasy is never trite.

Mar 28, 2012, 11:37am Top

But it's essentially trite. And Epic fantasy is never trite.

I don't generally like definitions that include quality; this is just the flip side of "this is good, so it can't be SF". If the Belgariad isn't epic fantasy, then what is it? It certainly isn't good epic fantasy, but are you really saying there's no such thing? Do you want to claim that Tolkien is epic, but ersatz-Tolkien with the serial numbers filed off (e.g. The Sword of Shannara) isn't?

Mar 28, 2012, 11:55am Top

"I don't generally like definitions that include quality" valid point.

I don't quite know how to describe it though. Sword probably just about does "feel" like epic fantasy. Just - it didn't gain an epic fantasy tag when I read it though. Wheras the Belgariad, to me, doesn't. hmm. Maybe I'll think about it some more.

Mar 29, 2012, 3:29pm Top

I've always viewed "epic fantasy" as being epic in scope, like the epic movies from the 50's and 60's: large, expensive, lavish, and long. They had huge sets, employed hundreds or even thousand of actors and extras, were well over two hours long, and dealt with events that were of great importance.

Now, I don't know where that's the "proper" definition, but that's just what it's always meant to me.

Mar 29, 2012, 5:42pm Top

Defining the more modern usage of 'epic - 'Larger than life' does it for me.

Apr 5, 2012, 1:38pm Top



Apr 9, 2012, 1:52am Top

Thanks everyone. This has been interesting and helpful.

Apr 9, 2012, 4:43pm Top

Epic fantasy is usually seen to be in the same milieu as High Fantasy so I think you're looking at Lord of the Rings, A Game of Thrones and The Tale of the Eternal Champion, particularly the Elric books, for example.

Apr 10, 2012, 9:16pm Top

I would certainly agree with most of your definitions, but the word 'epic' has a lot of baggage. I used the description High Fantasy, for my novel "Rast" because it does involve very high stakes for the participants; in its way reminiscent of the world changing odds of The Lord of the Rings.

Secondly, it is important to use a 'lofty' description for such classic fantasy today to separate it from the urban fantasies, and paranormal fantasies made popular by Stephanie Mayer.

Apr 11, 2012, 9:16am Top

18 the word epic is like a tone poem. It brings to mind flashing swords; brawny, sweaty men; powerful women; clouds of magic, etc.etc.etc........ At least to me :)


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