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Posts tagged ‘Tolkien’

Crushing Conservatism in Epic Fantasy?

So last week, Gollancz (an excellent British publisher of science fiction and fantasy) got some discussion going by tweeting a provocative question:

I missed the initial conversation on Twitter, but I have been following the fascinating responses from Liz Bourke at, John H. Stevens at SFSignal, and Steven M. Long. So far, I’ve let Gollancz’s initial question, the essay responses, and the comments made on those responses all percolate in my brain. And out of that percolation, some thoughts come to mind:

Definitions Matter…to a Point

Much of the discussion has focused on defining terms. I suppose, considering the genre community’s love of semantics, that this shouldn’t be surprising. In this case, the discussion has centered almost exclusively on two key terms (“epic fantasy” and “conservative”) which are – admittedly – fuzzy, imprecise, and in may ways problematic. In order to contextualize my thoughts, I’m going to briefly wade into the semantic weeds and define how I will be using these terms, but that is incidental to my main focus. Much of the discussion has ignored the third – and most important – key term in Gollancz’s initial tweet: “crushingly.”

Definitions of “epic fantasy” and “conservative”, while important for the sake of precision, are terms we all routinely employ in some fashion. There is a working understanding of such terms that enables us to communicate. My personal definition of “epic fantasy” or my concept of “conservative” may not match yours perfectly, but there is enough overlap that we can in most cases make ourselves understood.

When it comes to “epic fantasy”, I like Alec Austin’s concept of a tag cloud of sub-genre characteristics, simply because it allows us to think of particular works as falling somewhere on a spectrum of “epic-ness”. Different works won’t all share the same characteristics, but such a model enables us to contextualize particular works somewhere along this conceptual spectrum – and thus to adopt a working understanding we can all agree on.

“Conservative” is a little more fraught, with cultural, political, emotional, and historical connotations that vary across individuals and geographies. “Politically conservative” in the UK differs significantly from “politically conservative” in the US, “morally conservative” varies across religious and secular belief and value systems, and all of these different meanings of “conservative” further fragment into different implied meanings for “culturally conservative”. Loathe as I am to get bogged down in semantics, I’m going to use “conservative” in the following sense (courtesy of

1. disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.

I think the term “crushingly” is less well-understood, particularly in this critical context. What does it mean to be “crushingly” conservative (or “progressive”, or “epic”, or “green”, or any other adjective)? What is getting “crushed” in Gollancz’s question? Are we talking about limitations imposed on aesthetics at the moment of creation? The moment of editorial acquisition? The moment of consumer purchase? The moment of reader consumption? Do we mean that structural characteristics are imposed upon creative works wishing to operate within or comment upon a sub-genre’s conventions? Do we mean that the characteristics of a particular sub-genre preclude the exploration of certain themes?

The important part of Gollancz’s question has little to do with how we define either “epic fantasy” or “conservative”. Any attempt to answer hinges upon the meaning of “crushingly”, and the cultural significance of that answer is a direct consequence of the unstated object implicit in the original question.

What Gets Crushed?

What is implicitly being crushed in Gollancz’s question? Obviously at a certain level of abstraction they mean epic fantasy literature. But that is such a broad over-generalization that it offers us little insight. It is far more interesting to narrow our focus and examine which aspects of epic fantasy literature may be getting the squeeze.

Here are the aspects I’m curious about:

  • Aesthetics. Does our current conception of epic fantasy preclude certain imagery, metaphors, sentence construction, etc.?
  • Structure. How do trends in epic fantasy constrain the narrative structures viable within the sub-genre?
  • Themes. Are there thematic areas which epic fantasy cannot explore? Moral, ethical, political, sociological models it cannot dramatize?

By definition, working within a genre imposes certain constraints on a creative work. However broad a given genre may be (and speculative fiction is, on the whole, broader than most), it has conventions. In fact, some might argue that genres are defined by their conventions, which as Samuel Delany pointed out, shape the way readers consume and interpret the written work. These conventions impose constraints precisely along those three foundational lines: aesthetics, structure, and themes. That is an inescapable truth of genre, and represents a key conserving force.

But when does the conserving force of such conventions (i.e. the constraints of convention) grow so constricting as to be deemed “crushing?” And here it gets interesting.

Who Does the Crushing?

The creative process features many actors at many stages: There is the author, who conceives of a story and sits down to write it. There is an agent who chooses to represent the book based on their confidence in its sales potential. There is an editor/publisher who acquires the story based on their confidence in its sales potential. There is a designer and production editor who shape the physical characteristics of the book so as to maximize (they hope) its sales potential. There is a bookseller who orders copies of the book based on their expectations of its sales. There are consumers who buy a book based on their expectations of what they’ll find within its covers. There are consumers who enjoy a book based on what they find within its covers, and some of whom will then go and conceive of a new story influenced (at least to some extent) by everything they have read before.

Each actor and each stage feeds into and affects every other stage of this cycle. Who applies the constraints imposed by genre? We all do.

The author, whose conception of a story has been shaped by their life experiences and media/genre consumption, chooses to impose or subvert the conventions of a genre while writing it.

The agent and acquiring editor (and the marketing and sales departments) are more or less welcoming to different books depending on the degree and fashion in which they apply genre convention. For them, it is about striking a balance between challenging convention enough to be innovative and fresh, while working within convention enough to give the rest of the sales cycle confidence in the work. And perhaps most importantly, that balance can be tipped in either direction by the quality of the execution. As an editor friend once told me: “Nabokov can break every convention and get away with it. But you’re not Nabokov.”

The designers (and the marketing and sales departments, again) shape the packaging of the physical (or digital) product to communicate the book’s balance to the booksellers and readers. Consider the original US covers for Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. Stylistically, they suggest that the books’ content will work solidly within the conventions of mid-list sword and sorcery…and thus fail to communicate anything about the novels’ tone, structural innovations, or subversion of epic fantasy conventions. It was, of course, a judgment call, yet one which I think the series’ original UK publishers did better with (and it is significant that subsequent US editions received new covers closer in aesthetics to their UK counterparts).

US Cover UK Cover

The bookseller learns about the book through the catalog copy, cover art, and perhaps even a conversation with the publisher’s reps. This material tells the bookseller about what kind of creative balance a given work strikes, which in turn helps them to determine how many copies to buy, and how to shelve those copies.

All of these decisions, coupled with reviews and third-party commentary about the book, shape the reader’s expectations and frame the reader’s approach to the book’s content. Ultimately, they determine if the reader will buy the book, and subsequently when coupled with the content itself, affect the reader’s enjoyment.

At each stage there is pressure applied to the balance in one or the other direction. Challenge the genre, but not enough to tank sales. Work within the genre, but not so slavishly as to be trite. Stand out, but not too tall. Unless the book’s quality is such that any putative and theoretical yearning for creative balance becomes meaningless. Every actor in this process “crushes” the creative work to one degree or another.

The Real Question

Given this framework, we can now turn to Gollancz’s question: Is epic fantasy crushingly conservative?

I don’t know.

No two people desire aesthetic, structural, and thematic innovation to the same degree or in the same direction. It is such idiosyncrasy which makes us human, and which leads to differing opinions. This push for innovation – in any facet of a creative work, and executed in whatever fashion – is constantly in tension with the prevailing cultural norms within broader society, and within the conventions of a particular genre.

Looking at epic fantasy, I see laudable attempts to push the boundaries of the genre. I recommend the work of (among others) N.K. Jemisin, Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, K.J. Parker, Steven Erikson, Kate Elliott, Robin Hobb, etc. I can point to authors and books that challenge, subvert, or extend the genre. I value such innovation very highly. Do I wish to see more such aesthetic, structural, and thematic innovation? Hell yes.

But do I think the prevailing cultural winds prevent such innovation from seeing the light of day? Do I think that such innovations are “crushed” beneath the oppressive heels of prevailing commercial trends and artistic tastes? I do not. I think that any innovation within any genre needs to be balanced against the long-standing conventions of that genre, and that this balance can be swayed in either direction by the quality of that innovation’s execution.

I think quality and innovation can both rise to the top. Regardless how circuitous the route, I think good storytelling will eventually win out. It may mean writing and selling more commercially “conservative” books in the short term to establish a fan base (i.e. to assuage commercial concerns about an innovative book’s commercial viability). It may mean by-passing the traditional publishing model and self-publishing an innovative work yourself. But the world of genre literature has the mechanisms in place to bring ground-breaking work to the surface, and to further disseminate its influence throughout the culture and the field.

But your mileage may vary. I think that epic fantasy does have conservative tendencies, just as all genres do. With the shadow of Tolkien, and the weight of history, I think epic fantasy’s conservative tendencies are expressed in ways particular to the sub-genre. Other genres (YA, for example) express their own conservatism in very different ways. An exploration of the ways in which epic fantasy or other genres express their conservatism would be fascinating (and I might come back to it later), but it is not really germane to Gollancz’s original question. Conservatism is inherent within every genre. The real question is whether or not the field is crushed by it.

How to Stand Beneath the Heel

The important conclusion of all this, however, is that if we wish to challenge the conservatism of a genre (regardless of how it is expressed or defined), we need to do it on every front we can. The author sitting alone and writing a challenging book. The agent who believes in the book enough to pitch it. The editor who believes in it enough to acquire it. The designers and sales people and reviewers and booksellers and readers who are willing to give it a shot.

But this process always starts with the creative act: with that author, ensconced behind a desk and dreaming challenging dreams.

A Theory of the Hero: Tragic and Anti-tragic Heroes (part 3 of 3)

NOTE: This is the third and final installment in a three-part series on heroic characters. This post will focus on how narrative timing and character choice determines the difference between tragic and anti-tragic heroes. The previous two posts respectively focused on agency, voice, and character sincerity and heroic story archetypes.

This past week I’ve been writing about heroic fiction, particularly focusing on heroic characters and their story archetypes. Every heroic story must take place within a moral universe (i.e. a universe where actions have implicit or explicit consequences). If the story’s setting were not moral, then it would be impossible to demonstrate the character’s heroic nature. But given that moral universe and the character’s heroic nature (which is intrinsically concerned with their value system), what makes some heroes “tragic” and others…not?

Can Tragedy Exist without Heroes?

No. Next question?

Okay, seriously: there are probably as many definitions of tragedy (in fiction) as there are critics. And I suspect that every one of them – from Aristotle to Hegel to Nietzsche – is probably right. But what most fail to point out is the simple fact that tragedy only happens to heroes. When we think of the characters who we would call “tragic”, all feature the same central concern with the hero’s value system. Whether it is Sidney Carton in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Moorcock’s Elric, or The Incredible Hulk‘s Bruce Banner: every tragic hero is centrally concerned with moral questions.

While every tragedy involves a heroic story, the converse does not apply. There are many heroic stories which both focus on heroic characters and adhere to the three primary heroic archetypes, but which we would nonetheless be hard pressed to call tragic. Consider Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons. Both stories deal with heroic characters, the former applying the aspirational archetype and the latter adhering more to the observational. Yet nevertheless, none of the heroes in either story can rightly be called tragic.

Choice: Making a Tragic Hero through the Exercise of Agency

Both Aristotle and Hegel (in particular) pointed out a key tenet of the tragic story: for tragedy to occur, the hero has to undergo some sort of reversal of fortune. That reversal may be externally mediated, the result of an opposing ethical force (a hero of different values, for example) or it may be an internal reversal (motivated by the hero’s evolving awareness or shifting passions). But in order to evoke catharsis, the hero has to reverse either some aspect of their nature or the trajectory of their experiences. That is exactly what heroic characters do when they transgress against their moral codes.

In heroic storytelling, the events of the plot, the story, and the character’s progression all come together in the hero’s choice of “right” or “wrong”. This choice may be shown baldly (e.g. Luke refusing the Emperor) or it may be concretized through dramatic action (e.g. Sidney Carton’s sacrifice). But if the hero makes the “right” choice (according to their own value system), the cathartic dénoument becomes a breath exhaled, the satisfaction of good triumphing over evil. If the hero makes the “wrong” choice, then we lament hypothetical paths not taken.

Because the hero is defined by his agency (see last Tuesday’s post), much of the tension in heroic stories stems from the question of how that agency gets exercised. Both aspirational and consequential archetypes are centrally concerned with the question of choice, though they derive their tension and their tragedy through entirely different methods.

The Tension of Expectations in Aspirational Storytelling

As they progress, aspirational stories derive their tension from uncertainty as to whether the hero will act in accordance with his moral code or transgress against it. In the moment of climax, when Katniss must choose between Peeta’s life and her own (in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games) or when Valjean holds Javert’s life in his hands, the hero teeters on a knife’s edge. Make one choice, and they stay true to their own ideals. Make the other choice, and they throw those ideals to the wind. And while that moral choice drives tension in the reading experience, it does not determine tragedy.

Consider two very different aspirational heroes: Frodo Baggins and Sidney Carton. From the beginning of Frodo’s story in The Lord of the Rings, we face the question: will Frodo have the strength to destroy the One Ring? As the story progresses, we watch him struggle with the Ring’s influence and triumph (barely and not without hardship) over Sauron and the Ring’s evil. But it is at the last moment, when he is standing above the Crack of Doom – when he is actually in a position to fulfill his quest – that he faces the climactic choice. And he fails. Frodo allows the Ring to corrupt him, and decides not to destroy it. Of course, the world is saved anyway because Gollum (Frodo’s mirror-image) bites Frodo’s finger off and falls into the flame. But regardless of that eucatastrophic moment, at the culmination of Frodo’s aspirational story, he transgresses against his own value system.

Sidney Carton, by contrast, represents an inversion of Frodo Baggins’ story arc. Throughout A Tale of Two Cities, he fails to live up to his own value system. From his story’s beginning, we watch Carton’s self-loathing rise in parallel to his love for Lucie Manette. And it is only at the story’s end, when he chooses to sacrifice himself for Charles Darney, that Carton’s acts finally align with his moral code. At the climax of the story, he chooses to do what is “right” – unlike Frodo, who chose to do what is “wrong”.

Yet despite the opposite trajectories of their respective aspirational stories, both remain tragic heroes. The source of that tragedy rests on an underlying tension between natural human meta-ethics and the consequences represented in the story. As social creatures, we are preconditioned to believe that doing what is right benefits us. While every grown-up would readily admit that life is more complicated than that, deep within our souls there remains a conviction that if we play nice, eat our vegetables, and go to bed early, our lives will be better. Aspirational heroes turn tragic when their experiences invert that expectation.

Frodo Baggins does wrong. He fails, and knows it. The fact that his failure is justifiable in no way diminishes the fact that at the last moment, he choked. In our hearts, we expect that a hero who fails and acts evilly should get what’s coming to him. Which is not to be accorded the highest honors of the land, or the love and respect of all the peoples. Yet that is precisely what Frodo gets. He failed: it is only through Gollum’s avarice that the world was saved. If it was up to Frodo, Sauron would have won. Who, really, could ever trust him with something momentous after that? Though he is exactly its opposite, he receives all the accolades of the conquering hero. He does not get what was coming to him.

Sidney Carton, by contrast, rises to the occasion. When it comes down to it, he does his “far, far better thing”. But what does his nobility get him? We want Carton to live. We want him to get the girl, and to find happiness. Instead, he earns himself a short trip to the guillotine.

Carton and Frodo are both tragic heroes because the consequences of their choices stand in direct opposition to our expectations of justice. Carton earns a respect that he never gets to experience. Frodo earns opprobrium that he never has face. This produces a disconnect between our experience and our desires which rests at the heart of aspirational tragedy. We want heroes to get what they deserve. And it becomes tragic when they don’t. Which – not insignificantly – is often how real life works.

Facing the Music: Dealing with the Consequences of a Choice

Consequential tragedy is produced in an entirely different fashion. Aspirational stories start far in advance of the hero’s moral choice, which comes to represent the climax of the story. In consequential stories, the moral choice has either already happened (e.g. most Elric of Melniboné stories) or happens very early in the events of the story (e.g. Shakespeare’s Macbeth).

Macbeth knows that it is wrong to murder Duncan, but he does it anyway. His actions may be inconsistent with his values, yet his value system remains unchanged. By choosing to act against his own moral sense, Macbeth exercises his agency to tragic effect. Macbeth is a loyal soldier scarcely interested in power. The witches dangle the prospect of regency before him, and he makes a morally bankrupt choice. The remainder of the play then deals with the consequences of that fatal decision. In order to maintain his grip on power, Macbeth has to constantly escalate and revisit his choice: the murder of Banquo (and the attempt on Fleance), the slaughtering of MacDuff’s family, etc. Macbeth becomes a tragic hero because his capacity for good gets dragged deep into the mud following his regicide. He knows his acts are evil, and that evil tortures him, but the die is cast and he is locked into his inevitable doom. Of course, the murdering SOB “deserves it” – but he still retains all the nobility of spirit with which he began the play.

Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné is in a similar boat. His Faustian bargains with Antioch and the demon-sword Stormbringer represent fundamental transgressions against his value system. The self-loathing that follows becomes the focus for Elric’s tragedy, and even though he wishes to be free of both, his entire saga depicts the gradual destruction of all that he loves at his own hands.

While consequential stories in particular lend themselves to tragic heroes, not all consequential heroes need be tragic. In particular, consequential heroes that are redemptive in nature avoid the trap of tragedy. Consider Jeffrey Ford’s hero Cley (from his amazing Well-Built City trilogy, starting in The Physiognomy). Initially, he is an evil (or at best, ignorant) man. But as the book and series progresses, he recognizes that he is not acting in accordance with his own implicit values, and sets out to seek redemption. His quest for redemption makes him a poignant and bittersweet hero, though one that never falls into the tragedy of his companion Misrix.

All this being said, I do not know if it would be possible to write a consequential story that is neither tragic nor redemptive. Where would the dramatic tension come from, if the character initially makes the “right” choice and no negative consequences follow? Seems like it would be a pretty dull story to me, though I suspect if someone were to pull it off they’d be sitting on an award-winner.

The Tragic versus the Anti-Tragic Hero

Have you ever wondered what the opposite of tragedy is? I sure have, and somehow “comedy” just does not cut it in my book. It has too many connotations of humor or slapstick. The Pevensies in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Taran in the Chronicles of Prydain, and the Brothers Grossbart in The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart are all heroic characters. They have agency, the narrative voice is compelling, and their moral values remain consistent throughout their stories. Yet none of them could rightly be considered tragic, nor could any of them be adequately described as comedic.

Which makes me long for something that is the opposite to the tragic hero, something I’ve taken to calling the anti-tragic hero for lack of a better term (yeah, I know…it’s a little ungainly: does anyone have any better suggestions?). Anti-tragic heroes can be found in any of the three heroic archetypes: aspirational (the Pevensies), observational (the Brothers Grossbart), or consequential (Cley). Some may be redemptive (Cley or Edmund Pevensie), but that is not at all necessary (e.g. the Brothers Grossbart or the remaining Pevensies).

The anti-tragic hero can be characterized as getting what we the reader believe they have earned through the exercise of their agency. Anti-tragic heroes generally behave according to the precepts of their value systems. The Pevensies’ values align well with standard Western values for good. The Grossbarts’ align well with standard Western values for bad. Cley – once he begins his redemptive quest – also aligns more with our concept of good. In each of these stories, the anti-tragic hero gets what the reader believes they deserve. The Pevensies, by their right and noble actions, become great kings and queens of Narnia. The Brothers Grossbart end up locked in a tomb – presumably for all time. Cley manages to make peace with his past sins and be reborn. Their fates align with our sense of justice, which may well be different from their own.

The Essence of Heroic Stories: Expectations, Values, and Choice

And this, I think, really distills the heart of what heroes and heroic fiction are all about. At the most basic level, heroic stories are all about values and expectations. When characters’ actions relate to their own value system, they become heroes. They may live up to their own expectations, aspire to the better parts of themselves, or struggle to live with their own choices. But they do so with the degree of drama and moral focus that defines them as heroes. Their actions elicit expectations on our part as readers: we want something good, bad, or ugly to happen to these heroic characters because we believe their actions have earned some measure of response. And the tension between the hero’s actions and their consequences within the story determines whether that hero becomes tragic or anti-tragic.

The Essence of Heroic Fiction

Works Mentioned / Used in this Post

Below is a list of the authors and titles that I found helpful in putting this together. It’s a list of pretty cool and interesting books, and I strongly recommend each and every single on of them for insight into the hero:

Non-fiction Fiction

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