That was EPIC!

The fastest way to start a literary nerd fight? Say X fantasy book is/is not epic fantasy. Epic fantasy may be the poorest defined genre currently being published1. I think this is a result of the '80s/'90s where almost all fantasy published was epic fantasy. Epic fantasy was so pervasive within the genre that epic fantasy = fantasy. There wasn't a heaping of sword and sorcery or just plain old fashioned fantasy. Which leads to the confusion today of what counts as epic.

It would be nice to be able to say that the definition remains the same and it's just the education of the audience that is lacking, but nerd fights over genre boundaries always end up challenging the fundamental nature of epic's definition.

Epic used to be matter of scope. The threat was world-threatening and the journey was world-spanning. The stakes were the highest they could be ("evil power rises and destroys the world!!!!") and the hero would leave his modest beginnings to distant lands never dreamed of to return a changed person ("I was a prince this entire time and no one told me!"). Most often epic fantasy is said to be the genre that models itself after the Hero's Journey.

These are where the challenges come in. If the threat is to the microcosm of the protagonist's world, isn't that just as great as the entire world being threatened? And to travel across the breadth of that microcosm, isn't that the same as traveling across the entire world?

What gets me about these kinds of challenges is the imperativeness that such focused stories be quantified as epic fantasy. It's an innate desire of a fantasy author to be compared to the icons of the craft, those authors that inspired us to pick up a pen in our youths. And with the exception of Robert E. Howard, all those authors are epic fantasists. Tolkien, Goodkind, Jordan, Williams. All of them published tomes of work that devastated their worlds and enthralled ours.

If we don't write epic fantasy, how can we be as good (or better!) than they were? So everything we write has to be epic, even if that means we need a hammer to drive the peg into that hole.

I don't think it's the definition of epic that is in question, but our own psychological need to be compared to our heroes that fuels the epic argument. But there are some fuzzy lines. Someone suggested that Harry Potter was an epic fantasy. After I stopped my gut reaction of "nuh uh!"2, I began to question whether or not that was possible. Harry certainly has a Hero's Journey. He travels to new worlds, and Voldemort wants to destroy the entire world, wizard and muggle alike. But really, the distance Harry travels is very minimal. Not even the breadth of the British Isles. That lends itself to the epic nature of a microcosm adventure.

As I ponder that, I wonder, does it matter? It's easy to define the Lord of the Rings trilogy as epic. Memory, Sorry, and Thorn. A Song of Ice and Fire. There is no pondering there. Those are EPIC, in every measure of the genre. But can't there be just a regular fantasy genre? Lois McMaster Bujold's CURSE OF CHALLION I call fantasy instead of epic fantasy. It's good fantasy, but not world spanning or world threatening. The fact that it is not epic fantasy does not diminish the quality of the story.

So in the end, I don't have an absolute argument. I can certainly pick out the easy ones. But the middle gray area is open to discussion. In the end, I come down to "How much does it really matter?" Perhaps its just a matter of ego and not a matter of importance.

1 Other than literary fiction which focuses more on language and depth rather than any kind of genre hierarchy. I did not say literary was the poorest defined genre because a lot of genre books that publishers don't want to pigeonhole into that genre end up in literary rather than the appropriate genre in an attempt to widen the target market. As such, it is disqualified for cheating.

2 Can a YA story also be an epic fantasy story? YA is more a demographic than a true genre. Same with middle grade. It informs some choices that will be present in regard to swearing and sex and (supposedly) violence. But otherwise, YA is actually an adjective. YA fantasy, YA mystery, etc. There's no reason HP can't be YA epic fantasy. But then, you don't normally see epic fantasy tagged onto a modern fantasy setting. That usually lends itself to urban fantasy. Plenty of fodder for argument all around.