Realising the Dream: The Story of Epic Fantasy

Author: Ashleigh Michelle Ward

Ward, Ashleigh Michelle, 2011 Realising the Dream: The Story of Epic Fantasy, Flinders University, School of Humanities and Creative Arts

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Inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, epic fantasy was established as a commercially viable subgenre in 1977 with the publication of Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara and Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. While enormously successful in commercial terms, epic fantasy has faced persistent critical neglect. This thesis begins to redress this neglect by exploring the critical potential of epic fantasy. To that end, this thesis tells the story of epic fantasy, from its origins in The Lord of the Rings, to its establishment in the 1970s, to its status today as a successful and sophisticated subgenre. It traces both variations and continuities in narrative and theme as the subgenre develops, with a particular focus on the relationship between fantasy and reality, or, more specifically, the fantastic and mimetic narrative modes. Rather than attempt to survey the entire subgenre, this thesis instead focuses on a small number of some of the most well-known examples, in order to more thoroughly explore the different approaches taken by each author as they write into an established commercial subgenre. In part, the approaches taken in this thesis have developed in response to two of the major assumptions about epic fantasy: that it is escapist and that it is formulaic. So, the assumption that fantasy texts are inherently escapist, and that 'realism' thus equals relevance, led to a desire to explore the complex relationship between fantasy and reality in epic fantasy. And, the assumption that genre fiction is by definition formulaic led to a desire to explore the ways in which epic fantasists have worked within the narrow boundaries of generic expectations in order to produce something unique. Along with analyses of The Lord of the Rings, Sword of Shannara, and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, this thesis examines three other epic fantasies: David Eddings' The Belgariad, Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time, and Robin Hobb's The Farseer Trilogy. These texts have deliberately been chosen because they share a large number of generic features, which are themselves some of the most recognisable of the subgenre. However, this thesis demonstrates that even within the generic, some might say formulaic, strictures of one of the most common models of epic fantasy, there is room for significant creative expression. Furthermore, there is also a continuity in the subgenre that goes beyond the generic narrative features: certain themes have been consistently prominent in epic fantasy since its very beginnings, themes such as the fear of death and the desire for immortality, the responsibilities of power, the immutability of fate, and the role of stories in our lives and world. While the generic features of epic fantasy may tie the subgenre together at the surface level, it is these underlying thematic threads which truly tell the story of epic fantasy. Ultimately, this thesis demonstrates that epic fantasy is capable of great narrative and thematic sophistication, and is thus deserving of further critical attention.

Keywords: fantasy,epic fantasy,popular fiction,genre,J.R.R. Tolkien,Stephen R. Donadson,Terry Brooks,David Eddings,Robert Jordan,Robin Hobb

Subject: Creative Arts thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2011
School: School of Humanities and Creative Arts
Supervisor: Dr Dymphna Lonergan