This is a series of articles I have long wanted to write, to analyze and discuss all things fantasy. My hope is that, if you people like it, Talking Fantasy will get a new article every 4-6 weeks.
Let’s get into it. What is Heroic Fantasy? Well, before Malazan Book of the Fallen, before A Song of Ice and Fire and even before Black Company, when gritty (or realistic) fantasy was hardly yet conceived, fantasy was about worlds that right and wrong were notions easily discernible from each other. About heroes that never found themselves torn between moral decisions because, there was no Grey area between Good and Evil.
These books are about characters the reader can relate with and villains he can despise. With every page turn and with every chapter end, the hero (or heroes) sticks with his code and pursues his goals, never using means not well justified, never taking morally ambiguous actions. Most often, the mission involves saving the world from ending (either from a Dark Lord ready to overrun every innocent creature with his vast armies of unholy minions or even from a natural disaster) and the ending is (more or less) happy (if not for the hero, then definitely for the world). One could say that Heroic Fantasy is the most romantic of the fantasy sub-genres, without, of course, losing its depth.
But there lies its biggest drawback. That kind of story can easily turn out to be pompous and exaggerated. The hero can have one too many (conveniently acquired) powers, the plot driven by one too many dei ex machina. Characters tend to be either extremely self-righteous or unnecessary evil. Also, some situations can turn up to be a little too unrealistic due to the nature of the world (e.g. the heroes might not even think twice killing a man serving a Dark Lord, seemingly oblivious by the fact that he may have a family). And mainly, those are the reasons that the aforementioned realistic fantasy genre is all the hype these days.
Let’s take Wheel of Time for instance, which happens to be the first fantasy series I ever read after Lord of the Rings (and my personal favorite). The first book in the series, The Eye of the World, features three coming of age village boys as protagonists, among them a farmer and an apprentice blacksmith. All three of them are marked with a great destiny and are vital for the survival of the Light. The world is being threatened by the Dark One (the essence of Evil in the cosmos and our Dark Lord) who is trying to escape his prison and remake the world in his own image (and there goes our world-end plot). Characters in the series can be either good (or “following the Light”) or evil (“Darkfriends”) and that’s definitive. No middle ground, no gray area. Of course that doesn’t mean that “good” characters can’t be assholes or “evil” characters can’t be (somewhat) compassionate at times. And there you have it. Good Heroic fantasy in a gist.
On the other hand we have the Sword of Truth series. I’ve only managed to read the first two books in the series, so I would apologize in advance for what I’m about to write, if the rest of the series picks up. So same concept here, an old man living alone in the woods turns out to be this great wizard who in turn reveals to a farm boy that his destiny is greater that he believed. An Evil warlord threatens to conquer all and so our quest begins. But here is where everything is going wrong. It appears that no destiny is great enough for our protagonist, always discovering new (convenient) powers within himself or his ancestors. His view of life, the universe and everything, is always the most pure and right one and everyone even doubting that fact is almost immediately characterized as evil and is struck down. Our Dark Warlord is unnecessarily cruel and evil just to convince us how badass he is. And that’s the other end of the stick.
For all of you interested in reading stories epic in scale, tales depicting heroes full of courage and passion or legends about benevolent heroes sacrificing themselves then Heroic Fantasy is your thing. Yes, all those things may sound a bit cliché but they are cliché for a reason; good Heroic Fantasy is that reason. Just think of classics like Lord of the Rings, The Worm Ouroboros (possibly the first modern Heroic Fantasy novel written) and Earthsea Cycle.