Half-Formed Thoughts About Early American Epic Fantasy

One of the things that sometimes occurs as a result of an expanding range of voices and cultures in fantasy is a tendency to push the range of about twenty years ago or so into a box where we emphasise the homogeneity that existed and elide differences. The reasons are understandable, but differences there are.

Growing up, I didn’t particularly distinguish between whether a fantasy book was written by a Brit or American. Why would I? I wasn’t bothered by anything much other than whether I enjoyed it. There was a brief moment of “huh, that’s different” when encountering authors from other parts of the Anglosphere such as Canada and Australia, but American authors were common. No, beyond that, in a certain art form they were dominant, namely big chunky epic fantasy series with new releases.

I know why now. I know that American publishers, took by the success of Lord of the Rings, eventually experimented with publishing a brand new work with a lot of similarities in The Sword of Shannara and when it worked, kept on doing it. That wave of commercially successful Epic Fantasy was an American invention. I don’t know whether British publishers had cracks at finding a big success story there themselves but if they did, they never registered on my consciousness. We had Discworld, and the Drenai, and Fighting Fantasy books. That has, of course, changed, but even then it’s remarkable to note how many of the successful British Epic Fantasy authors of this millennium have trended a bit grimdark.

Looking back now, I don’t know why I didn’t realise how intensely American works like Wheel of Time, Belgariad, Riftwar, Shannara and so on were. Well, of course I do. I didn’t distinguish that hard between British and American. I’d never been to America. Never read academic works on fantasy and so on. Better to say, it looks really obvious now. What’s more, it’s fascinating how different their takes on the USA were.

Take Feist’s Riftwar. There’s a really obvious parallel for the Kingdom of the Isles, split into the sophisticated Eastern homeland and the Western pioneer lands, drawing numerous cultures together, isn’t there? Where’s the initial books set? In the West. Where’s Feist from? California. It’s fairly easy to see a celebration of American pioneer spirit in the woods of Crydee. It’s also easy to see a criticism of the American government in King Roderic, and maybe even a fear of the Japanese/Chinese in the Tsurani (I would hesitate to say the easy parallels mean anything). Feist shifted fairly quickly to other parts of the Kingdom and other foes and a form of fantasy that owes more to D&D than the world we know – although one could perhaps read something of US interventions in foreign wars in the journey of Calis’ Crimson Eagles. But it’s there.

Robert Jordan’s not from the west coast though. Oh no. He was from South Carolina, in particular Charleston, which does indeed nestle between two rivers. Yes, Rand Al’Thor’s homeland owes more than something to Tolkien’s Shire and an intention to provide the reader with a familiar experience (as indeed does Feist’s Crydee), but it’s definitely a southern version. The more time I spend in southern states, or even just on the edges of Appalachia, the more familiar the Wheel of Time feels. Of course, beyond that, there was Jordan’s determination to make a new mythology that drew from many sources, as that was what he found appropriate for an American mythology. There was a reference to the possibility of nuclear war between America and Russia. There was also a forging of cultures and nationalities together but here, it is painful.

David Eddings are also served up a rural homeland that drew from Tolkien’s shire. He saw Sendaria as being stereotypically rural English rather than any reflection of his own home; me, myself, can’t see much rural England there, but can see some obvious American parallels to a kingdom formed from multiple-ethnicities long after its neighbours. I think Eddings’ great fixation with East-West conflicts was the first time I ever saw a book concept and thought “goodness, that seems very of its time in some way”; the whole Overlord of the West thing feels very NATO.

Of course, there’s no reason Cold War thinking shouldn’t have permeated British writing and I daresay it has in places I don’t recognise. But it’s never felt pressing in the British fantasy fiction of that time. Authors like Gemmell and Moorcock appeared more interested in crumbling empires for some strange reason I can’t quite put my finger on. The questions of multi-cultural and ethnic societies appear, but Pratchett’s feud between trolls and dwarves arriving in the big city have a different feeling to the optimism one might see in Sendaria or the Kingdom of the Isles or Lackey’s Valdemar. Yes, some series did explore the darker side of a settler culture in an occupied land (see Kerr’s Deverry series), but more spoke to the achievement of fusing people from many lands with many languages into one identity.

But, I think if there’s one quality that really shines through from the American fantasy I consumed at that time, and which possibly fed into its huge success, is the sense of created mythology. Authors like Pratchett, Gemmell, Moorcock, Holdstock et al either seemed happy to dig into established mythology or just concentrate on the here and now of their fantasy worlds. We know very little about where the Drenai came from, or who founded Lancre. But authors like Jordan, like Martin, like Kerr and Lackey and Eddings had sprawling backstories fit to rival Tolkien. Is this a by-product of being a young country? Huge sprawling American epics because Arthur and Roland and Robin Hood and Finn MacCool aren’t American? I don’t think I’m the first to make the connection, and I don’t know whether smarter people than me have confirmed or refuted it (to their own satisfaction) but it’s a sensible and seductive theory.

Well. That’s one quality. The other is a certain disunity. Jordan’s southern-tinged series stands a little to the side of the midwestern/west coast sensibilities of many of his contemporaries. I don’t know whether to read much into the two greatest east coast fantasists of around that time (Martin and Kurtz) reaching heavily towards European history as opposed to more American reimaginings, but it’s there if anyone does. While many started their books with nods to Tolkien, different routes appeared afterwards, with many owing few debts to prior fantasy authors (although Leiber seems to be a commonality for at least Feist, Williams and Eddings) and bringing out the influences from writers like Faulkner, Dumas, Stevenson, and so on. While there are a great many similarities, there are also differences, subtle but important ones.

I wish I knew more about this and that this wasn’t a half-baked off the top of my head thing. Perhaps it will attract comment from those who do; perhaps in time I will write a better version. But looking back, it is fascinating to see how the Epic Fantasy pioneered by Eddison and Tolkien become such an American art form, with so many little permutations. The routes we take and the differences they print on us are always worthy of remembrance.

7 thoughts on “Half-Formed Thoughts About Early American Epic Fantasy

      1. I finally got round to this and found it very interesting. I’d love recs of academic works of fantasy, or current academic studying fantasy to look into, if you’ve got them.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I slightly lied. The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature is the only good general one I know. There’s a few specific ones – Luna Publishing do good work there – but nothing major that I’ve read.


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