Epic fantasy is back. Peter Jackson brought out an unprecedented work of filmmaking with the Lord of the Rings films. HBO is rolling out Game of Thrones based on the books of George RR Martin, the man dubbed “the American Tolkien” by Time magazine. The publishing industry is generating a huge number of similar titles by people like Pat Rothfuss, Joe Abercrombie, Brandon Sanderson, and – putting too fine a point on it – me, many of which are showing up on the bestseller’s lists.
The faux-Medieval world of dragons and knights seems like an odd genre to have caught our collective attention, but I think you can gauge a cultural moment by its guilty pleasures. The same way that our huge romance industry tells us something about our fears about love, and urban fantasies like True Blood and Anita Blake tell us something about our discomfort with femininity and power, the knights and orcs that got us laughed at in middle school are attracting literally billions of dollars. That means something interesting has happened.
We as a culture are anxious about something, and these particular stories comfort us. They say something that we, the audience are willing to pay a lot of money to hear but from a distance that we can stand to hear it.
In particular, our two Tolkiens are telling us that we’re tired of war.
The Lord of the Rings was written during the Second World War by a veteran of the first, and it is a story about disarming. The moral core that gives the books their power is that the tool that would end the war is in the hands of the protagonists from the beginning, but its use would corrupt them. Evil is at hand, and it is powerful. It will achieve your short-term goals, but at the cost of your soul. And in the end, almost everyone who touches that power is scarred by it. The books are absolutely, unquestionably about war – and even about just war – but they are melancholy. Tolkien’s vision isn’t triumphalist. It isn’t celebratory. And it spoke to us.
A Game of Thrones, the first book in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, wasn’t by any means the first high fantasy to follow Tolkien. There were generations of book between them by people like Terry Brooks and Stephen R. Donaldson and Raymond Feist. When it was published, it was greeted with only mild fanfare, and since then it has grown into an industry of its own. That’s important. What set Game of Thrones apart wasn’t the brilliant and subtle marketing campaigns around it. There weren’t any, and what there was didn’t differ much from the support given to a dozen other books. The drive behind its popularity was the response that readers have to it.
If Lord of the Rings is melancholy, Game of Thrones is bleak.
In the world Martin gives us, a terrible threat is growing, ripe with the promise of destroying civilization, and the vast majority of the action isn’t addressing it. Instead, the struggle and violence – including the slaughters of characters that in most other stories would be sacrosanct – is among the people vying for power in the shadow of apocalypse. It’s based on the War of the Roses, but the politics and perversity and tragic short-sightedness of the characters recall the worst of any war. Violence and conflict impinge on almost every page, and they are not made pretty, and readers (and soon, I suspect, viewers) respond to it like Martin is saying something we already knew but hadn’t put in words. There are dragons and tourneys and knights riding into battle and castles built on mountain cliffs so high they can barely be reached. It has all the set dressing of a fairy tale, and a moral center that speaks to weariness.
Because epic fantasy isn’t really back.
There are literally hundreds of fantasy novels that are part of this larger conversation. Not all of them involve war. Quite a few of them are adventure stories that celebrate violence, or more often treat it as something unreal and without cost. These aren’t the projects that are reaching outside the usual genre readers to talk to the wider audience. If there were a market for the celebration of warfare, we’d have any number of options inside epic fantasy. That isn’t what people are responding to. We have no appetite for Conan bathing in the blood of his enemies.
When Eddard Stark tells his son that it is the responsibility of a nobleman to face the man he has condemned and swing the sword himself, he’s evoking a leadership of profound personal responsibility that has not existed in my lifetime. When Sam Gamgee returns to the Shire to find it changed and debased in his absence, he’s echoing the veterans coming back to their homes and families and finding that they no longer fit the way they once did. And, I have to think, Tolkien’s own experience.
Epic fantasy, with few exceptions, is about war. And the best epic fantasy offers more than escapism, more than comfort food. The best is consoling. The stories of kings restored or fallen, of evil defeated or triumphant, are a place that all of us can sit with our discomfort and our weariness and our wish better world. Whether we think Iraq was a fiasco or an honest mistake, whether we’ve lost family in Afghanistan or don’t know a single serviceman or woman, the United States remains in the longest war in our history. Its effect on us as a culture is coming out in our dreams and in the stories we go to for entertainment and escape.
And when I go to the Westeros forums, epicenter of epic fantasy fandom, the book I see most universally praised isn’t Terry Goodkind or Brandon Sanderson. It’s not one of the classics like Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series or Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.
It’s a book by Karl Marlantes. Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War.