WTF is Epic?

A Google image search for “epic” yields depressing results—mostly “demotivational” posters (“epic fail” and “epic win”), and most of those prominently featuring breasts. (Go internet?) A standard search yields only slight improvements: the primary results are Epic Systems, the movie “Epic” (loosely based on a book by William Joyce), and, eventually, Wikipedia’s epic poetry page.

That gets us closer to a working definition of epic for storytelling purposes. (Today, at least, I’ll spare you the detour explaining Bakhtin’s notion of epic and novelistic chronotope.) What makes for epic storytelling? Is it attitude? Does the fate of the world (or multiple worlds) necessarily hang in the balance? Can we legitimately call one protagonist’s descent and redemption epic if it doesn’t involve saving the world? They’re big questions, and off the cuff I’d suggest that the main ingredient is simply scale. There has to be some sense that the story’s action has far-reaching consequences, whether it’s a ring of power, finding the Buddhist scrolls far to the west, or some evil deity ready to be unchained. Sometimes, if the interior worlds of characters are sufficiently realized, the interpersonal can become epic in scale.

Scale is tricky. Concerning yourself overmuch with it can lead to forest/trees issues in which you constantly lose one or the other. What follows is a discussion of one particular way of mistaking the forest for the trees, the storytelling technique I call “epic by addition.”

Some of you have heard me talk (rant) about this before, and you know which author is soon going to be in my crosshairs. Epic by addition is the attempt to create scale simply by adding more stuff. People, places, monsters…keep adding them until your editor cuts you off.* You can simply introduce new characters out of the blue, or you can build up the supporting cast into stars. The more stars you have, the brighter the sky, right?

Yeah. Maybe not. If you put too many bright stars in the sky, picking out the constellations becomes a chore.

From J.R.R. to G.R.R.

The first author I read to really embrace epic by addition was Melanie Rawn. She had foreigners invade her continent, and chose to trace that invasion through the soap-opera members of convoluted family tree of magic people. The most famous purveyor of epic by addition, though, is G.R.R. Martin in his A Song of Ice and Fire. The series’ narrative spirals out from Winterfell to the Wall to King’s Landing to Pentos to…well, pretty much everywhere. Along the way, Mr. Martin continues to give us new characters, not only including them in the story but featuring them as point-of-view characters. We get each character for a chapter, then jump somewhere far away to check in with the local haps.

I do not think Martin is a bad writer. His prose is generally crisp. Many of his characters are compelling (although few are likable). The books read briskly considering their heroic length. I just wish he’d get on with his story. I feel that I’ve lost track of what that is.

As a thought experiment, imagine The Lord of the Rings—usually acknowledged as the grandfather of epic fantasy—retold in Martin’s style.

The Fellowship of the Ring, I think, changes little. We start perhaps with Bilbo’s view of the party. Or begin (as Tolkien does) by gradually zooming in on Frodo. We might get some Samwise or Meriadoc or Pippin in the flight from the riders and into the Old Forest. Frodo again for the Barrow Downs. Aragorn, probably, for the misadventures in Bree and the hike to Weathertop. Frodo again there, then probably Sam up to Rivendell. We might get Elrond for the grand council, Boromir for Caradhras. Gandalf, almost certainly, for Moria, although you could excuse the Istari from POV duties and stick to Aragorn or Gimli. And so on and so forth until we end, similarly to the original, with Sam finding Frodo at the boats.

The Two Towers…that is where we start to lose it. The surviving members of the Fellowship all get their own chapters. We get one for Eomer, one for Eowyn as she leads the women and children away from Meduseld. Smeagollum gets his own chapter(s). Aragorn and Gimli and Legolas and maybe even Theoden. We get a chapter from Isengard by Saruman, maybe. Or perhaps that one comes from Wormtongue. We interrupt the string of Frodo-Sam-Smeagollum with a chapter from Faramir. (We also mix them all together rather than holding to Tolkien’s Orthanc/Barad Dur split.)

When the War of the Ring really gets rolling in The Return of the King? Can you imagine? We’d get chapters from all the remaining fellowship members. Eomer, Eowyn, maybe Theoden again if we’ve heard from him. Certainly several from Faramir. We’d probably get detailed accounts of battles that are skimmed over, like the ones leading up to Pelennor Fields. We’d hear all about Imrahil of Dol Amroth. If we’re hewing particularly close to Martin’s oeuvre, we likely have at least some politicking about who will lead Gondor. If we embrace epic by addition wholeheartedly, we skip back up to Esgaroth, Dale, and the Lonely Mountain to have a look at how they again fight off an invasion of orcs, and other material from Appendix B. It would almost certainly take two books to deal with it all…

…and it would drown Frodo’s quest. Among all those other momentary protagonists, the struggle of two small hobbits to cross Mordor would be difficult indeed to keep in focus. No matter how exciting it might be moment to moment, no matter how cool the characters, we would not have the same story. That is what bothers me about epic by addition. It muddies the shape of the story. You lose the forest in painstaking descriptions of individual trees.

Build your world. Set your characters loose in it. Don’t try to fill in all the corners.

*Related pet theory: authors hit a dangerous point when, on the covers of their books, their name is bigger than the work’s title. That seems to be about the time editors begin backing off.

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