Posts tagged ‘fantasy literature’

Monday Masterclass: the length of fantasy stories

Fantasy novels are renowned for being massive tomes – this week’s Monday Masterclass will look at the reasons why.

There are two different but closely related phenomena under examination here. One is the size of individual books, and one is multi-volume series – especially ones telling a single story. Other genres have their fair share of not-so-slim volumes; they also have plenty of multi-book series featuring the same character or characters. Fantasy, more than any other genre, however, puts both together in the service of a single narrative.

Tom Clancy may have written several fat Jack Ryan stories, but they are standalone tales that don’t need to be read in numerical order to be appreciated. Fantasy series do.

Examples

Although published as a trilogy, and generally thought of that way, J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was written as and intended to be read as a single novel – a thousand page novel.

Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time is a fourteen book series (the last three books being completed by Brandon Sanderson since the author’s death), with a word count of over four million words.

Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen consists of ten volumes of between 700 and 1200 pages each, with additional related short stories by the author and novels by Ian Cameron Esslemont.

Publishing Reasons

So why do fantasy authors put out such big volumes? One could argue that the size of a novel is simply part of the fantasy idiom, that contemporary fantasists write according to the model established by The Lord of the Rings. This is not a great answer, though.

Perhaps the best answer is simply financial: big books – big series of big books – sell. There is clearly a demand for doorstop novels – not just in fantasy, but in crime, mystery, thriller, horror, science fiction and historical novels. People enjoy reading substantial volumes – especially people who read quickly, and who read lots of books. And people who read lots of books often buy lots of books.

There is also the fact that nothing succeeds like success. Both Robert Jordan and George R R Martin (author of A Song of Ice and Fire – five books so far written of a projected seven, including one so long it had to be published in two parts) originally conceived their most famous works as trilogies. The commercial success of their work gave them and their publishers the green light to expand their stories beyond three books, knowing that avid fans would buy all successive volumes.

Another factor that leads on from this is that success breeds bloat. The more successful an author is, the more power they have in the author-publisher relationship. So much so that editors of the most successful authors may be afraid to edit their work as ruthlessly as they would a début novelist. The first of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (called The Sorcerer’s Stone in America as Americans are clearly afraid of philosophers) was little more than 200 pages longs; the final volume, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was more like 800 pages long.

Writing Reasons

There is another set of reasons fantasy novels are so big, and these revolve around the technical aspects of writing fantasy, the ways in which fantasy differs from other genres.

The first and foremost of these reasons is worldbuilding. A novel set in the real world and containing no magical or supernatural elements doesn’t require as much effort to establish and explain the world as a fantasy novel does. A fantasy writer will create continents, cities, races, creatures, systems of magic, politics, society etc, etc, all of which may need to be dwelt on to some degree in order for the reader to understand fully what is going on.

Much writing advice warns against long expository sections of writing – ‘infodump’ – but I think many genre readers – whether fantasy or science fiction or thriller or what have you – actually enjoy such passages (within reason). This leads on to another reason for fantasy obesity: part of the attraction of this genre is the sense of immersiveness some stories achieve. Reading a fantasy novel can involve more than simply appreciating the interplay of characters and plot, but can be a kind of holiday to exotic lands, a lesson in hypothetical biology, physics or sociology. Skilfully done, an extended word count contributes to this.

Fantasy stories tend towards the epic – and epic pretty much means long. Epic stories have huge casts of characters – The Wheel of Time has thousands – they take place over a long period of time and occupy a large amount of space. The characters in fantasy books often have to travel long distances from nation to nation and land to land. They often fight in battles, in wars, and interact with hierarchies of soldiers, nobles, mages and so on. They also need to change drastically from their original personality – often growing wiser and darker; such character changes need time and space to portray realistically.

Reader Reasons

One reason publishers put out long series is that fans want to read them. Readers of fantasy novels get attached to the stories, characters and events they read, and eagerly await the release of the next volume. In a sense, long fantasy series are a kind of literary soap opera.

I’ve been reading The Wheel of Time since shortly after the publication of the first volume back in the early 90s, and my interest in the series has survived the decline in quality, the train wreck of a book that was Crossroads of Twilight, the death of the author and the mediocrity of the new author’s continuation. I will still read the final volume when it comes out, even though I fear I may not enjoy it that much. Why? Out of a sense of loyalty and a desire for closure.

Also, I suspect the average age of a fantasy reader is younger than for pretty much any other genre. Children, teenagers, young adults have more free time to read these massive stories. They don’t have jobs, they don’t have children to look after. Time itself seems to pass more slowly for younger people. A story that can be happily read for hours and days on end has great appeal if you have the time to dedicate to it.

Conclusion

There are many reasons why fantasy books and stories are so big – and many of these reasons are closely interdependent – supply and demand fuel each other. A long book can be a double-edged sword: if you love the book, you don’t want it to end; if it’s rubbish, on the other hand, finishing it can be a punishing slog.

Ultimately, I think fantasy writers enjoy having a large palette upon which to paint the world they’ve created and all the characters and the epic stuggle that constitutes the plot. And fantasy readers appreciate the effort that’s gone into creating a living, breathing secondary world. And publishers, of course, like selling book after book of the same story, knowing there is a ready-made audience for each new one.

What are your thoughts on the length of fantasy stories? And what are your favourite fantasy doorstoppers? Share your brains with the world.

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Monday Masterclass: Barbarians in Fantasy

Contemporary fantasy aside, most works of fantasy depict a world with a much lower level of technology than our own world. Fantasy secondary worlds are often quasi-Medieval, or depict worlds similar to the Renaissance or to the civilisations of Ancient Greece or Rome. The plot will generally be set in or centred around the most advanced part of the world, but will incorporate a common fantasy trope: the barbarian.

 

Etymology

The word barbarian today means an uncivilised person with strong connotations of savagery and cruelty, but its original definition – it come from the Greek barbaros – was simply ‘foreign, non-Greek’. The word was an onomatopeic representation of how foreigners spoke (either their own language or Greek).

The name of the Berbers of north Africa comes from the same root, as does ‘Barbary Coast’ (ie, coastal north Africa). Even the female name ‘Barbara’ is related – probably because of the many female foreign slaves in Ancient Greece.

Example in Fantasy

The most famous fantasy barbarian of all is, of course, Conan – who was created by Robert E Howard in the early twentieth century and has been the hero of many stories by subsequent authors, including Robert Jordan, Lin Carter and L Sprague de Camp. Conan is a native of the northern land of Cimmeria, and his people are based on ancient Indo-Europeans and Celts; the Cimmerians are also descendants of the Atlanteans, although they have no memory of this heritage. Their land is gloomy and mountainous and the Cimmerians are an extremely hardy people. While they are a primitive, tribal race, they also have a strong sense of justice – which, in the tales of Conan’s exploits, is contrasted with the decadence and corruption of more civilised lands.

Fafhrd in Fritz Leiber’s stories such as ‘Ill Met in Lankhmar’ is another prominent barbarian northman. Terry Pratchett satirises the trope with his Cohen the Barbarian, an elderly warrior who laments the passing of a heroic age. Cnaiür urs Skiötha in R Scott Bakker’s The Prince of Nothing series is a Scylvendi barbarian whose homeland is between the largely unpopulated northern regions from where the preternaturally insightful Anasûrimbor Kellhus hails and the civilised lands around the Three Seas.

In A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin, the Dothraki are barbarian horsemen of the eastern continent who are led initially by the Khal Drogo, a man who whose extremely long braid signifies that he has never been beaten in battle. A khal is the leader of a band called a khalasar (Drogo is, coincidentally (maybe), the name of Frodo Baggins’s father). The Dothraki are nomads and skilled riders who who literally and figuratively live on their horses and who complement their lifestyles by raiding.

The Aiel of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time are a barbarian (or barbarian-like) people who live in a desert to the east of the main setting of the story. Although to most of the westerners they are barbarians, their civilisation is actually quite advanced. They live by a strict code of honour and women can become warriors – in fact only women can own property, but only men can become clan leaders. They are highly skilled warriors, but never use any weapon that is solely used for combat (ie, swords).

Analysis

Fantasy barbarians are part of the literary tradition of the noble savage. The noble savage (originally, the word savage didn’t have the negative connotations of cruelty and brutality, but indicated ‘wildness’ in the sense of belonging to nature) is an individual from a less technologically advanced culture who yet has an advanced moral sense. It is both a romanticisation of the primitive and a critique of a morally bankrupt western culture. Primitive peoples have been viewed in two opposing ways. There is ‘hard’ primitivism, which posits a tough, brutal life in which people are continually fighting against each other, other tribes, the environment; and there is ‘soft’ primitivism, in which people live simple, pastoral lives and are innocent of the vices of civilisation. The key element to the debate is whether humans are innately moral and good, or whether they require the civilising influence of education, law and religion to make them such.

In terms of fantasy, barbarians are, in a way, doubly appealing. Part of the attraction of fantasy, for many, is that the quasi-medieval settings often portrayed represent a return to a simpler age when life hadn’t been corrupted by technology and good and evil were absolutes that had real meaning. The barbarian represents this desire for a simpler life in its most basic form. The barbarian is a natural man – an animal being with the advantages of sentience, but none of the disadvantages of civilisation. In Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, for instance, the only likeable viewpoint characters – the only ones without moral flaws – are the northmen Logen and the Dogman.

On the other hand, barbarians in fantasy fiction could be seen as representing the Other in the worst way. Most fantasy is Eurocentric; barbarians are from far off lands – usually from the north or the east – which the light of civilisation has yet to illuminate. In The Lord of the Rings – work generally regarded as being the epitome of world-building – swarthy men from the east – Easterlings – fight for Sauron … and that’s pretty much all we know about them.

Conclusion

Ultimately, I think the barbarian is popular because of his (and he usually is a he) status as an outsider who is uncorrupted by the vices of civilisation. He is a strong, fearsome warrior, he is misunderstood, he is quick to anger; he may be selfish, but he possesses a strong moral code that always chooses right in the end. For fans of fantasy – who, as a general rule, are not the bravest, burliest bunch – he is the ideal vessel of escapism.

What other fictional barbarians do you know? What does the barbarian mean to you? I’d love to know what you think.