‘Epic’ can describe many things, whether classical history, Hollywood films about the fall of the Roman Empire or a fantasy series.
Fantasy stories often have some epic qualities. Lengthy and perilous journeys are commonplace, as is the potential end of the world and huge wars. The Lord of the Rings is a good example, with Sauron, the destruction of the One Ring and the various large scale battles in Gondor.
There are sound reasons for this. A big journey enables characters and relationships between them to develop, and gives the writer a great opportunity to show off the fantastical world they’ve created. The potential for the downfall of civilisation and the ultimate triumph of evil is a simple and effective way of introducing a driving force for the plot and dramatic tension.
There are some pitfalls, though. For a start, the world ending is amongst the least original of storylines, second only to the princess in need of rescue. It can also be challenging to create an entire world that’s not either a bit bland and too realistic or too similar to worlds written of by others. Certain archetypes can quite freely be copied (dragons, elves, dwarves, gunpowder just about being discovered), but if anybody started writing about a giant bull-fire-demon with a whip called a gorlab people probably wouldn’t be too impressed.
Fantasy often deals in trilogies, which is handy for something epic, as three books of (often) 500-800 pages is plenty of space to describe a world, ultimate peril and a big war.
There is, however, one series (as yet unfinished) which makes a trilogy, or even The Lord of the Rings itself, look a bit diminutive. A Song of Ice and Fire is brilliantly written, but the last instalment (A Feast For Crows) did make me wonder if George RR Martin had overreached himself. The scale is massive on any level (size/detail of the world, cast list, events, page/word count). The last book dealt with only half the cast and was widely considered to be a step down from the stellar quality of the preceding books.
The series has a very large number of significant characters and a spider’s web of inter-connected and fascinating storylines. But there’s got to come a point when a story just becomes too unwieldy, and the number of characters hinders rather than helps the plot.
My hope is that A Dance With Dragons, out shortly, will allay my fears and that Mr. Martin, who has a tremendous talent for writing, returns to his very best form. I suspect we’ll find out one way or another whether he’s over-egged the cake when it comes out in July.