Why do we have “the usual” fantasy stories?

If you read online reviews of fantasy books, you tend to see a lot of comments about “typical fantasy”. Reviewers have mixed opinions about some of mainstream fantasy’s most well-known fixtures — such as elves, dwarves, wizards, orcs, and the combination thereof.

Something like this! (Image cobbled together from OpenClipArt.org images.)

Something like this! (Image cobbled together from OpenClipArt.org images. I won’t lie: the cutting and pasting was fun.)

Fantasy has existed since humans first started telling stories. Legends, monsters and epic adventure stories were around long before paperbacks were ever printed. But J. R. R. Tolkien’s works came along and codified the Western fantasy genre. The Lord of the Rings set a precident in the entertainment market and made the general public aware of fantasy as something other than assorted fairy tales. Naturally, other people were inspired by Tolkien’s vision of elves, dwarves and noble quests (or they were at least interested in ripping them off to make money). When movies and video games came along, those media were also happy to adopt the ideas of humanoid races waging wars to save the world.

Over the last 70-ish years, we’ve seen many slight variations on Tolkien’s worldbuilding. A lot of people are unaware that fantasy is anything but some sword-wielding medieval guys battling to save the world. Maybe those people read a few poorly-crafted Tolkien knockoffs with cardboard characters, and decided that all fantasy stories are the same. But fantasy is a form of speculative fiction. Shouldn’t it speculate? Shouldn’t it grow, and break new ground, and explore new ideas?

Sure, it should. And new niches can and do emerge. Just look at how urban fantasy and paranormal romance are their own recognized, defined categories now. And how China Miéville is strongly associated with the New Weird concept of fantasy, which has similarities to urban sci-fi.

But fantasy literature naturally has its roots in the past. Fantasy embodies legends, mythology and traditional ways. Fantasy takes us back to simpler times when the world couldn’t be fully understood: that’s generally what distinguishes fantasy from science fiction. So the settings, struggles and creatures of fantasy are often things we recognize and know off by heart — even though they’re not even real. Maybe the reuse of elves and dwarves is just a kind of nostalgia. Like visiting old friends, or rereading Shakespeare’s classics.

A reprinted version of Beowulf, one of the most prominent stories in Anglo-Saxon history and one of Tolkien's sources of inspirations.

A reprinted version of Beowulf, one of the most prominent stories in Anglo-Saxon history and one of Tolkien’s sources of inspiration.

Sometimes people compliment my Stories of Aligare by saying that they’re not like “the usual” fantasy stories — as though it’s still rare to find a fantasy book that doesn’t crib all its ideas and furnishings from Mr. Tolkien. I mean, I do appreciate the thought that my magical secondary world is pleasingly different. Scraping out a new niche is exactly what I’m trying to do. But it always makes me sad that fantasy literature has this well-worn cliché haunting its image.

It’s one thing if modern writers choose to tell classically styled stories of men, elves and dwarves. I think we should be innovating more than that, but that’s just my opinion and I’m sure plenty of readers disagree. Maybe the problem is the very fact that fantasy is getting so many subgenres? If a story doesn’t have a clearly demarkated category like “romance involving a supernatural being”, it often falls into the catch-all category called Fantasy: General. And what do we think of when we imagine a general fantasy story? Yep, probably something like Middle Earth. (And we probably don’t remember all of Tolkien’s hard work and craftsmanship, which is a whole other bucket of unfortunateness.)

I wonder what the next few decades will bring. What’s going to happen when werewolves, vampires and Harry Potter are considered old archetypes? Will Lord of the Rings fade from influence, or only become more tightly tied into our ideas of mystical worlds? Personally, I’m just going to keep looking for new twists. It’s great to have roots, and fine to be inspired by classics, but fantasy still has a lot of space to grow into.

There’s more reading materal coming out every day, from independents and dark horses of all varieties. And fantasy can touch on any subject we can imagine. In my lifetime, I hope to see the idea of a “usual fantasy story” cease to mean anything.

Related articles:

Origin of the term “adventurer” (heidicvlach.com)

What do dragons represent to us? (heidicvlach.com)

Writing gods I don’t believe in: how atheism gets along with fantasy (heidicvlach.com)


3 Comments on “Why do we have “the usual” fantasy stories?”

  1. […] Why do we have “the usual” fantasy stories? (heidicvlach.com) […]

  2. […] Why do we have “the usual” fantasy stories? […]

  3. […] ties into my thought that “typical fantasy” should be an oxymoron. Sure, it’s sad to be a zircon, a material with nowhere near as much merit as the stone it […]


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