Epic Fantasy

Stephen Donaldson’s essay on Epic Fantasy is a must read.

An excerpt, where he’s talking about Tolkien:

He restored the epic to English literature. Roughly a century after the epic became an impossible literary form, he made it possible to write epics again.

But — a crucial but — he did it by divorcing his work entirely from the real world, by insisting that there is no connection between the metaphors of fantasy and the facts of the modern reality, by rejecting allegory. He claimed that his work was pure fantasy, that it existed solely for itself. And the subtext of that assertion is that it is indeed possible for us to dream about heroism and transcendental love, about grandeur of identity in all its manifestations — but only if we distinguish absolutely between the epic vision and who we actually are as human beings. Tolkien restored our right to dream epic dreams — but only if we understand clearly that those dreams have no connection to the reality of who we are and what we do.

This accounts, I think, for the strange blend of beauty and sorrow in Lord of the Rings. The story is beautiful, the world is beautiful, the characters are beautiful, the magic and the mystery are beautiful – but they aren't us. And we respond to the story and the world, the characters and the magic and the mystery, because we haven't had things like that in our literature for a long time. At the same time, we can't help grieving, as Tolkien himself grieved. Even his own epic characters weren't able to sustain the vision.

Go read the whole thing.