Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Why I Like My Fantasy Ole Skool
(In Defense of All Things Elvish)

By Eric West
©2002, Eric West


For many people, Tolkien was the beginning of fantasy.  Oh you may talk about Lord Dunsany, William Morris and George MacDonald, but the simple fact is that most of us wouldn't know what fantasy was if not for Lord of the Rings.

So why is it that lately I've encountered so much disdain for authors who wish to carry on in the tradition Tolkien built?  People act as if these writers finished reading the last pages of Return of the King and wished desperately that there were more.

I can recall that moment when I chose to write Tolkienesque fantasy quite vividly.  It was a rainy afternoon, and I'd just discovered that all those pages at the back of the book were appendixes.  Tracking down my mother, I asked her if there were any more stories about hobbits.

When her answer brought tears to my eyes, she added, "But you could write some."

Thus began a hobby that developed into an obsession.  During those long years, I soon discovered the fantasy section of the library and devoured Terry Brooks and David Eddings, Piers Anthony and Raymond Feist.  Each of them amazed and delighted me, pulling me into magical worlds where I could forget for a while about the rather mundane and sometimes-ghastly one I was living in.

When I was frustrated with school, I had somewhere wonderful to turn.  Depressed by my parent's divorce, for a while I could bury myself in the stories and forget.  After being picked on by a bully, I could read about unlikely heroes triumphing over far greater evils.

But fantasy wasn't just an escape.  Because of my exposure to fantastic story elements, I've been a more open-minded person -- one not locked into a rigid world-view, but constantly allowing myself to be wonder-struck by the surprises life reveals.

Fantasy's recurring themes have found their way into my personal philosophy:  Everyman can achieve the impossible; self-doubt is an obstacle to success; great power always comes with a great cost.

As a student of mythology, I've read about the Greek Gods and the Native American Spirits.  I've studied the Bhagavad Gita, and the African Anansi tales.  But the legends I've always enjoyed the most are the folk tales, myths and fairy tales of my European ancestors.

I think I've been drawn to them in a longing for cultural identity.  While many other ethnic groups have a strong sense of heritage, those of us with Celtic/Anglo/Norse backgrounds often don't.

So it's no small wonder that I find something powerful in The Mabinogion and the Icelandic Sagas, and that I crave stories that grew out of those mythos.

In other genres, following a form that produces pleasure reliably isn't just all right; it's a requirement.  Try publishing a romance without the Happily-Ever-After ending and see how far you get, or write a mystery that doesn't give the reader any clues, and I doubt you'll find an audience.  But in fantasy, following in the footsteps of those who have gone before gets labeled cliché, whether it is or not.

The best definition I've ever been given of cliché is "that which is so familiar the reader glosses over it."  If the story brings a smile to my face, can it really be cliché?

However many plots there are in the world, (and I've heard there are as few as three and as many as forty,) they've all been used before.  But authors can bring something unique to stories that have been told a thousand times before.  They can give themselves.

I also enjoy some of the "non-traditional" fantasy, that which draws on non-Western mythologies, or creates brand new ones.  China Meiville left me speechless and Neil Gaiman is definitely a writing god.  But when I want to spend a long afternoon under the covers, I'll take a book that will draw me into fantasyland.

Bring me elves and goblins, knights and brave small folk, and Dark Lords to be overcome.  Show me good versus evil, and sprinkle it with pixie dust.  Give me humble heroes with overwhelming odds against them, and let them win their battles. 

Fascinate me with tales from a world a little bit more magical than our own, and put a map inside the cover so I don't get lost along the way.