a Reddit post discussing three threads of fantasy literature

Brian G Turner

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The Hobbit certainly follows elements of the Hero's Journey. I'm not so familiar with LOTR, though.

And Gaiman - yes, I've posted before about how his protagonists tend to not really do anything, except serve as a center from which the story revolves around. It's certainly not something I tend to see elsewhere in modern fiction. I'm not sure if the appeal is really due to a sense of wonder, as much as the protagonist serving as a foil for secondary characters to tell their short stories, and thus to the reader.

I wonder how historical fiction would fit into all this? :)
 

tegeus-Cromis

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in my opinion, they do fall under Dunsanian, other than Titus Alone, which doesn't. (I haven't read The Malacia Tapestry, though, so no opinions there.) New Weird tends to fall into Dunsanian. magic realism falls outside the schema altogether, since most everybody writing about it wouldn't know or care about any fantasy writers other than Tolkien. (it largely originated outside of the English-speaking world, anyway.)
Well, they fall under "Dunsanian" only inasmuch as, if the only three color names you had were brown, green, and amber, the color of poppies would fall under brown and that of the sky under green. That is to say, these categories are not exact, and far from enough. Can the New Weird be about "the charm of exploring a magical world"? I suppose, but that goes at best 1% of the way toward exploring what the New Weird is about. (And "charm" hardly seems to fit in this context.) How does such a notion of exploring a world sit with Harrison's notorious critique of world-building, not to mention his attempt to scramble the world of Viriconium from story to story? I'd rather think of such stories as being about how words get built into worlds (and into characters, actions, etc) which is not the same thing as exploring a pre-given world. As to magic realism originating outside the English-speaking world, I don't understand why that should be a criterion. Besides, a book like One Hundred Years of Solitude seems to me to fit the "Dunsanian" category better than the books I mentioned. On the other hand, Borges's fictions fit none of these categories.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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Frodo doesn't grow. He suffers.
I think Frodo does grow; he takes on more responsibility, becomes more courageous. What is that if not growth? On the other hand, the story doesn't end with him heroic and triumphant, rising therefore to power as in so many Tolkien imitations. Instead it continues to the point where his suffering and the pull of the Ring bring him to the brink of disintegration at Mount Doom. He knows it and that is why he doesn't return home and take on a leadership role like Merry, Pippin, and Sam do. To regard The Lord of the Rings as a typical hero's journey one has to figure that Sam is the hero in question, which, as a matter of fact, a lot of readers do.
 

Star-child

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I think Frodo does grow; he takes on more responsibility, becomes more courageous. What is that if not growth? On the other hand, the story doesn't end with him heroic and triumphant, rising therefore to power as in so many Tolkien imitations. Instead it continues to the point where his suffering and the pull of the Ring bring him to the brink of disintegration at Mount Doom. He knows it and that is why he doesn't return home and take on a leadership role like Merry, Pippin, and Sam do. To regard The Lord of the Rings as a typical hero's journey one has to figure that Sam is the hero in question, which, as a matter of fact, a lot of readers do.
As much as I agree that Sam definitely has more growth and agency than Frodo, it really isnt a story about Sam. He doesn't even come along until a chapter or so in. People like to regard Sam as the protagonist to make the formula apply to a story where it really doesn't work.

It is a similar problem to identifying the protagonist of 2001.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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I don't think that Sam is the protagonist, either, but many people do. The fact is, what Tolkien ultimately decided to write was not a typical hero's quest. Frodo was given an impossible task. Somewhere in his collected letters Tolkien wrote that no one could have resisted the ring and thrown it into the fire.

Frodo's achievement was simply in getting it that far, and he couldn't have done it without Sam, and he couldn't have done it without Aragorn leading his army to the Black Gate, nor without all the other things that his companions had done along the way (like neutralizing Saruman as a threat). It's a story about a group of individuals each one doing the job that is before him, and hoping that others are doing the same ... having no assurance at all that this will be so, or that any of it will really matter. It's about faith and grace.

That said, the Frodo who made the decision to leave the fellowship and go on to Mordor alone is not the same Frodo who relied on the advice and guidance of others up to that point. That's growth. Making the arduous journey across Mordor while the burden of the Ring was nearly killing him, that required a steely courage that Frodo never had or thought of back in the Shire. That's growth, too.
 

Star-child

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I don't think that Sam is the protagonist, either, but many people do. The fact is, what Tolkien ultimately decided to write was not a typical hero's quest. Frodo was given an impossible task. Somewhere in his collected letters Tolkien wrote that no one could have resisted the ring and thrown it into the fire.

Frodo's achievement was simply in getting it that far, and he couldn't have done it without Sam, and he couldn't have done it without Aragorn leading his army to the Black Gate, nor without all the other things that his companions had done along the way (like neutralizing Saruman as a threat). It's a story about a group of individuals each one doing the job that is before him, and hoping that others are doing the same ... having no assurance at all that this will be so, or that any of it will really matter. It's about faith and grace.

That said, the Frodo who made the decision to leave the fellowship and go on to Mordor alone is not the same Frodo who relied on the advice and guidance of others up to that point. That's growth. Making the arduous journey across Mordor while the burden of the Ring was nearly killing him, that required a steely courage that Frodo never had or thought of back in the Shire. That's growth, too.
The context of the discussion (I thought) was that Frodo grows in a Campbellian way.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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And my point is that to try to fit him in as a Campbellian hero is a mistake. But there are other ways for a character to grow and to develop. (Nor is growth the only way that a protagonist can develop. Some are destroyed by their experiences. Suffering, in particular, refines character, either for the better or the worse.)
 

Star-child

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And my point is that to try to fit him in as a Campbellian hero is a mistake. But there are other ways for a character to grow and to develop. (Nor is growth the only way that a protagonist can develop. Some are destroyed by their experiences. Suffering, in particular, refines character, either for the better or the worse.)
I thought Frodo not being a Campbellian hero was my point.
 

The Big Peat

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Re Character and role, particularly Protagonists -

I have heard Brian's criticism of Gaiman's MCs (I think Jo's particularly fond of decrying their lack of agency). I have also heard similar criticism of Epic Fantasy MCs. I would personally say that Gaiman's MCs are often ordinary people blown around by the winds of change, maybe lacking a little agency and finding it in the end, maybe not as loud and large as life as the supporting cast but easier for us to understand... and I'd say that for some Epic Fantasy too. And arguably Frodo and Bilbo are the most famous examples of such MCs.

And of course, there's plenty of scope in Gaiman's MCs. American Gods? Shadow is almost deliberately a blank slate. Richard from Neverwhere is the quintessence of what Brian is talking about. Charlie from Anansi Boys? I'd say he's fully drawn and active. Good Omens? Who the hell even is the MC there? And as for Morpheus himself, a more active and richly detailed MC in all of Fantasy is hard to find. Which just goes to show why I dislike doing this by author (another reason - Howard's Hour of the Dragon arguably veers towards the Tolkien-esque, while Tolkien's Smith of Wootton Major is pure Dunsanian to use the terminology in the OP). Books are in traditions (sometimes), authors hop around in them.

And to go back to Frodo... I think, stepping back and looking at it, you can see certain elements of the monomyth in Frodo. But he doesn't fit in with the sort of heroes made while looking at Campbell's work, and the type that are the most famous of the 70s-90s wave of Epic Fantasy that's most commonly held up as Tolkien-esque. To a certain extent, when people are saying Frodo isn't Campbell-ian, it's because the march of time has led to a certain type of hero being heavily identified as being like the Hero's Journey, to the point we maybe overlook others that aren't dissimilar because they're not what common parlance has as fitting in.


Now, to go back to the OP -

For me at least it is easier to think of these genre strands by descriptors rather than by names - trying to say "X is the source of Y" has too much luggage for me.

If we do that we get Saga/Epic - a large number of people experience events that shape the world, often in the shape of good vs evil; Adventure - a small number of people experience events that often change very little, frequently just for the hell of it; and... Fairytale/Myth? In which people encounter a strange world and lessons are learned? I find the "Dunsanian" the hardest to give a name to and what attributes I can give to it, mainly feel like Fantasy for the sake of Fantasy, the creation of new myth... and that is the very root of Fantasy.

So. I would suggest that if "Dunsanian" - Fairytale/Myth - should be held as the original strand of Fantasy, from which the Adventure Fantasy and the Epic Fantasy both spring - Adventure from American pulp writers, Epic from British writers steeped in medievalism. And I think you can see strains of Dunsany (who Howard described as one of his favourite poets) in both Howard and Tolkien; some of Howard's descriptions of ancient wonders (of which there's a fair few) have a certain similarity.

From there, I think you get further mutations and splits; trying to keep Fantasy into three main traditions is as trying to say all of Rock is either Rock, Metal, or Punk. I think Adventure splits fairly early into the "Ultimate Warrior" Conan style and the "Sharp Operator" style that more of Leiber, Wolfe, Moorcock and so on. There's a split between the more Good vs Evil Tolkien-esque Epic, and the grimmer "Stuff just happens" that you get with The Broken Sword and maybe even The Deep, that then leads into (to a certain extent) SoIaF and Malazan and Grimdark.

The interesting question to me is where you put all those Fantasy stories that are very deeply embedded in one particular community. Most of the books I've described so far are about wanderers (at least for the course of the book). But there's a big strain of Fantasy, which I guess you'd say starts with Gormenghast, that's about one particular group and society. Is that its own strain? Adventures? Or a mutation from the Epic? Or even the Fairy Tale? I found this interesting comment on whether Peake's books were fantasy:

"If your definition of fantasy requires wizards throwing fire, heroes questing for fairy-queens, then no. But if a vast castle encompassing bizarre peoples and ancient ritual can be considered 'fantastical', for their absurdity, their beauty, their dream-like reality of infinite age and significance... then put Gormenghast on the map between Earthsea and the Shire, just south of Anhk-Morpork."

To me... I guess they share that "Exploration of creation" type feeling with Dunsany when described thus. The manner of them is far distant on the spectrum though.

All I can say is the more I try to make sense of it, the more I am convinced that Fantasy has a very unruly family tree.



I did consider a whole new methodology last night/today - one built on where a book lies on four different spectrums; scale, morality vs amorality, action-heavy (i.e. fighting) vs light, and level of fantasy. And I do think you get some interesting results - Elric looks more similar to LotR than to Conan, because the scale and level of fantasy is closer - but it becomes obvious there's a lot of other measuring sticks that go missing with that.
 

The Big Peat

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Oh, and something I forgot to say -

When judging any historical author's depth of characterisation or plot, it is probably wise to compare them to their peers, not to today. The number of words we'd use t o describe characters today and the things we'd expect to know about them just aren't the same, nor is the language we use to do so completely the same either.
 

BAYLOR

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Here is a question for all of you . Which of the categories would you put Clark Aston Smith stories. for example The City of the Signing Flame . Or Jack Vance Tales From the Dying Earth , Magus Rex by Jack Lovejoy or The books Abraham Merritt The Moon Pool or The Ship of Ishtar ?
 

The Big Peat

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Yes and I was agreeing with you about that, but disagreeing that Frodo shows no growth.
I think Frodo does change, but it is subtle and measured by modern standards. I think you're right about him realising he has more strength than he realises, but I think that what this changes about his choices are what he feels able to do rather than what he wishes to do. He's still the same Frodo, just more so and wounded. Compare that to a lot of modern protagonists, particularly the young ones, and at times it barely feels like growth.

I wonder who's the first real big time teen to adult bildungsroman fantasy character. I want to say Ged,
 
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