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High Fantasy and the Medieval Model

Fantasy literature and the Medieval Model 

(part one of seven)

Copyright 2011 William R. McGrath

Introduction

Joseph Campbell’s book on myth, “Hero with a Thousand Faces” remains one of the most influential works for modern storytellers from Stanley Kubrick to Arthur C. Clarke to George Lucas. It’s influence can be seen in movies as diverse as The Lion King and the Matrix trilogy and in television series such as Lost. When a fellow writer asks me to recommend books on story building, Campbell’s work is on my short list. Campbell’s theory describes what he called the Monomyth, the idea that most ancient myths and epic stories contain the same character archetypes, structures and themes. This monomyth concept has become, in some writing circles, what a unified field theory would be for physicists; a central theory that explains everything. However, as encyclopedic as Campbell is, he can be a bit daunting for many folks these days, so I often suggest Hollywood script consultant Christopher Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey. Mythic Structure for Writers” as a short, accessible presentation of Campbell’s theories (and a book without Campbell’s own bias against the Judeo-Christian tradition, which mars so much of Campbell’s otherwise useful work).

Vogler was a script evaluator at Disney who wrote a seven page memo that condensed Campbell’s monomyth theory down to terms a layman could follow. “The Writer’s Journey” grew out of that memo to become a handbook for screenwriters looking to add mythic structure to their stories (“Secondhand Lions” and “50 First Dates” are two examples of movies that clearly show Vogler’s influence).

Another book I’ve been recommending lately to my fellow fantasy writers is C. S. Lewis’ last book, a scholarly work titled “The Discarded Image. An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature.” While Campbell’s work gave me an understanding of the basic structure of my favorite fantasy stories, Lewis’ book helped me to understand their texture, color and flavor: why Tolkien’s elves and their longing for the lost lands across the sea spoke to me while the elves of so many Tolkien imitators seemed little more than guys with pointed ears who spoke funny: why Lewis’ Merlin in “That Hideous Strength” is my favorite version of that character; why I enjoyed “The Chronicles of Narnia” while other fantasy stories aimed at kids left me flat. Lewis’s book showed me the specific elements that gave depth to the fantasy novels I most enjoyed and made their stories resonate deep in my soul.

Lewis’s book, while shorter than Campbell’s, is still a rich scholarly work, and, unfortunately, I haven’t found a book that tells its theories in simple form as Vogler does for Campbell. These seven articles, I humbly submit to you dear reader, is my attempt to do for Lewis’ study of medieval and renaissance literature what Vogler’s memo did for Campbell’s theories of the hero’s journey, to make his work accessible to the common person, specifically the common writer of fantasy literature.

Lewis called his theory of European thought as presented in the literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance “The Medieval Model:” a worldview of man and the universe based on a mix of classical philosophers and Christian teaching. When I hear professors of medieval literature cite the novels of Lewis and Tolkien as excellent introductions to medieval literature for modern readers, it is this worldview, this “Medieval Model” that they are recognizing.

As we look at this Medieval Model during the Middle Ages and Renaissance and its influence on modern fantasy literature, the proper place to start is defining our terms. When were the Middle Ages and Renaissance? The Middle Ages began (depending on which historian you ask), either with the fall of Rome to the Goths in 410 A.D. or in 476 A.D. with the abdication of Romulus Augustus, the last Roman emperor in the West (why these events are important to High Fantasy literature will be explained in my next post).

The ending date of the Middle Ages range from the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453 AD to Columbus’ discovery of North America in 1492: after which the Renaissance is said to have begun-which itself ended in the latter half of the 1600’s, when the so called Age of Enlightenment began.

And what is fantasy literature? First, we should acknowledge the fact that the myriad of genre definitions in literature we see today are a fairly recent invention. (Plato had just three categories, poetry, drama and prose, and I suspect if you go a bit farther back, all tales would have simply been “stories”). The way we categorize novels with terms like, “fantasy,” “sci-fi,” “horror,” “thriller,” “techo-thriller,” etc; comes from booksellers trying to make searches easier for customers trying to find a particular type of book. I can imagine these early conversations at bookstores went something like this: “Well Mr. Renfield, if you liked that Dracula story,  then you might also like the books in this new section we call ‘Horror.’”

So then what is a fantasy story? To keep things simple, I would broadly define the fantasy genre as any work of fiction that contains a supernatural element. This would include the epic fantasies of Tolkien, Lewis and Rowling, as well as fairy tales, ghost stories and horror tales that have a supernatural cause. What I would like to examine in this series is a sub-genre of fantasy known as High Fantasy, since this has been the most popular type and it is the type that best exemplifies the medieval model: (the prime examples being  the works of the aforementioned Tolkien, Lewis and Rowling) and compare this to the other genre of speculative fiction that fantasy shares shelf space with at the bookstore, namely Science Fiction.

I began thinking about the contrast between the two genres (or at least how they are expressed by their most famous authors) when one of the writers newsgroups I belong to began discussing the definitions of Fantasy and Sci-Fi. I recalled reading a quote from Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in which he described the differences between the modern and the classical novel and thought that, with a bit of tweaking, his description also worked well to define some of the differences between Sci-Fi and Fantasy stories. Here’s the gist of what Solzhenitsyn said going from memory (I haven’t been able to find the full quote on the net, so if you recognize it, I would appreciate a link to the source).

The quote went something like this:

The Modern story takes place in an urban environment. Its focus is on Man the Smith, the maker of things. Its plot revolves around what an individual protagonist wants.

The Classical story take place in a rural setting. Its focus is on Man the Shepherd, the protector and servant. Its plot revolves around what the hero and his people need.

While I  am going to use this definition as a starting point in our discussion, I am not so presumptuous as to try to set laws on what a sci-fi or fantasy story must have, but rather identify the common practices of the most influential authors in the two genres. To further clarify the differences, I thought it would be helpful to contrast two sub-genres of sci-fi and fantasy,  High Fantasy and Hard Sci-Fi, because in many ways each is the mirror image of the other.

Here’s the definitions of Hard Sci-Fi and High Fantasy as defined by a fan of each sub-genre (from Wikipedia):

Hard Science Fiction:

Hard Sci-Fi is a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific or technical detail, or on scientific accuracy, or on both. The term was first used in print in 1957 by P. Schuyler Miller in a review of John W. Campbell, Jr.’s Islands of Space in Astounding Science Fiction. The complementary term soft science fiction (formed by analogy to “hard science fiction” first appeared in the late 1970s. The term is formed by analogy to the popular distinction between the “hard” (natural) and “soft” (social) sciences. Neither term is part of a rigorous taxonomy—instead they are approximate ways of characterizing stories that reviewers and commentators have found useful. The heart of the “hard SF” designation is the relationship of the science content and attitude to the rest of the narrative, and (for some readers, at least) the “hardness” or rigor of the science itself. One requirement for hard SF is procedural or intentional: a story should try to be accurate, logical, credible and rigorous in its use of current scientific and technical knowledge about which technology, phenomena, scenarios and situations that are practically and/or theoretically possible, and later discoveries do not necessarily invalidate the label. 

High Fantasy:

High Fantasy or Epic Fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy that is set in invented or parallel worlds. High fantasy was brought to fruition through the work of authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, whose major fantasy works were published in the 1950s. High fantasy has become one of the two genres most commonly associated with the general term fantasy, the other being sword and sorcery, which is typified by the works of Robert E. Howard. These stories are often serious in tone and epic in scope, dealing with themes of grand struggle against supernatural, evil forces. Some typical characteristics of high fantasy include fantastical elements such as elves, fairies, dwarves, dragons, demons, magic or sorcery, wizards or magicians, constructed languages, quests, coming-of-age themes, and multi-volume narratives.

(This rather lightweight definition of high fantasy is the best I could find through Google and it does little more than say “stories like Tolkien and Lewis wrote,” though each author would have had some problems with the rest of the definition.  A better definition would be “Epic fantasy stories based on the Medieval Model, which consists of…” the elements I am about to discuss on this article).

Now let’s look at the contrast between Hard Sci-Fi vs. High Fantasy that I’ve extrapolated from Solzhenitsyn’s definition of classic vs modern novels and Lewis’ exploration of the  medieval model.

Part One

Urban vs. Rural. 

Campbell, in his “Hero with a Thousand Faces” described the commonly seen elements in classical mythology. One such element is the “Enchanted Forest”,  an important place on the hero’s journey known for healing and gifts, but also for mystery and danger. Its roots begin in the wilds of Eden and in the tended garden which lay to its east, for they are the model of all that followed. Here is the Garden of the Hesperides and the Land of Faire. The Wild Hunt sounds its beckoning call in these woods. We find this theme in medieval and renaissance literature with its castles in deep forests where great treasures are kept and perilous quests are begun. We see this in Tolkien’s Fanghorn, the most ancient of forests and in his Eden-like Lothlorean, in Lewis’  lush Handramit on Mars and the unfallen planet of Perelandra, we find it in the dark Forbidden Forrest next to Rowling’s castle-like Hogwarts school.

While many fantasy stories do contain cities, most of the important action takes place and most of the important people are met in rural, if not wilderness settings. The magic of these stories is most often seen in the wild places. The wild places of fantasy stories often seem a character in and of themselves. Homes (whether castle or cottage) of important characters are usually surrounded by wild lands in fantasy. The good guys in fantasy tales are often masters of wood craft and know the secret paths through ancient forests. In the high fantasy stories of the last hundred years, cities are often the abode of corrupt politicians, traitors or thieves. In Sci-Fi much takes place in modern cities or on board space ships or other man-made vessels or structures, nearly all of which are morally neutral. If a wilderness is shown in Sci-Fi, it is there that you will find the primitives, the troglodytes, fools and Luddites. I’ve yet to find the equivalent in Sci-Fi  of a powerful character regarding a rural person with the respect of Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil who, “made no secret that he owed his recent knowledge largely to Farmer Maggot, whom he seemed to regard as a person of more importance than they had imagined. ‘There’s earth under his old feet, and clay on his fingers; wisdom in his bones, and both his eyes are open.”

Chapter one of my fantasy novel Asulon contains a scene which introduces a young man surviving alone in the wilderness and a description of that wild place. You can read this sample chapter or listen to it as an audio book at:

http://www.TheSwordofFire.com/ASULON%20CH%201.htm

See my next post for part 2. Advanced Future vs. Golden Past (coming soon).

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WHY TOLKIEN

This article started life as an email to a friend who is a fellow Tolkien fan. I present it here to act as my FAQ page for my thoughts on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and fantasy literature in general.

I grew up reading my parent’s National Geographic magazines at the time George Leakey was excavating Olduvai Gorge in Kenya in the 1960’s.  When I was six, I announced that I wanted to be an archeologist like Dr. Leakey. I was fascinated by the idea of uncovering things long hidden.  The nickname “Rockturner” Simon calls Daniel in the beginning of my first novel (Asulon) could have been my own nickname as a child because I was constantly turning over rocks and logs to discover what was underneath them.

While reading The Lord of The Rings (LOTR) and the Silmarillion, I felt like I was opening an archeology of ancient lore, a bridge between the heart of those old myths and something more; if not a true history then at least a high allegorical truth.

Remember my response when we discussed Tolkien previously.  I said the thing I liked most about his work was the sadness of the elves.  This is what makes Tolkien’s elves work when the elves in the books of so many Tolkien imitators are just guys with pointy ears. They are sad because they are longing for something lost, and that thing is the same thing for which I long.

Here is an excerpt from the end of Chapter 13 of Asulon, where Simon is explaining magic to Moor.

“What attracts most people to magic is an innate desire in the human heart to regain the world as God first made it, before mankind fell, for we instinctively know what was lost and long for its return.  We all long for a time when we had power over creation and were its caretakers, when we could command the wind and the earth and the waters, when death walked not and sickness was unknown, when we could understand the speech of animals and none would do us harm.  That is why children are so fond of magic in their fairy tales, for they know that is the way the world should work, even if it does not now.  But all of us long for the return of Eden whether we know that name or not.  We seek to satisfy our homesickness for a land we have never seen but know, as surely as we know our hearts beat and our lungs draw breath, once existed and will exist again.”

I first read LOTR at the age of eighteen and for me it was like a culmination and fulfillment; the Rosetta stone of all the myths, legends and fairy tales that I had read before.  Everything prior was merely an appetizer; LOTR was a perfect feast, satisfying in every way.  Here I was, viewing myself then as this tough, streetwise guy, and when I finished the book I nearly wept, so much did I not want the story to end. I heard a lecture on swordmaking once in which the swordsmith said a good sword must be “strong and sharp and beautiful.” Tolkien’s work is like that for me; strong in its story, sharp in its sadness, beautiful in its wisdom.

To me, the best fantasy stories are, at their core, not about elves and dwarves, but are really about hope.  What makes a fantasy tale work for me is more than just its supernatural elements or characters.  These alone could also describe most “Sword and Sorcery” tales and much in the horror genre.  For example, Steven King writes mostly horror, while Dean Koontz’s writing feels very much like fantasy to me, despite the lack of elves or dragons in his books, because of his hopeful outlook.

The first Star Wars movie (Episode IV – A New Hope) is referred to as a “science fiction fantasy” because of its hopeful good-triumphing-over-evil element.  Thus, I still bring it all back to hope.  In my mind, fantasy and hope are so closely tied together that I sometimes worry about people who dislike fantasy. I have to wonder if they have given up on hope.  I suspect that it isn’t the elves or wizards that they find “unrealistic,” but the happy endings.

Do you remember the 1940s version of Miracle on 34th Street?  Even though this version of the movie had no elves or dragons, I think it is more of a true fantasy story (because it is a story of supernatural hope) than many of Tolkien’s imitators who do have their elves and dragons, but whose stories have no hope. Remember in the movie it is the divorced mother who tells her daughter that there is no such thing as Santa Claus.  When asked why, she calls him a fairy tale and goes on about how fairy tales lie to children.  “They get them dreaming of a Prince Charming, but when he finally arrives he lets you down.”  That is when the man who asked the question realizes she has stopped talking about Santa Claus and is now talking about her ex-husband. I think many jaded critics are like that, they have been so wounded by life that they have lost hope in their own happy ending. A person in such a place won’t like Tolkien.

Another major theme in Tolkien’s work is sacrificial love.  Frodo is willing to die to save the world from evil and Sam is willing to sacrifice his own life to save Frodo.

If you can’t see yourself dying to save something that you love, if you don’t believe in self-sacrifice for a greater good, then you won’t like Tolkien.

In The Return of the King, there is a part where Aragorn uses a flower (which a learned physician is familiar with, but says is useless) to heal the wounded Faromir.  There is the idea here that the king’s hands are healing hands and that the true king will be revealed in this way.  In Aragorn we see a man better than we are.

If you can’t believe in someone greater than yourself, then you won’t like Tolkien.

When all is at its most hopeless in the story, the day is saved because Frodo has had mercy on Smeagol. If you don’t believe in the wisdom of mercy, then you won’t like Tolkien.

Good vs. Evil is a common theme in fantasy.  And when I use the word hope, it is specifically the hope that good will prevail over evil.  Many Tolkien critics specifically point to this aspect of Tolkien’s work as what they most disapprove of, the strong theme in his writing of moral absolutes.  While everything in the world is certainly not exclusively black or white, neither is everything solely a subtle shade of gray.  That is the problem so many of Tolkien’s critics have with him.  How can you enjoy a story about the battle between good and evil if you don’t believe in the existence of good and evil? And more than that, this great battle between good and evil must have each of these opposing forces directed by a conscious mind or upon what does the hero’s hope in an ultimate victory reside?  It is alright for the villain to rest his faith in victory solely on his own strengths, but the hero of a fantasy story should have faith in something or someone greater than himself.

I know that Tolkien wrote that he disliked allegory, but perhaps he meant allegory of current events because he certainly used allegorical characters in his story:  Gandalf’s death and resurrection (and the friends who don’t recognize him at first); Frodo’s sacrificial love and mercy; Aragorn, the king who heals. Hmm, I wonder to whom Tolkien was referring?

What are the common denominators between the three most popular fantasy authors in the last hundred years:  Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and J. K. Rowling?  They all were well educated in classical literature and they all use deliberate Christian themes or symbols in their works.

Tolkien uses these three themes in his work:  hope, sacrificial love, and belief in someone greater than oneself.  Of these, I think hope is the common denominator for the fantasy stories that have endured before and after LOTR was published. Lewis gives the most important part of the Gospel story in the first book of his Chronicles of Narnia.  In his Space Trilogy, Lewis deals with the Fall of Man and original sin, the Tower of Babel and the pathways leading to the Great Tribulation, but he ends with redemption and hope. Rowling constantly uses both biblical and Medieval Christian themes and symbols in her Harry Potter series:  the Griffin, half eagle – king of heaven, and half lion – king of earth; the Stag whose antlers represent the two trees of Eden; the Phoenix – the resurrection bird; and of course Harry is “The Boy Who Lived” who Evil tried to kill and whose own sacrificial love for his friends leads to evil’s defeat.

I keep going back to that word hope, but in the case of fantasy, I think I can be specific about that hope.  I believe it falls into two categories among fans.

1.  Those who don’t openly believe in God, but hope He exists.  I believe that fantasy is popular because such people think, even if secretly, very deeply within themselves, that if even one supernatural thing exists (even if it is the very smallest thing), then that opens the door to the possibility that the greatest of all supernatural things (God) exists.  And, to take this hope to its logical conclusion, if God exists then perhaps we have an immortal soul and the most important part of us shall not end with the death of our bodies. As C. S. Lewis wrote: “You don’t have a soul, you are a soul. You have a body.” Much of the best fantasy (especially what is called High Fantasy) rests upon this knowledge.

2.  Those who openly believe in God and have faith that He will set things right in the end.  Once you overcome the hurdle of believing that God exists, the next question you ask yourself is “Can I trust Him?”

Heroes in fantasy stories often put their faith in the surrogate God character (Gandalf, Aslan, Obi Wan, Dumbledore) and are forced to ask themselves; “Can I trust him to be wise and strong enough to win?  Can I trust him to be good?  Can I trust Him to care about me?” I think that this hope in a God that is wise and strong and good and caring is why Tolkien’s work resonates so much in the Western mind and why he is listed as the all-time favorite author when a poll is taken on the Christian writers newsgroups to which I belong.

Most good fiction has to read like non-fiction.  It has to feel true (at least while you are reading it). Now most fantasy, even something like Watership Down, where the characters are not human, still must tell us a truth about human nature in order to feel real to us. In LOTR, I believe that Tolkien’s aim was higher, to tell us not about the nature of man, but rather the nature of God.  Tolkien wrote a book about God hidden in a book about elves and hobbits and wizards.  Not just about the existence of God, but about His nature and what He has done for mankind.  Tolkien did more then tell us a truth, he told us an important truth.  For me as a writer, Tolkien is the gold standard, the ruler by which I measure my own writing now.  My goal is for my writing to have the same emotional impact on my readers as Tolkien had on me.

He affects me today, because I wish to do what he did, to tell an important truth and hide it in a story that entertains on several levels. My goal is to tell not just a good strong story, but to tell what it means to be both good and strong and that these two things are not diametrically opposed (as so many today seem to believe).  I am writing about what it means to be a godly warrior. My goal is to tell the good that it is not wrong to be strong and to tell the strong that it does not lessen their strength to be good.  This important truth I am hiding in a book about giants and dragons and swords, i.e., a fantasy novel. Just like Tolkien.

Non Omnis Moriar,

Bill McGrath

Author of The Sword of Fire series

Asulon, Eretzel, Apocalypse

Martial Arts: www.pekiti.com

Novels: www.TheSwordofFire.com

YouTube channel: tuhonbillmcg

Facebook: bill.mcgrath

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High Fantasy and the Medieval Model

Hard Sci-Fi vs High Fantasy

Copyright 2011 William R. McGrath

Introduction

Joseph Campbell’s book on myth, “Hero with a Thousand Faces” remains one of the most influential works for modern storytellers from Stanley Kubrick to Arthur C. Clarke to George Lucas. It’s influence can be seen in movies as diverse as The Lion King and the Matrix trilogy and in television series such as Lost. When a fellow writer asks me to recommend books on story building, Campbell’s work is on my short list. Campbell’s theory describes what he called the Monomyth, the idea that most ancient myths and epic stories contain the same character archetypes, structures and themes. This monomyth concept has become, in some writing circles, what a unified field theory would be for physicists; a central theory that explains everything. However, as encyclopedic as Campbell is, he can be a bit daunting for many folks these days, so I often suggest Hollywood script consultant Christopher Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey. Mythic Structure for Writers” as a short, accessible presentation of Campbell’s theories (and a book without Campbell’s own bias against the Judeo-Christian tradition, which mars so much of Campbell’s otherwise useful work).

Vogler was a script evaluator at Disney who wrote a seven page memo that condensed Campbell’s monomyth theory down to terms a layman could follow. “The Writer’s Journey” grew out of that memo to become a handbook for screenwriters looking to add mythic structure to their stories (“Secondhand Lions” and “50 First Dates” are two examples of movies that clearly show Vogler’s influence).

Another book I’ve been recommending lately to my fellow fantasy writers is C. S. Lewis’ last book, a scholarly work titled “The Discarded Image. An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature.” While Campbell’s work gave me an understanding of the basic structure of my favorite fantasy stories, Lewis’ book helped me to understand their texture, color and flavor: why Tolkien’s elves and their longing for the lost lands across the sea spoke to me while the elves of so many Tolkien imitators seemed little more than guys with pointed ears who spoke funny: why Lewis’ Merlin in “That Hideous Strength” is my favorite version of that character; why I enjoyed “The Chronicles of Narnia” while other fantasy stories aimed at kids left me flat. Lewis’s book showed me the specific elements that gave depth to the fantasy novels I most enjoyed and made their stories resonate deep in my soul.

Lewis’s book, while shorter than Campbell’s, is still a rich scholarly work, and, unfortunately, I haven’t found a book that tells its theories in simple form as Vogler does for Campbell. These seven articles, I humbly submit to you dear reader, is my attempt to do for Lewis’ study of medieval and renaissance literature what Vogler’s memo did for Campbell’s theories of the hero’s journey, to make his work accessible to the common person, specifically the common writer of fantasy literature.

Lewis called his theory of European thought as presented in the literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance “The Medieval Model:” a worldview of man and the universe based on a mix of classical philosophers and Christian teaching. When I hear professors of medieval literature cite the novels of Lewis and Tolkien as excellent introductions to medieval literature for modern readers, it is this worldview, this “Medieval Model” that they are recognizing.

As we look at this Medieval Model during the Middle Ages and Renaissance and its influence on modern fantasy literature, the proper place to start is defining our terms. When were the Middle Ages and Renaissance? The Middle Ages began (depending on which historian you ask), either with the fall of Rome to the Goths in 410 A.D. or in 476 A.D. with the abdication of Romulus Augustus, the last Roman emperor in the West (why these events are important to High Fantasy literature will be explained in a future post).

The ending date of the Middle Ages range from the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453 AD to Columbus’ discovery of North America in 1492: after which the Renaissance is said to have begun-which itself ended in the latter half of the 1600’s, when the so called Age of Enlightenment began.

And what is fantasy literature? First, we should acknowledge the fact that the myriad of genre definitions in literature we see today are a fairly recent invention. (Plato had just three categories, poetry, drama and prose, and I suspect if you go a bit farther back, all tales would have simply been “stories”). The way we categorize novels with terms like, “fantasy,” “sci-fi,” “horror,” “thriller,” “techo-thriller,” etc; comes from booksellers trying to make searches easier for customers trying to find a particular type of book. I can imagine these early conversations at bookstores went something like this: “Well Mr. Renfield, if you liked that Dracula story, then you might also like the books in this new section we call ‘Horror.’”

So then what is a fantasy story? To keep things simple, I would broadly define the fantasy genre as any work of fiction that contains a supernatural element. This would include the epic fantasies of Tolkien, Lewis and Rowling, as well as fairy tales, ghost stories and horror tales that have a supernatural cause. What I would like to examine in this series is a sub-genre of fantasy known as High Fantasy, since this has been the most popular type and it is the type that best exemplifies the medieval model: (the prime examples being the works of the aforementioned Tolkien, Lewis and Rowling) and compare this to the other genre of speculative fiction that fantasy shares shelf space with at the bookstore, namely Science Fiction.

I began thinking about the contrast between the two genres (or at least how they are expressed by their most famous authors) when one of the writers newsgroups I belong to began discussing the definitions of Fantasy and Sci-Fi. I recalled reading a quote from Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in which he described the differences between the modern and the classical novel and thought that, with a bit of tweaking, his description also worked well to define some of the differences between Sci-Fi and Fantasy stories. Here’s the gist of what Solzhenitsyn said going from memory (I haven’t been able to find the full quote on the net, so if you recognize it, I would appreciate a link to the source).

The quote went something like this:

The Modern story takes place in an urban environment. Its focus is on Man the Smith, the maker of things. Its plot revolves around what an individual protagonist wants.

The Classical story take place in a rural setting. Its focus is on Man the Shepherd, the protector and servant. Its plot revolves around what the hero and his people need.

While I am going to use this definition as a starting point in our discussion, I am not so presumptuous as to try to set laws on what a sci-fi or fantasy story must have, but rather identify the common practices of the most influential authors in the two genres. To further clarify the differences, I thought it would be helpful to contrast two sub-genres of sci-fi and fantasy, High Fantasy and Hard Sci-Fi, because in many ways each is the mirror image of the other.

Here’s the definitions of Hard Sci-Fi and High Fantasy as defined by a fan of each sub-genre (from Wikipedia):

Hard Science Fiction:

Hard Sci-Fi is a category of science fiction characterized by an emphasis on scientific or technical detail, or on scientific accuracy, or on both. The term was first used in print in 1957 by P. Schuyler Miller in a review of John W. Campbell, Jr.’s Islands of Space in Astounding Science Fiction. The complementary term soft science fiction (formed by analogy to “hard science fiction” first appeared in the late 1970s. The term is formed by analogy to the popular distinction between the “hard” (natural) and “soft” (social) sciences. Neither term is part of a rigorous taxonomy—instead they are approximate ways of characterizing stories that reviewers and commentators have found useful. The heart of the “hard SF” designation is the relationship of the science content and attitude to the rest of the narrative, and (for some readers, at least) the “hardness” or rigor of the science itself. One requirement for hard SF is procedural or intentional: a story should try to be accurate, logical, credible and rigorous in its use of current scientific and technical knowledge about which technology, phenomena, scenarios and situations that are practically and/or theoretically possible, and later discoveries do not necessarily invalidate the label.

High Fantasy:

High Fantasy or Epic Fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy that is set in invented or parallel worlds. High fantasy was brought to fruition through the work of authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, whose major fantasy works were published in the 1950s. High fantasy has become one of the two genres most commonly associated with the general term fantasy, the other being sword and sorcery, which is typified by the works of Robert E. Howard. These stories are often serious in tone and epic in scope, dealing with themes of grand struggle against supernatural, evil forces. Some typical characteristics of high fantasy include fantastical elements such as elves, fairies, dwarves, dragons, demons, magic or sorcery, wizards or magicians, constructed languages, quests, coming-of-age themes, and multi-volume narratives.

(This rather lightweight definition of high fantasy is the best I could find through Google and it does little more than say “stories like Tolkien and Lewis wrote,” though each author would have had some problems with the rest of the definition. A better definition would be “Epic fantasy stories based on the Medieval Model, which consists of…” the elements I am about to discuss in this article).

In this series I’m going to look at the contrast between Hard Sci-Fi vs. High Fantasy that I’ve extrapolated from Solzhenitsyn’s definition of classic vs modern novels and Lewis’ exploration of the medieval model. I’ve identified seven major points of contrast between Hard Sci Fi and High Fantasy which we will explore in future posts.

Look for part one Urban vs. Rural right after Christmas.

In the meantime, you can learn more about my own high fantasy novels on my website:

http://www.theswordoffire.com/

NOBILIS VOS ESTO,

Bill McGrath

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Filed under Christian Fantasy, HIGH FANTASY, Medieval Model