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The Epic: A Precursor to High Fantasy


High fantasy, also known as epic fantasy, is a very popular genre for contemporary audiences. The very idea of fictional and magical worlds has captured the hearts of audiences worldwide. This has led to an explosive flood of new works within the genre, all honing in on common tropes and themes that have continuously made it so successful. Some of the most famous examples of written works in this genre include J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (1937), C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), and Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea (1968). With such a massive influx of high fantasy stories, there has been a very thorough exploration of the genre by writers across the world, all of whom have chosen to represent or define the genre in unique and individualistic ways.


One of these ways was and is to explore, read, and study texts that inspired the genre. They would then write it in their own image, adapting it for their writing styles. High fantasy is not just inspired by a few texts, however, but an entire genre of classical stories. This genre, known simply as the epic, has a long history that can be traced back to as far as ancient Greece. At that time, Homer, one of the most famous poets in the ancient world, wrote his epic poems. It is there where the term 'epos' was coined, which would eventually evolve into the word 'epic' that we use today. Brian Attebery expands upon this term in his article called Introduction: Epic Fantasy: "Epos meant a song, but not just any song. These were big songs: stories of battles and sea voyages and squabbling gods and heroes" (Attebury, 2018, p. 1). As Attebury points out, these songs connote legendary events of epic scales. They tell stories about characters who go on massive adventures in order to gain glory in battle, become rich, or learn much more about themselves in the process. High fantasy adapted upon tropes that were shown in these legends, using them for their own success. This article shall explore these connections and examine the similarities between tales of the epic as well as works of high fantasy. In doing this, this article will utilise J.R.R. Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring (1954) and Return of the King (1955) as case studies by comparing them to characters, narratological themes, and locations found in Arthurian, as well as a little bit of Norse mythology. By doing this, the article will show how closely connected the epic and high fantasy are.

Figure 1: Odysseus escapes the wrath of Polyphemus (Böcklin, 1896).
Aragorn and Arthur

The first similarity that this article will discuss is the adaptation of characters and their traits. In The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), there are notable similarities between certain characters and their Arthurian counterparts. Aragorn, the rightful king of Gondor as well as a member of the fellowship, has some striking similarities to that of the legendary King Arthur. This can be seen in the similarities Aragorn has with the romanticised kings of the past. Charles Coulombe states this in The Lord of the Rings - A Catholic View where he connects the catholic imagination to what an ideal 'king' should be:

On the other hand, Catholic imagination was also haunted by the image of great kings, like Arthur, St Ferdinand III, and St Louis IX. These kings are held to have been an ideal prototype for rulers: pious, brave, wonderful in a manner unapproachable for those of later times (Coulombe, 2001, p. 61).

Here, Coulombe draws useful comparisons between King Arthur and Aragorn. This is mostly reflected in the characteristic attributes that inhabit both characters. Both Arthur and Aragorn are brave, wonderful, and pious. Both are ideal rulers who go on to rule over their respective kingdoms, Camelot and Gondor. Both engage in epic battles of chivalry, with Arthur fighting the dark forces of Mordred and Aragorn fighting the forces of Sauron at the Black Gate of Mordor. Additionally, both wield legendary blades that were culturally significant to their kingdoms, Excalibur and Narsil.

Figure 2: King Arthur putting on a crown (Butler, 1903).

It is clear, therefore, that high fantasy is an adaptation of works within the epic as it seeks to continue the stories set out by these legendary tales. High fantasy takes direct inspiration from the elements present within the stories of the epic, allowing it to encompass and weave them into its own narrative style. This trend of high fantasy adapting elements from epic stories would continue, with respective authors taking different (and often individualistic) positions on how they would go about adapting certain elements to their work. In this sense then, character was not the only theme that would be touched upon. Narratological themes would also be represented through the epic adventures that the characters would have, bringing the similarities that the two genres had even closer.


The Fellowship goes Onwards

The narrative themes found within The Lord of the Rings are a product of the epic itself. These themes take direct inspiration from the epic stories that came before them because they explore the great adventures that the main protagonists would go on. This is often accompanied by a goal, which usually consists of eradicating a great evil. This is no different in The Lord of the Rings, where the protagonists go onwards to destroy the One Ring, an incredible tool which can bring destruction to the land of Middle-Earth. This epic-styled adventure can certainly be seen in Fellowship of the Ring, in a scene where the fellowship officially set off on their journey to Mordor from Rivendell:



Figure 3: A Map of Middle-Earth (Tolkien, 1980).

They crossed the bridge and wound slowly up the long steep paths that led out of the cloven vale of Rivendell; and they came at length to the high moor where the wind hissed through the heather. Then with one last glance at the Last Homely Home twinkling below them they strode away far into the night (Tolkien, 1954, p. 281).

Here, Tolkien makes use of the environment within the scene. Tolkien uses the environment of the scene in order to set the scale of the world, thereby representing the wider world in order to make it seem ever present. It exists to remind the reader that Frodo's quest to destroy the ring has just begun and most importantly, that it is far from over. This exists as a foundation for the development of the world, slowly constructing a very vivid and lucid picture. Therefore, Tolkien also uses worldbuilding in order to set a certain tone with both the characters and the reader. Tolkien does this by making everything seem like it is big and long. Take the 'long, steep paths' and that the fellowship 'strode away far into the night' as clear examples of this. By making everything seem huge in terms of scale, Tolkien is setting a deeply wonderous, yet fearful tone for the main narrative. This communicates to the reader that Frodo's quest is incredibly big and much more daunting than before, engaging them further in the story.


This is how Tolkien establishes the 'epic' in his narrative, bringing forth similarities to that of Arthurian mythology where King Arthur and his knights of the Roundtable go on an epic adventure to see whether they can discover the Holy Grail. These adventures and a sense of endless wonder develop into an essence of timelessness, which was adapted into high fantasy. High fantasy works are deliberately modeled to be as such, bringing themes of the epic into a fictional setting. In fact, the settings of Middle-Earth also contain connections to Arthurian mythology, which shall comprise the next part of the article.

Figure 4: The Knights of the Roundtable surrounding the Holy Grail (d'Espinques, 1475).

The Connections Between Avalon and Valinor

The locales present in The Lord of the Rings have a very famous medieval setting, directly connecting it with Arthurian mythology. This connection is basic, yet vital, as it opens the door for the referencing of specific places within the Arthurian mythos. In particular, there are connections and references to Arthurian mythology which contribute to the worldbuilding in that Middle-Earth is not the only land in Tolkien's world of Arda. There is also the land of Valinor, a place that is home to the gods who ruled over Middle-Earth long ago. Valinor is represented as a heavenly place in Middle-Earth, as it is where the elves go once they pass away. It is here where the connections between Valinor and the mythical island of Avalon occur. This connection is made explicit within Return of the King, in the final chapter of the entire trilogy:


"And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water" (Tolkien, 1955, p. 1030). In this scene, Frodo has stepped onto the last boat which will leave Middle-Earth for Valinor, leaving Sam, Merry, and Pippin behind. In this quote, there are a few connections between Valinor and Avalon. Firstly, Frodo steps onto a ship alongside the Elven rulers of Middle-Earth which then sails into the west. This is connected with the death of King Arthur, who drifted on a boat to the island of Avalon after being badly hurt in the Battle of Camlann. Secondly, Frodo smelt a sweet fragrance and heard the sound of singing in the air. This could be connected to the inhabitants of Avalon themselves, Morgan le Fay and her nine sisters, whose task was to nurse Arthur back to health. It brings around a symbolic representation of pain and healing, which Valinor shares with Avalon. This makes Valinor look very similar to Avalon, in a way where it may be a direct homage to the mythical island. It makes the worldbuilding ever deeper, bringing more complexity to the connection which high fantasy has with the epic. The connections do not end here, however, as high fantasy is often an amalgamation of different epics.




Figure 5: King Arthur surrounded by Morgan le Fay and her nine sisters (Burne-Jones, 1898).

The Amalgamation of Different Epics

A lot of high fantasy, not just The Lord of the Rings, takes on not just one but two or possibly even more epic-based inspirations. This is seen through much of the same ways in which the Arthurian mythos have been represented by characters, narrative, and setting. As much as there is Arthurian influence within The Lord of the Rings, there is also evidence of Norse-based mythology. This is expanded upon by Richard J. Finn in Arthur and Aragorn: Arthurian influence in "The Lord of the Rings": "In Tolkien's own mythology there is a striking resemblance between Gandalf and Odin. Odin was a great magician in addition to being the chief god of the Northmen" (Finn, 2005, p. 23).


By discussing the example of Gandalf, Finn wishes to draw a comparison between Gandalf and the Norse god Odin, one of the most prominent figures in Norse mythology. This brings an intriguing concept into play. By taking Finn's quote into account, it can be determined that Middle-Earth is made up of storytelling elements from two different mythologies, allowing it to amalgamate. This enriches the worldbuilding and becomes part of Tolkien's style, creating a new, as well as unique identity for Middle-Earth. Also, intriguingly enough, the books also have a religious and moral component to it. This stems from Catholicism and acts a small role, which is pointed out by Bob Borsley in Notes of the Anglo-Saxon Influence of Anglo-Saxon Literature on "The Lord of the Rings":

Figure 6: The Norse god Odin (von Rosen, 1886).

"By remaining hidden it avoids any blatant incongruities while providing a stronger influence than it would if presented in the form of outright sermonising" (Borsley, 1971, p. 19). What Borsley is stating here is that the Catholic influences which Tolkien includes are subtle. These religious influences do not play a key role in the narrative. There is no blatant Christian messaging which dominates the main plot. It, in fact, is presented through different parts of the narrative. For example, Frodo and the fellowship needing to fight against the dark lord Sauron is a classic good versus evil story, which is present in both Arthurian mythology and religious texts. Although it may be subtle, it is also very important as it informs the main plot, bringing purpose to the entire story. Therefore, these themes bring forth a moral context. This is vital, as it plays a core role in Tolkien's religious beliefs and was also important in the messaging as well as effect.


Conclusion

The epic and high fantasy are very deeply intertwined with one another, with one inspiring the other. This has allowed the elements of medieval and ancient stories to influence the literature of the contemporary world, allowing high fantasy to develop over time as a genre. The characters of epic fantasy are often stylized to be modelled after medieval and ancient figures who have stood the test of time, granting the characters who are inspired by them the same right. This leaks into the narratives, bringing the adventures alongside them and whilst the worlds present in high fantasy are fictionalised, this does not always hinder or harm the connection with their mother texts. This, then, makes the fictional locations realistic, as it draws connections between the two genres through description.

Figure 7: Gandalf walking towards Bilbo's house (Wenzel, 2022).

However, they also bring a new take on old legends, bringing these legendary tales to mainstream cultural and societal attention. High fantasy is a revisioning, as much as it is an adaptation, of the epic. It can also be an amalgamation of different tales within the epic, bringing the cultural influences and combining them, creating a bigger, more epic story. High fantasy, therefore, could be viewed as the successor to the epic, modernising it for contemporary society.


Bibliographical References

Attebery, B. (2018). Introduction: Epic Fantasy. Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. 29(1), p.1. [Online]. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/26627595 [Accessed 21 August 2023].


Borsley, B. (1971). Notes of the Anglo-Saxon Influence of Anglo-Saxon Literature on "The Lord of the Rings". Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society. (4), p.19. [Online]. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/45321429 [Accessed 24 August 2023].


Coulombe, C. (2001). The Lord of the Rings – A Catholic View. In: Pearce, J. (Ed). Tolkien: A Celebration. San Francisco, California, USA: Ignatius Press.


Finn, R.J. (2005). Arthur and Aragorn: Arthurian influence in "The Lord of the Rings". Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society. (43), p.23. [Online]. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/45320521 [Accessed 24 August 2023].


Le Guin, U.K. (1968). A Wizard of Earthsea. Berkeley, California, USA: Parnassus Press.


Lewis, C.S. (1950). The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. United Kingdom: Geoffrey Bles.


Tolkien, J.R.R. (1954). Fellowship of the Ring. London, England, United Kingdom: George Allen and Unwin. p.281.


Tolkien, J.R.R. (1955). Return of the King. London, England, United Kingdom: George Allen and Unwin. p. 1030.


Tolkien, J.R.R. (1937). The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. London, England, United Kingdom: George Allen and Unwin.


Visual Sources

Cover Image: Burne-Jones, E., Dearle, J. H. & Morris, W. (1891-1894). The Arming and Departure of the Knights [Tapestry]. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Holy_Grail_Tapestry_-The_Arming_and_Departure_of_the_Kniights.jpg [Accessed 22 August 2023].


Figure 1: Böcklin, A. (1896). Odysseus and Polyphemus [Painting]. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Arnold_B%C3%B6cklin_-_Odysseus_und_Polyphemus_(1896).jpg [Accessed 21 August 2023].


Figure 2: Butler, C. E. (1903). King Arthur [Painting]. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charles_Ernest_Butler_-_King_Arthur.jpg [Accessed 22 August 2023].


Figure 3: Tolkien, C. (1980). The West of Middle-Earth at the End of the Third Age [Map]. Tolkien Gateway. https://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/File:Christopher_Tolkien_-_The_West_of_Middle-earth.png [Accessed 23 August 2023].


Figure 4: D'Espinques, E. (1475). Depiction of King Arthur's Knights seeing a vision of the Holy Grail, gathered at the roundtable [Illustration]. Atlas Obscura. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/holy-grail-quest-places [Accessed 23 August 2023].


Figure 5: Burne-Jones, E. (1881-1898). The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon [Painting]. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Burne-Jones_Last_Sleep_of_Arthur_in_Avalon_v2.jpg [Accessed 23 August 2023].


Figure 6: Von Rosen, G. (1886). Odin as Wanderer [Illustration]. Mythopedia. https://mythopedia.com/topics/odin [Accessed 24 August 2023].


Figure 7: Wenzel, D. (2022). Bag End and the Land Beyond in the Third Age [Print]. The Lord of the Rings Wiki. https://lotr.fandom.com/wiki/The_Shire [Accessed 24 August 2023].



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Callum Furnival

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