Terri Windling once gave a speech in which she laid out two realms of fantasy produced in the twentieth century:
those rooted in the grand themes, symbols, and language of myth, epic, and romance, and those rooted in the humbler stuff of folklore and fairy tales. The first category includes tales epic in scope, full of sweeping heroic adventures and battles on which the fate of worlds, or at least kingdoms, depend. The latter category includes much smaller tales, more intimate in nature — stories of individual rites of passage and personal transformation.
These two realms of fantasy, in turn, hark back to two very different ancient story-telling traditions. The epic kind, as she mentions, grows out of the court—the elite circles in which men of power and substance (or their supporters) passed down authoritative accounts of the world. Some of these epics can be quite profound meditations on the meaning of human existence, the struggle against corruption and overwhelming evil, or just the existential question of life’s meaning in the face of death. Think of Homer and Beowulf. Battle scenes are important to epic, partly because the story of struggle against evil foes is one way political regimes justify power. Romance, too, of the chivalrous kind, concerns men (and their consorts) in the aureate glow of the king and his court.
Windling’s second category harks back to a separate tradition of storytelling. As she puts it, “The oral folk tale tradition, on the other hand, was a peasant tradition, and a largely female one.” That peasant tradition, then, is less likely to be about the rise and fall of great empires, than to be about the rise and fall of a sharp-tongued girl, a submissive daughter, or an uppity son. Storytellers in this folk tradition work on themes that are no less hair-raising, no less pregnant with magic and evil. They’re simply for a different audience.
In some ways, in fact, the magic in the “peasant tradition” can be more unexpected and, therefore, more terrifying, more grim—maybe even more potent.
Modern fantasy novels generally take their departure, says Windling, from one or the other tradition. They can depart far from that tradition, of course, and individual writers can work in both mediums. There are no doubt instances where the two seem to merge. Literature rarely holds to type.
But Windling’s observations are worth bearing in mind. They offer a helpful corrective to thinking of “fantasy” as inevitably in the epic mode. Effective fantasy can thrive without battles, drawn swords or sieges on towns--with none of the machinery of war. It can have small people, girls and boys or peasants or herb-swilling old women … caught up in smaller tensions of magic or finding escape through it. And it can surprise us with its human insights along the way.