The Epic

Being, at the moment, too distracted by some health issues to tackle any creative work of my own, I thought to fill the idle hours (which is most of them) by reading Tad Williams’s massive series called Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. I marched most of the way through the first book, The Dragonbone Chair, a number of years ago, but gave it up without going on to the even longer Stone of Farewell and Toward Green Angel Tower. The third book is more than a thousand pages in a 6×9 trim size, and that’s intimidating enough to explain my reticence, absent any other factors. The three paperbacks have been sitting on my shelf, mocking me, for at least a decade now.

Williams is a fine prose stylist. His prose is better than mine, no shame in admitting that. The story, though — that’s a dragon of a different color. What concerns me about The Dragonbone Chair (I haven’t yet finished it, so I can’t comment on the shape of the epic as a whole) is that it’s so darn predictable.

There are forces of good and forces of evil, and ultimately everybody in the story is aligned with either one side or the other. The evil forces have, of course, some evil magic on their side. The good guys, no magic. Okay, yeah, the wise woman of the forest can turn into an owl, but so far (585 pages out of 760 in the first book) that’s about it.

And then the knights and men-at-arms. Williams has constructed a bog-standard Medieval society, complete with a king and an assortment of dukes, earls, and counts, not to mention a minstrel, a jester, ladies-in-waiting, and a thinly disguised version of Christianity. The vast conflict that is unfolding seems, so far, to be a build-up to a series of battles in which sword will clash against sword and hundreds of valiant good guys will be hacked to bits. Golly, doesn’t that sound like fun?

The hero of the tale, young Simon, is transparently The Chosen One. His parentage is mysterious. He’s raised as a lowly servant in the castle, and as far as he’s aware, he has been swept up in the stupendous conflict by accident. But of course the obscure hints about the identity of his father alert the savvy reader that there’s a lot more to it than that.

While prowling around the castle, he encounters a boy about his age (14 or 15) who before dashing away reveals that his name is Malachias. And then Simon quite accidentally stumbles upon the king’s brother locked up in a secret cell, helps the brother escape, and then the good wizard is killed by the evil wizard and Simon is on the run through the wilderness, hungry and footsore. A few weeks later, still on the run, he and his troll friend rescue two young people who have been treed by bloodthirsty evil hounds, and dang, it’s Malachias. Who is soon revealed as a girl disguised as a boy. She says her name is Marya, and it isn’t until a hundred pages later that it turns out Marya is actually Princess Miriamele.

You saw that coming, didn’t you?

To be fair to Williams, he was writing this story in the late 1980s, when the fading glow of Tolkien still illuminated the far hills. Fantasy today has grown up, at least a tiny bit.

But I think Williams’s greatest sin is that I don’t care about any of the characters. Not even Simon. All of them are one-dimensional at best. As I near the end of the first book, there is indeed a battle — knights on horseback hacking at one another, plus some treachery. Much of the battle is reported from the viewpoint of a minor character named Deornoth, whom I don’t recall seeing anywhere in the narrative up to this point. He’s a blank.

I suspect the characters are one-dimensional because they’re swept up and completely absorbed by the grim events of the story. If any of them was having fun or being whimsical, it would undercut the intensity of the story. But because they’re all either diabolically evil or tangled in a life-or-death struggle with evil, I just don’t want to hang around with them.

If I can get myself back on an even keel, I’d like to resume work on the expanded version of my own fantasy epic. (Those book covers up there at the top of the blog! They’re good! Buy them!) What is, at present, a four-volume story may someday be seven volumes. I have the first few chapters of the prequel drafted. Here’s the thing, though: I really do think my story is better than Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. At least, from what I’ve seen of it so far.

Well, I didn’t start working on mine until 2004, and I started out with the conscious intention of not doing a bog-standard Medieval fantasy. There are railroad trains in my story and simple firearms as well as wizards and dragons. Also, I deliberately avoided writing a pitched battle between opposing forces hacking at one another with swords. I just don’t care for that kind of crap. I even included a couple of comic characters. The main events of my story are serious; there’s danger, treachery, and a bit of gruesome death here and there; but my emotional canvas is a whole lot broader than Williams’s.

Beyond that, I inverted a couple of the tropes that Williams used. Yes, my teenage hero is a Chosen One with a mysterious parentage. (Sorry about that.) At least it’s mysterious to her at the outset, but her uncle knows all about it, so it doesn’t stay mysterious for very long. And yes, she soon gets romantically involved with royalty — except, well, not exactly. Her young man is technically the emperor, and knows it, but he’s working in a freight caravan as an ox-tender, and he’s perfectly happy in that role. He has no political ambitions.

Williams’s princess gives Simon a blue scarf as he’s about to set off on the next perilous stage of his quest. Totally Medieval. My unassuming emperor gives his girl his dagger. It’s a simple enough inversion of the trope, as well as being a phallic symbol, but that’s the point. It is an inversion. And at the end of my final volume, or what is at the moment the final volume, she gives up her destiny, because it turns out she has a half-brother, so she’s not the Chosen One after all.

If I live long enough to write the two books that follow, more will be revealed. But while I may want to be influenced by Williams’s wonderful prose style, I’m not proposing to ape his plot. Epic fantasy ain’t what it used to be — and we can all be grateful for that.

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1 Response to The Epic

  1. George Oliver says:

    To go on a slight tangent, rereading ye olde fantasy novels of ones youth is always a gamble. I remember liking the first book of this trilogy a lot, but the rest was a bit of a slog — I don’t think I finished the last one. I remember thinking Williams was very good at the battle scenes, but at 16 years old I especially liked battle scenes.

    I did reread/skim the first couple books of Jordan’s Wheel of Time recently, another teenage favorite, and it was pretty bad, though a good page-turner.

    One that I might reread and expect to be good is Kay’s Tigana — he always seemed a cut above the rest.

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