Yesterday I read a fascinating post called “On (Moral) Fantasy Fiction II” by Paul Charles Smith that looked at different types of morality in epic or heroic fantasy. He talks about how there’s a difference in Tolkien’s writing when he was writing in a “tragic mode” or when he was writing The Lord of the Rings. It was a highly insightful look into shifts between a “shame” based culture and a “guilt” based culture. I recommend you read it.
In the review, reviewer Adam Roberts states that Rothfuss’ book doesn’t quite pan out because of the fact that it’s “medieval trappings” merely amount to post-modern anachronisms. He points to specific passages that if you didn’t know were from an epic fantasy book, they’d look like they could fit inside any modern novel.
Roberts contends that Tolkien is able to write more convincing epic fantasy because of his grasp of language and from coming from a different time. While I agree that Tolkien’s experience as a professor and philologist gave him a linguistic edge, I don’t agree with the implication that a modern writer can’t write authentic sounding epic fantasy.
I have my own issues with Rothfuss’ novel–mostly dealing with how Kvothe is able to overcome almost any obstacle and excel at everything. (Roberts does raise a fantastic point about the framing devices used in The Name of the Wind, especially those that pertain to the art of storytelling and how Rothfuss tries to deflect criticism by using some meta jabs at detractors). However, I don’t have an issue with Rothfuss’ use of language and writing style.
How many times have you read an amateur story that attempts to tell an epic fantasy tale only to be turned off by the use of language? People seem to think that using “thou” and “thee” will make their tale more authentic and “old sounding.” Most of the time it doesn’t work. Robert’s doesn’t explicitly state that inverted constructions and archaic vocabulary make or break epic fantasy, but I can’t help but get that impression.
Tolkien was uniquely suited to crafting prose that sounds like heroic verse because of his background and experience. Not every writer has to do that to create epic fantasy. Not every writer should do that. I took a class dedicated to Chaucer, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to try to write in a Middle English-inspired tone, even if I’m writing epic fantasy. It’d come across as stilted, like I was trying too hard. There’s much more to it than just the sound; there are characters, settings, and thematic issues that also shape and guide the genre.
I agree with both Roberts and Smith that there are cultural differences that permeate down to the metacognitive level between our time, Tolkien’s time, and “medieval” times (wherever the setting happens to be based). But to me, things like where we draw the inspiration for our epic fantasy stories–either from individual achievement or personal defiance against a predetermined doom–are far more important than writing old fashioned and fancy.
What do you think? Am I missing the point here? Is sound/syntax just as important as setting, theme, and characters when it comes to epic fantasy? I want to know what other writers and readers of fantasy think.