By the latter part of the 1980s, epic fantasy had established itself as a big-selling, popular genre. The shadow of Tolkien still loomed large over the field, but authors had begun moving away from his paradigm. David Gemmell was telling stories about heroism in worlds bleaker than Middle-earth, Glen Cook was challenging fantasy conventions of good and evil and David Eddings was releasing feel-good stories in which everything always worked out okay.
What the genre did not have was a work that tried to follow up on Tolkien directly, a work that built on - but maybe challenged - his themes and ideas over a very long page count and covering a vast amount of territory and characters. That work, and important step up in the development of epic fantasy, arrived in 1988.
The Dragonbone Chair
Robert Paul "Tad" Williams started writing The Dragonbone Chair in 1985. It was his second novel, having previously published Tailchaser's Song, a fantasy that used cats and an internal mythology that recalled both Watership Down by Richard Adams and Tolkien. The Dragonbone Chair, the fist volume of a planned trilogy called Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, was a more traditional fantasy.
The story is set in Osten Ard, a continent consisting of several distinct nations unified into a single empire by the High King, Prester John. As the story opens, Prester John is failing and his oldest son, Elias, prepares to take the throne in a peaceful transition. However, Elias is quarrelling with his younger brother Josua Lackhand and is under the influence of Pyrates, a priest commanding strange powers. As Elias takes the throne and begins a reign of terror over the population of Osten Ard, risking civil war and anarchy, a young kitchen boy named Simon is thrust into prominence when his mentor, an enemy of Pyrates, is killed. Simon flees into the wilderness after rescuing the imprisoned Josua, triggering a war for succession at the same time that a supernatural force of apparent evil, the Storm King, arises in the distant north.
So far, so standard. But the novel, and the trilogy as a whole, challenges conceptions of the genre. The Storm King and his minions have a genuine grievance against humanity and their plan to conquer/destroy Osten Ard is surprisingly original. There are tinges of science fiction around the edges of the story: the elf-like Sithi are hinted at being arrivals from another planet and the presence of Prester John (a legendary Christian king who established a kingdom in the far east in medieval times) and some very Earth-like cultures suggests an ancient link between our world and Osten Ard. The book also engages with other subgenres of fantasy: Simon Snowlock's journey into the mystical realm of Jao e-Tinukai'i recalls the woodland fantasy of Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood and the Amber series by Roger Zelazny. The vast and forbidding fortress known as the Hayholt, riddled with secret tunnels and long-forgotten rooms, a relic from an ancient, more glorious time, feels like a nod towards Mervyn Peake's titanic Castle Gormenghast.
The series also has extensive maps, a glossary and notes on pronunciation, as well as appendices and cast lists. The books feature an elaborate backstory extending across thousands of years, and numerous notes on culture and language. The trilogy heavily riffs of Tolkien but also does not just steal ideas but repackages them. There is an implicit criticism of the (unplanned but implied) racism in Tolkien's work, which Tolkien himself later struggled with, and also a darker take on the elves, whose continued existence over thousands of years has ossified them and their culture. There is also a nice nod to historical revisionism: our initial understanding of the complex backstory is later challenged, both by the Storm King's own (and rather different) viewpoint of what happened and by the revelation that Prester John may not have been quite the man he is presented as when the story opens. Williams's Aragorn-analogue, Prince Josua, is also shown to be riven by self-doubt and sceptical of his own claim to the throne, as well as his ability to lead the fight against Elias, in sharp contrast to Tolkien's character (although, interestingly, Peter Jackson's film version of the character is more similar to Josua).
Williams's work was influential on what came later. In particular, American SF and horror author George R.R. Martin had not been particularly inspired by the fantasies that had come after Tolkien (Stephen Donaldson's work aside) and had no plans to write in the genre. That changed after reading The Dragonbone Chair, with its use of memorable sayings ("All Men Must Die," is said in the first chapter), the notion of freezing winters lasting years and the alien, otherworldly pale white beings threatening from the north, as well as a dynastic struggle between competing factions and a more realistic take on violence and sexuality. Only three years after The Dragonbone Chair was released, Martin would start work on his own fantasy novel, A Game of Thrones, which he has acknowledged many times as being inspired by Williams (and Tolkien, Vance and Zelazny).
In addition, there are echoes of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn to be found in Scott Bakker's challenging Second Apocalypse mega-series. The (apparently) space-borne race in a fantasy setting, the elves whose immortality has come at a terrible price (of ennui in Williams and outright insanity in Bakker) and the philosophical-religious overtones (much more central in Bakker) are shared ideas between the works.
Williams also, like Tolkien before and Jordan and Martin after, found that his tale had grown in the telling. The Dragonbone Chair was 900 pages long in paperback. Its sequel, Stone of Farewell (published in 1990) was only marginally shorter. And the third volume, To Green Angel Tower (1993), was almost as big as both combined, and remains the longest individual work of fantasy ever published. The book was so huge it had to be split into two volumes for paperback publication, creating a "four-volume trilogy". Williams would also repeat this trick later on, with his cyberpunk/fantasy hybrid series Otherland (which he cleverly pre-sold as four volumes as he knew what would happen, only to find the fourth volume so huge it narrowly avoided being split itself) and a later fantasy trilogy, Shadowmarch, which also expanded to four books.
Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is now an acknowledged classic of the genre, important in its development and ambitious in its scope. It also set the tone for a variant form of fantasy, works consisting of thousands of pages extending across multiple volumes. Many, many authors would follow in his train, not least himself: in 2017 Williams will publish The Witchwood Crown, the first volume of The Last King of Osten Ard, a sequel trilogy set thirty years after the events of the first three books. It is one of the most eagerly-awaited epic fantasy projects on the horizon, and it remains to be seen if Williams can recapture the impact of his classic trilogy.
As epic fantasy began transitioning to the Big Fat Endless Series that has become one of its defining features, there was also a different subset of fantasy that was interested in mashing things up, blurring genre boundaries and generally being a bit weird.