Monday 29 August 2011

Is HARRY POTTER epic fantasy?

An interesting question that I posed on Twitter last night, to some interesting answers. Does the Harry Potter series count as epic fantasy?

Points for:
The series features the struggle between a band of plucky heroes against a Dark Lord and his minions. The Dark Lord has previously menaced the world in a prior incarnation and been defeated, but is now returning, a fact initially greeted with scepticism in some quarters.

The central hero is a chosen one whose destiny is to defeat the Dark Lord, as agreed upon by pretty much everyone (even the Dark Lord and his minions, who make the hero's termination a priority).

The series features conspiracies, political intrigue and notable magical battles.

The series is set in a well-thought-out, internally consistent secondary world with its own rules, including a magic system.

The series incorporates numerous 'standard' fantasy creatures and monsters, including centaurs, dragons and griffins.

Points against:
The setting may be a secondary world, but it's closely based on the real world, meaning the author hasn't had to do that much worldbuilding.

The effects of the story are epic and wide in scope, but the majority of the story is geographically limited to one single location (Hogwarts and the surrounding region) for most of the story (six of the seven books).

A lack of guys with swords, hidden crowns or claims to a throne. Also, whilst there are significantly large magical battles, there aren't any massive clashes of sword-wielding dudes.

The lack of any maps in the books.

It's a difficult call (and ultimately a pointless display of semantics) but I think the series veers close to the standard definitions of epic fantasy. Some replies suggested it should be counted as urban fantasy, but for the most part the story doesn't take place in a traditional urban environment. There's also the question of if a fantasy can be simultaneously epic and urban rather than being limited to one definition.



Van said...

The biggest point against, I'd say, is that the books are episodic in nature. Each book has a definitive beginning, middle and end, and the plucky heroes vs. dark lord is merely an overarching subplot, at least in the first several books, as opposed to say WoT, aSoIaF or LotR.

Adam Whitehead said...

Hmm. An interesting point, but I think you could strongly argue that WoT is also episodic: the principle threat/situation introduced at the start of each novel is resolved by the end of the novel for the first three (or arguably four) books before things become serialised. MALAZAN is even more episodic. And of course you can have epic fantasy novels that are single volumes. So that to me is not a major factor.

A suggestion on Westeros was that epic fantasy usually involves 'The Journey' as a trope, an epic excursion across a large expanse of territory (Frodo's journey to Mordor, or maybe Daenerys' journey across Essos, or pretty much everyone in MALAZAN and WoT at some point), which HARRY POTTER doesn't really use.

franti said...

I would hesitate to call Voldy's overarching plot a subplot. It is the main plot of the entire series, the episodic nature of each individual book are really the subplots.

In regards to the journey, I think it's a needlessly narrow definition of a journey if we have to count it as being a physical journey, with backpacks and a plucky mule, et al. Harry definitely undergoes a metaphorical journey, and it transforms him just as much as tramping around in Mordor did Frodo.

Harry Potter is epic fantasy. If the only holdup is that Harry hasn't walked as far as Frodo, I'd say we're all being a little too restrictive.

Mike Bonsiero said...

Franti hits the nail on the head. It's fairly limited geographically, but not limited at all in scope. I would definitely consider it epic fantasy, but I think the interesting point is that it's an epic fantasy whose appeal is not in it's epic nature. If you're evaluating series as epic fantasies, Harry Potter isn't as epic as Ice and Fire or the Wheel of Time, but it has far more appeal outside the fans of the genre because of it's non-epic aspects.

Celyn.A said...

I don't think you can count the world of Harry Potter as a secondary world. The books are set in our world, with fantastic elements, and only differ from other such settings by the fact that those elements are unusually pervasive, ie the characters spend almost all their time in the wizarding world rather than the "muggle" world.
Being set in a secondary world is a precondition for an epic fantasy, in my view, so that disqualifies HP. I agree that a lot of the tropes are present and correct, though.

Adam Whitehead said...

Tolkien's definition of the secondary world is that it is simply a fictional world which has its own internal consistency and not much more than that. He also seemed to think it was important that the secondary world (certainly in his creation of Arda) was explicitly linked to our world in some way. In his case, he did so by saying that Middle-earth is Europe 6,000+ years ago. WoT does so by saying that Randland is part of our world many thousands of years in the future (and indeed in the past at the same time). The links in HP are much clearer than that, obviously.

So on that basis I don't think HP can be disqualified. It takes the society of late 20th Century Britain and introduces a sort-of magical 'overlay' over the top, but there's no reason why that shouldn't count as a secondary world, especially since so much of the story (the overwhelming majority of it) takes place in the firmly magical, invented location of Hogwarts. You could even argue it's a 'crossover' fantasy like NARNIA or Lev Grossman's MAGICIANS, but one where the interface between the magical and 'real' worlds is less absolutely defined.

NG said...

My friend wrote an undergraduate dissertation on the elements of Arthurian legend which permeate the series which I keep meaning to ask her for. Although medieval Arthurian literature tends not to be 'epic fantasy' as we conceive the genre today, it is the source of a lot of modern epic fantasy tropes, and HP is full of them.

wastrel said...

Epic Fantasy. Yes, the fixed location and near-reality setting are unusual for epic fantasy: but then we would also probably call Hobb's Farseer/Liveships/Tawny Man trilogy "epic fantasy", but they have no Dark Lord and no uniting plotline. ASOIAF also has no Dark Lord, and so far no Annointed Hero (there may or may not turn out to be one later), and so far also no epic journey (there are many long journeys, but no single one). Or Thomas Covenant, which is epic despite being a portal fantasy.

"Epic Fantasy" isn't a definition, it's a family resemblance. I'd say core characteristics were things like:
- a battle that can lead to good or evil consequences for an entire world, or at least a very large chunk of it, and that is the focus of the story
- a secondary world
- improbably influential everyman characters.

Around that core, there are various other common features - but many epic fantasies may lack one or more of them. They include:
- a Dark Lord
- magic
- a single overarching plotline
- a vital character-building travelogue
- an aesthetic of lost glory
- elements of intrusion of the fantastic into the lives of the disbelieving
- young central characters coming of age
- dragons
- medieval-era technology
- a very large cast of characters
- warfare
- prophecies
- annointed heroes
- magic swords
- members of royal families, or people who otherwise become closely connected to royal families, or take thrones for themselves

Raquel said...

Fascinating discussion! I was hesitant at first, but Harry's story does, indeed, fit all the tropes we usually see in epic fantasy. I do like the descriptive of a combination urban/epic fantasy, but I'd say it's definitively epic. :)

redwall_hp said...

I think Harry Potter is solidly within the "epic fantasy" subgenre.

Now, someone needs to make it clear that A Song of Ice and Fire is not epic fantasy. It doesn't really have an overarching epic-scale plotline (except for maybe a vague sense that "Winter is Coming™" sometime in the not-too-distant-future) and the heroes aren't sufficiently defined as such.

Let's not forget where the term "epic" came from: the Greek epics, like the Odyssey and Iliad. Tales of heroes overcoming great odds, just like the Norse sagas. If you don't have that, calling something "epic" is a major stretch. And Harry Potter most certainly is an epic in that regard.

Anonymous said...

I would have to say that, although I am a big fan of the series, I wouldn't consider it epic fantasy. I think the main point against it dovetails with Adam's, in that there is a distinct lack of worldbuilding. Whether the world is similar to our own or not is beside the point, for me. The Harry Potter world has next to no discussion about anything happening outside of Hogwarts, or select locations in England. For a series based on the return of what is essentially a magical Hitler boogeyman, very few characters or authorities, outside of Hogwarts or the Ministry, actually seem to care. There is almost no mention of any other countries in Europe, outside of quick references or throw in characters (Fleur, Durmstrang and Karkaroff), and nothing having to do with North America, Asia, or Africa. If the events portrayed are indeed epic and monumental, additional info on the rest of the world would be good. The second point would be the large amount of 'hand-waving' that goes on. There is no actual discussion of how magic works at all, even though it is set in a magic school, and the relationship between wizards and muggles is a little bit ridiculous and generally played for humor. Keeping an entire wizarding world separate and isolated from the real world is implausible at best, and saying that a branch at the ministry of magic handles everything doesn't quite work, considering the amount of random destruction caused throughout the novels. That doesn't even take into account what would have happened during the 1st Wizard war with Voldemort, which is portrayed as a sort of magical WW2. I think that might be pretty hard to cover up. Ignoring the magic and muggle issues in favor of story considerations is not something I would associate with epic fantasy. And finally, the series did start out as a YA series. The 1st two books are especially lacing in mature adult content, and the series as a whole has much more whimsy and straight humor than would be expected from a true epic fantasy written in the 21st century. However, the books were fantastically written and I heartily recommend them to anyone who asks, especially those who are more casual readers and are less inclined to read what I consider true epic fantasy, or gritty fantasy of any sort.

Unknown said...

I think it's safe to say HP crosses genres (and effectively at that). I wouldn't personally call it "epic fantasy," but I would say the story itself is of "epic proportions." I envision epic fantasy as a more "traditional" literary model, whereas HP, while drawing heavily from the tropes of the fantasy genre at large, doesn't contain the typical trappings of the "epic fantasy" subgenres.

But then again, HP is, at its heart, an extended good vs. evil narrative, which is not unlike the multivolume epic fantasy romps which are also essentially little more than good vs. evil...

Sean May said...

To my mind, the main characteristic of epic fantasy is a conflict between good and evil that takes place in a large arena - a whole continent, a whole world etc. Harry Potter both has that and doesn't have it. Clearly, there is an immense conflict happening in the story, but it never really feels that immense - it's very provincial. As has been pointed out, there's very little attention paid to anyone, anything and anywhere outside the confines of Hogwarts. (It reminds me of something someone once said about Doctor Who: because of budget limitations the Doctor had to deal with repeated alien invasions of south-east England.)

Another characteristic of epic fantasy - one that I don't think anyone has mentioned yet - is a multiplicity of viewpoint characters. In TLotR, the Fellowhip splits up and the narrative follows each smaller group; Lord of Chaos has, what? 54 viewpoint characters? The Harry Potter narratives are almost exclusively focalised through Harry.

While ultimately being a war between good wizards and evil wizards, the Harry Potter series feels more like a personal tug of war between Dumbledore and Voldemort with Harry as the rope. My opinion is that, while the Harry Potter books have many epic fantasy characteristics - and may even technically qualify as epic fantasy - they don't quite feel like it.

Elfy said...

I never really considered it at the time, but on most counts it does seem to qualify as what is currently deemed to be epic fantasy by those who like to label things that way. The blogger got a tongue in cheek response elsewhere that gave the HP saga the title of: YA Epic Urban Fantasy, and that fits ideally for me.

Neuro said...

On a bit of an unrelated note, Wert, have you heard of the 'Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality' fanfiction? Yes, fanfiction i know but i know for a fact David Brin has recommended it on his blog and it is, quite simply, brilliant. It is better written than almost anything i've read this year.

wastrel said...

Anonymous: would you say that The Lord of the Rings was not epic fantasy? And yet LotR has virtually zero - and I do mean as close to zero as can be achieved - discussion of "how magic works".

Also, even LotR has YA-elements, particular near the beginning. I don't think YA and 'epic' are contradictory. Quite the contrary: most epic fantasy seems aimed at teenagers.

Nor do I see why multiplicity of POV characters is a vital feature. Stories like The Lord of the Rings and The Dragonlance Chronicles have only two or three POVs at a time; David Eddings' novels generally are focused on only a single POV (though there are some exceptions, iirc). Likewise most Gemmell - there are diversions here and there, but usually a very strong focus on the perspective of one central character.

Anonymous said...

I consider Harry Potter to be Epic Fantasy Lite. The Gateway Drug of Epic Fantasy. It's got just about all the elements of Epic Fantasy, but uses them in a parallel world instead of a future, past or alternate world.

It may not have the reach of most Epic Fantasy, but the world has the depth and history associated with Epic Fantasy. Although a lot of it coincides with the modern world, it is spun as the wizarding world effecting the modern world.

There is a defined history that has effected the present situation and contributes to the plotline. It has it's own economy and governmental system. It has places that are not accessible in the world we actually live in.

There is a clearly defined (albeit simple) magic system. There are fantastical creatures. There are methods of travel and communication that are not possible (yet).

There is a definite hero's journey. There's the introduction into the world that is newly discovered. There's the really dark book where all hope looks lost. There's the ultimate battle of good vs. evil.

If the only quibble is the worldbuilding, I would say that there is a clearly defined world, it's just more closely tied in timeline to the current world than Lord of the Rings or Wheel of Time.

John said...

Previously posted as Anon
Wastrel - I agree that LOTR doesn't have nay real explanation of magic, although the Silmarillion and Tolkein's musings provide some insight into wizards and the like. However, as i stated in the previous post, Harry Potter is entirely about a boy who discovers he is a wizard and can do magic, and is set at a magic academy. LOTR is about a journey to destroy a ring that powers the evil overlord, not about discovering that magic is alive and real, and attending a school specifically to learn about magic. My point was more that the casual nature of the fantastical elements of the world (loose, childish latin translations acting as magic triggers {Expelliarmus and the like}, somewhat childish names of creatures,characters, and concepts {Cornelius Fudge, Longbottom, Dementors, Muggles, etc..} is not detailed or well-concieved enough, in my mind, to act as true epic fantasy. For a world defined by its magic, there is very little definition of magic. Its more lke Rowling thought "I want to write about a boy's struggle with being a chosen-one wizard, minus all of the physical (or meta-phsyical) reality of how one actually is a wizard". Things like that make it too casual for me to define it as epic. As to the YA aspect, I do agree that being YA doesn't automatically disqualify it, its more that the first few books seem like a different series, until the amazing sales dictated that the author have more control (or was looking to extend the series). I disagree that epic fantasy is aimed at teens, unless we are talking about teens that like much deeper material than the Inheritance series or Twilight, which is what most YA fiction is composed of. I don't think having limited sex, violence, and taboo activities (drugs, swearing, etc.) makes something YA. I think the themes ,the level of complexity, and the detail in internal consistency determine that.

Anonymous said...

I would trust on its original and initial genre classifications. In the end they prevail.

wastrel said...


Two things.

First, I think you have to be careful not to beg the question by insisting that all epic fantasy is good. Some epic fantasy isn't good. Some epic fantasy that is good isn't good at everything. OK, so maybe HP, or at least its worldbuilding, is "casual" and "childish" and "not detailed" and "not well-conceived" and so on, but that doesn't mean it's not epic fantasy!

Secondly, I don't see why a world, and in particular the magic system, needs to be addressed in a scientific manner for it to count either as good or as epic. Sure, that's the Wheel of Time model, yes. Nice, technical, complicated, well-described magic "system". But that's not the whole of epic fantasy. The Silmarillion has plenty of magic being really central to it - gods and angels and dragons and elves and werewolves and necromancy and mountain ranges being raised and destroyed and magic jewels and magic swords and demons and everything. But there's almost no magic "system" explained in the book. ASOIAF: there may be a magic system, but we've not seen much of any yet. David Eddings: the "system" is incredibly simplistic (basically just 'really want it to happen', iirc). Feist has schools of magic so we assume something systematic is taught, but I don't remember us ever getting to see the actual details of that system. The Drenai novels: more mystical than systematic. Hobb has magic systems, but they're intentionally highly minimalist and ill-defined. Thomas Covenant: no, still not seing the detailed systematic magical system. Even Dragonlance - it has ornamental details, sure, like different orders of mages, and spell componants, but there's nothing systematic or coherent or actually-spelled-out-anywhere about it.

Third, on YA: oh, come on! I firmly believe that epic fantasy CAN be 'deep' and 'complex', but these two adjectives are hardly hallmarks of the genre! Indeed, almost every other fantasy/sf subgenre is deeper and more complex on average, I think. And believe me, I know a dozen or more people who used to read epic fantasy as teens but then stopped, but virtually none who started as adults (barring individual series - ASOIAF seems particularly good at drawing in latecomers). No surprise, since epic fantasy is so clearly directed at teenagers: coming-of-age tales of misfit teenage farmboys and rebellious teenage tomboys showing the world that actually they've been Annointed by Destiny to be the most important people in the world? Guided by wise and kindly parental figures who they rebel against but ultimately realise are right? With clear didactic moral messages and easy-to-assimilate dilemas? With tantalising hints of sex and violence but very little serious consideration of their consequences?

Don't get me wrong: I'm not dissing the subgenre, nor saying that the teenage market is all it can, or should, appeal to. But let's be honest, at its core it's traditionally been aimed at adolescents. [And nothing wrong with that!].

[[[And I thought Inheritance WAS epic fantasy? Though I admit I haven't read it.]]]

Shadar said...

"A lack of guys with swords, hidden crowns or claims to a throne. Also, whilst there are significantly large magical battles, there aren't any massive clashes of sword-wielding dudes. "

But there is a Magic Sword (used in battles against giant magical snakes).
And there is a hidden crown (diadem).
And there is the poor boy who inherits a lot of gold from his dead parents.

Anonymous said...

One point against is that Harry lives with his uncle and aunt in our true world. Almost everything seems in order before the letter came. And with straight face the first two books and movies had a tale nature, something that is more child friendly. The third one got one step darker and it escalated with every single book and movie.