by Shannon Stewart
“If you want to write fantasy, you’re going to have to stop reading only fantasy.”
My friend didn’t elaborate. He said it to someone else, and I don’t think he knew I was listening. But those words put hooks in me. At first I was somewhat affronted at the implicit disparagement of my then-current reading choices. But after a decade or so of chewing on the idea, I actually think he’s right.
So much fantasy recycles the same tropes Tolkien popularized. And why not? They are, after all, awesome. I love clever dragons and reluctant heroes, undercover kings and rather grumpy wizards. They’re part of the draw of fantasy for me, like revisiting old friends.
But writing under influence of only those tropes can pave a path to redundancy, even irrelevance. For example, when I asked a friend in college whether I should pick up a then-popular YA book, he responded by saying, “It’s a fantasy novel. Now you tell me the plot.”
With only a few minor hints, I guessed the entire thing. It was a fun exercise. But yikes.
Lord of the Rings was so transporting that many authors list Tolkien as an inspiration, including the author whose plot I guessed. If I ever get my own Wikipedia page, you can bet he’ll be listed there too. We see his influence everywhere. With few exceptions, Dwarves act like Tolkien’s Dwarves, Elves act like Tolkien’s Elves, and that motley crew of various fantasy races on a quest to save the world from a great darkness looks an awful lot like the Fellowship. These devices have become commonplace, even expected, in the fantasy genre. An example—one I nonetheless enjoy—is Terry Brooks’ Shannara series.
The results? Fantasy has amazingly original ideas from some of the most creative minds in the world, but frequently those ideas get squashed down into the same old molds: epic quests, powerful MacGuffins, reluctant Chosen Ones, disillusioned hermit mentors who will inevitably die before they can tell the hero the Most Important Thing so that the hero must discover it for him or herself (less common, but I sure nailed it in that plot I guessed!).
Before I continue, let me give two qualifications. First, I’m an avid fantasy fan, the kind that’s drawn to any book with a castle (or talisman, or any form of cloak) on its cover. It’s my love for fantasy that makes me want the genre to push for more than complacent patterns. Second, I have not read every fantasy series. I’m sure many authors are writing stand-out fantasy—in fact, I would love some recommendations! But even without reading them, I’m sure the reason those fantasy novels stand out is that they’ve written fresh races, tropes, and themes, not produced more of the same monsters and morals.
Therefore, I propose a solution: infusing our reading lists with classic lit. Why classic lit? Two reasons: 1) I’ll be honest. Through two degrees in English Literature, it’s mainly what I’ve had opportunity to read. But that also means I’ve seen firsthand the intellectual rigor, heart-aching relevance, and foreign worldview that classic lit can offer. 2) Many adults don’t touch classic lit at all once they leave their last English Survey course. It’s not a commonly-mined source of inspiration, but its gems are precious.
Here are two types of classic lit I’d recommend to fantasy authors:
- Old Fantasy
In my non-fiction reading, I overall prefer Christian books from the 1950s backwards. Many modern Christian books use the same language to discuss doctrine. This is not a flaw per se; they are simply using the language of our generation to reach out to a particular cultural milieu (inevitably influencing each other while doing so). But ironically, that means writers from the 1800s and 1900s have a “fresh” look and “fresh” language about my most beloved doctrines. They preach the same truth, but it is gloriously revitalized, because our authors today don’t describe the Gospel with those particular nuances and implications.
Why can’t the same be true of older speculative fiction (Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Tain Bo Cuailnge, The Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, The Fall of Hyperion, nearly anything by Tennyson)? You might just find that the older you go, the more novelty you find. Sure, Edmund Spenser was recycling narratives when he wrote Faerie Queene in the 1500s, but he was recycling different narratives than we are now. These old ideas thus become brand new to a modern reader.
I teach High School English, so in recent years I constantly reference The Hunger Games (granted, not fantasy, but popular enough as an example). I also reference my favorite book, Paradise Lost (John Milton’s epic poem about the Fall of Man from Restoration-Era England). We discuss both books in-depth in my classes. When we discuss Paradise Lost, my students leave animatedly continuing in-class conversations about the nature of good and evil, why we’re tempted to sympathize with Satan, and what heroism really looks like. When we discuss Hunger Games, they leave discussing Team Peeta vs. Team Gale.
Now, Team Peeta vs. Team Gale actually raises interesting questions about what we want versus want we need in love. And I know Hunger Games has deeper themes than love triangles. But one reason my students leave with such big ideas about Paradise Lost (besides its being generally magisterial) is that its oldness makes it new to them. John Milton implements the same themes as Suzanne Collins, but not in the ways we’re used to reading them. New—to us—approaches brush the dust off these familiar ideas, turning them to new and exciting angles.
Those who create new worlds can gather inspiration from almost anything. Everything from Old English poetry to American Modernism has something to offer the enterprising author of speculative fiction.
For example, Marrow of Tradition. Its author, Charles Chesnutt, was biracial in the aftermath of the Civil War. He could pass for white, but identified strongly with African-Americans. His particular perspective illuminates race issues, hidden prejudices, and faults on both sides of the color line that I had never considered before. How might his viewpoint inform a character caught between two fantasy races?
Or William Faulkner’s stream of consciousness technique. While head-thumpingly difficult, it challenges us by trying to capture exactly how humans think, in all our incomprehensibility and distraction and pettiness and untold depth. How might analyzing stream of consciousness influence your writing a mind-reader, a telepath, or just rich character development and complex motives in general?
Or are you looking for an entertaining way to read up on Medieval era tournaments and battles? Look no further than Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Not only will you get exciting scenes of castle sieges and passion-heated jousts, but you’ll get a good dose of post-Hastings race relations and a critique of chivalry I never would have thought to look into myself.
So many of us, even without realizing it, copy Tolkien and his offshoots. When we only look to other fantasy for inspiration, however, we’re missing a key to Tolkien’s success. One of the reasons Lord of the Rings is so luscious is that Tolkien was pulling not from other fantasy novels, but from the rich resources of other literary forms: the Poetic Edda, Celtic mythology, Anglo-Saxon poetry, and certain Renaissance paradigms. As a professor, he studied these texts in-depth. He knew literature. And he recycled its beauty, timelessness, and power into a new package.
In other words, he didn’t read only fantasy. I submit that we should do the same.
Shannon Stewart is a high school English teacher. Her MA in English Literature still curled in its mail tube in her closet, but the real prize, her love for British fiction, is on exuberant display in her classes each week. So far, she’s completed two of her life goals: naming her two children after fictional characters and getting her husband to play Zelda games. A third goal is to publish her YA Fantasy WIP, currently on its eighth (and second “final”) draft.