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Frequently, the protagonist is reluctant to be a champion, is of low or humble origin, and has royal ancestors or parents but does not know it. Though events are usually beyond their control, they are thrust into positions of great responsibility where their mettle is tested in a number of spiritual and physical challenges. Although it shares many of the basic themes of Sword and Sorcery the term 'Heroic fantasy' is often used to avoid the garish overtones of the former.
Initially undistinguished from the other early fantasies of William Morris, ER Eddison, Evangeline Walton, T.H. White (in his Once and Future King) and C. S. Lewis, heroic fantasy as a genre began to codify and accrue genre conventions following the upsurge of popularity of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, which led to an increase in popularity of fantasy fiction in general.
The scholarship of writer and editor Lin Carter also exerted vast influence. As editor of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy line, Carter, in effect created a literary canon of significant fantasy works which though it included the works of pulp writers Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft included other writers not working in that tradition. Carter restored writers such as Eddison and Walton from obscurity.
From the 1970s onwards, a number of authors began publishing longer, sometimes formulaic, fantasy works and capitalized on the market that the success of Tolkien's work had shown existed. Though not in itself technically fantasy (though frequently described as "space fantasy"), the 1977 film Star Wars exerted considerable influence. At the same time, sword and sorcery (a form previously most associated with genre fantasy) underwent a short resurgence. Michael Moorcock, a sharp critic of Tolkien and his school, which he considered inherently politically conservative, made pains to distance himself from it.
Heroic Fantasy in the Modern Age
Many new authors now shed, at least partly, the traditional concepts of heroes and even of good and evil. They tend, like George RR Martin, Robert Jordan, or Robin Hobb, to use several viewpoints, of "heroes" or "villains", and to blur the distinction between those two categories.
Jacqueline Carey has, in her The Sundering duology portrayed an evil god and his army as the protagonists. She shows them not as inherently evil, but as the victims of betrayal and bad choices. On the other hand, the "good side" are shown as arrogant, narrow-minded, and unforgiving. In other words, there is not much difference between the two sides. Even the "evil" god has been forced into the role, not by fate, but because of his brother's pride. Another one of Carey's protagonists, Phèdre is a virtuous and strong young woman who happens to be a masochistic courtesan.
Martin has offered a revisionist presentation of the "usual" heroes, such as the chivalric knight, by showing some as murderers, bullies, and rapists. Some kings and regents are uncaring manipulators, while a few struggle to be decent while fulfilling a greater duty. Powerless commoners, who struggle to survive during a civil war that does not concern them, are often as brutal as their overlords, but are sometimes heroic.
In recent years, heroic fantasy has matured somewhat out of its staid image as sub-par 'fat fantasy', becoming a genre of its own, the best examples of which have received much praise.
- Fritz Leiber
- David Gemmell
- Patrick Rothfuss
- E R Eddison
- Jessica Amanda Salmonson
- Charles R. Saunders
- Edgar Rice Burroughs
- Karl Edward Wagner
- Michael Moorcock
- Robert E. Howard
- Robert Jordan
- Richard Adams
- Jacqueline Carey
- Mercedes Lackey
- Lloyd Alexander
- Christopher Paolini
- Terry Goodkind
- Joe Abercrombie
- R.A. Salvatore
- Brandon Sanderson
- David C. Smith
- Richard L. Tierney
"Heroic fantasy" is the name I have given to a subgenre of fiction, otherwise called the "sword-and-sorcery" story. It is a story of action and adventure laid in a more or less imaginary world, where magic works and where modern science and technology have not yet been discovered. The setting may (as in the Conan stories) be this Earth as it is conceived to have been long ago, or as it will be in the remote future, or it may be another planet or another dimension.
Such a story conbines [sic] the color and dash of the historical costume romance with the atavistic supernatural thrills of the weird, occult, or ghost story. When well done, it provides the purest fun of fiction of any kind. It is escape fiction wherein one escapes clear out of the real world into one where all men are strong, all women beautiful, all life adventurous, and all problems simple, and nobody even mentions the income tax or the dropout problem or socialized medicine.
- John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Heroic fantasy", p 464 ISBN 0-312-19869-8