Heroic fantasy

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Heroic fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy which chronicles the tales of heroes in fantasy settings.[citation needed] Unfortunately it is a clumsy term of art that seeks to group together wildly disparate fantasy writers such as Robert E. Howard, T.H. White and C.S. Lewis, who share quite little in common stylistically or thematically, and has generally fallen from favor.


Frequently, the protagonist is reluctant to be a champion, and/or is of low or humble origin, and may have 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.[1]


Jack killing the giant - The Chronicle of the Valiant Feats of Jack the Giant Killer (1845), facing 20 - BL

19th and 20th Century[edit]

Initially undistinguished from the other early fantasies of the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries, pulp writer Robert E. Howard wrote short stories about a Barbarian Hero named Conan with tales of fantastic adventure with 'a king-sized dose of the supernatural.'[2] Other writers of note added to the still unnamed genre: 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 writers and editors Lin Carter & L. Sprague De Camp also exerted vast influence on the Robert E. Howard unfinished Conan Stories. Carter, as editor of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy line, 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's Cthulhu Mythos 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. Despite being a science fiction masterpiece (although originally planned on being produced as what is vaguely described as "space fantasy"), the Star Wars films exerted a considerable metaphor of heroic fantasy. At the same time, sword and sorcery underwent a short resurgence. Michael Moorcock, a sharp critic of Tolkien and his school, which he considered inherently politically conservative, took pains to distance himself from it.[citation needed]

21st Century[edit]

Many new authors now shed, at least partly, the traditional concepts of heroes and even of good and evil.[citation needed] They tend, like George RR Martin, Robert Jordan, Andrzej Sapkowski ,or Robin Hobb, to use several viewpoints, of "heroes" or "villains", and to blur the distinction between those two categories.[citation needed]

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.

A popular example of self-parodying heroic fantasy is provided by the British writer Terry Pratchett, whose parodies of the genre are widely acknowledged as a prime example of British humour.

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.[citation needed]

Selected authors[edit]


"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.

L. Sprague de Camp, introduction to the 1967 Ace edition of Conan (Robert E. Howard).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ John Grant and John Clute, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Heroic fantasy", p 464 ISBN 0-312-19869-8
  2. ^ Introduction of Conan The Freebooter Ace ISBN 978-0-441-11863-2

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