Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Element of an Epic #1: A Vast Setting

Among the Top 5 Elements of a Great Epic, setting is at the top of my list. Great stories, of course, can take place in a very limited setting. Stephen King’s The Mist, which largely takes place in a convenience store, and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, which primarily takes place in the protagonist’s home, leap to mind. But these are not epics. Epics are sweeping, they are vast, and their setting must reflect that.

A cash of five kings – it has to be epic!

One of the most popular epics of the past decade, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, is a perfect example. The fate of the seven kingdoms is at stake. The story spans numerous settings from The Wall (and beyond) down to Winterfell, Riverrun and King’s Landing. Martin also shows us the Eyrie, the Iron Isles, and Dragonstone, and takes us across the sea to a whole other continent, where the Dothraki roam and the warlocks dwell in Qarth. Martin paints a compelling picture of his vast story world, with every locale embroiled, in some form or another, with the central conflict of his story. Had his novels been confined to a single setting – Winterfell for example – we still might have a great story surrounding Bran and his younger brother, but no one would call it an epic.

All of Middle Earth is at stake in The Lord of the Rings.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings presents another good example. His trilogy took us to a myriad of locations, from the Shire, to the Mines of Moria, to Rohan and Gondor, and ultimately Mordor and Mount Doom. Without these various settings, the reader would have no sense of the danger facing all of Middle Earth. But Tolkien, who lived through two World Wars, knew what he was doing. He shows the reader the terrible fate of the dwarves of Moria and the perils of the Rohirrim at Helm’s Deep, and he allows us to appreciate the consequences of the war on the people of Gondor and the Hobbits of the Shire. In doing so, he gives the crisis in his story an epic feel because so many lands and people are affected by the threat of Sauron and the fate of the One Ring.

The Harry Potter novels became epic by the end!

One less obvious example comes from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. The first four books in the series took place almost entirely at Hogwarts. These were more like mystery novels; there was little epic about them. But in the last three novels – The Order of the Phoenix, The Half-Blood Prince, and The Deathly Hallows – the action went beyond Hogwarts to locations throughout London and elsewhere in England, giving the books a much grander, and more epic, feel. Suddenly, there was more at stake than just Hogwarts, and the story became bigger, and, in my view, better.

Of course, a vast setting is merely one element of an epic. Stories that span many settings can have the makings of a great journey tale, but not all journey tales are great epics. There are other elements needed to complete the recipe, and there’ll be more on that in the coming weeks.


Reina Laaman said...

I think you're right. I also think of epics as using multiple POVs, because without them you couldn't go all those places. It takes a lot of skill to handle all that, and I don't think I could do it!

And thank you for your comment on my blog, Joseph.

Joseph Finley said...

Reina - thanks for your comment as well! And you make a great point about multiple POVs. Off the top of my head, I can't think of a great epic that didn't have multiple POVs. I think I'll incorporate the point into a future post in the series, probably with element #3.