Tuesday, 19 April 2011

An A-Z of Heroic Fantasy (N-Z!)

Here is my introduction once more to the A-Z of Heroic Fantasy - you can find the letters A-M discussed HERE:

Today I aim to provide you with a quick overview of Heroic Fantasy through a handy A-Z list (this post will cover letters N-Z; a previous post took you from A-M!). We'll be examining heroic fantasy through various forms of media, some of the most famous proponents of heroic fantasy, memorable characters, and familiar tropes.

First, a background:

Heroic fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy that came into being from an early age - The Odyssey, Beowulf, King Arthur: all were early examples of heroic fantasy. It tends to deal with a hero and his exploits in a serialised fashion, defeating monsters and man at a micro level of fantasy. It is not the sweeping look at civilizations and cultures provided by epic fantasy, nor the more magic-dominated sword and sorcery. It tends to be darker and gritty, although not without moments of great humour. Absolute evil and absolute good tend to be absent from tales of heroic fantasy. Many heroic fantasy tales have been turned into a lengthy series of adventures. Their lower stakes and less than world-threatening dangers make this more plausible than a repetition of the perils of epic fantasy.

N is for...

No women!

I intentionally included Jirel of Joiry in my list, so that it wouldn't be entirely masculine. Heroic fantasy is not an area where you'll find a great deal of strong female characters. There are women, but they tend to be very much of the 'serving the menfolk' ilk - whores, meek princesses and the like. In fact, heroic fantasy is distinctly biblical in that sense - women are all to do with temptation and weakness, and little to do with fire and passion.

There is most definitely a gap for a strong character-driven and female-led heroic fantasy novel! I know for sure that I would read it...

O is for...

The Odyssey.

The Odyssey is one of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to Homer. It is, in part, a sequel to the Iliad, the other work traditionally ascribed to Homer. The poem is fundamental to the modern Western canon. Indeed it is the second—the Iliad being the first—extant work of Western literature.

The poem mainly centers on the Greek hero Odysseus (or Ulysses, as he was known in Roman myths) and his long journey home following the fall of Troy. It takes Odysseus ten years to reach Ithaca after the ten-year Trojan War.

Many, many modern works steal shamelessly from the Odyssey - but its influence can be felt in a broader fashion. In any tale that involves a first person narrative telling tall tales, you can see echoes of The Odyssey. Without this seminal work, I doubt we would have seen many of the pieces of classic literature that led forward to the canon of heroic fantasy we now enjoy.

Indeed, the themes that have been identified in the Odyssey are present to a greater or lesser degree in most modern heroic fantasy: homecoming and hospitality; exile; identity; temptation.

P is for...

Prince of Persia.

I'm talking here about the computer game on which the film is based, although I guess both could be counted. The eponymous Prince is the hero in question, battling evil and trying to return the Sands of Time to the hourglass in which they belong. There have been several entries into the computer game series - involving royalty, quests, spirits, and demons. They are heroic fantasy distilled into computer format, and provide an entertaining twist on the usual heroic fantasy, being set, as they are, in a land that contains Persia, India and Babylon. It is an odd alternate land to ours, since the unnamed Prince also visit the Island of Time, which I doubt you'll find on many maps!

Prince of Persia examines deliciously the idea of time travel, and the effects of playing with time. Well worth a try, if clever heroic fantasy is your ideal.

Q is for...


I mean, come on... Who isn't on a quest in heroic fantasy? Retrieving various magical artefacts, saving princesses, attacking mythical beasts.

Quests are an absolutely integral part of all fantasy fiction, but seem to be especially beloved of heroic fantasy and sword and sorcery. The trope (or cliché, if you will!) lends itself beautifully to the type of story dealt with in heroic fantasy - it allows there to be an over-arching plotline while the hero can face various encounters en route to successfully achieving his quest. I guess this is why heroic fantasy is so well-represented in the computer games arena as well.

R is for...

Robert E Howard.

He really is the grand-daddy of heroic fantasy, and deservedly takes his place besides such luminaries as Tolkien, in terms of influence on the field of fantasy that he helped to shape.

The list of his works is simply astonishing, especially considering the fact that he committed suicide at age thirty. If he hadn't, it is unthinkable the amount of output he could have produced. He was enormously prolific, most of his genre works finding publication in Weird Tales.

He is probably best known for his creation Conan, who is comparable to such icons as Tarzan of the Apes and Sherlock Holmes.

He and his works are still beloved by many today, and this directory demonstrates as much.

S is for...

Sword and Sorcery.

And this is where all the confusion starts... See, sword and sorcery and heroic fantasy are pretty bloody similar. Alright, there might be a few mages throwing fireballs in sword and sorcery, and more axes in heroic fantasy, but it's not like the difference between heroic fantasy and epic fantasy.

Check out this description of sword and sorcery: "Sword and sorcery (S&S) is a subgenre of fantasy and historical fantasy, generally characterized by swashbuckling heroes engaged in exciting and violent conflicts. An element of romance is often present, as is an element of magic and the supernatural."

Swashbuckling heroes? Hmm, that sounds like it should be heroic fantasy! To be honest, the terms are used in an interchangable fashion, in the most part, and I doubt you'll find many who dispute the term you use.

Apparently Fritz Leiber coined the term 'sword and sorcery': I feel more certain than ever that this field should be called the sword-and-sorcery story. This accurately describes the points of culture-level and supernatural element and also immediately distinguishes it from the cloak-and-sword (historical adventure) story—and (quite incidentally) from the cloak-and-dagger (international espionage) story too! (Fritz Leiber, Amra, July 1961)

T is for...

T. H. White.

Or The Sword in the Stone.

Or The Queen of Air and Darkness.

Or The Ill-Made Knight.


I could equally have picked Le Morte d'Arthur, except, y'know, it doesn't start with T...

So, King Arthur - and one of the most beloved tellings of that particular story. King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table are truly the epitome of heroic fantasy - quests, monsters and chivalry galore.

The story of King Arthur has been told down the centuries, from pre-Galfridian traditions that focus on Arthur as an historical figure to the aforementioned Le Morte d'Arthur, which focuses more on Arthur's legendary companions than the man himself.

King Arthur takes his place as one of the earliest heroes of heroic fantasy in this list, and there is no better telling of the tale than The Once and Future King by T. H. White.

U is for...

Undeserved Reputation.

Heroic fantasy is laughed at a little. It is seen as pulp fiction, as disposable, as easy entertainment. But I consider it to be so much more than this. Many teenagers will cut their fantasy reading teeth on such heroic fantasists as David Gemmell and I hate to get all heavy here, but the Gemmell books explore such concepts as right and wrong, balancing one life against many, compassion, bravery in the face of the greatest danger. Sure, sometimes these themes are overdone, but I do think that lessons can be learnt from the writing.

In terms of the prose on offer in the heroic fantasy field - well.... Some people list The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss as heroic fantasy, and finer prose you will not read.

I do feel the slightly sneering reputation at this arena of fantasy is undeserved. Sure, it's no New Weird. Maybe it doesn't use fancy words all the time. But it is exciting, and immediate, and incredibly entertaining.

Highbrow is over-rated anyway!

V is for...

Vallejo (Boris) - and let's throw in some Bell (Julie) as well.

You want heroic fantasy artwork? These are two of the most recognised names in this field. Okay, so maybe they don't help the undeserved reputation, presenting, as they do at times, half-naked barbarian ladies wielding huge swords, but their work is nothing but heroic fantasy.

Check it out:

W is for...


I'm talking here about the anthology of short stories chosen and edited by George R R Martin and Gardner Dozois:

The aim of the anthology is to tell stories of warriors - some of the tales are incredibly traditional, and some take an unusual slant at the idea of warriors. I included it here because a) it's very good, b) it presents a good entry point into heroic fantasy and c) many of the authors featured have written heroes of their own that you might consider reading about in the future.

The table of contents is as follows:

"Stories from the Spinner Rack," by George R. R. Martin
"The King of Norway," by Cecelia Holland
"Forever Bound," by Joe Haldeman
"The Triumph," by Robin Hobb
"Clean Slate," by Lawrence Block
"And Ministers of Grace," by Tad Williams
"Soldierin'," by Joe Lansdale
"Dirae," by Peter S. Beagle
"The Eagle and the Rabbit," by Steven Saylor
"Seven Years from Home," by Naomi Novik
"The Custom of the Army," by Diana Gabaldon
"The Pit," by James Rollins
"Out of the Dark," by David Weber
"The Girls from Avenger," by Carrie Vaughn
"Ancient Ways," by S. M. Stirling
"Ninieslando" by Howard Waldrop
"Recidivist" by Gardner Dozois
"My Name is Legion," by David Morrell
"Defenders of the Frontier," by Robert Silverberg
"The Scroll," by David Ball
"The Mystery Knight," by George R. R. Martin

X is for...

Who else?

Xena: Warrior Princess.

I love Xena. She is strong, courageous, brave and clever - everything you would want a warrior princess to be. She makes mistakes, she falls in love, she creates enemies and has adventures galore. This TV representation of heroic fantasy is like a modern-day, female Conan the Barbarian.

It gives us girls a genuinely strong heroine to care about, and yet follows all the ideals of heroic fantasy. Brilliant!

The series narrative follows Xena (played by Lucy Lawless), a warrior in a quest to seek redemption for her past sins as a ruthless warlord by using her formidable fighting skills to help people. Xena is accompanied by Gabrielle (played by Renee O'Connor), who during the series changes from a simple farm girl into an amazon warrior and Xena's greatest ally; her initial naïveté helps to balance Xena and assists her in recognizing and pursuing the "greater good".

It ran for six seasons, and showed 134 episodes, between 1995 and 2001 - and, damn, I miss the humour, silliness and genuine joy in the concepts of heroic fantasy.

Excuse me, I'm off to buy the DVDs...

Y is for...

Ye, yesteryear and yonder.

Or, in other words, faux medieval settings. This is how you will experience much of your heroic fantasy. Hence all the axes and swords and things. In fact, I don't know of any modern heroic fantasy, honestly, that brings the sub-genre up to date. Would love to hear if you can think of any examples!

Z is for...


Way back in 1986 a game was released called The Legend of Zelda, considered now to be a spiritual forerunner of the many RPGs which flourish across all gaming systems. Set in the fantasy land of Hyrule, the plot centers on a boy named Link, the playable protagonist, who aims to collect the eight fragments of the Triforce of Wisdom in order to rescue Princess Zelda from the antagonist, Ganon.

Umm, can anyone say quest? Featuring a hero? This is a very early example of computer games reflecting heroic fantasy precepts.

Here is a little more detail about that there plot: In an attempt to prevent Ganon from acquiring the Triforce of Wisdom, another of the pieces, Princess Zelda splits it and hides the eight fragments in secret dungeons throughout the land. Before the princess is eventually kidnapped by Ganon, she commands her nursemaid Impa to find someone courageous enough to save the kingdom. While wandering the land, the old woman is surrounded by Ganon's henchmen, though a young boy named Link appears and rescues her. Yep, that's definitely heroic fantasy!

The Legend of Zelda is often featured in lists of games considered the greatest or most influential, and its commercial success helped lay the groundwork for involved, nonlinear games in fantasy settings, such as those found in successful RPGs. The Legend of Zelda spawned numerous sequels and spin-offs and is one of Nintendo's most popular series.

So, there we have it!

That was my journey through the A-Z of heroic fantasy? What did I miss?

For me, the main authors to go and seek out now (if this article interested you) are David Gemmell and Robert E Howard. Consider going back to some of the epics that are the source of modern heroic fantasy. And then, after all that, kick back watching some Xena! That should have you immersed in the heroic fantasy canon.

Look out for future A-Z's in the future, taking a look at other subgenres of fantasy!


  1. High Five on the Xena description-LOVED Xena! Some of the best episodes of television I have watched. I could cry from laughing or just plain cry, the range was so extreme and yet always in character. Brilliant. :)

    (Liked the rest of your post too, just needed to get my Xena appreciation out there).

  2. Looking for good female lead heroic fantasy? The Thief's Gamble (Tales of Einarinn) Juliet McKenna

    Just thought I'd throw that out there. I don't disagree that there are a distinct lack of female lead heroic fantasies but wanted to make sure my favorite was listed.

    Good post!

  3. Another great post! And I love Xena too!! I just adore the interplay between Xena and Gabrielle. And Wiebe and I always joke when we see reruns of it on tv that we can judge which season we're on by the length of Gabby's outfit :-D

  4. Good two post series!
    Karl Edward Wagner could fit here nicely under W. His Kane books fit nicely in here (although more in the Heroic Anti-hero mode).