The key to writing a real epic fantasy novel lies in the word epic. But this doesn’t just mean big in scale, scope, and size. An epic fantasy novel doesn’t have to be a thousand page door-stopper. It has to be epic in its ambitious reach for finding answers to the big questions in life. This is the true and hidden goal of epic fantasy. It is a vehicle for understanding what life is about. And even though the story may have strange creatures, and take place on an unbelievable world that doesn’t really exist it needs to be applicable to the human condition.
Every epic fantasy author knows of and understands the works of Tolkien. Tolkien’s various accounts of his fantastical land, called Middle-earth, have enjoyed widespread popularity for decades with different audiences, from hippies in the ‘60’s to science-fiction geeks, gamers to renaissance fair enthusiasts. But the very first Middle-earth fans were members of an informal group of Oxford literary enthusiasts known as the Inklings, a group that included C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, Roger Lancelyn Green, and Tolkien himself. The Inklings would meet and read passages from their individual works; they were a discussion group of literary enthusiasts; readings and discussions of the members' unfinished works were the principal purposes of meetings.
Tolkien honed his manuscripts through this process and in doing so brought to his readers themes about friendship and self-sacrifice. His stories told the tale of survival and courage, about a touching last stand that paved the way for the ascent of humankind. Tolkien dealt with big questions, and ultimately, so too must all epic fantasy writers.
The Harrow series as any epic fantasy is no different, and beyond the imagery and wondrous descriptions there are core themes – the lust for power and its corrupting impacts, the battle between good and evil and how it rips at the fabric of the soul, altruism and the understanding of the importance of a greater good, harmony between those who are different, the challenge to understand this reality of ours, and determining the validity of faith in something greater.
In From Under a Tree, the reader begins to not only explore the land of the Harrow, but also begins to explore the struggles of its characters. For example, we learn of the great struggle our feline protagonists Lil’ Man and Chumsey face as they run to the Harrow to escape the certainty of death in their real world. We learn of Glaeynd and how she struggles to understand what has become of her father and her beloved city of Mistmere, a conflict between the past and an unknown future. We witness the courage of Ras Amon who dares to bring the outcast Shaer Thol, a Tar Malal, into the sacred Kaer Taraedar, and in doing so faces the Ra Cath Guild Lords. We bear witness to the maturity of Molly as she grapples with a leadership role. And then there is the great Erol Carrick who must contend with his inner demons as he attempts to prove himself unstained by the evil of death and war. Later, in the second book Shadow in the Flame, the young wizard Morna Anya struggles with her faith, as her attempts to define herself become difficult in a world suddenly complex.
An epic fantasy novel is an exploration of the big questions in life. More importantly, it is a slow unraveling of truths, a revelation of the hidden reserves of inner strength within characters that they cannot even begin to understand. It is about the big questions in life.