What is so damn appealing about heroic fantasy, anyway?
Allow me to explain
Once upon a time, in the early days of computer gaming, I bought a game which came with a map. Totally unrealistic; towns with no purpose, castles and crypts put in mountains and swamps (who would build a !@&%#! castle in a swamp?), and groups of monsters that would just sit there and wait for the player to bring his adventurers along, slap the tar out of them, and take their stuff.
Here’s the thing. The map, for all its gamey silliness, was utterly fascinating. An Island of Fire in the middle. Castle Dragontooth. Forsaken Sands. I was looking over this map (it was for Might and Magic 3, Isles of Terra, if you must know) in my university library when a beautiful young woman walked by, saw it, and asked what that was all about. Abashed at my nerdiness, I awkwardly told her it was a map for a computer game. I held my breath as she took a good long look at the map (I expected some ‘means girls’ comment like “Yeah, whatever, looser”) but she said, “Oh, I love things like that” and walked on.
I think she meant it, and I was surprised. Not because I didn’t get a ‘mean girls’ comment, but because this map was so dumb! Even back then I knew it. I looked at the map again—and I began to realize why heroic fiction (swords and sorcery) held such appeal.
The chance to command your own destiny through adventure
In no other genre can a reader expect to find this unique opportunity. Sci-fi is about how technology changes our lives. Westerns, Military, Historical and such allow us to experience people living in different times and places. Horror is to scare the shit out of us. Crime is to match wits with a killer. Only in heroic fantasy is your destiny in your hands. The Tomb of Horrors is out there, lost somewhere, full of treasure. Use your last few silvers to buy a sword and some leather armor. Roll up that map your deceased uncle left you. You’ll have to sneak across the troll badlands, but if you travel at night, they’ll all be asleep in their caves. At least, you hope so.
What’s that you say? What about the Star Wars galaxy? That’s science fiction and it’s full of adventure, right? Well, yes, but keep in mind, dear reader, that Star Wars is Science Fantasy. Does anyone ask how the engines on the Millennium Falcon work? (Only a Sheldon Cooper-like nerd would dismiss The Empire Strikes Back because there was no way Han got to Bespin without lightspeed. The rest of us don’t ask and don’t care.)
Forget elves and dwarves and dragons and goblins. These things are fun, when done right, but you can take all that out of heroic fantasy and still have something a reader would cherish, as long as you keep alive the desire to control your destiny through adventure. Sometimes, you can do it with just a few words. In Chapter 22 of Beneath the Silver Rose, I have a scene when Deresi asks Aaron how he knows the ruby he seeks is in the labyrinth:
Deresi slumped her shoulders. “Are you sure this ruby is even down here? No offense, but how do you know?”
Shadyia glanced at him. A good question. Aaron had mentioned he had a journal of some kind, but where had he found it? And who had written it?
“Do you know of Mordechai’s tavern?”
Deresi nodded. “Sure, it’s famous.”
Shadyia had heard of it as well. Mordechai’s tavern was a last haven at the eastern edge of the empire, a place where explorers sat around a blazing hearth and swapped stories of dragon lairs and abandoned castles. From Mordechai’s tavern, adventurers set off into the wild forests and mountains beyond the frontier to search ruins for ancient treasures and enchanted relics.
“You’ve been to Mordechai’s?” Shadyia asked. She had often fantasized of going there.
“Yes, I journeyed to the frontier a few years ago.” Aaron replied. “I met a traveler in Costa Sans who sold me a map that he swore marked the location the ruins of Delbia, a Zapraskian city.”
Do you start to see now?
I never take you to that tavern (at least not yet *grin*), but wouldn’t you like to go? To sit around a blazing hearth, eat roast pork off the bone and drink mead. A place where bold men and women, who openly wear their steel, boast of their adventurers! At dawn, you wake in the room you rented for the night, oil your sword, strap on your armor, and ride your horse into the forests and mountains beyond the frontier. You may return with a sack of gold and a magic ring that allows you to take the form of anyone you desire. Or some other passing adventurer may find your head impaled on a spike. It’s up to you—and Fate. Heroic fantasy will give you that chance, when no one else will.