Michael Moorcock, Wizardry and Wild Romance (Gollancz, 1987)
Michel Moorcock would be, it seems, the obvious choice to produce a critical work on epic fantasy. After all, he's written more of it than jut about any living author, or he had at the time this book was commissioned, ten years before its release, after the publication of his article "Epic Pooh" in 1977. ("Epic Pooh," revised, appears as chapter five here, and is one of the true gems of this book.) Still an excellent choice, as most of the similarly prolific writers who have emerged in the shadow of Moorcock lack the wit and originality he displays in novel after novel.
Interestingly, this is one of his main criticisms of the fantasy genre overall, not just in the moderns but going back to the earliest days of epic fantasy. The book, which is far more a survey than a critical analysis, strikes a Paul DeMan-esque note in its willingness (perhaps too much willingness) to turn many of fantasy's sacred cows into shish kebab. What is refreshing about Moorcock is that, unlike most critics, he is always willing to suggest a good number of alternatives for each piece of overwrought, mindless fluff the public is willing to take to heart. (Moorcock seems to have a special circle in Hell reserved for the Inklings, the chief fantasists of which were J. R. R. Tolkein and C. S. Lewis, both of whom Moorcock roundly despises; he spends more column inches disparaging Narnia and Middle Earth than all the other writers he castigates combined.)
One wonders, idly, why a survey draws as much money as it does these days. I could probably pay a month's rent auctioning off my copy of this, a first edition/first printing. Odd, since the volume barely gets a few lines into page one hundred fifty before it reaches its conclusion. But mine is not to reason why. It's not worth the incredible sums it fetches from booksellers these days, but as a jumping-off point for readers of fantasy who are looking for ways to branch out into wider genre-specific reading, it's a pretty darned fine piece of work.
Most of Moorcock's jaundiced views on epic fantasy could apply to all types of literature, which is at the same time both the book's main strength and its weakness. One expects, when reading a survey, to see the ways that the subject's lineage relates to what has come before and what has come after (see Eliade's wonderful Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy for perhaps the finest extant example of how to write a survey on a particular subject), but Moorcock seems to have the underlying belief that writing in a particular genre should have the same strengths and weaknesses as writing in any other, or in writing that is genreless or transcends its genre. To some extent this is true; the best fantasy writers, like the best writers of most genres, do transcend what the hacks are doing and make their work into literature. Where Moorcock goes slightly wrong, though, is in not delineating the transcendent from the more satisfying genre tales. He gives equal weight to, for example, Terry Pratchett (whose work, while parodic, is still very much genre fiction) and Ursula K. LeGuin (who is the very definition of an author who transcends any genre in which she chooses to apply herself). Perhaps he is expecting the reader to be able to discern which is which. Not an unreasonable expectation, if you assume your audience is as widely read in the genre as you are. I doubt many fantasy readers, or for that matter many academics, are as widely-read in their chosen fields as Moorcock, who tosses out the names and critical overviews of fantasy works going back to the pre-Romantic period that have been out of print for a few hundred years as if he'd assigned them the week before while teaching a class on fantasy literature, and we are all expected to go down to the University bookstore and pick up copies of them. Would that we could.
Still, as an overview of what's out there, where both the aspiring fantasy reader and the aspiring fantasy writer should be looking to find the stuff that really is worth being influenced by, despite its age Wizardry and Wild Romance is still the definitive survey on epic fantasy. It'd be nice to see a second edition. I, for one, would love to see what Moorcock thinks of, say, Philip Pullman, Terry Goodkind, or Neil Gaiman. But the recommendations in here should be enough to keep me hunting down obscure titles for the next decade, and the approach he takes to epic fantasy is a witty and readable one. ****