The Lineage of Convention in the Modern fantasy Genre. Article by S.K. Slevinski

There is much debate among fans and writers of speculative fiction over how to define fantasy in relation to other literary genres. Eric S. Rabkin says that we can determine whether a text is fantasy "by reading each text and deciding how much use it makes of fundamental reversal" (164). When determining what makes a work fantasy or fantastic, Rabkin continually uses the word "reversal" to evaluate various works of literature. He defines a fantastic work as one that defies convention, and he argues that fantasy does not have "clearly defined conventions" nor does it "reward reader expectations positively" (164).

The discussion of how to define fantasy might end with Rabkin, if not for the fantasy genre. Walking into any bookstore, it is apparent that marketers are not taking Rabkin's definition into account when they decide to label certain books as fantasy. Readers will find that the books with "fantasy" printed on their spines often violate Rabkin's definition. Stories that fall under the scope of the modern genre of fantasy must be considered when determining the ultimate meaning of "fantasy" within the greater category of speculative fiction.

The very nature of "genre" implies that conventions will be used. The modern genre of fantasy is no exception. This genre is defined by its own rules, and not by scholarly definitions of fantasy, such as Rabkin's. These rules are established when books are selected by publishers and editors to be published under the heading of "fantasy." In its traditional and most widespread use, the modern genre of fantasy is applied to stories with a fictional medieval setting that are often governed by magical concepts. It is also defined by a set of conventions perpetuated from one generation to the next. We discover these conventions when we look to the roots of the fantasy genre. The modern fantasy genre has taken many of its conventions from early world literature. They were borrowed by the first novels of modern fantasy, and continue to appear in the popular novels of the fantasy genre today.

When discussing the roots of the modern genre of fantasy, it is essential to look at its first landmark work of literature. The author J.R.R. Tolkien built the foundation of the modern genre of fantasy in his extensive Lord of the Rings saga, especially The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King. These works are important for evaluating the conventions of the fantasy genre not only because they established many of them, but also because Tolkien hand-picked conventions from an existing body of world literature to use in his books. The ones he picked survived into the genre of fantasy we see today. While it was a landmark work of orignal fantasy, Tolkien's trilogy relies on many conventions from previous literature, especially Old Germanic stories, both Norse and Anglo-Saxon.

It is generally accepted that Tolkien's worlds are inspired by Old Germanic culture and mythology. Rabkin calls Tolkien's worlds "somewhat Norse/ somewhat Old English/ somewhat original" (7). While hobbits seem to be Tolkien's own invention, both elves and dwarves are staples of Norse mythology, believed to have lived in the realms under the seat of the AEsir gods in Asgard and above the underworld kingdom of Hel. Tolkien's runic alphabet (Return of the King 464), used for one of the many languages he devised, bears a striking resemblance to Germanic runes used in Ancient Scandinavia.

But beyond these fundamental borrowings, Tolkien takes many literary conventions straight from Anglo-Saxon and Norse literature. One such convention is the slaying of a dragon guarding treasure. The main plot of Tolkien's The Hobbit is a perfect example of his using this convention. In this book, the characters aim to rid the Lonely Mountain of the dragon called Old Smaug in order to recover the treasure he guards and return peace to the surrounding lands. The same convention is found in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf. After defeating Grendel and Grendel's Mother, Beowulf's last great battle is with a dragon, and in this dragon's dwelling "[t]here were many such ancient treasures . . . precious riches . . . the immense legacy of a noble race" (58). Dragons and treasure are also found in the Norse tradition. In the Saga of the Volsungs, the hero Sigurd is called upon to slay the serpent Fafnir because he "allowed no one to enjoy the treasure but himself" (59). Interestingly, one of the pieces of treasure that Sigurd liberates from the dragon is a ring, which he gives to Brynhild at the time of their betrothal (Volsungs 81).

Following another convention of Old Germanic literature, Tolkien gives names to weapons that are revered or considered to be endowed with power. "Gandalf bore his staff, but girt at his side was the elven-sword Glamdring, the mate of Orcrist that lay now upon the breast of Thorin under the Lonely Mountain" (Fellowship 335). In using the convention of named weapons, Tolkien elevates them to a status as legendary as the warriors who bear them. Giving it a name makes a weapon itself mighty, as seen in the named weapons of Anglo-Saxon and Norse literature. When heading into battle with Grendel's Mother, it is not suitable for Beowulf to take just any sword into battle. He must take a legendary sword. "Hrunting was the name of the hilted sword. That was among the best of ancient treasures" (Beowulf 39). These named weapons appear in the Saga of the Volsungs, as well. In this saga, the legendary sword is forged specifically for the hero Sigurd from broken pieces of his ancestor Sigmund's sword. "Guard well the broken pieces of the sword. From them can be made a good sword, which will be called Gram. Our son will bear it and with it accomplish many great deeds, which will never be forgotten" (Volsungs 54). This convention of an ancient sword, destined for the hands of one of the heroes of a story, is an important one in the modern fantasy genre. Tolkien first echos this convention in the Fellowship of the Ring. During the Council of Elrond they discuss a prophecy that speaks of a broken sword, and consequently discover that Aragorn, one of the principle heroes, possesses the broken shards. "He cast his sword upon the table that stood before Elrond, and the blade was in two pieces. 'Here is the sword that was broken!' he said" (297). In the course of the Council, it is revealed that Aragorn is heir to this Sword of Elendil and they decide that the "sword shall be reforged" (299).

The Council of Elrond also points to a prophesy of greater importance. This prophecy names both the broken sword and the Ring in Frodo's possession. It states that when these two items reemerge "Doom is near at hand" (296). Throughout The Lord of the Rings, prophecies appear frequently in the narrative. In The Return of the King, Aragorn realizes that he alone can tread the Paths of the Dead without perishing, because he remembers the words of Malbeth the seer (58). At the Council of Elrond, Bilbo remembers the prophecy, which decrees that Aragorn's sword should indeed be reforged (298). A famous verse that foretells the destiny of the ring also functions as a prophecy. "One ring to rule them all. One ring to find them,/ One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them" (Fellowship 75).

The convention of using prophecy for foreshadowing also comes from the Norse Sagas. Magical properties of prophecies and their function of forboding make this convention effective both in Tolkien's works and in the tales spun by Medieval Scandinavians. Prophecy is a reoccurrent theme in Njal's Saga. The title character, Njal, warns his friend Gunnar, who has just won a legal case against his enemies, that "this will be the start of your career of killing" (Njal's Saga 135). He also foretells that these events will ultimately lead to Gunnar's death. When Gunnar asks if Njal can see his own death, Njal replies that it will be "[s]omething that everyone would least expect" (Njal's Saga 136). The prophecy comes to fruition by the end of the saga, when Gunnar is killed and Njal resigns himself to being burnt in his house by attackers. Both Tolkien and the Norse find prophecy to be an effective storytelling technique. Prophecy also appears in the Saga of the Volsungs, when Signy predicts in only the fourth chapter that her marriage is ill fated. "I know through my foresight and that special ability found in our family that if the marriage contract is not quickly dissolved, this union will bring us much misery" (Volsungs 39). Tolkien's characters draw the same kind of foresight from their own ancient seers and eleven-lore.

In the time since Lord of the Rings was first published, Tolkien's trilogy has influenced successive writers. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and related works created the foundation for fantasy, as a type of genre fiction. The Old Germanic conventions he used are perpetuated in the fantasy genre of today, as well as the conventions he created. Tolkien's influence is evident in one of the most popular writers of modern fantasy genre fiction, Terry Goodkind. His first novel, Wizard's First Rule, was sought after, even before it was published. It sold at auction "for a record price for a first science fiction[1] novel." One explanation for Goodkind's popularity is his reliance on the familiar conventions of fantasy genre fiction.

Wizard's First Rule capitalizes upon conventions that reach back to Tolkien and to the Old Germanic stories. The conflict of fighting a dragon is a clear one: good vs. evil. After The Hobbit, Tolkien heightens this conflicts with a personified villain: the Dark Lord Sauron. Similarly, in Wizard's First Rule, the villain is an evil force far beyond the tranquil Westland (like Tolkien's Hobbiton), which is home to the story's hero. This force of evil, which threatens even to penetrate Westland's serenity, is wielded by a powerful wizard, aptly named Darken Rahl.

Goodkind takes another page from Tolkien in creating his main characters. Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit and Frodo in The Lord of the Rings are unlikely heroes living quiet lives when adventure knocks on their doors. So too, we find Goodkind's hero Richard Cypher. In the beginning chapters, Goodkind portrays Richard as a simple man, working as a guide to the woods of Westland who plays second fiddle to his ambitious brother. However, his life changes by the interference of a white-haired wizard named Zedd, who appoints him to combat this evil as the Seeker of Truth. Similarly, in the Lord of the Rings Gandalf arrives at Bilbo's door in the Shire to recruit him to go after Smaug. Bilbo first answers, "Sorry! I don't want any adventures, thank you. Not today" (The Hobbit 6), Richard is also a reluctant hero. "[Richard] was beginning to feel trapped as he looked from one [of his friends] to the other. 'You two think I can somehow save us. That's what you both are thinking: somehow I'm going to stop Darken Rahl. A wizard can't do it, but I'm to try?' Terror rose with his heart into his throat" (Goodkind, Wizard's First Rule 111).

Richard is a reluctant hero, like the heroes of Tolkien, and he is predestined for greatness, like the Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon heroes. When the Mother Confessor Kahlan comes across the Boundary into Westland from the magical world of the Midlands, she finds the wizard Zedd, and tells him that he must appoint a Seeker of Truth to fight Darken Rahl. Zedd explains that he does not have the power to choose a Seeker. "A true Seeker, one who can make a difference, must show himself to be a Seeker" (Wizard's First Rule 94). This heroic calling of Seeker even comes with its own legendary sword, the Sword of Truth. It is imbued with magical properties, essential for the Seeker to fulfill his destiny, and is passed down from one Seeker to the next. This Sword of Truth takes the same roll as the legendary, named swords which precede it: the Sword of Elendil, passed down to Aragorn in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings; the sword Hrunting, given to Beowulf to fulfill his task of slaying Grendel's mother; and the sword Gram, forged from swords passed down through the Volsung line of legendary heroes.

Having received his Sword of Truth and title of Seeker, Richard Cypher sets out on the seemingly impossible task of destroying the evil wizard Darken Rahl. The plot device of the quest is a widely used plot device in the fantasy genre. Heroes don't stay at home, in familiar surroundings, to fight unspeakable evil. Bilbo Baggins, in The Hobbit, leaves his home to hunt down Smaug; Frodo Baggins ventures out even farther into the vast world of Tolkien's imagination in order to defeat the Dark Lord Sauron, in The Lord of the Rings; Beowulf leaves his home with the Geats to rid the Danes of the menace Grendel; similarly, Richard Cypher must leave his home in Westland to fight evil in a mysterious land of magic. The motif of the quest stretches back even further into the folk culture of Europe. In most of the classic fairy tales with male protagonists, the protagonist must leave home in search of adventure or prestige. In "The Blood Brothers" (Ashliman 204), the protagonist leaves home in search of adventure, and his brother soon follows. In "Jack and the Beanstalk" (Ashliman 206), Jack climbs up the beanstalk into the wild and magical unknown of the Giant's kingdom. In "The Young Giant" (Ashliman 115), the title character, who starts out as only the size of a thumb, soon turns into a giant and must leave home to seek his fortune. The widespread nature of this motif attests to the effectiveness and popularity of the quest.

While on his quest through the Midlands, Richard Cypher encounters many wonders, as Tolkien's characters do, such as strange beasts, different cultures and terrible atrocities. And just as the drama is heightened in Tolkien's narrative by revelations of prophecy, so too is Richard's quest complicated by a devastating prophecy offered by Shota the witch woman. "'Richard,' Shota said, nearly in tears herself, 'if [Kahlan] isn't killed, then before [Darken] Rahl opens the boxes[2], she will use her power against you" (Goodkind, Wizard's First Rule 463). As Richard soon finds out, Kahlan possesses magic that makes a person so utterly loyal to her that they have lost all free will and personality of their own. It is useful for extracting confessions from murderers or clearing innocent men (who are willing to pay the hefty price), but if this happens to Richard, as Shota's prophecy says it will, Richard will be unable to save the world from Darken Rahl's domination. As in Tolkien's novels and in the Norse sagas, prophecy in Wizard's First Rule is an important means to increasing dramatic tension.

If fantasy is the opposite of convention, as Eric S. Rabkin claims it to be, then the modern genre of fantasy is somewhat of a paradox. While it does offer a reversal of the real world, books in the fantasy genre do not necessarily offer reversals of to their predecessors. Conventions established by Tolkien—which were, in part, conventions taken from earlier sources—are still followed by the most popular writers in the fantasy genre, like Goodkind. Books of the fantasy genre continue to "reward reader expectations positively" and to avoid "fundamental reversal" (Rabkin 164) in their structure and story elements.

Rabkin calls "The Tale of the Great Detective" a "fairy tale for adults" (164) because it so faithfully rewards reader expectations (i.e. the crime is always solved). Perhaps the modern genre of fantasy is a more extreme example of a fairy tale for adults, giving us a setting we associate with fairy tales, as well as fulfilling our expectations. The hero and his sword live up to their legendary status, the prophecy is fulfilled, and the evil "dragon" is vanquished. Tolkien tapped into this desire for a more sophisticated fairy tale by using conventions of those comfortable stories from the past and turning them into a more sophisticated narrative. Readers are comfortable with conventions and Tolkien creates a world where they flourish. Goodkind and authors like him have taken these conventions into modern fantasy, perpetuating them and proving their lasting appeal for readers.


[1] the term “science fiction” is sometimes used to refer to both the genre of science fiction and the genre of fantasy.

[2] The Boxes of Orden. According to Goodkind’s concepts of magic, opening the Boxes of Orden will give Darken Rahl enough magical power to become the supreme ruler of the world.

Works Cited:

Ashliman, D.L. Voices from the Past. 3rd ed., 1999.

Beowulf and Other Old English Poems. Trans. Constance B. Hieatt. 2nd ed. New York: Bantam, 1988.

Goodkind, Terry. Wizard's First Rule. New York: Tor, 1994.

______________. Interview with Rochelle O'Gorman. Available:

Njal's Saga. Trans. Magnus Magnusson and Herman Palsson. New York: Penguin Books, 1960.

Rabkin, Eric S. Fantastic Worlds. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

The Saga of the Volsungs. Trans. Jesse L. Byock. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California Press, 1990.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Ballantine Books, 1965.

____________. The Hobbit. Rev. ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 1983.

____________. The Return of the King. New York: Ballantine Books, 1965.

____________. The Two Towers. New York: Ballantine Books, 1965.

S.K. Slevinski is senior editor for ARWZ Literary Magazine and a long time reader of alternative reality fiction. She is currently a graduate student, specializing in folklore.