My brother is putting together a proposal for a course titled “Wizardry and Wild Romance,” self-consciously stolen from Michael Moorcock’s indispensable book of the same name. The idea, as I reconstruct it, is to examine contemporary epic fantasy and its classic antecedents in their mutual light, which means mining a literature of criticism on contemporary fantasy that isn’t especially familiar to either of us. We shot around ideas about it for a while, and it occurred to me in the course of the conversation that I’ve consumed a lot more relevant and semi-relevant online material than I’d realized. So I compiled the sources I can remember (plus a few I only just stumbled on) and sent them to him in an email, which I’ve only just now realized might be of general interest. So here it is.
China Mieville on why Tolkien rocks: http://www.omnivoracious.com/2009/06/there-and-back-again-five-reasons-tolkien-rocks.html (worth reading if only to savor the phrase “the remorseless sylvan bonheur of Tom Bombadil.” Remember, in French, happiness is le bonheur.)
A collection of neat essays on China Mieville at Crooked Timber, including a longish response by Mieville: http://crookedtimber.org/category/mieville-seminar/
Jeff VanderMeer interviewing CM on weird tales is probably irrelevant, but looks fun: http://www.jeffvandermeer.com/2009/06/16/god-thats-a-merciless-question-china-mievilles-interview-from-weird-tales/
Jonathan McCalmont complaining about the critical apparatus of sf vs. film studies: http://ruthlessculture.com/2012/11/28/annoyed-with-the-history-of-science-fiction/ (the more recent post on Adam Roberts looks like it could be interesting, though I haven’t finished it, in part because I’m not familiar with Adam Roberts; however, it’s possible neither is relevant to epic fantasy)
As unfortunate counterpoint, SALON’s Andrew Leonard writing a while ago on the Malazan Book of the Fallen: http://www.salon.com/2004/06/21/erikson/ — I’m conceiving this as sort of an object lesson to hammer home the value of a more educated critical approach, because otherwise you get crap like:
“Give me, instead, the evocation of a rich, complex and yet ultimately unknowable other world, with a compelling suggestion of intricate history and mythology and lore. Give me mystery amid the grand narrative. There’s no need to spell it all out; no prefaces, please, elucidating the history of Middle Earth as if to students in a lecture hall. Instead, give me a world in which every sea hides a crumbled Atlantis, every ruin has a tale to tell, every mattock blade is a silent legacy of struggles unknown.”
… when Steven Brust at least has been doing exactly this since 1980 (and still isn’t done!), Martin and Rothfuss do it, Gene Wolfe does it, Gaiman does it, &c. These goals and approaches are really not that uncommon. Leonard gives GRRM crap for spending “page after page describing the household sigils of this noble family or that, or what the knights were wearing just before they ran off to joust,” which maybe I don’t remember because I’m inured to it from a misspent youth, but Martin’s approach to the First Men, the Doom of Valyria and the Targaryen conquest, and all this stuff is exactly what Leonard is asking for. Argh. Anyway. (Expanded thoughts on this matter here.)
The New York Review of Science Fiction has Steven Erikson taking on the idea that Tolkien has dominated fantasy; his review is in the May 2012 issue, and I can’t find it online, but there’s a quote on the Malazan Book of the Fallen Wikipedia page here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malazan_Book_of_the_Fallen#cite_ref-Not_14-0
This New Yorker article by Arthur Krystal and its linked predecessor may be interesting (as might the Lev Grossman article in Time, also linked), although Krystal is pretty obnoxious: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/10/its-genre-fiction-not-that-theres-anything-wrong-with-it.html
Having looked a little bit more closely at some of the material, I heartily recommend the Mieville/Vandermeer interview and the McCalmont essay, and regret to say that “obnoxious” is a generous descriptor of Krystal. I need to check back in my copies of Le Guin’s THE WAVE IN THE MIND and Delany’s SEVEN ESSAYS, FOUR LETTERS & FIVE INTERVIEWS ABOUT WRITING to see if there’s anything relevant. If anyone can find Erikson’s NYRSF article, please send me a copy!