In my last entry I noted that epic stories need epic worlds. Specifically, the kind of world that evokes a sense of wonder.
Part of having a fantasy world along these lines involves characters (both protagonists and antagonists) which are connected to that world inextricably. These are not people who could reasonably exist in just any world. They are bound to this one completely. They belong to it as much as it belongs to them.
This requires the world to have a history — a larger story in which the drama of the tale at hand plays out — and for the characters to be somehow linked to that history. Epic fantasy stories always takes advantage of at least one of three ways to do this, while the best make use of all of them. They are:
Let’s examine each of these in turn, and parse them through our Paragon Stories — The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars (original trilogy), and Harry Potter.
Epic fantasy worlds are hardly epic without some kind of lore. Powerful ancient kings, vital battles that shaped the course of history, mysterious arcane texts on forgotten myths… Or something like that.
The point is, something came before this point in the story. That abstract fact immediately expands the world in the mind of the reader. But exploring the legends native to that world makes it palpable, and more wondrous.
Moreover, knowing those legends is often necessary for the heroes to succeed. At the same time, this knowledge may be the secret to why the villains are always one step ahead. History is a powerful weapon in the right hands.
In the Lord of the Rings, there are the legends of Sauron, Isildur, and many more. Knowing these stories connects Frodo and Bilbo to Isildur and, by proxy, Aragorn as well.
In Star Wars, Obi-Wan barely mentions the Clone Wars to Luke, and immediately out imaginations are at work. Then the Jedi come up and our minds are sent into overdrive — the conflict in this far far away galaxy apparently spans generations, and that glimpse expands our conception of the world Luke lives in, as well as his own.
In Harry Potter, the story of the Deathly Hallows ties the whole series up with an ostensibly historic parable of the different ways three brothers deal with Death. In the process, we gain new insights into the characters, and their stuggles take on new dimensions as we compare and contrast them with that of the history of their world. Not to mention, the story makes good use of our next point:
It might not be an enchanted sword (although it very well may), but the epic fantasy is almost sure to include some kind of historical — and perhaps also powerful — artifact.
Whether or not this item is imbued with magic, it is certainly imbued with meaning. It was owned or used by someone long ago for a purpose (good or evil), and now has come to the attention of the modern day characters, who either possess it or seek it.
Items like this tie the character(s) into the larger story by strengthening the bonds between them and the past. They serve as tangible links to what has gone before, and inspire our imaginations as we wonder, will this thing be:
a) Consistent (used for the same purpose now as it was then, whether good or evil)
b) Converted (redeemed for good when it was created or used for evil)
c) Corrupted (fall to evil when it was created or used for good)
In the Lord of the Rings, the One Ring is the ultimate relic. It is consistent as there is no one capable of using it for good, and therefore must be destroyed. This ties the characters up in a centuries-old struggle with the power that created the ring, and shows us that the current struggle is merely one part in the Great Story that is the history of Middle Earth.
In Star Wars, Luke receives his father’s lightsaber. This connects him to the galaxy’s past conflicts (i.e. the Clone Wars) and the Jedi Order. Now he’s not just farmboy Luke — he’s farmboy Luke, holder of a Jedi’s weapon. (Incidentally, Anakin’s lightsaber is still being used for its effectiveness as a relic, as shown in SW episode VII.)
In Harry Potter, the wand Harry receives in book one is worth considering as a relic, as it ties Harry to Voldemort and therefore the past. The Sword of Godrick Gryffindor links Harry to the founder of his House. Beyond those, the Deathly Hallows are obvious relics, but only appear in the last book. Although, that said, Harry’s invisibility cloak serves as a relic before it is ever revealed to be one of the Hallows because it connects Harry back to his father. This provides us yet another segue as we turn to look at:
It’s one thing to hear stories about those who went before, or to possess something that they themselves owned, but’s it’s quite another to have their blood flowing through your own veins.
Descendants are in theory connected to the past even before they learn of their heritage. But once they (and, more importantly, we) do, their place in the world they inhabit becomes much more clear. Through their lineage they are connected to events, places, items, and even themes and ideas from the history of their world.
This can serve a similar (though heightened, I’d argue) purpose as relics as it heightens tension and curiousity, making us wonder: will this person follow in the footsteps of their ancestor, making the same mistakes and/or being the same hero? Or, will they break from family tradition and blaze a new trail — one with all the more meaning for being contrasted with their forebearer’s own path? Either way, there is poetry and irony in the situation.
In the Lord of the Rings, Aragorn is Isildur’s heir to the throne, and even heir to his greatest mistake as he joins the Fellowship to correct his ancestor’s folly. But he is not heir to the folly itself, and shuns the ring rather than take it. He is king enough by virtue of being Isildur’s biological legacy that he does not need to avail himself of Isildur’s Bane for power.
In Star Wars, we know at first that Luke’s father was a Jedi who fought (and ostensibly died) in a previous conflict. Being an heir to the force brings a certain amount of gravitas to Luke’s destiny already, but then we learn that he is in fact the son of Darth Vader. This calls his destiny into question as we wonder, “Will he or won’t he fall far from the tree?” Either way the question is answered, the sins of the father are definitely visited on the son as Luke carries out his role in the Galactic Civil War.
In Harry Potter, knowing his lineage was Harry’s first step into the magical world when he learns his parents were wizards. Later on, Harry’s lineage connects him again and again to the major players in the campaign against Voldemort as we meet his father’s best friends, discover that his mother was loved by his potions teacher (and sometimes-antagonist), and that both were members of an underground order that Harry himself later joins. Ultimately, Harry is connected to the story even further back because his ancestor is the youngest Peverell brother. And, as we learn from the legend, he holds the invisibility cloak relic of the one he is descended from as well.
See how it all comes together?
In sum, the above constitute three impeccable ways that fantasy worlds gain richness and depth by taking advantage of what all worlds have: a past. Placing the characters in a conflict that, in some sense, spans across ages and generations makes the story that much more “epic” and sweeping. These concepts serve to connect them to that greater story in a meaningful way that makes us readers spend hours on Wikipedia chasing the various connections they give rise to.
And according to the science of mnemonics, the more connections an abstract concept has to another concept in your mind, the more likely you are to remember it. Is it any wonder why the stories that accomplish the above stick out in our heads so well, even years after you’ve read them?
I’ll say more about that “memorable story” idea in the future, but for now, how do your favorite stories take advantage of Legends, Relics, and Descendants?