Stirring the High Fantasy Stock Pot

Date: 16 February 2013

Books Completed: 32     

Books Left: 168

In my quest to read all the Newbery books, I recently read Lloyd Alexander’s The High King. Generally, I don’t care for high fantasy (Narnia and Harry Potter being the two exceptions) so I was unprepared to enjoy the final installment of the Prydain series as much as I did. Even during the midst of my enjoyment, however, I couldn’t help but having a bit of a laugh, not at the book, but its genre.

A few years ago I read the first Prydain book, The Book of Three, so I could have some high fantasy titles to book-talk to my students. I skipped the middle books, but as I read The High King, some things just seemed oddly familiar. I thought, at first, it was just recalling characters and situations from the first book. But as I read on, I realized that wasn’t it. I was being reminded, and quite forcefully so, of another high fantasy series—Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve never read the Rings books. I have seen the movies though, (and let’s be honest, that was because Orlando Bloom and Viggo Mortensen are appealing eye-candy), and the parallels between the two series, with a little Harry Potter thrown in were astonishing.

To wit:

Frodo-Aragorn/Taran=humble hero on a quest to destroy/seek item that is pivotal in the to-the-death fight between good and evil

Arwen-Eowyn/Eilonwy=high spirited girl-empowered princess and true love of the hero

Samwise Gamgee/Gurgi/Dobby=non-human creature incredibly loyal to hero

Gimli/Doli=complaining warrior dwarf

Gandalf/Dallben=wise magical being aiding the hero; surrogate father figure

Sauron/Arawn/Voldemort=embodiment of evil to be destroyed

Orcs/Cauldron-Born=invincible soldiers crafted from the earth to fight for evil

I could go on (and on), but you get the point.  And these are just the characters. The events are strikingly similar as well: the battle for Helm’s Deep/Caer Dathyl, the destruction of the ring/disempowerment of Dyrnwyn, etc., etc.

There are particular genres that I enjoy. While the stories within these genres can have comparable structures and comparable characters they have never seemed interchangeable to me, unlike the tales of Middle Earth and Prydain. I mean, even the letters and sounds in the names of the parallel characters are similar. Not to mention that in both the struggle between good and evil takes place in some vague medieval-ish, hygiene-deficient time of horses, armor, capes, and flowing dresses and tresses.  Are they actually two stories or simply a tale retold?

I know these are only two examples, but they seem to be fairly representative of the genre. I know high fantasy has its passionate devotees who would likely pick apart my arguments. And I now know why this genre with its stock settings, stock characters, stock problems, events, solutions, and stock themes holds no stock with me.