As this is posted, it would have been J.R.R. Tolkien’s 124th birthday. Whether or not you’re a fan of Tolkien’s work, it’s hard to deny the influence he’s had on generations of readers and writers. And, if you think about it, Tolkien set himself quite a task. He didn’t just create plots and characters, as all writers do. He invented whole new realities and sets of assumptions. And that’s to say nothing of the variations on languages that he invented.
And we could say a similar thing about more modern fantasy series, such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Roger Zelazney’s Chronicles of Amber series, or George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series. Those who write fantasy series create all sorts of alternate realities, relationships and so on.
What’s the appeal of fantasy series? If they’re well-written, then the characters are appealing. We care what happens to them. And fantasy series can be very effective as escapes from daily life. Underneath, though, the good ones address issues that we all face: love, loss, quests, conflicts, human traits, and so on. So, even though they don’t describe the real world we know, they are realistic in the sense of the way the characters interact and evolve.
This is a crime fiction blog, of course, so one question we could ask is: do series such as the Lord of the Rings novels ‘count’ as crime novels? Strictly speaking, they may not. But there are certainly crimes aplenty in them.
As Tolkien tells us in The Fellowship of the Ring, the One Ring was the motive for more than one murder (I’m not talking here about conflicts between warring factions). As an example, two Stoor Hobbits find the ring in a river, and one falls so much under the spell of the ring that he kills the other to get it. There are plenty of other examples, too, in these novels, of different crimes that are committed to get the ring, or because of it. And that’s to say nothing of crimes committed for other reasons. So, although you might not think of this as a crime series – and it isn’t, by most people’s estimation – it certainly features its share of criminal acts.
What about J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series? These novels have become classics, and not just in the YA/young reader market. Millions of adults love them. The adventures of Harry Potter and his friends take place mostly at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The plots involve many different sorts of fantasy creatures, magic, and so on. But they also capture the lives of the young people who attend the school. And in that sense, they resonate with readers who are going through (or remember) the same sorts of challenges.
But are they crime novels? Again, most people would say, ‘no.’ At least, not strictly speaking. But if you think about it, there are certainly crimes committed in them. As fans of this series can tell you, Harry Potter’s parents were murdered when he was a baby. Harry was almost a victim, himself. There are several other plot points in the series that involve murder, conspiracies, and other crimes. So, although most people don’t think of the Harry Potter novels as crime fiction – and they really aren’t, in the sense that we often think of that genre – they certainly have crimes woven through the plots. Perhaps it’s little wonder that Rowling has also written crime fiction under the name of Robert Galbraith.
Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber series is a set of novels featuring Corwin, Prince of Amber, and later, his son, Merlin. Amber is ‘the one true world,’ of which Earth is only a shadow. The early novels focus on Corwin’s gradual (re)discovery that he is one of the potential heirs to the throne of Amber, although his brother Eric rules it at the beginning of the series. As the novels go on, we follow Corwin’s return to Amber, the conflicts among the rivals for the throne, and the adventures that the various family members have. It is very much a fantasy series. It’s also an interesting look at family struggles, dysfunctional relationships, and the human nature that’s behind greed, power grabs, and so on.
The series become very popular in the 1970s and 1980s as a set of fantasy novels. But are these books crime novels? They don’t focus on particular crimes and their investigations, as ‘typical’ crime novels do. However, there’s plenty of crime in this series. There are murders, conspiracies, abductions, and more. It’s by no means the peaceful story of a magical kingdom…
Nor is George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice series. As fans know, this series features an epic struggle for power among several families. But it’s a lot more than that. The series features rival fictional Houses, supernatural beings, and other elements of fantasy. It’s also a gritty look at jealousy, greed, dysfunction, and more. So, in that sense, you might argue that the series resonates with readers on a very human level.
And there’s plenty of crime, too. There are planned assassinations (some of which are, and some of which aren’t successful), other murders, and arson, among many other crimes. In fact, many people consider it a very violent series. So, while it’s usually classified as a fantasy series, there’s a strong argument that there are elements of crime novels in it, too.
And that’s the thing about these well-known fantasy series (and many others I haven’t had space to mention). They may not be, strictly speaking, crime series. But they do contain plenty of crime. More than that, they’ve had a great deal of influence on our culture. And, put quite simply, many people think of them as well-written stories that sweep the reader away.
What do you think? Are you a fan of fantasy series? Do you see elements of the crime novel in them? If you’re a writer, do you write fantasy?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Sometimes a Fantasy.