Tag Archives: spoilers

The Necessary Contradiction of Epic Fantasy Prologues

Spoilers For: The Eye of The World (Prologue & Chapter 1), A Game of Thrones (Prologue & Chapter 1).

In epic fantasy, prologues generally open before the events of the later story and describe some mysterious or wondrous events – such as great displays of magic. Then, as quickly as they begin, they end, raising many questions but offering no answers. Readers are left with a sense of wonder, dread, or confusion. Then, invariably, the opening chapters follow a farm boy worrying about the harvest – or something equally mundane.

Lews Therin roams his ruined castle, dead wife visible in the background.
From the grapic novel adaptation.

Take The Eye of The World by Robert Jordan for example, the classic opening novel of The Wheel of Time. Its prologue opens on a great castle, the inhabitants massacred by “lightnings that had flashed down every corridor” and “fires that had stalked them.” A madman, Lews Therin Telamon, called The Dragon, roams the castle, searching for his wife while unknowingly walking over her corpse. Another man – an enemy – appears, and reveals that Lews Therin himself caused the destruction. They speak of the “Rings of Tamyrlin,” “the Nine Rods of Dominion,” a battle at “the Gates of Paaran Disen.”

“This war has not lasted ten years, but since the beginning of time. You and I have fought a thousand battles with the turning of the Wheel, a thousand times a thousand, and we will fight until time dies and the Shadow is triumphant!”

In his madness, Lews Therin somehow Travels instantly to a new location, “a flat and empty land” beside a river with “no people within a hundred leagues.” Here, he draws “on the True Source deeply,” and summons a fiery “bolt that str[ikes] from the heavens,” raising molten rock “five hundred feet in the air.” Killing himself in the process, Lews Therin erects a mountain that bisects the river. 

The scene ends with the other man Travelling to the new location and cursing Lews Therin: 

“You cannot escape so easily, Dragon. It is not done between us. It will not be done until the end of time.”

What just happened? 

On my initial read, I picked up on the great battle between good and evil but was otherwise hopelessly confused – and overawed. Between all the events mentioned, the titanic displays of magic, and the cyclical conflict across the eons, I knew I was in for a truly epic story.

Then, Chapter One opens on young Rand al’Thor, a farm boy, trudging home alongside his father and worrying about the harsh winter season.

What happened to the awesome magic? Why did Jordan do this?

In short, it’s all about setting a reader’s expectations.

While potentially jarring — especially for readers unfamiliar with the genre — this narrative transition is critical.

Consider: why do people read epic fantasy? Largely, we do so to experience extraordinary elements of the world-building: impossible locations, nonhuman species, battles between good and diabolical evil, and of course, magic.

But authors can’t just front-load their stories with crazy world-building — that would overwhelm readers. Lots of readers give up on Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson for this exact reason. Readers need time to explore the world-building, we want to learn why things exist before we see them in action. 

An Other stalking towards a fallen solider.
Art by Magali Villeneuve

But if authors don’t front-load the cool stuff, how will readers know about it?

That’s the problem.

To solve it, authors in this genre are forced to compromise between attractiveness and accessibility in their opening chapters. In the above example, Robert Jordan uses his prologue to showcase the attractive aspects of his massive world and insane magic system, and his opening chapters to introduce an accessible character and setting. So, while readers follow Rand and his friends around the Two Rivers early in the novel, they have the expectation of great things to come.

Another classic example is A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. Martin uses his prologue to create a sense of dread and introduce a terrifying fantasy race, the Others, and his opening chapters to introduce House Stark and castle life – a familiar millieu for experienced readers. We know the Others are out there, but also that we aren’t ready to see them again just yet.

Other examples include Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb, The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, The Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter, and The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin – all great books.

In these stories, the prologue is a teaser for greater things to come. An expectation. A promise.

The most common way for fantasy writers to introduce their worlds to readers is by following a naive and callow main character. The reader and protagonist embark on an adventure, discovering the strangeness and intricacies of the novel together.

Using this strategy, writers are freer to develop character and setting in the early parts of their novel, having assured impatient readers of what’s to come.