Since its pioneering founder, Tolkien, penned the legendary Lord of The Rings series, fantasy has gone through many stages of evolution. Today, many subgenres exist, including epic, high, low, GrimDark, and Urban. However, despite its varying shades, works in the genre almost always carry at least one of the traditional tropes.

Fantasy tropes are recurring themes and literary devices found across the genre, many of which trace their origins to use in Tolkien’s work. Epic fantasy works such as Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, Ryan Cahill’s Of Blood and Fire, and Philip Chase’s The Way of Edan all feature many of the classic themes and tropes, with an increasing number of modern fantasy writers incorporating the tropes in one way of the other.

Although some modern subgenres, notably GrimDark, mostly gravitate away from the stereotypical themes, many traditional tropes feature in arguably every work of fantasy.

Without further ado, we assess five of the most prominent traditional fantasy tropes:

Good vs. Evil

What would traditional fantasy be without a physical/metaphysical struggle between the forces of good and evil? Whether it is Middle-earth’s heroes facing off against the hordes of Mordor, or Rand al’Thor, the Dragon Reborn leading the forces of good against the Dark One and his Forsaken, the good-evil dichotomy is undefeated.

Even works that do not necessarily qualify as traditional fantasy, such as G.R.R Martin’s A Game of Thrones, still have subtle hints of the good versus evil trope (Night King vs. all of Westeros). Despite the recent rise in popularity of books with grey characters, the classic good versus evil theme will continue to endure.

Epic battles

You simply haven’t read good traditional fantasy if you haven’t come across a large-scale battle. Fantasy writers excel at depicting both one-on-one swordfight duels and epic-scope battles. Knowledge of basic sword fighting and battle strategy is a significant prerequisite for writing most fantasy stories, and authors like Brandon Sanderson, Terry Goodkind, and Steven Erikson have mastered the art of painting vivid pictures with words.

Although some categories of readers tend to skim through battle scenes in fantasy, they remain one of traditional fantasy’s hallmarks. Whether you like it or not, you cannot deny that flanking tactics, cavalry charges, screaming warhorses, and the accompanying destructive blasts of sorcerers wielding different magics are an unalienable part of traditional fantasy.

Taverns

I am yet to read a fantasy book without mention of taverns. Stifling, dimly lit taverns serving ales and various other brews. Taverns brimming with gruff, loud-mouthed locals, strangely garbed outlanders, shady folk sitting in dark corners with shifty eyes and hands inside cloaks gripping knives… The scenarios are endless.

And then there are the serving girls, aka buxom wenches. Whether or not you shy away from such a description on the grounds of sexism, there’s no doubt that buxom wenches are as synonymous with traditional fantasy taverns as footballing excellence is to Brazil.

Farmboys and Antagonist Evil Sorcerers/Warlords

While this fantasy trope belongs to the broader good vs. evil umbrella, its uniqueness means it deserves to be talked about in an entirely fresh breath.

What popular work of epic/traditional fantasy ever existed without a simple farmboy learning about his destiny/glorious doom through some vague but ancient prophecy about him defeating the forces of evil? More often than not, said force of evil is some distant wizard or warlord who spent the preceding years or centuries subjugating the entire continent or countryside (depending on the scale of the book you’re reading) with steel, fire, and malicious magical compulsion.

Legendary works like The Belgariad, The Earthsea Cycle, The Inheritance Cycle, and The Sword of Shannara Trilogy are heavily themed on this, as are several newer fantasy reads. While some readers are quick to tire of this particular trope, it’s certainly not going away anytime soon. Farmboys-turned-overpowered superheroes will continue to reign supreme.

Lengthy Epics/Series

Tolkien’s legendary work was a trilogy, and for some reason, trilogies have since become the unofficial hallowed book count for fantasy series.

Today, many series are breaking the jink and extending their stories to four, five, and even ten or fourteen books. While the art of writing lengthy epics may not be readily seen as an actual fantasy trope, its consistency throughout the genre’s history makes it worthy of special mention.

All the most popular books in traditional fantasy are lengthy series of at least three books. While there are no official stats to back me up, I would say that the average book count for traditional fantasy books is anywhere between six and ten books.

It’s almost like writing tomes is a requirement. The story must be of epic scale; the world must be vast and sprawling. And the story must span multiple books.

That is not to say that standalone fantasy books do not exist. However, there are far more fantasy series than there are standalone. And that makes the art of writing lengthy series a fantasy trope in its own right.

Wrapping Up

Lots of other fantasy tropes exist. In fact, there are too many of them to outline in one short piece. However, I decided to pick the five that resonated with most fantasy readers I know, including myself.

In truth, modern fantasy is diverting rapidly from the standard tropes, with new tropes taking their place, especially in the subgenre of GrimDark. Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single fantasy read without any of the fantasy tropes discussed in this article.

Feel free to share your additions or dissent to mine in the comments below.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *