Fantasy Fiction and Epic Battles

I had another writing question come up recently, asked by a friend of mine, this time about fantasy fiction.

The question was, “In fantasy, is there any other climax/last scene than the one where the good guy goes into an all out battle against the bad guy?

I started thinking about it, and ruminating over the examples the friend who asked the question gave, along with the fantasy stories I’d read.

And my friend was right.

In nearly every example, the climax involves an epic battle between the hero and the villain, which often involves an all-out war between good and evil.

Star Wars–Luke vs. Darth Vader, Rebels vs. Empire, Rebels vs. Death Star.

Harry Potter–Harry vs. Villain of the Book, ultimately culminating in Harry vs. Voldemort.

The Wheel of Time–Rand vs. The Dark One, Aes Sedai vs. Black Ajah, Good Guys vs. Bad Guys.

The Hobbit–Good Guys vs. Smaug, Good Guys vs. Orcs

Lord of the Rings–Frodo vs. Gollum, Fellowship vs. Sauron’s Army, Good Armies vs. Bad Armies.

The Librarian–The Librarian vs. Whatever Evil Person or Group is trying to recover the Object of Power for their own gain.

Think of all the good fantasy stories you’ve read, and you’ll probably come up with one or two exceptions, but for the most part, they follow a fairly standard arc, involving a quest of some sort (sometimes for a specific object of power, sometimes to a specific location, sometimes to accomplish a specific task), and culminating in an epic battle scene. And this is true across various brands of fantasy, as well, like dystopian and some sci-fi.

The reason for this is that fantasy deals so heavily in allegory. In a fantasy world you have the freedom to explore all the “what-if” factors that you’re thinking about. Dystopian fiction often features an oppressive government. “What if this particular ideology were allowed to grow and the government took this thinking to the extreme? What would that world look like? And what would the hero have to do to combat it?”

Fantasy usually involves an extreme level of ultimate power and oppression. There is an evil dictator who wants to rule the world, keeping all peoples and races under his thumb, like Sauron. These dictators want what they want, and don’t care who it hurts in the process. Power. Dominance. Luxury. Often, this dictator exemplifies pure Evil.

It is up to the hero to thwart the villain’s evil plot. Usually it’s some type of underdog character–a moisture farmer on an obscure desert planet, a hobbit, a band of merry outlaws. The hero exemplifies all that is good and pure and true. Friendship. Loyalty. Freedom. While the individual character may have strengths and weaknesses, what they represent is pure Good.

Therefore, since there is usually a fairly epic good-vs-evil quest, that scene of the good guy defeating the bad guy is fairly standard-issue in most cases.

These tropes have their individual flair, of course.

For example, the primary goal of The Lord of the Rings was throwing the One Ring into the fires of Mordor, so Frodo completing that quest was at least one climax. But that one had so many adjacent storylines that there were more. Frodo also defeated Gollum, in a way. And the ring being destroyed was what ultimately defeated Sauron. But then you also had the epic battle scenes with Strider ultimately coming out as victor/king.
So since fantasy deals a lot in good vs. evil tropes, it’s easy to build up to that ultimate showdown. The battle represents the ultimate fight in good against evil. Especially in fantasy stories with a religious undercurrent, that battle represents, to an extent, the final showdown between God and Satan, the ultimate battle with the ultimate outcome.
So, are there fantasy stories that don’t have this type of arc?
The exception is when you have a different goal for your story.
What are you trying to accomplish? If you’re going on a quest to unearth something, then the climax would be unearthing it, but you might have battles along the way as whatever or whoever is trying to stop your character along the way interferes. And of course, depending on what the artifact is, you might still have that type of ending, because the villain will be trying to retrieve it for his own use.
One notable exception to the typical arc would be The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where the goal of the story was recovering the lost lords and sailing to the end of the earth, so finding all the lords (or determining for certain they were dead) was the quest that needed to be fulfilled, and Reepicheep sailing off over the end of the world was kind of the climax there.
You might also have a hero dying to save the one he loves, the goal being sacrifice for the greater good. Or someone riding off into the sunset in order to keep from making things worse by staying. But the reason fantasy works as a genre is because it provides a platform to explore extremes. How bad can things get? How much worse will they get? What will it take to make it better? What will the character have to do to overcome? And because it is by its very nature so extreme, the showdown must be extreme enough to be a satisfying end to the drama of the build-up toward that climax.

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