Epics vs. Lore
How they differ, and why it matters
Part 4/7 of the On Lore series.
I have some unsolicited advice for Jon Favreau, showrunner of The Mandolorian, that he probably doesn’t need: do not follow the obvious return-of-the-true-king epic plot arc suggested by the Darksaber. It would ruin what is best1 about the show — the leisurely exploration of Star Wars lore that doesn’t just live in the interstices of the epic 9-movie saga of Skywalkers, Palpatines, and Kenobis, but exhibits an indifference, bordering on affectionate contempt, towards it.
In the show, both Empire and rebel alliance are distant forces, and the recent victory of one over the other has not made a lot of difference on the ground. This lends the show an air of relaxed self-absorption, but one mercifully free of self-importance. It explores the everyday-life details of the world whose rough contours were established by the movies in passing. The characters recognize the power of the larger forces battling for supremacy, but don’t necessary respect them or take their conceits, or claims to nobility and virtue, at face value. They may be less powerful, but are somehow more real for it. Where the epic heroes of the world are bound by their Chosen One roles in history, the characters here enjoy a freedom derived from security through obscurity.
Other shows that started out wonderfully rooted in lore have been ruined by unnecessary epic ambitions. I’m thinking of Grimm and Once Upon a Time, both based on classic European folklore. Both succumbed to dumb epic plot arcs and grand conflicts between good and evil in the later seasons.
In fiction, lore is orthogonal to the epic-ness. Though it isn’t itself a type of narrative (being more of an inventory of narrative artifacts, such as archetypes, tropes, plot devices, and so forth), it tends to have a bias towards the small and timeless rather than the epic and historicist. Lore lends itself better to what Ursula Le Guin called Carrier Bag fiction, than to epic hero’s journey fiction. The epic hero’s journey is of course present in lore-based fiction, but it is marginalized rather than centered. It is just one class of stories among many.
This tension between epic and lore aspects of worlds, incidentally, is beautifully developed in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, via the contrast between the wizards of Unseen University, and the witches of the countryside.2 The wizards live lives isolated from the rest of the world, dabble in esoteric, epic magic, are full of themselves, strut around in fancy robes and hats, and are never quite as important to history as they imagine themselves to be. The witches dabble in deceptively ordinary-seeming everyday magic, are intimately involved in the everyday lives of ordinary folks, and sort of nudge life along, serving as stewards of the normalcy. Their attitude towards the wizards is one of mildly amused tolerance mixed with some contempt. The suggestion is that the wizards and witches are equally powerful in their own ways, but that the latter exercise way more actual agency in the world precisely because they lack delusions of grandeur and have more actual involvement with reality. In Talebian terms, wizards are fragilistas, while witches are antifragile.
To return to the central concerns of this series, management and organizations (with or without DAOs and blockchains), the epic dimension of management is the one represented by grand mission statements, ten-year visions, big external enemies, and existential threats.
Epics are about putting a VR headset on every face, and an AI-powered robot in every home. About slaying dragons like Covid, world hunger, or climate change, or defeating Evil Dark Lords (a role currently played by Putin).
Historically, epics have usually been explicitly religious: manifest destiny, reclaiming the Holy Land, defeating Communism, defeating Capitalism, establishing the world Caliphate, absorbing or liberating Ukraine, protecting Taiwan, creating AGI, and so on.
It’s Skywalker/Palpatine/Kenobi stuff.
Interestingly enough, while there are epic elements to the blockchain world, it is fundamentally not epic-structured. To the extent the world ever had an epic hero in Satoshi (rendered larger than life by his anonymity), he appeared briefly as a Genesis figure and likely died a few years later. He triggered a slow revolution peopled by relatively ordinary types who bicker on twitter and reddit, and lack an epic center like Mecca, Silicon Valley or Washington, DC. This might be why lore has a particular appeal in this world.
Epic forces may or may not provide an overall long-term motive force to everyday events, and may or may not have any real substance to them. At the level of day-to-day behaviors, to the extent they are real rather than religious fictions, epic forces usually manifest as either headwinds or a tailwinds that affect everything but aren’t particularly responsive to any individual thing.
Moore’s Law, for instance, is just this epic tendency in the world right now that you’d be foolish to fight, but isn’t particularly out to either lift you up or drag you down. How Moore’s Law affects you is largely up to you.
Depending on which way you decide to go in your smaller-scale life, you’ll either benefit from epic forces, or find yourself fighting them.
With any force that presents as epic, there is a small chance it is real, and will create either serendipity or zemblanity in your life, and a large chance it is fake and will have no effect at all unless you are foolish enough to believe in it.
Importantly, there are times and places where epic forces are largely absent or quiescent. These periods are the negative times/spaces of history. Doldrum zones with no secular narrative winds. The decades when nothing happens punctuating weeks where decades happen. The years in a company when there are no dramatic stock movements. The periods between peaks of excitement in the long-term evolution of a technology. The screen time defined by the B-roll.
It is during these periods that lore comes into its own. It is no accident that The Mandolorian is set between the second and third Star Wars trilogies. One epic drama is done, the next is yet to start. But life — and the show — must go on.
Lore to the rescue.
What makes lore important is that it what persists through epic ages and dark ages, through booms and busts, through iconic era-defining product seasons and incremental update seasons that merely keep the product alive and chugging along. Lore creates slow-burn meaning in a way that isn’t subject to the vagaries of epic winds.
Epics wax and wane. Gods come and go. Visions of utopia or glorious afterlives arise and unravel.
Lore just plods on through it all.
Another way to understand it is that while epics supply a consequentialist logic to long periods of time — typically decades or lifetimes — lore supplies a deontological logic to day-to-day life. Epics are about big goals, lore is about systems of small habits.
To be a virtuous person within a consequentialist logic is to be a hero who goes forth on a great adventure for a month to slay a dragon.
To be a virtuous person within a deontological logic is to show up day after day, for years, stewarding or backstopping something upon which life itself depends.
Epics are about 2℃ warning scenarios over decades. Lore is about recycling habits today.
Epics and lore are not opposed, but orthogonal. History features both, but perhaps the twentieth century taught us to overvalue the epic aspect and undervalue the lore aspect. To over-venerate Pratchettian wizards, and under-venerate Pratchettian witches. To be too interested in hero’s journeys, and not interested enough in carrier bags.
Perhaps the twenty-first century will be about restoring the balance, not between the light and dark sides of the Force, but between the Forced and non-Forced aspects of the world. Between the creative-destruction aspect, and the sustained aspect. Between the things that change profoundly and quickly, and the things that change slowly over a long period.
I’m a bit wary here, by the way, of inadvertently propping up a fragile idealization of a more “feminine” understanding of narrative culture. Arguably, while epic narratives do have a strong masculine bias (the hero’s journey is definitely a masculine pattern), lore is not so much feminine-biased as balanced.
To summarize: lore is a dimension of narrative cultures that is orthogonal to, and currently undervalued relative to, the epic dimension. It is about everyday habits rather than long-term goals.
We can add this idea to the understanding we’ve built up over the previous essays, to arrive at a nice seven dimensions of lore —
Lore is anti-marketing
Lore is inner psyche-management
Lore is born-baroque imaginative irony
Lore is Posture, Narrative, Behavior (PNB) triad molecules
Lore is narrative territory catalyzed by shaky epistemologies
Lore is about circumstances you manage, not problems you “solve”
Lore is epic-orthogonal everyday life habits
You could say the seven dimensions kinda roll up into a single broad function — lore is working knowledge that knows its own limits.
We typically make no big philosophical claims for the lore we live by. We merely resist efforts (often epic efforts) to make us stop living by it. We recognize that lore is uncertain, evolving, unstable, and rife with bullshit, superstition, and outright conscious lies. It contains enough truth to be functional, but enough obvious untruth that we are conscious of its limits. We do not delude ourselves that it is the whole truth, or nothing but the truth.
Lore is what actually plays the role in our lives that we pretend some idealized “truth” does.
Ideology, arguably, is a religious pretense that lore is truth. A pretense that is usually no more than a flimsy justification for an epic pursuit of religious power.
Next: Part 5/7 — Dark, Gray, and Light Lore
This contrast is actually a fractal element at many levels in the Discworld cosmogony. The mainstream life portrayed in the City Watch novels is a decidedly unmagical contrast to the witches and wizards. The Discworld overall, including the magic, exists in relatively ordinary dimensions, while typical epic stuff — monsters and dragons — is relegated to the dungeon dimensions or to Dunmanifestin, the realm of retired gods. And finally, at a metaphysical level, Death is a remarkably mundane personification of a routine everyday force (since people die all the time) that stands in contrast to the Auditors of Reality, a sort of epic bureaucracy of existence itself that is Death’s main antagonist. At every level in the Discoworld stories, the apparently ordinary is elevated to a sublime level, and the apparently epic diminished to a kind of annoying puffed-up theater that is less consequential than it pretends to be.