High fantasy is probably the only literary genre in existence where the author has to essentially write two stories. The first is what’s happening now: hero goes on an adventure, fights a dragon, yadda yadda yadda. However, the author also has to write a second story. He has to write a detailed and epic history of the lands and people going back to, say, 1000 years before the hero of the story was even born. The hero’s tale cannot exist in a vaccuum, and his raison d’etre is deeply embedded in the tales that go before him. So, quite amusingly, it’s essential in high fantasy to include stories of a glorious, long lost past in a tale that is itself a fantastic approximation of humanity’s glorious, long lost past.
It’s probably all Tolkien’s fault. The brutha not only inserted poems about elven lovers that were only tangentially related to the narrative of Lord of the Rings itself, he also wrote a library’s worth of back notes (of which the Silmarillon was only but a small piece of the puzzle) to flesh out the myths and beliefs of Middle Earth. It’s kind of understandable in his case. The guy was a professor, and those guys are up to their wazoos in textbooks. Besides, he pulled off the faux-textbook atmosphere so well that to this day people enjoy reading and studying Tolkien as if it were a minor college elective.
The fantasy novelists the follow Tolkien reiterated the superficial aspects. Most fail to come up with anything compelling. One of the best recent efforts is Susanna Clarke’s Hugo-Award winning Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, who fills you in on the history of the Raven King John Uskglass through some of the most ridiculously detailed footnotes you’ll find in fantasy literature today. (It also made me very happy that I sprung for the hardcover. I imagine squinting to read the footnotes in paperback form would be a headache and a half.)
Storytelling is also a key component of Evan Dahm’s fantasy webcomic Order of Tales. Here, Mr. Dahm fills us in on the past through a nifty device: his hero is a plucky little storyteller whose greatest weapon is knowledge — specifically, the legends, myths, and history encompassing his fantasy world.