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Low Fantasy Subgenres

In my last article, I compared and contrasted two very popular low fantasy subgenres, urban fantasy and paranormal romance. In this article, I’ll continue with an overview of other major subgenres of low fantasy.

As a review, my working definition of low fantasy—the label given to two basic types of works is as follows:

The first is a work that features less magic. Instead of numerous mages engaged in battle, there might be only one character or a few with magical ability. The second type refers to a work where the action occurs in a real world setting; that definition is becoming less common, since alternative versions of the real world are used more commonly. For this reason, the term low fantasy is being replaced by the more specific “contemporary fantasy,” indicating the story takes place in the here and now with magical elements.

Comic Fantasy

Death with Kitten II by Paul KidbyThis subgenre had a huge swell in popularity through the 80s, but has declined in recent years. It originated in the nineteenth century with the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson and the Alice books by Lewis Carroll. Some comic fantasies were parodies of more serious novels, one well-known example being Bored of the Rings by Henry N. Beard and Douglas C. Kenney, who later founded National Lampoon.

Some good examples of current comic fantasy include: Piers Anthony’s Xanth books, Robert Asprin’s MythAdventures of Skeeve and Aahz books, Tom Holt’s books, and many works by Christopher Moore. One of the best-loved comic fantasy writers is Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld novels deliver laughs from the opening chapters.

Recently, comic strips and graphic novel formats of humorous fantasy have surged in popularity, including Chuck Whelon’s Pewfell series and the webcomics 8-Bit Theater and The Order of the Stick.

This subgenre has also been widely popular in television series we all have loved for years, such as I Dream of Jeannie, and Monty Python’s Holy Grail/Flying Circus. Also, the BBC’s Hordes of the Things and ElvenQuest have been enjoyed on radio.

Dark Fantasy

Currently showing a surge in popularity, dark fantasy lies between fantasy and horror, loosely defined as having supernatural occurrences with a dark, brooding tone. It tends to be more violent than typical fantasy, often featuring demons, devils, or other magical creatures that inhabit the gorier realm of supernatural society. These works rarely have happy endings. From the lack of precise definition, this subgenre is often further divided into two groups: horror-based and fantasy-based.

Dissappearance by Matt RockerfellerHorror-Based / Supernatural Horror
Author Charles L. Grant is often credited for creating the term “dark fantasy.” He described his style as “a type of horror story in which humanity is threatened by forces beyond human understanding.” Some think he intended the new category to reach a wider audience, since horror was long associated with more visceral works than what he wrote.

Using the new category allows readers to make this distinction—a story about a frightening supernatural, like a werewolf or vampire can be described as dark fantasy, while a selection about a mass murderer would simply be horror. The supernatural element takes the story a step away from reality, perhaps less chilling to some readers. This form is often used to tell stories from the monster’s viewpoint, or to gain greater empathy for the supernatural creatures. Such is the case in Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles and also in Omar McIntosh’s Three Raptures of Doom, where an old man courts angels and demons.

Fantasy-Based
In a more fantasy-oriented style, Karl Edward Wagner is said to have coined the term “dark fantasy.” He used it to describe his fiction about the Gothic warrior Kane in a series of sword and sorcery novels and short stories published between 1970 and 1985. Another useful example following this definition of dark fantasy is Michael Moorcock’s tales of the albino swordsman Elric.

Sword and Sorcery

I discussed this subgenre in a previous article, contrasting it with high fantasy. In summation, these tales resemble high fantasy, except in theme. Instead of the struggle between good and evil, a defining feature of high fantasy, the conflict lies between the main character and his/her own personal battles, involving plenty of swashbuckling adventure. Therefore, most place this under low fantasy by default. Depending upon the degree of darkness to the author’s style, this may be viewed as a subgroup of fantasy-based dark fantasy (see above).

Mythic Fantasy / Mythic Fiction

Ravenna by jeffsimpsonkhThese works are rooted in myths and legends of a particular culture. The setting can vary in amount of deviation from reality, but the characters must come from ancient stories. Often these works are retellings of classic fairy tales or myths, where the creatures from the myth have entered the real world and cause chaos. This category usually refers to works of contemporary literature that often blend literary fiction and genre-based fantasy fiction.

Books in this category frequently use familiar mythological character archetypes, in contrast to other forms of fantasy which invent their own legends. Folklores commonly used for inspiration include those from these cultures: German-Scandinavian, Celtic, Slavic, Russian, Asian, African (Children of Anansi by Neil Gaiman; On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers), American Indian, Aboriginal, and Eskimo.

Charles de Lint and Terri Windling are thought to take credit for the term “mythic fiction.” This subgenre includes the Arthurian stories, based on the tales of King Arthur and his knights.

Historical Fantasy

These books are set in the real world, a low fantasy characteristic. However, in this case the setting is specifically historical. The stories often revolve around a historical figure or event, and the protagonist is likely to be the historical figure.

Historical fantasy typically adheres to one of three common approaches:

1. Mythical creatures or supernatural elements co-exist invisibly with the real world, and the majority of inhabitants are not cognizant of their existence. Often, a device of a secret history is used. By the time of present day, magic will have retreated from the world, allowing history to revert to the familiar version we know. An example of this may be found in Lord Dunsany’s The Charwoman’s Shadow, which ends with the magician character removing himself, and all his magical associates, from the world, thereby ending the Golden Age.

2. The story takes place in an alternative history with clear differences from our own. This category requires three definite criteria: a) the story must have a point of divergence from the history of our world prior to the time at which the author is writing; b) a change that would alter history as it is known; c) a study of the consequences of that change.

3. The story is set in a secondary world having specific and recognizable parallels to a known place (or places) and a definite historical period.

Subdivisions within this Historical Fantasy include: Celtic Fantasy, loosely reflecting ancient Celtic cultures; classical fantasy, based on Greek and Roman mythology; Wuxia, a blend of fantasy and martial arts with reference to Asian history; Medieval fantasy; Prehistoric Fantasy; Steampunk, generally set in the Victorian or Edwardian eras. Steampunk and all its spinoffs are currently all the rage in fantasy trends. A majority of the costumes at Dragon*Con this year clearly showed that. For the reason of their popularity, they deserve a closer look in a future article.

This article was originally published on November 10, 2011.

Title image by Hamsterfly.

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4 Comments

  1. James Holder says:

    Interesting. I’ve never cared for the terms low and high fantasy. They always seemed silly with a heavy bent towards classism. I much prefer just using the genre names because they are all more accurate and descriptive.

  2. James Kelly says:

    Hi Marsha, great article! Just a small question, though: I’m not sure who coined “dark fantasy”. Was it Grant or Wagner?

  3. Red Tash says:

    Great summary of dark fantasy. There are more of us writing it than meets the eye. Overall great article. Emailing it to myself so I can post a link on my site for future reference. I really hate trying to define genres!

  4. […] into what makes a particular subgenre function. The survey of low-fantasy genres, for example, (http://fantasy-faction.com/2011/survey-of-low-fantasy-subgenres) is quite extensive. I don’t necessarily agree with all of their categorizations here — […]

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