Survey of Fantasy Subgenres – Part One: High and Low Fantasy
A big hello to Fantasy-Faction readers! I’m happy to be a new member of the Fantasy-Faction staff and would say thanks for the great opportunity. As my first series of articles, I’d like to present and discuss subgenres of fantasy. The definitions and boundaries are subject to opinion. I’ll present what seems correct to me, based on my interpretations from research, but I welcome and encourage input from others as well.
Defining High and Low Fantasy
According to Wikipedia, high fantasy is defined as fantasy fiction set in an alternative, entirely fictional (“secondary”) world, rather than the real, or “primary” world. The secondary world is usually internally consistent but its rules differ in some way(s) from those of the primary world.
By contrast, low fantasy is characterized by being set in the primary, or “real” world, or a rational and familiar fictional world, with the inclusion of magical elements.
High fantasy usually follows one of three premises. In the first, the work is set in an invented world, with no reference to the primary world. The Lord of the Rings is a common example. For the second premise, the imaginary secondary world is entered through a portal from the primary world, such as the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. The third type involves a secluded world within a world, as a subset of the primary world which is only accessible to special inhabitants, as is the case in the Harry Potter series.
Low fantasy is the label given to two basic types of works. 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. Examples of low fantasy novels span a variety of subgenres, from Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers to Laurell K. Hamilton’s Vampire Hunter Series to Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart.
Differences In Theme
Good versus evil is a common thematic concept in high fantasy, often with great concern for moral issues. The protagonist is usually someone who wasn’t expecting to have the fate of the world laid on his shoulders. Often he will have a mentor to guide and train him to enable him to complete his quest. Low fantasy themes center on the concept of the underdog, characters who are marginalized by society. Using the device of magic allows the author greater agency than expected in the real world.
Differences In Setting
In high fantasy, the worlds typically are pre-industrial. During the 70s and 80s, those worlds basically resembled medieval Europe, with class hierarchies including kings and courtiers. Currently, writers are branching out and using non-Western cultures in their worldbuilding. Setting for low fantasy is less defined by trends, simply any faction of the real world or some alternative reality.
Fantasy Subgenres Often Confused With High Fantasy
While some use this term interchangeably with high fantasy, I feel that is incorrect since epic fantasy can be either high or low.
Epic fantasy is defined as:
1. An extended narrative poem in elevated or dignified language, celebrating the feats of a legendary or traditional hero.
2. A literary or dramatic composition that resembles an extended narrative poem celebrating heroic feats.
3. A series of events considered appropriate to an epic: the epic of the Old West.
1. Of, constituting, having to do with, or suggestive of a literary epic: an epic poem.
2. Surpassing the usual or ordinary, particularly in scope or size
3. Heroic and impressive in quality
From these ideas, an epic fantasy must be heroic, impressive in quality, and surpassing the ordinary, particularly in scope or size. The story must be sweeping, most likely complex with multiple plot lines. Given these ideas, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is certainly epic, but not high fantasy.
Sword and Sorcery
These tales do resemble high fantasy, except in theme. Instead of the struggle between good and evil, the conflict lies between the main character and his own personal battles. Also, the plot focuses more on plenty of swashbuckling adventures than use of magical elements. While sword and sorcery was more popular in past decades, there is something of a resurgence lately. A good example of this is Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora.
When real-world history is used, high fantasy assumes some characteristics of this genre. High fantasy worlds may be more or less based on real world happenings or legends, such as the Arthurian legends. This draws one to consider the idea of alternative history. However, alternate history requires three definite things:
1. the story must have a point of divergence from the history of our world prior to the time at which the author is writing
2. a change that would alter history as it is known
3. an study of the consequences of that change. (The Arthurian legends do not satisfy those criteria.)
In future articles, I’ll delve in more subgenres. As I research this topic, my list keeps growing. Seems new fantasy subgenres spring up every day…good thing for us fantasy readers!
This article was originally posted on September 13, 2011.