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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.

Little Warriors by sandaraA good place to begin is with a comparison/contrast of the largest subgenres, high and low fantasy.

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.

Vampirates - Blood Captain by Justin Somper (cover art)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

Epic 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:

noun
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.

adj.
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
Pirates by *HamsterflyThese 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.

Alternative History
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.

Title image by breathing2004.

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19 Comments

  1. ChrisMB87 says:

    Great article regarding the various subgenres! This reminds me of some of the discussions I’ve been having with friends and a few coworkers about the different aspects of fantasy and how it’s becoming more than just people making their own spins on Lord of the Rings.
    I can’t wait to see your other articles!

  2. Thanks, Chris! Definitely, subgenres are becoming more clearly defined. This was very evident in the content I learned in several sessions at DragonCon over Labor Day weekend. What amazes me is that, while I’m an avid fantasy reader/writer/lover, I learn about new subgenres quite often. I think that bodes well for the popularity of fantasy as a whole.

  3. Lindsay says:

    I love this genre while not knowing much about it. I wrote a science fiction novel with fantasy elements, while completely ignorant of the subgenres in either class.

    Thank you for the clear explanations.

    • You’re very welcome, Lindsay. Knowing some of the common groupings does provide guidance when you seek comparisons for your own knowledge or need to describe what you’ve written to readers/publishers.

  4. See? Now I would have said the difference between high fantasy and low fantasy is about 35 miles per hour. That’s why we need Marsha around. She is so on top of these things plus – and I have to add this – I love where her mind goes almost daily. My favorite thing Marsha does is to show us a simple, household article and then ask the reader to describe what the magical use of that article is. Absolutely fascinating. Once again, what a mind!

    • Heather, thanks for giving me a big smile. Those magical item posts are my favorite on my blog too! I need to do more soon. I’ll have one coming up next Monday for Magical Monday. I love to see what everyone else makes of those. Such fun!

  5. Dan Jones says:

    I’m confused by this article. Your definition of high fantasy is ‘…fantasy fiction set in an alternative, entirely fictional (“secondary”) world, rather than the real, or “primary” world.’ You continue ‘ By contrast, low fantasy is characterized by being set in the primary, or “real” world…’

    When discussing low fantasy, you list Jacqueline Carey’s _Kushiel’s Dart_ as an example, evidently because there is a relatively small amount of magic. Under discussion of epic fantasy, you say that ‘…George R.R. Martin’s _A Song of Ice and Fire_ is certainly epic, but not high fantasy.’ Again, I assume because magic is relatively scarce. But both Carey’s and Martin’s works are very clearly set in alternative, entirely fictional (secondary) worlds. Both works meet your stated definition of high fantasy. You seem to be assuming that the difference between high and low fantasy is how common magic is in the world. That definition is one that’s commonly used but is, I believe, at odds with the technical definition.

    My view of subgenres is that they are not exclusive characterizations. They are merely labels that define certain traits. A work can belong to more than one subgenre, including apparently contradictory classifications like “high” and “low” fantasy. I’d argue that both Carey’s and Martin’s work meet the definitions of both high and low fantasy.

    • Dan, thanks for the good discussion. I agree that labels are subject to opinion and that’s fine; everyone has their view. It’s that way no matter what we attempt to categorize.

      I did lean toward the slightly newer way to classify low fantasy, based upon the amount of magic used. As I stated in the article, defining a work as low because the action occurs in a real world setting is becoming less typical, since alternative versions of the real world are used more commonly. Alternative realities are apparent in both of those works.

  6. Shevi says:

    I know that Wikipedia defintion is how many people today define high fantasy, but I have a problem with it, because it’s too broad. To me, portal fantasy, like Alice in Wonderland, and world within our world fantasy, like Harry Potter, are not high fantasy. To me, high fantasy takes place only in a magical world, like The Lord of the Rings or Conan the Barbarian. Part of it doesn’t take place in our world.

    My problem with the current, very broad definition of fantasy is twofold: first, when you define high fantasy this way, it ends up encompassing almost all fantasy, so the “high” term becomes redundant. Instead it would make more sense to just drop the high fantasy term entirely and talk about portal fantasy, sword and sorcery, urban fantasy, fantastic realism, low fantasy, and so on. Why use a general term that encompasses almost all fantasy when you can be more specific?

    Second, the old, more limited definition of high fantasy was useful. It separated books like The Lord of the Rings and Conan the Barbarian from other kinds of fantasy, and that was convenient.

    I was recently talking to a librarian who told me she doesn’t like fantasy novels on alternate worlds with elves and dragons. In the past, she could have said, “I don’t like high fantasy,” but now there’s no longer a proper term for the kind of fantasy she doesn’t like. And those who don’t know that the definition has changed say they don’t like high fantasy, when they do in fact like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and so on, but aren’t aware that today those are considered high fantasy. This might not seem like a big deal, but when you’re a writer and you read that someone who represents lots of what is, by today’s definition, high fantasy doesn’t accept submissions for “high fantasy” it’s a pickle.

    I know I’m old-fashioned, but I prefer definitions that are useful and make sense, and the old definition was useful and made sense.So I’m sticking with it.

  7. Fantasy is such a large field that it has room for many sub-genres. I invented one of my own, “Science-Fiction Flavored Fantasy,” for my recently published “Magic Is Faster Than Light.” Well, how else would you categorize something like “Once upon a time, there was a spaceship full of witches …”? It is not exactly “contemporary,” the level of spaceships and space travel in the story is a century or two into a Science-Fictional future. Am I the only one to take an SF setting and stir in a handful of witches?

    And I might mention a forthcoming book, “Cop with a Wand.” Daisy is a plain-clothes cop, and a witch. I’m labeling this one a “Paranormal Police Procedural.” Gee, there’s another sub-genre of Fantasy!

    Let’s just write it, and read it, and enjoy it, and argue less if it’s “high”or “low”or whatever.

  8. Bloody good article. I often confuse myself with different sub genres of fantasy. This’ll be a handy guide when I’m reviewing. Thanks 😀

  9. Anne Lyle says:

    “The Lies of Locke Lamora” can also be classified as “fantasy noir” – a much more recent sub-genre. Noir is basically low fantasy swords-and-a bit-of-sorcery with a strong urban element – io9.com published a very interesting article on it:

    http://io9.com/5362187/the-new-noir-fantasy-shows-magical-cities-in-decay

    although my own blog is actually the #1 google hit for “fantasy noir” 🙂

    http://www.annelyle.com/blog/musings/fantasy-noir-a-genre-for-the-new-millennium/

  10. Regina Mize says:

    Marsha thanks for the very descriptive post. The different subgenres of Fantasy always confuse me so it is nice to have them spelled out here.

  11. […] Are There Different Genres of Fantasy? – You bet there are. If want to write in that category become familiar with the difference. […]

  12. […] an alternate world, and often encompasses myths, folklore and legend. Here is a really great post that outlines the major subgenres of fantasy. The Science Fiction and Fantasy writers association is one of the best writer resources out there, […]

  13. Erica says:

    I’ve also been confused about the “official” definition of high fantasy. The Wikipedia definition is very broad. I’m curious, because I’ve written a novel that is set in an alternative world where magic plays an important role in the plot and story. By the Wikipedia definition, the tale falls comfortably into the category of high fantasy. But it seems like everyone (including agents and editors) have their own, somewhat more restrictive, definitions of what HF really is.

    So, when an agent says they take fantasy but not HF, are they saying they only want contemporary stuff? Or are they saying that they are open to pretty much anything that doesn’t have elves and dragons and that silly “faux medieval” speech in it?

  14. Sebastian (Sebseb) says:

    I disagree on many of the points. Regardless, congratulations on getting such an awesome job, I envy you deeply. your writing is solid and I think you view on the genres are interesting and I look forward to seeing other things from you.

  15. […] history and sword and sorcery. There’s an interesting exploration of the sub-genres on the Fantasy Faction website, and links to even more sub-genres (Steampunk, […]

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