What Is High Fantasy?
High fantasy, also known as epic fantasy, takes place in a secondary world that is unfamiliar to anything that we know. This difference in the setting is the main element that sets high fantasy apart from low fantasy, which exists in the primary world, Earth, or something similar.
It revolves around saving the created alternative world or the characters residing in it. The worlds the characters move into and across cannot be likened to the actual world. The introduction of a new world in high fantasy requires an elaborate backstory.
High fantasy is usually narrated from the perspective of the hero who is destined to solve the conflict within their world by fighting against the opposing evil forces who try to dominate and rule over the whole territory. The hero is known for their extraordinary capabilities, which they use in wars and any other related conflicts. Deep-seated in each high fantasy story is the struggle to fight against immorality, injustice, and the like. Despite the fictional characters having a human-like internal battle and external struggle, high fantasy involves a world that did not, does not, and will never exist in the real world.
While many people may think that the fantasy genre is simply an off-shoot or a sub-genre of science fiction, the truth is, there are pretty radical differences when you look at high fantasy vs. low fantasy. This article will define and provide examples of the different types of fantasy. You may be surprised at what high fantasy you’ve read and loved that you didn’t know belonged in this particular genre.
High Fantasy Vs. Low Fantasy
Low fantasy takes place in a real place, with fantasy elements. This means that everything that happens in these stories happens in our world, or one very much like it, and it combines the things we are used to normally with fantastical elements included to add weight to the plot. On the other hand, high fantasy takes place in a totally imagined place that couldn’t actually exist and involves mostly magical elements. Both types of fantasy have the elements of traditional fantasy.
A somewhat controversial example of low fantasy is the book series by George R. R. Martin, Game of Thrones. This is because the setting is similar to our real world, and while there are fantastical elements to it, such as monsters and dragons, they are side players in these books. Regular people put into extraordinary circumstances are the drive behind the plot. Therefore, Game of Thrones is a low fantasy.
However, it should be noted that this notion is often argued because Martin’s novel in this series, A Song of Ice and Fire, does have the elements of a high fantasy book and that one novel would be considered high fantasy.
An example of high fantasy is the popular book series The Witcher. These books take place in a fantasy world. There are enchanted forests, frozen lands that you step out of into a totally different and opposite climate, and swamps teeming with monsters.
The protagonist is not human, and his sole purpose is to kill monsters and mythical creatures for money. He’s a monster mercenary, basically. Magical powers are a massive part of the story, and the Witcher himself possesses one of several existing magic swords. He is bound to a witch and drawn to her. Her magic is essential to the plot of the book series.
On the other hand, science fiction is different from both of these types of fiction. Star Wars is sci-fi. It has all of the elements needed to check the boxes for this genre. It is mainly set apart for its space adventures and advanced technology, which are elements of sci-fi fiction.
Difference between Sci-fi and Fantasy
Science fiction, also known as sci-fi, bases its plot on scientific knowledge and theories. It features advanced technology and inventions that may or may not be possible in the future. With the advanced technology featured in the plot, environmental change is highly anticipated, often creating a dystopia. The story may have some real-world conflicts such as, a greed for power. Common sci-fi elements include futuristically-designed spacecrafts and space travel, other planets’ civilizations, time travel, and a parallel universe.
Fantasy is not necessarily focused on technology and inventions. It is created completely from the writer’s imagination, where the world created would never exist in real life. The inclusion of supernatural powers and mythical creatures is a primary trait of a fantasy story. Fantasy often presents an imagined set of cultural beliefs and fictitious histories. It may also introduce imaginary family lineages or generations.
Simply put, sci-fi uses a futuristic world where the characters rely on advanced inventions, while fantasy utilizes an impossible world where the characters drive the events through their use of magic.
Types of Low Fantasy
To help you understand what high fantasy stories are, it may help to understand what they’re not. Low fantasy novels include urban fantasy, dark fantasy, contemporary fantasy, and magical realism.
Urban fantasy, a sub-genre of contemporary fantasy (takes place in the same time period as the narrator), takes place in a city. It may be a dystopian city or futuristic city, but the city that serves as the setting in these novels is always identifiable as Earth-like. Dark fantasy takes the elements of low fantasy and combines elements of the horror genre with it. Scares, gore, violence, and disturbing language and imagery are used in dark fantasy.
Magical realism is a story that takes place in the world we know, but they feature magic as an undercurrent. Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts are great examples of magical realism.
With all of the different types of fantasy, it can be difficult to tell them apart. The list of off-shoots and new genres grows all of the time. Much like the darker fantasy that involves elements of the horror genre, there are other combination genre types.
For example, historical fantasy is a combination of fantasy and historical fiction. Often set in a medieval world, it combines history with fantasy. There is almost a fantasy/romance genre that combines the elements of fantasy and the elements of romance. The Twilight series is one such example.
High Fantasy Books
The high fantasy genre encapsulates what most readers think of as modern fantasy fiction. Set in a fictional world, these fantasy stories feature a lot of magic.
The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien is a high fantasy series that tells the story of an epic quest. Small creatures from a place called Middle Earth must journey through a brand new world. The story begins with happiness, snippets of magic, and a surreal setting in which small creatures with large hairy feet live underground in homes that contain complex and cozy tunnel systems called hobbit holes. Although Middle Earth has similarities to Earth, no such place could ever exist.
The central character in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins, must go on a journey with his friends and assorted acquaintances that range from human to elf to ogre and deposit a magic ring into a fiery volcano to destroy it and restore peace to the fictional world. They must battle orcs and other monsters who are working under the direction of another powerful wizard, Saruman. Another favorite element of high fantasy is epic themes such as good vs. evil, and this book series is one of the best examples of that.
While the world is fairly low magic, the defining characteristics of high fantasy, being the use of magic, still exist. The only thing that keeps Frodo from giving up the ring willingly is the magic that the ring possesses, and the journey with the ring is the main plot. While you don’t see a lot of magic, it’s there. Without its existence, there would be no story. Therefore the magical elements that are in this series are incredibly important.
Many people credit Tolkien with the invention of the fantasy genre. While fairy tales and other magical stories existed before he wrote the series, taking the credit away from him for the genre’s invention, he certainly defined it for readers with his tale about a young hobbit and a ring.
Other examples of high fantasy include fairy tales. They are usually centered around magic and take place in locations that don’t and couldn’t exist. Norse mythology and Greek mythology are high fantasy. There is no Mount Olympus or Underworld that we are aware of, and there are certainly no magical gods and goddesses transforming people who disrespect them into animals or worse. Many short stories qualify as high fantasy due to their use of other worlds and magical elements.
Can a Fantasy Story Be Both High and Low Fantasy?
Yes, a fantasy story can be both high and low fantasy. Many books take place in the real world but largely depend on magic. Harry Potter takes place half in the real world and half in his own world of magic. If the fantasy setting changes throughout the book, it can be fair to say that the story qualifies as both high and low fantasy.
Percy Jackson has a lot of magic in the plot, but it takes place in the real world and in the Underworld, which is reserved for high fantasy books. Other books and stories that have elements of both subgenres are: His Dark Materials, Alice in Wonderland, The Phantom Tollbooth, and The Chronicles of Narnia. All of these stories feature magic, with part of the story set in the real world and part set in a fantasy world.
In what is thought of as his own nod to Tolkien’s epic quest, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is also part high fantasy and part low fantasy. A gunslinger who is after a dark magician in a fantasy world called Mid-World recruits humans from our world, referred to in the series as “Keystone Earth.” It’s a race to get to a mythical structure called The Dark Tower, which is responsible for all worlds’ existence. Roland, the gunslinger, is sworn to protect the tower, and the dark magician, known best simply as The Man in Black, seeks to destroy it.
Because there are humans, and because parts of the series take place in the world that we live in, there are elements of both high fantasy and low fantasy. Supernatural strength, abilities, magical spells and orbs, curses, creatures, psychic powers all exist alongside of ordinary people from Earth.
Growing in Popularity
In 1971, Lloyd Alexander came up with the term “high fantasy,” It has been around and growing in popularity ever since. Characters living and interacting in a universe totally unlike ours is appealing to a lot of people. Magic worlds, magic weapons, magic creatures, and magic, in general, is fascinating to many people. This book’s sub-genre is gaining fans more rapidly than many other genres.
You have almost certainly heard of at least one of the stories or examples mentioned in this article. However, many people who have read them, seen the movies that they have inspired, or the television series that have come from them don’t realize that they are fantasy. Further, they certainly don’t know that some are low fantasy, while others are high fantasy. Some are even epic fantasy.
There are many subgenres of fantasy. More stories than you probably realize are considered to be fantasy. Each of the subgenres has its own elements outside of the traditional fantasy genre. To be regarded as high fantasy, it must take place outside of the primary world that we know, and it must contain some sort of magical aspect that is important to the plot.
Low fantasy may occur in a secondary world, but this secondary world must be fairly close to the world we live in and know. There may be fantastical elements, but sorcery and witchcraft are not central to the plot.
How to Start a Fantasy Story
When creating a fantasy world filled with fascinating characters with supernatural powers, as well as the abhorred characters with evil magic, it is important to evaluate which strategy would be suit your plot’s beginning. To help you with your writing, here are some effective strategies to start a fantasy story:
- Open the story with worldbuilding. You may introduce one imaginary world or various fictional dimensions. Your worldbuilding may include how the worlds emerge, how the characters interact, and how their societies are governed.
- Let the reader visualize the world of the characters. To do this, you have to describe the place elaborately. For instance, two rival castles may be described at the start of the story.
- Begin with a scene that describes in detail the fictional world in your story—for instance, the passing of magical power from a mother to her daughter.
- Start the story with an event that reflects on documents or items from another world.
- Give a glimpse of the main conflict or a significant event at the start. For example, people are running away from a burning house.
- Present two characters having conversations that paint a picture about their world.
- Choose a specific event or time you see as essential in unveiling the secrets of the story later on. For example, you could start with a flashback or flash-forward.