What is high fantasy? High fantasy, also known as epic fantasy, is a subgenre of the enormously popular fantasy genre. A term not coined until the early 1970s, high fantasy describes stories set in a secondary world rather than our real or primary world. The tell-tale fantasy elements are still there, such as magical and fantastical elements. Still, high fantasy separates itself from low fantasy and the rest of the genre with its world-building, complex characters, and epic sagas that often span many books and involve entire worlds that readers have come to know and love.
This article will explain what sets high or epic fantasy apart from the rest of the fantasy genre. We will also discuss some of the movies adapted from these books and what made them appealing to the viewer and successful at the box office.
High Fantasy Definition
High fantasy, much like high fashion, is a little more sophisticated than the simplistic and sometimes cliche stories of normal fantasy fiction. Writing high fantasy is often very involved, and high fantasy stories are often complicated large-scale tales. Comparing high fantasy to low fantasy in the fantasy genre would be like comparing Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series with Jack and the Beanstalk. Both are fantasy stories, but Tolkien takes the reader to the fantasy world he created, while Jack’s story tells us an entertaining tale.
High Fantasy Origin
High fantasy was first set apart from the rest of the fantasy genre when Lloyd Alexander defined the term in 1971. A fantasy writer himself, he penned an essay titled “High Fantasy and Heroic Romance” that defined the newly coined term. Fantasy novels vary in their themes, settings, characters, and plots. Having a term to go with some of the heavier material (high fantasy) gave readers a way to find the literature they wanted to read easily, and writers a term and goalposts to write the sort of fantasy they wanted to write.
High Fantasy Setting
The high fantasy setting is in a fictional world, while the low fantasy story is the primary world with a lack of technology. Often, there is a medieval world feel to it, but the setting looks like our primary world. We can recognize it, and it does not need to be built very much through description or text for the reader to picture it in their minds.
Parts of the high fantasy novels may look a little bit like our own world, but this secondary world is a large fantasy world that must be built carefully and over time so that the reader can better understand the story.
We sometimes see the setting shift from our world to a fantasy world, showcasing the differences and contrasts for more effect. We see this in several examples, including Harry Potter (Britain and Hogwarts), The Chronicles of Narnia (England and Narnia), The Dark Tower (New York and Midworld), and Labyrinth (suburbia and the Goblin City).
High fantasy lovers need a lot of description and world-building in a high fantasy novel to truly understand everything from the characters to the plot to the mythical creatures and elements.
Tolkien’s Middle Earth
A near-perfect example of excellent fictional world-building is Tolkien’s use of the description of Middle Earth. This fantasy world has trees that talk and move, creatures that exist in places that do not and cannot exist on Earth as we know it, civilizations of small creatures that live in earth homes with round doors and tunnel systems, and a toxic volcanic and toxic wasteland is where the evil wizard lives in and controls.
Fantasy literature of this caliber demands that a lot of world-building is used to tell a story that does not end up clunky and muddled. Without the cozy description of the warm and inviting setting, the audience would not adequately understand and appreciate how terrifying Mordor would have been for Frodo and Samwise.
The Use of Maps in High Fantasy
One way that high fantasy writers maintain continuity within the settings they create, and a favorite practice of high fantasy readers is to include maps within their books.
Detailed maps of Middle Earth exist in Tolkien’s books so that the reader (and the writer) can keep the story straight within their minds and follow the quest in another visual and creative way. This is also illustrated through maps in King’s Dark Tower series, showcasing maps in some of the books’ editions of Midworld.
High Fantasy Characters
Epic fantasy not only differs from low fantasy in its setting in a secondary world, but it also differs in its characters who live and operate in each fictional world.
In low fantasy stories, the characters often do not show much growth. The big guy is strong and fearless and ready for a battle with magic swords or other weaponry in the medieval world he lives in. In traditional fantasy, usually, the plot revolves around saving the day, saving the kingdom, killing the villain, and getting the girl.
High fantasy and low fantasy novels both have warrior characters, damsels in distress, and magic, but the subgenres differ in their complexity of growth of characters.
A Large Cast of Characters
High fantasy usually has a lot of characters, more than most other subgenres of fantasy. Examples of this can be seen in many instances. Think about the characters of Jack and the Beanstalk from our low fantasy example earlier. You can count every character in that story on the one hand. Now think about the cast of characters in the Lord of the Rings series. We start with just Frodo and Gandalf, and before the series takes off, there are dozens of characters of different races, species, and worlds. The Dark Tower has dozens of characters similar to Harry Potter. The high fantasy genre tells the story of a community of characters, not just a few.
Character growth and complexity are shown in the high fantasy Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. This series begins in the primary world and quickly shifts to the secondary world where Hogwarts and the other magical worlds of witchcraft and wizardry exist.
The protagonist of the story is Harry Potter, a boy who goes from small and weak and timid to something much more than that through building confidence, friendships, and skills. Learning that he is a wizard, he is invited from the home of his aunt and uncle, where he is neglected and abused, to the golden boy of the wizarding world.
Throughout the seven-part series, we see Harry Potter grow up in more than one major way. He learns to believe in himself, relies on his friends, trusts himself, faces dangers and fears, faces sadness and heartbreak, and deals with more loss than anyone. We go from being somewhat interested in his character in the first book to being deeply invested in him by the end of the series.
If Potter had been written as low fantasy, he likely would have always been frail, afraid, and in need of rescue by someone who looks and acts like a hero. Characters in low fantasy do not step out of their stereotypical boxes and grow or learn worthwhile lessons.
Defining High Fantasy Magical Elements
Fantasy literature of all types usually has some sort of magic. This includes monsters, dragons, and magical objects often found in most mythic fantasy. The key difference between the magic in the primary world subgenres of low fantasy, dark fantasy, and mythic fantasy and the magic in the other high fantasy worlds is its level of sophistication and importance.
The Dark Tower
In Stephen King’s epic fantasy series The Dark Tower, magic plays a huge role in the plot. A massive tower that supports beams that cross and go in several different directions, keeping all of the worlds in existence and at peace, is under attack by a dark magician known to most as simply “the man in black.” The magical henchman and sorcerer to his master, The Crimson King, is a nonhuman entity that can shapeshift, brainwash, possess, and manipulate.
Half animal, half-human creatures known as the Taheen, exist to steal and use children with paranormal abilities to break the beams of the Tower exist. There is a powerful witch named Rhea who collects rainbow-colored crystal balls that have powers. An enormous bear with a satellite dish on its head named Shardik protects one of the outposts near a beam, while a massive turtle exists that carries the Earth, or some version of it, upon its back.
Much like the Lord of the Rings saga, this book series has its languages, and King admits it is his version of the Tolkien masterpiece. The Lord of the Rings uses magic regularly (a ring that has the power to entrance and enchants its wearer), but the Dark Tower relies on it almost entirely.
The magic of high fantasy is much more important than traditional fantasy. Low fantasy has a lot of magic, but it is usually used to aid the characters, rather than the magic defining the characters, the way high fantasy does.
High Fantasy Plot
By now, you may have realized that nearly everything about high fantasy stories, from their use of a secondary world to its characters, to its magic, is more complex and involved than the fantasy of other subgenres. An entire world is created in high fantasy, and it has been populated with interesting, complicated characters doing interesting and complicated quests.
There is some sort of quest in both high fantasy and low fantasy. In high fantasy, there are often subplots, and the plots are more sophisticated and involved than those of the low fantasy hero and good vs. evil tales we are used to. The cliches of trope fantasy are often shucked.
Game of Thrones
Fantasy often includes the use of monsters and creatures. In George R. R. Martin’s books series Game of Thrones, the sense most of us have for the tropes of fantasy is turned onto our heads.
Dragons, known to have a selfish, gold and jewel-guarding nature, often steal away a beautiful princess, keeping her hostage until the hero comes to save her from the evil creature in an epic quest.
In Martin’s book, we meet Daenerys Targaryen, “mother of dragons.” She is a beautiful queen who is not being held hostage by dragons. In this story, she is their master and lord. It is in their nature to attack those in the universe that seek to harm them and their master. So, in a bit of a role reversal move, Daenerys keeps her dragons locked up, turning the dragon trope on its head and resetting the narrative and the sense that the reader has regarding the subject.
High Fantasy Movies
Lloyd Alexander may not have stirred up much interest in the term he coined when he separated high fantasy from other genres, but the film industry does not reflect it.
Some of the most loved, best-made, most successful movie franchises are of the high fantasy genre or high fantasy by nature. With very creative imagination, filmmakers have pulled in both a huge following and payload, capitalizing on the elements and nature of high fantasy films.
1. The Chronicles of Narnia
C.S. Lewis likely would have never guessed that his book series, intended for young readers and adults alike, would go from novel to movie series. The story of children who go through a magical wardrobe and emerge in a different universe full of magical creatures, epic settings, elements of magic, and the promise of a quest against evil, this film series is popular across a huge demographic.
2. The Lord of the Rings
Tolkien’s superb and descriptive writing elements went from fiction novel material to some of the best and most beautiful filmmaking to date. With big names like Elijah Wood, Orlando Bloom, Liv Tyler, Viggo Mortensen, and Sean Bean making up the cast, even people who claimed to dislike high fantasy ended up loving this film franchise. With each new complex and beautiful setting, the viewer is entrenched in this battle of good vs. evil.
3. Harry Potter
Much like the Chronicles of Narnia series, the Harry Potter series does begin in our world. The Dark Tower has scenes in our world, referred to by the characters as Keystone Earth. These are examples of films and books to show the contrast of the setting between what we know and where the story takes place.
Harry Potter is an eight-part film saga that follows each novel, and the last novel is broken up into two films. Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, and a huge cast, the setting, the writing, and the good vs. evil nature of the film series transports the viewer to a place where sorcery is a normal part of life, where elves are enslaved, goblins run banks, mermaids are vicious, and evil exists through creatures, people, setting, and spells.
Released in 1986, this film, starring Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie, uses Jim Henson’s muppets to create a setting that is not part of our world. Bowie plays the Goblin King, who, with the help of his goblin muppets, takes babies who are wished away by stressed parents, siblings, and babysitters and takes them to the castle situated in the center of a labyrinth. The babies become goblins if they are there for over thirteen hours and are not rescued.
A dark movie marketed for children, the writing is witty and fun, and there are musical numbers throughout the film. You forget that you are watching high fantasy if you ever realize it at all. Not very evil, but highly entertaining, the Goblin King ceaselessly throws Jennifer Connelly, the older sister of the child he kidnapped, off the trail as she tries to make it to the end of the labyrinth in time to save her brother.
She meets odd creatures such as a giant monster with horns called Ludo—a cocky and arrogant fox who rides a dog like a horse, and odd animal-like creatures, which species we can only guess at.