In a previous post, I talked about the definition of Low Fantasy. Today, I’m tackling defining High Fantasy. High Fantasy takes place in a purely fictional world which has its own unique physical properties and laws of nature. The time period is flexible and the story can be in the present, the distant past or some time in the future.
In High Fantasy, the fantastic takes front row. Often, the extraordinary is commonplace. Elves in Shannara wield swords of power and magical stones while children go to Wizardry schools, carry magic wands and learn to make potions and charms. Horns call dead heroes, animals talk and dragons rule the skies.
Lord of the Rings is considered by most to be High Fantasy with sorcerers, wizards, dwarves, elves and hosts of magical creatures not to mention certain precious magic rings.
In a previous post I said High Fantasy and Low Fantasy are bookends to the fantasy genre. Fantasy isn’t an absolute and most works, whether books, television or movies, fall somewhere along this continuum rather than purely at one end or the other. It is this continuum that makes defining High Fantasy versus Low Fantasy difficult.
According to Wikipedia, high fantasy is defined either by its taking place in an imaginary world distinct from our own or by the epic stature of its characters, themes and plot. The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and Malazan Book of the Fallen are considered to be quintessential works of high fantasy.
Defining High Fantasy
High fantasy can be defined as fantasy fiction set in an alternative, entirely fictional world also referred to as a “secondary world”, rather than the real world, also referred to as the “primary world”. This secondary world is usually internally consistent but its rules differ from those of the primary “real” world. There are three main settings for High Fantasy:
- A setting in which the primary world does not exist. Examples are The Lord of The Rings, Discworld, The Sword of Truth, The Shannara Series, The Wheel of Time Series, and Malazan Book of the Fallen Series.
- The secondary/parallel world is entered through a portal from the primary world. Examples are Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz books, and The Chronicles of Narnia.
- A distinct world-within-a-world as part of the primary world. Examples are. Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Stardust, and American Gods
Hallmark characteristics of high fantasy
- Fantastical elements including elves, fairies, dwarves, dragons, magic and wizards, to nae just a few.
- Themes generally revolve around some type of heroic quest or coming of age.
- There is often a Chosen One but as the genre has matured, this trope has become somewhat overused and authors are creating stories that do not focus on just one hero or Chosen One.
- There is usually a villain of vast, incomprehensible evil such as Sauron in LOTR or Voldemort in the Harry Potter series.
- The story generally follows the Hero’s Quest chain of events
- Are typically multi-volume stories and are rarely stand alone books. This tendency is both a blessing and bane of the genre. Personally, I do not have a problem with multi-volume works because with high fantasy, the story line is so grand that it would be impossible to tell the story and do it justice in just one volume.
- The setting is usually in a world other than ours. It may have some sort of a connection with present day Earth, possibly the Earth’s remote past or future.
- For some reason, the setting usually resembles medieval Europe
- The scale of the story is epic. Global politics, wars, the demise of nations, gods walking the earth, and the potential end of the world as we know it.
- There is always a Great Evil in the form of an archenemy that is Evil Incarnate
How do you define High Fantasy? I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions.