Defining Low Fantasy
A few weeks ago, I broke my first blog. I mean really broke it. Rolling server error messages, dead end re-directs, page not found messages… you name it, it was happening. The blog had become possessed by what seemed like every malcontent server imp ever documented. My hosting Yoda finally proclaimed the blog beyond resuscitation so I took it down, renamed it and rebuilt it better than ever. Since then, I’ve been working a little magic, getting all the old posts back up, taking the opportunity to improve upon what was there before.
One of my first posts on the now deceased blog was an attempt to talk about High Fantasy versus Low Fantasy. Rather than re-post the original, I’ve decided that I’d like to expand on it. So, with no further ado, let’s talk about Low Fantasy.
Defining Low Fantasy
The definition of Low Fantasy is critical because the designation “Low” has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the fantasy work. There seems to be significant discrepancies in how low fantasy is defined with two similar, yet different schools of thought. In one definition, the designation “Low” refers to the quantity of fantastical or magical elements in the work in another definition, low fantasy is set in the real world or, a familiar fictional world with magical elements. It has also been described as “non-rational events occurring in a rational setting.”
Beyond that, trying to make a determination on whether or not a work is low fantasy often becomes arbitrary and completely in the eye of the beholder. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever tried to establish quantity guidelines for low fantasy so the point where low fantasy leaves off and high fantasy begins is all about reader/viewer perception.
After all, it would be kind of weird for someone sit down and count out all the instances of magical creatures, instances of magic, wielders of magic and so on in an attempt to quantify high magic versus low magic but I do know a few people that would devote themselves to this task with joy.
This begs the question: If there’s not a wizard riding a unicorn throwing spells at dwarf riding a centaur to make it clear that something is high fantasy, how do you know you’re watching or reading low fantasy?
Hallmarks of Low Fantasy:
- The setting is minimally supernatural in that the story is in a real world setting as opposed to a world within a world (like Harry Potter) or a world entered through a portal (like Alice in Wonderland and the Narnia books).
- The moral tone of the work is often comedic or ambiguous. Think anti-hero rather than hero and instead of good versus evil, it may be shades of gray versus darker or lighter shades of gray.
- The characters in the work are all or mostly human. You don’t generally see all the elves, dwarves, centaurs or other magical creatures
- The plot tends to focus on a small group of individuals. Generally, in low fantasy, no one is trying to save the world or open the Gates of Hell
- Magic itself is often non-existent or is seen as inherently evil. There is usually just enough magic around to blur the lines between reality and the supernatural
- Low fantasy stories tend to feature unbelievable events in a mostly rational world. Depending on the work, magical elements encroach on the rational, real world in ways that could be either humorous or horrifying.
For examples of low fantasy books, I would include George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, The Black Company series by Glen Cook and possibly the Malazan series by Steven Erikson. I will say that I’m iffy on that last one though. I’m a little over half way through the series and what Malazan lacks in elves and dwarves, it makes up for in gods, demons and non-human humanoids and what started out as a military fantasy is turning into a war between the gods. I’ll have a better idea how I would categorize it after I finish reading the series.
It’s a lot easier to come up with examples of low fantasy when it comes to film. Examples of low fantasy movies could include The Green Mile, Groundhog Day, It’s a Wonderful Life, Bruce Almighty, Liar, Liar, Dr. Doolittle, and the list could go on and on.
So how do you define Low Fantasy? What examples do you think should be added to the list?