High fantasy (also referred to as epic fantasy) is a sub-genre of fantasy fiction, 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. Quintessential works of high fantasy, such as The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Worm Ouroboros, have both of these attributes. Accordingly, works where the fantasy world impinges on our world, or where the characters are concerned only with adventure or personal goals (as in sword and sorcery fiction) are less likely to be classed as high fantasy.
Genre overview 
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.
- A setting in which the primary world does not exist (e.g. The Lord of The Rings, The Prydain Chronicles, The Inheritance Cycle, the Earthsea series, The Sword of Truth, The Edge Chronicles, The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, Malazan Book of the Fallen, The Name of the Wind, Gormenghast, and Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn)
- The secondary/parallel world(s) is entered through a portal from the primary world (e.g. Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, His Dark Materials, Phantastes, The Dark Tower, Xanth, and Avantasia)
- A distinct world-within-a-world as part of the primary world (e.g. Gods of Pegana, Percy Jackson, Harry Potter and The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel)
Where the primary world does not exist, detailed maps, geography and history of the fictional world will often be provided. The secondary world often is based on, or symbolically represents, the primary world. The Oxford of Phillip Pullman's Northern Lights is similar, a world that is "both familiar and strange". Pullman's preface to that book explains that the setting is "a universe like ours, but different in many ways".
In the case of a world-within-a-world, the secondary world co-exists with the primary world; however, the mundane inhabitants of the primary world are unaware of the secondary world.
Gamble suggests that The Lord of the Rings takes place in a setting where the primary world does not exist. This was something Tolkien often denied; rather, he suggested that Middle-earth was the primary world, but in the past. This was not always clear, however, as a few of his early letters described that while his stories take place on earth, elements of the stories as a kind of "...secondary or sub-creational reality" or "Secondary belief" in replies to letters, or "at a different stage of imagination...". In most cases he is adamant that the events ("history") occurred on primary earth, and not another planet.
These stories are often serious in tone and epic in scope, dealing with themes of grand struggle against supernatural, evil forces. Some typical characteristics of high fantasy include fantastical elements such as elves, fairies, dwarves, dragons, demons, magic or sorcery, wizards or magicians, constructed languages, quests, coming-of-age themes, and multi-volume narratives.
In some fiction, a contemporary, "real-world" character is placed in the invented world, sometimes through framing devices such as portals to other worlds or even subconscious travels. Purists might not consider this to be "true" high fantasy, although such stories are often categorized as high fantasy because they've yet to be classified as their own distinct subgenre, and often resemble this subgenre more closely than any other.[original research?]
High fantasy worlds may be more or less closely based on real world milieux, or on legends such as the Arthurian Cycle. When the resemblance is strong, particularly when real-world history is used, high fantasy shades into alternative history.
The high fantasy genre's fandom ranges from Tolkien to contemporary. Recent screen versions of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit as well as Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader have contributed to the subgenre's continuing popularity. Moreover, film adaptations of some novels are in preproduction, such as David Farland's The Runelords, and also Terry Brooks' Magic Kingdom of Landover as well as The Elfstones of Shannara.
Most high fantasy storylines are told from the viewpoint of one main hero. Often, much of the plot revolves around his heritage or mysterious nature. In many novels the hero is an orphan or unusual sibling, often with an extraordinary talent for magic or combat. He begins the story young, if not an actual child. Some examples of this are: Kathryn Lasky's Soren of Guardians of Ga'Hoole, David Eddings' Belgarion in the Belgariad and Malloreon, Terry Brooks' Shea and Wil Ohmsford of The Sword of Shannara and The Elfstones of Shannara, David Kier's Thomas Pitworth of Ravenscroft and The Door to the Shadows, Terry Goodkind's Richard Cypher, Robert Jordan's Rand al'Thor of The Wheel of Time, Pug and Arutha of Raymond Feist's Riftwar Saga, Philip Pullman's Lyra Belacqua of His Dark Materials, Ursula K. Le Guin's Ged, Aerial of the Darkangel Trilogy by Meredith Ann Pierce, Christopher Paolini's Eragon of The Inheritance Cycle and Ashalind of the "Bitterbynd Trilogy". In other works he is a completely developed individual with his own character and spirit — David Eddings' Sparhawk of The Elenium and The Tamuli. High fantasy is not by any means limited to a male protagonist, as seen in such works as Elizabeth Moon's The Deed of Paksenarrion Cecelia Dart-Thornton's Ashalind and P.C. Hodgell's Jame, though a man is perhaps more common.
In the beginning of the storyline, the hero is threatened by the unknown force. One reason for such a threat is that, unlike the typical sword and sorcery adventurer, the hero is seldom bored stiff by ordinary life and therefore will not abandon it quickly and on any excuse. Even though, like Bilbo Baggins, he may not be eager for adventure, he is willing or somehow brought into a fantasy affair. By the same token, the hero of the high fantasy adventure is capable of completing it and settling down to ordinary life again.
Typically, the hero slowly gains knowledge of his past through legend, prophecy, lost-and-found-again family members, or encounters with "mentor" characters who know more about him than he does. With that knowledge comes power and confidence; the hero often begins as a childlike figure, but matures rapidly, experiencing a huge gain in fighting/problem-solving abilities along the way. The plot of the story often depicts the hero's fight against the evil forces as a Bildungsroman. However, the epic adventure is not always quite so stereotyped. A good example of a less stereotyped epic is The Deed of Paksenarrion in which the main character becomes a paladin through her own growing strength instead of it having been forced on her at birth.
In many books there is a knowing, mystical mentor/teacher, associated with the Jungian archetype of Senex, or wise old man. This character is often a formidable wizard or warrior, who provides the main character with advice and help. Examples would be: Tolkien's Gandalf of The Lord of the Rings, Dumbledore of Harry Potter series, Merlin of Arthurian Legends, Lasky's Ezylryb of Guardians of Ga'Hoole, Brooks' Allanon of The Sword of Shannara, Eddings' Belgarath and Polgara of The Belgariad, Feist's Macros the Black of the Riftwar Saga, Jordan's Moiraine of The Wheel of Time (who at least starts out as this kind of character), Goodkind's Zeddicus Zu'l Zorander of The Sword of Truth, Dart-Thornton's Thorn/Angaver, and Paolini's Brom and Oromis of The Inheritance Cycle.
In some books, there is also a mysterious Dark Lord, often obsessed with taking over the world and killing the main hero. This character is an evil wizard or sorcerer, or sometimes a kind of god or demon. This character commands a huge army and a group of highly feared servants. Examples would be: Tolkien's Morgoth of The Silmarillion as well as Sauron, the King of the Nazgûl and the others of the Nine Riders from The Lord of the Rings, Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter series, Lasky's Kludd and Nyra of Guardians of Ga'Hoole, Brooks's Warlock Lord of The Sword of Shannara, Jordan's Dark One of The Wheel of Time, and Eddings' Torak of The Belgariad and Zandramas of The Malloreon, Rick Riordan's Kronos of Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Goodkind's Darken Rahl and Emperor Jagang of The Sword of Truth, Dart-Thornton's Moragon, and Paolini's Galbatorix of The Inheritance Cycle. In some works the villain may have had a predecessor/s who might have been superior or inferior to them. Examples of this would be Morgoth from the Silmarillion, Sauron's former commander, Goodkind's Panis Rahl, as well as Galbatorix with Morzan and the Forsworn from the Inheritance Cycle.
The progress of the story leads to the character learning the nature of the unknown forces against him, that they constitute a force with great power and malevolence. Facing down this evil is the culmination of the hero's story and permits the return to normal life.
Good versus evil 
Good versus evil is a common concept in high fantasy, and the character of evil is often an important concept in a work of high fantasy, as in The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, the importance of the concepts of good and evil can be regarded as the distinguishing mark between high fantasy and sword and sorcery. In many works of high fantasy, this conflict marks a deep concern with moral issues; in other works, the conflict is a power struggle, with, for instance, wizards behaving irresponsibly whether they are "good" or "evil". In some works, as in large parts of Jordan's The Wheel of Time, the struggle between good and evil is mainly used as a backdrop for more intricate conflicts of interest, such as conflicts between different factions formally on the same side in the good vs. evil conflict.
Recent fantasy novels have begun to depart from the more common good vs evil background that became prevalent after Lord of the Rings. Prominently, George R R Martin's acclaimed A Song of Ice and Fire series more or less abandons the good-evil paradigm in favor of a more politically based and multifaceted struggle between different ruling families, most of whom display both good and evil tendencies in pursuit of power, which takes the place of the main catalyst of the story. Although several characters who have a civilised, trustworthy guise do perform terrible acts of cruelty marking them as morally degenerate, their intentions are not necessarily "evil". Often the villain will try to convince the hero either a) the villain is not in fact evil like the hero thinks he is, b) the hero is actually the evil/immoral one, c) the mentor character has been using the hero's special qualities for his own ends and does not really care about him/her. Most of these arguments will be followed up by a conversion attempt, with promises of redemption for supposed misdeeds or glory, riches and power.
Saga or series 
From Tolkien to the modern day, authors in this genre tend to create their own worlds where they set multi-tiered narratives such as the Belgariad, Malloreon, Wheel of Time, Malazan Book of the Fallen, The Inheritance Cycle, The Black Company, The Sword of Truth, A Song of Ice and Fire, and Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn
Role-playing campaign settings like Greyhawk by Gary Gygax, Dragonlance by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis and Forgotten Realms by Ed Greenwood are a common basis for many fantasy books and many other authors continue to contribute to the settings.
- Buss, Kathleen; Karnowski, Lee (2000). Reading and Writing Literary Genres. International Reading Assoc. p. 114. ISBN 978-0-87207-257-2.
- Perry, Phyllis Jean (2003). Teaching Fantasy Novels. Libraries Unlimited. p. vi. ISBN 978-1-56308-987-9.
- Gamble, Nikki; Yates, Sally (2008). Exploring Children's Literature. SAGE Publications Ltd. pp. 102–103. ISBN 978-1-4129-3013-0.
- C.W. Sullivan has a slightly more complex definition in "High Fantasy", chapter 24 of the International Companion Encyclopedia of Children's Literature by Peter Hunt and Sheila G. Bannister Ray (Routledge, 1996 and 2004), chapter 24.
- Return of the King, Appendix D, Calendars: '...long ago as those times are now reckoned in years and lives of men, they were not very remote according to the memory of the Earth.'
- Letters No. 151, 212, 325, 328
- "The Lord of the Rings may be a 'fairy-story', but it takes place in the Northern hemisphere of this earth: miles are miles, days are days, and weather is weather." Letters No.210, p.272
- "'Middle-earth', by the way, is not a name of a never-never land without relation to the world we live in (like the Mercury of Eddison). It is just a use of Middle English middel-erde (or erthe), altered from Old English Middengeard: the name for the inhabited lands of Men 'between the seas'. And though I have not attempted to relate the shape of the mountains and land-masses to what geologists may say or surmise about the nearer past, imaginatively this 'history' is supposed to take place in a period of the actual Old World of this planet." Letters No.165, p.220
- "I am historically minded. Middle-earth is not an imaginary world. The name is the modern form (appearing in the 13th century and still in use) of midden-erd>middel-erd, an ancient name for the oikoumenë, the abiding place of Men, the objectively real world, in use specifically opposed to imaginary worlds (as Fairyland) or unseen worlds (as Heaven or Hell). The theatre of my tale is this earth, the one in which we now live, but the historical period is imaginary. The essentials of that abiding place are all there (at any rate for inhabitants of N.W. Europe), so naturally it feels familiar, even if a little glorified by enchantment of distance in time." Letters No.183, p.239
- "Arda 'realm' was the name given to our world or earth.... ¶ ... [I]f it were 'history', it would be difficult to fit the lands and events (or 'cultures') into such evidence as we possess, archaeological or geological, concerning the nearer or remoter part of what is now called Europe; though the Shire, for instance, is expressly stated to have been in this region (I p. 12). ... I hope the, evidently long but undefined, gap* in time between the Fall of Barad-dûr and our Days is sufficient for 'literary credibility', even for readers acquainted with what is known or surmised of 'pre-history'. ¶ I have, I suppose, constructed an imaginary time, but kept my feet on my own mother-earth for place. I prefer that to the contemporary mode of seeking remote globes in 'space'. However curious, they are alien, and not loveable with the love of blood-kin. Middle-earth is not my own invention. It is a modernization or alteration of an old word for the inhabited world of Man, the oikoumenē: middle because thought of vaguely as set amidst the encircling Seas and (in the northern-imagination) between ice of the North and the fire of the South. O.English middan-geard, mediæval E. midden-erd, middle-erd. Many reviewers seem to assume that Middle-earth is another planet! *I imagine the gap to be about 6000 years: that is we are now at the end of the Fifth Age, if the Ages were of about the same length as S.A. and T.A. But they have, I think quickened; and I imagine we are actually at the end of the Sixth Age, or in the Seventh." Letters No.211, p.283
- "['Middle-earth'] is an old word, not invented by me, as a reference to a dictionary such as the Shorter Oxford will show. It meant the habitable lands of our world, set amid the surrounding Ocean. The action of the story takes place in the North-west of 'Middle-earth', equivalent in latitude to the coastlands of Europe and the north shores of the Mediterranean. ... If Hobbiton and Rivendell are taken (as intended) to be at about the latitude of Oxford, then Minas Tirith, 600 miles south, is at about the latitude of Florence. The mouths of Anduin and the ancient city of Pelargir are at about the latitude of ancient Troy." Letters No.294, 8 February 1967, p.375–376
- Letters 180: 14 January 1956
- Letters 200: 25 June 1957
- Letters 328: Autumn 1971
- Dennis Gerrolt, Now Read On... interview, BBC, January 1971 http://www.lordotrings.com/interview.asp
- "...a searchlight, as it were, on a brief episode in History, and on a small part of our Middle-earth..." Letters No.328, Autumn 1971, p.412
- Philip Martin, The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon's Lair to Hero's Quest, p 34, ISBN 0-87116-195-8
- Michael Moorcock, Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy p 84 ISBN 1-932265-07-4
- "EpicFantasyZone homepage". Retrieved 2 October 2008 Note: link is bad.
- Casey Lieb, "Unlikely Heroes and their role in Fantasy Literature"
- Patricia A. McKillip, "Writing High Fantasy", p 53, Philip Martin, ed., The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon's Lair to Hero's Quest, ISBN 0-87116-195-8
- Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, p 120, ISBN 0-618-25759-4
- Joseph A. McCullough V, "The Demarcation of Sword and Sorcery"
- Ursula K. LeGuin, "The Question I Get Asked Most Often" p 274, The Wave in the Mind, ISBN 1-59030-006-8
- "Dragonlance homepage". Retrieved 2 March 2006.
See also 
- Eric Rücker Eddison (The Worm Ouroboros and The Zimiamvian Trilogy) was a pre-Tolkien high fantasy writer.
- List of high fantasy fiction
- Low fantasy
- Medieval fantasy
- Historical fantasy
- List of genres