Low fantasy is a sub-genre of fantasy fiction involving "nonrational happenings that are without causality or rationality because they occur in the rational world where such things are not supposed to occur." Low fantasy stories are set either in the real world or a fictional but rational world, and are contrasted with high fantasy stories which take place in a completely fictional fantasy world setting with its own set of rules and physical laws.
Low fantasy places relatively less emphasis on typical elements associated with fantasy, setting a narrative in real-world environments with elements of the fantastical. Sometimes there are just enough fantastical elements to make ambiguous the boundary between what is real and what is purely psychological or supernatural. The word "low" refers to the level of prominence of traditional fantasy elements within the work, and is not any sort of remark on the works' quality.
Low fantasy is characterised by being set in the real ("Primary") world, or a rational and familiar fictional world, with the inclusion of magical elements. In contrast, high fantasy is set in an alternative, entirely fictional ("Secondary") world with its own, albeit internally consistent, rules that separate it from the real world. Low fantasy can be described as non-rational events occurring in a rational setting. Kenneth J. Zahorski and Robert H. Boyer define low fantasy as "nonrational happenings that are without casuality or rationality because they occur in the rational world where such things are not supposed to occur." "Low" is not an indication of quality but of the relative level of "fantasy" contained within a particular work of fiction.
The effect of the fantastic infringing on real life in low fantasy fiction is usually either humorous or horrific. The horrific aspect of low fantasy comes from the supernatural onslaught against reason which disrupts the ontological security of the world order. The humorous aspect comes from comedic or nonsensical plots that can result from the introduction of fantastic features; the term "comic fantasy" has been suggested for this type of fiction.
In Farah Mendlesohn's taxonomy of fantasy subgenres, low fantasy corresponds mostly with intrusive fantasy with some elements of portal fantasy. Low fantasy is sometimes referred to as magical realism although that term is not always appropriate; "magical realism" is often characterised by strong social criticism.
Fantasy fiction developed out of fairy tales in the nineteenth century. Early nineteenth century scholarship into folklore led to fantasy fiction dominating Victorian children's literature. The genre diverged into the two subgenres, high and low fantasy, after the Edwardian era. Low fantasy itself diverged into further subgenres in the twentieth century. The forms of low fantasy include personified animals, personified toys (including The Indian in the Cupboard and The Doll's House; building on the earlier The Adventures of Pinocchio), comic fantasies of exaggerated character traits and altered physics (including Pippi Longstocking and The Borrowers), magical powers, supernatural elements and time slips.
French fantastic fiction is predominantly within the low fantasy genre. Low fantasy corresponds to the French genre of "le fantastique" but French literature has no tradition equivalent to English literature's high fantasy. According to David Ketterer, emeritus professor of English at Concordia University, Montreal, the French term Le fantastique "refers to a specific kind of fantasy, that in which the supernatural or the bizarre intrudes into the everyday world; the closest equivalents in English would be 'low fantasy', 'dark fantasy' or 'weird fiction'. 'Le fantastique' does not cover the kind of complete secondary world creation typified by Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. There is no tradition of "dragons and wizards" fantasy in French." Where high fantasy does occur, the terms "le merveilleux" or "le fantastique moderne" are often used.
Fantasy fiction that acknowledges the real world, low fantasy and portal fantasy, are especially attractive to those who are marginalised by society, particularly female writers. The fiction gives the author greater agency than allowed in the real world. Since being popularised in the works of E. Nesbit, the "low/portal variety" of fantasy has become a staple for its facility in challenging "established orders of society and thought." Children usually read more low fantasy than high fantasy.
The early 21st century is seeing an increase in prominence of the work of authors such as George R. R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie, whose high fantasy novels (works set entirely in fantasy worlds) have been referred to as "low fantasy" because they deemphasize some typical "high fantasy" elements such as magic and non-human races in favor of a more gritty portrayal of human conflict. Fantasy writer David Chandler considered this "rise of 'Low Fantasy'" to reflect the contemporary reality of the War on Terror—characterized by "secret deals", "vicious reprisals" and "sudden acts of terrifying carnage"—much as the horror genre reacted to the Vietnam War a generation earlier.
Distinguishing between subgenres
High and low fantasy are distinguished as being set, respectively, in an alternative "secondary" world or in the real "primary" world. In many works, the distinction between whether the setting is the primary or secondary world, and therefore whether it is low or high fantasy, can be unclear. The secondary world may take three forms. Nikki Gamble defines three characteristics of high fantasy as:
- Primary does not exist (e.g. Discworld, The Wheel of Time, and Dungeons & Dragons)
- Entered through a portal from the primary world (e.g. Alice in Wonderland, The Dark Tower, and The Chronicles of Narnia)
- World-within-a-world (e.g. Harry Potter, American Gods, and The Gods of Pegāna)
A few high fantasy series do not easily fit into Gamble's categories, for example; J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is set in primary world of Earth in the ancient past,[n 1] and he adamantly disagreed with anyone who thought otherwise, see The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.[n 2] According to Tolkien, he had set it in the inhabited lands of geographically north-west Europe.[n 3] The Professor himself disagreed with the notion that his stories diverged from reality, but rather defended his position that 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."[n 4][n 5][n 6][n 7]). Nevertheless, Middle-earth, is sufficiently divergent from reality to be classed as a secondary world and hence high fantasy. J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series is again set in the real world; however, while the primary setting, mostly the school, Hogwarts, is said to be located somewhere in Scotland, but is physically separated from the real world and becomes a "world-within-a-world." Hogwarts is therefore as much of an alternative world as C. S. Lewis' Narnia, which means that both series are in the high fantasy subgenre. Similarly, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials is largely set in an alternative Oxfordshire, a real location, but the fact that it is an alternative world at all places it in the high fantasy subgenre.
Some sources place Harry Potter and His Dark Materials in the low fantasy genre. Karin E. Westman, writing in The Oxford Handbook of Children's Literature states that because "[J. K.] Rowling is much more interested in how fantasy provides perspective on everyday experience and the individual's place in society," and her inclusion of bildungsroman (a coming-of-age story) and the school story genres, "align her primarily with the domestic (or low) fantasy of authors such as E. Nesbit, Elizabeth Goudge, and Paul Gallico .. as well as authors like Philip Pullman and Jonathan Stroud, who are also interested in the intersection of the personal the political within quotidian experiences."
- The Borrowers by Mary Norton
- The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
- The Doll's House by Rumer Godden
- Five Children and It by E. Nesbit
- The Green Mile by Stephen King
- Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
- The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks
- Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
- The Snow Spider by Jenny Nimmo
- That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis
- Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit
- White Wolf Publishing's "World of Darkness" setting, including:
- Skirmisher Publishing LLC (d20 RPG)
- I Dream of Jeannie (1965–1970)
- Kindred: The Embraced (1996)
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003)
- Charmed (1998–2006)
- Supernatural (2005–present)
- True Blood (2008–present)
- Contemporary fantasy, which is set in the real world but may, in some cases, include high fantasy
- Magic realism
- Stableford, Brian (2009). The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. Scarecrow Press. p. 256. ISBN 978-0-8108-6829-8.
- 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.
- Oziewicz, Marek (2008). One Earth, One People. McFarland & Co. p. 78. ISBN 978-0-7864-3135-9.
- Boyer, Robert H.; Zahorski, Kenneth J. (1978). The Fantastic Imagination II. Avon. p. 2. ISBN 978-0-380-41533-5.
- Schlobin, Roger C. (1982). The Aesthetics of fantasy literature and art. University of Notre Dame Press. p. 56. ISBN 978-0-268-00600-6.
- Magill, Frank Northen (1983). Survey of Modern Fantasy Literature 5. Salem Press. p. 2244. ISBN 978-0-89356-455-1.
- Haase, Donald (2008). The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales 1. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 333. ISBN 978-0-313-33442-9.
- Jean-François, Leroux (2004). "The World Is Its Own Place". In Jean-François, Leroux; La Bossière, Camille R. Worlds of Wonder. University of Ottawa. pp. 190–192. ISBN 978-0-7766-0570-8.
- Temple, Charles A.; Freeman, Evelyn Blossom; Moss, Joy F. (1998). Children's Books in Children's Hands. Allyn and Bacon. p. 340. ISBN 978-0-205-16995-5.
- Ketterer, David (1992). "French-Canadian Fantastique (1837-1983)". Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy. Indiana University Press. p. 27. ISBN 978-0-253-33122-9.
- Campbell, Lori M. (2010). "E. Nesbit and the Magic Word". Portals of Power: Magical Agency and Transformation in Literary Fantasy. McFarland. pp. 63–65. ISBN 978-0-7864-4645-2.
- Chandler, David (8 December 2011). "A Game Of Subgenres". SF Signal. Retrieved 9 December 2011.
- 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 211: "I hope the, evidently long but undefined gap* in time between the Fall of Barad-dur and our Days is sufficient for 'literary credibility', even for readers acquainted with what is known as '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.", pg 283
- Fraser, Lindsey (2000). An Interview with J. K. Rowling. London: Mammoth. pp. 20–21. ISBN 0-7497-4394-8. "Hogwarts ... Logically it had to be set in a secluded place, and pretty soon I settled on Scotland in my mind."
- Happy ending, and that's for beginners". The Herald via AccioQuote!. 24 June 1997. Retrieved 5 October 2007.
- Westman, Karin E. (2011). "Blending Genres and Crossing Audiences: Harry Potter and the Future of Literary Fiction". In Mickenberg, Julia; Vallone, Lynne. The Oxford Handbook of Children's Literature. Oxford University Press. p. 100. ISBN 9780199701919.
- Stoddard, William H. (2009). GURPS Fantasy. Steve Jackson Games. p. 13. ISBN 9781556347962.
- Letters 151, 165, 183, 211, Letters 325, 17 July 1971, Letters 328 Autumn 1971
- Letters 211, "...steed of the Witch-King...its description even provides a sort of way in which it could be a last survivor of older geological eras.", "...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 Europe; though the Shire, for instance, is expressly stated to have been in this region (I p. 12).", "Arda 'realm' was the name given to our world or earth......I hope the, evidently long but undefined gap* in time between the Fall of Barad-dur and our Days is sufficient for 'literary credibility', even for readers acquainted with what is known as '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 inhabited world of Man, the oikoumene: middle because thought vaguely as set admidst [sic?] the encircling Seas and (in the northern-imagination) between the ice of the North and the fire of the South. O. English middan-geard, mideavil E. midden-erd, middle-erd. Many reviewers seem to assume 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.", The Letters of J.R.R Tolkien, pg 282, 283
- Letters 294: "...Middle Earth. This is an old word not invented by me, as a reference to a dictionary such as the Shorter Oxford will show. It is meant to be the inhabitable lands of our world, set amid the surrounding Ocean. The actions of the story take place in the North-west of 'middle-earth', equivalent in latitude to the coastlands of Europe and the north shores of the Mediterranean...Hobbiton and Rivendell are taken (as intended) to be about the latitude of Oxford, the Minas Tirith, 600 miles south, is about the latitude of Florence. The mouths of Anduin, and the ancient city of Pelargir are about the latitude of ancient Troy.", Letters, pg 375,376
- Letters 210: "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 pg 272
- Letters 151: "Middle-earth is just archaic english...the inhabited world of man. It lay then as it does. In fact just as it does, round and inescapable. That is partly the point. The new situation, established at the end of the Third Age, leads on eventually and inevitably to ordinary History, and we see here the process culminating. If you or I or any of the mortal men (or hobbits) of Frodo's day had set out over sea, west, we should, as now, eventually have come back (as now) to our starting point..."Letters of JRR Tolkien, pg 186
- Letters 165: "'Middle-earth' by the way, is not a name of a never-never land without relation to the world we live in (like Mercury or Edison). 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 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, pg 220
- Letters 183: "I am historically minded. Middle-earth is not an imaginary world. The name is the modern form (appearing in the 13th century) of midden-erd>middel-erd, an ancient name for the oikoumene, 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 pg, 239",