High fantasy

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This article is about the subgenre of fantasy. For the role-playing game, see High Fantasy.

High fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy,[1] defined either by its setting in an imaginary world or by the epic stature of its characters, themes, and plot.[2] The term "high fantasy" was coined by Lloyd Alexander in a 1971 essay, "High Fantasy and Heroic Romance".[2]

Fantasy environment

Genre overview[edit]

High fantasy is defined as fantasy set in an alternative, fictional ("secondary") world, rather than "the real", or "primary" world. The secondary world is usually internally consistent, but its rules differ 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.[3][4][5][6]

The romances of William Morris, such as The Well at the World's End, set in an imaginary medieval world, are sometimes regarded as the first examples of high fantasy.[7] The works of J. R. R. Tolkien—especially The Lord of the Rings—are regarded as the archetypal works of high fantasy.[7] Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is another example of a high fantasy series.[8]


These stories are often serious in tone and epic in scope, dealing with themes of grand struggle against supernatural, evil forces.[9] Some typical characteristics of high fantasy include fantastical elements such as elves, fairies, dwarves, ogres, goblins, giants, 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.

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 genre's continuing popularity. Moreover, film adaptations of some novels are in preproduction, such as David Farland's The Runelords, and also Terry Brooks's Magic Kingdom of Landover as well as The Elfstones of Shannara.


Many high fantasy stories are told from the viewpoint of one main hero. Often, much of the plot revolves around his or her 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 or she begins the story young, if not as an actual child.[10] In other works he is a completely developed individual with his own character and spirit. High fantasy is not limited to a male protagonist.

The hero often begins as a childlike figure, but matures rapidly, experiencing a huge gain in fighting/problem-solving abilities along the way.[11] The plot of the story often depicts the hero's fight against the evil forces as a Bildungsroman.

In many books there is a knowing, mystical mentor/teacher. This character is often a formidable wizard or warrior, who provides the main character with advice and help.

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. In some works the villain may have had a predecessor/s who might have been superior or inferior to them.

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.[12]

Good versus evil[edit]

The good versus evil fighting against each other is a common concept in high fantasy, and the character of evil is often an important concept in a work of high fantasy,[13] 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.[14] 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".[15] 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 The 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".

Saga or series[edit]

From Tolkien to the modern day, authors in this genre tend to create their own worlds where they set multi-tiered narratives such as Shannara, The Belgariad/Malloreon, The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire, Malazan Book of the Fallen, The Inheritance Cycle, The Black Company, The Sword of Truth, and Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.

Role-playing campaign settings like Greyhawk by Gary Gygax, Dragonlance[16] by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis and Forgotten Realms by Ed Greenwood[17] are a common basis for many fantasy books and many other authors continue to contribute to the settings.[18]

In video games[edit]

Many early video game developers played Dungeons and Dragons in their free time, and were influenced greatly by its rules when creating mechanics and structures. Some developers were influenced by its pre-made worlds instead, the most popular of which were high fantasy settings. As a result, many popular series of games such as Warcraft and The Elder Scrolls are high fantasy, which has allowed the genre to further proliferate.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Defining the Genre: High Fantasy". fandomania. May 11, 2011. Retrieved August 8, 2016. High Fantasy is probably one of the most recognizable subgenres of Fantasy. 
  2. ^ a b Brian Stableford, The A to Z of Fantasy Literature, (p. 198), Scarecrow Press,Plymouth. 2005. ISBN 0-8108-6829-6
  3. ^ Buss, Kathleen; Karnowski, Lee (2000). Reading and Writing Literary Genres. International Reading Assoc. p. 114. ISBN 978-0-87207-257-2. 
  4. ^ Perry, Phyllis Jean (2003). Teaching Fantasy Novels. Libraries Unlimited. p. vi. ISBN 978-1-56308-987-9. 
  5. ^ Gamble, Nikki; Yates, Sally (2008). Exploring Children's Literature. SAGE Publications Ltd. pp. 102–103. ISBN 978-1-4129-3013-0. 
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ a b Gardner Dozois, "Introduction" to Modern Classics of Fantasy. New York : St. Martin's Press, 1997. (xvi-xvii) ISBN 031215173X
  8. ^ "Stephen R. Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane is a High Fantasy that is often compared with Tolkien's Lord of the Rings ... but Donaldson's approach to his Secondary World, the Land, differs in remarkable ways". (p. 123) James E. Gunn, Paratexts: Introductions to science fiction and fantasy Lanham : The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2013. ISBN 9780810891227 (p. 123)
  9. ^ Philip Martin, The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon's Lair to Hero's Quest, p 34, ISBN 0-87116-195-8
  10. ^ Michael Moorcock. Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy. p. 84. ISBN 1-932265-07-4. 
  11. ^ Casey Lieb, "Unlikely Heroes and their role in Fantasy Literature"
  12. ^ 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
  13. ^ Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, p 120, ISBN 0-618-25759-4
  14. ^ Joseph A. McCullough V, "The Demarcation of Sword and Sorcery"
  15. ^ Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Question I Get Asked Most Often" p 274, The Wave in the Mind, ISBN 1-59030-006-8
  16. ^ "Dragonlance homepage". Retrieved 2 March 2006. 
  17. ^ "For Dungeons and Dragons, both TSR and WotC produced additional settings that can be used with the core rules, two of the most popular being the magic-punk Eberron ... and the high fantasy Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting." Snow, Cason. "Dragons in the stacks: an introduction to role-playing games and their value to libraries." Collection Building 27.2 (2008): 63-70.
  18. ^ "Most role-playing games draw upon a universe based in high fantasy; this literary genre, half-way between traditional fantasy ..." Squedin, S., & Papillon, S. (2008). U.S. Patent Application 12/198,391.


External links[edit]

  • 'Fantasy Genre Lecture' A paper by Michael Joseph discussing high fantasy and referencing Alexander's theories, via Rutgers' School of Communication and Information.
  • 'The Flat-Heeled Muse' Lloyd Alexander, the inventor of the term 'high fantasy', discusses fantasy worldbuilding and 'the problems and disciplines of fantasy'.
  • 'Fantasy book writing: 7 tips' Now Novel discusses the origin of the term, referencing Lloyd Alexander and offering high fantasy writing tips.
  1. ^ "Defining the Genre: High Fantasy". fandomania. May 11, 2011. Retrieved August 8, 2016. High Fantasy is probably one of the most recognizable subgenres of Fantasy.