High fantasy

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

Genre overview

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.[2][3][4][5]

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.[6] The works of J. R. R. Tolkien—especially The Lord of the Rings—are regarded as the archetypal works of high fantasy.[6] Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is another example of a high fantasy series.[7]


These stories are often serious in tone and epic in scope, dealing with themes of grand struggle against supernatural, evil forces.[8] Some typical characteristics of high fantasy include fantastical elements such as elves, fairies, dwarves, 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' Magic Kingdom of Landover as well as The Elfstones of Shannara.

Primary and secondary worlds

Nikki Gamble distinguishes three subtypes of high fantasy:[4]

  • A setting in which the primary world does not exist.[4] That is, the primary is either separated from the setting entirely, or is separated from it by a great distance in space and/or time. (Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings")
  • The secondary/parallel world(s) is (are) entered through a portal from the primary world[4] (Lewis's "The Chronicles of Narnia")
  • A distinct world-within-a-world is part of the primary world[4] (Rowling's "Harry Potter")

Where the primary world does not exist, detailed maps, geography, and history of the fictional world are often 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".[4]

In the case of a world-within-a-world, also known as a wainscot, 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.[4] This was something Tolkien often denied; rather, he suggested that Middle-earth was the primary world, but in the past.[9][10][11][12][13][14][15] 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 serve as a kind of "secondary or sub-creational reality", "secondary belief", or reality "at a different stage of imagination".[16][17][18][19][20] In most cases he is adamant that the events ("history") occurred on primary earth, and not another planet.[14][21]


Many high fantasy storylines 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.[22] 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.[23] 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.[24]

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,[25] 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.[26] 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".[27] 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".

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 Shannara, The Belgariad, The 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[28] by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis and Forgotten Realms by Ed Greenwood[29] are a common basis for many fantasy books and many other authors continue to contribute to the settings.[30]

See also

External links


  1. 1.0 1.1 Brian Stableford, The A to Z of Fantasy Literature, (p. 198), Scarecrow Press,Plymouth. 2005. ISBN 0-8108-6829-6
  2. Buss, Kathleen; Karnowski, Lee (2000). Reading and Writing Literary Genres. International Reading Assoc. p. 114. ISBN 978-0-87207-257-2. 
  3. Perry, Phyllis Jean (2003). Teaching Fantasy Novels. Libraries Unlimited. p. vi. ISBN 978-1-56308-987-9. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 Gamble, Nikki; Yates, Sally (2008). Exploring Children's Literature. SAGE Publications Ltd. pp. 102–103. ISBN 978-1-4129-3013-0. 
  5. 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.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Gardner Dozois, "Introduction" to Modern Classics of Fantasy. New York : St. Martin's Press, 1997. (xvi-xvii) ISBN 031215173X
  7. "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)
  8. Philip Martin, The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon's Lair to Hero's Quest, p 34, ISBN 0-87116-195-8
  9. 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.'
  10. Letters No. 151, 212, 325, 328
  11. "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
  12. "'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
  13. "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
  14. 14.0 14.1 "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
  15. "['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
  16. Letters 180: 14 January 1956
  17. Letters 200: 25 June 1957
  18. Letters 328: Autumn 1971
  19. Rico Abrahamsen Webwork Varda. "Stages of Imagination". valarguild.org. 
  20. Dennis Gerrolt, Now Read On... interview, BBC, January 1971 http://www.lordotrings.com/interview.asp
  21. "...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
  22. Michael Moorcock. Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy. p. 84. ISBN 1-932265-07-4. 
  23. Casey Lieb, "Unlikely Heroes and their role in Fantasy Literature"
  24. 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
  25. Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, p 120, ISBN 0-618-25759-4
  26. Joseph A. McCullough V, "The Demarcation of Sword and Sorcery"
  27. Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Question I Get Asked Most Often" p 274, The Wave in the Mind, ISBN 1-59030-006-8
  28. "Dragonlance homepage". Retrieved 2 March 2006. 
  29. "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.
  30. "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.