High fantasy, or epic fantasy, is a subgenre of fantasy defined by the epic nature of its setting or by the epic stature of its characters, themes or plot. The term "high fantasy" was coined by Lloyd Alexander in a 1971 essay, "High Fantasy and Heroic Romance", which was originally given at the New England Round Table of Children's Librarians in October 1969.
High fantasy is set in an alternative, fictional ("secondary") world, rather than the "real" or "primary" world. This 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 on Earth, the primary or real world, or a rational and familiar fictional world with the inclusion of magical elements.
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. The works of J. R. R. Tolkien—especially The Lord of the Rings—are regarded as archetypal works of high fantasy. Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is another example of high fantasy series.
Many high fantasy stories are told from the viewpoint of one main hero. Often, much of the plot revolves around their heritage or mysterious nature, along with a world-threatening problem. In many novels the hero is an orphan or unusual sibling, and frequently portrayed with an extraordinary talent for magic or combat. They begin the story young, if not as an actual child, or are portrayed as being very weak and/or useless.
The hero often begins as a childlike figure, but matures rapidly, experiencing a considerable gain in fighting/problem-solving abilities along the way.
The progress of the story leads to the character's learning the nature of the unknown forces against them, that they constitute a force with great power and malevolence. The villains in such stories are usually completely evil and unrelatable.
However, several exceptions exist to these typical characteristics. George Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series is one of these, focusing more so on realistic characters and character motivations in a fictional world, based on medieval Europe. More traditional fantasy elements such as dragons and magic take a back seat in Martin’s work, leaving room for darker and more realistic themes and images.
"High fantasy" often serves as a broad term to include a number of different flavors of the fantasy genre, including heroic fantasy, epic fantasy, mythic fantasy, dark fantasy, and wuxia. It typically isn't considered to include the sword and sorcery genre.
High fantasy is traditionally considered to evoke a sense of wonder.
High fantasy has often been defined by its themes and messages. Good versus evil is a common one in high fantasy, and defining the character of evil is often an important theme in a work of high fantasy, as in The Lord of the Rings. The importance of the concept 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".
Role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons with campaign settings like 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.
- "Defining the Genre: High Fantasy". fandomania. 11 May 2011. Retrieved 8 August 2016.
High Fantasy is probably one of the most recognizable subgenres of Fantasy.
- Brian Stableford, The A to Z of Fantasy Literature, (p. 198), Scarecrow Press, Plymouth. 2005. ISBN 0-8108-6829-6
- 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.
- Dozois, Gardner (1997). "Preface". Modern Classics of Fantasy. New York: St. Martin's Press. pp. xvi-xvii. ISBN 031215173X.
- Gunn, James E. (2013). Paratexts: Introductions to science fiction and fantasy. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. p. 123. ISBN 9780810891227.
Stephen R. Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane is a High Fantasy that is often compared with Tolkien's Lord of the Ringsor Sam Coates' "the Monsters of Jarvon" ... but Donaldson's approach to his Secondary World, the Land, differs in remarkable ways
- Michael Moorcock (2004). Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy. p. 84. ISBN 1-932265-07-4.
- 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
- Crawford, Jeremy; Perkins, Christopher; Wyatt, James, eds. (December 2014). Dungeon Master's Guide. Washington, United States: Wizards of the Coast. pp. 38–41. ISBN 978-0-7869-6562-5.
- Joseph A. McCullough V, "The Demarcation of Sword and Sorcery"
- Farland, David (2019). Writing Wonder. South Carolina, United States. pp. 8–9. ISBN 978-1082226083.
- Wolfgang, Baur (2012). "How Real is Your World? On History and Setting". In Silverstein, Janna (ed.). Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding. Kobold Press. p. 27.
- Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, p 120, ISBN 0-618-25759-4
- Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Question I Get Asked Most Often" p 274, The Wave in the Mind, ISBN 1-59030-006-8
- "Dragonlance homepage". Archived from the original on 4 March 2006. Retrieved 2 March 2006.
- Snow, Cason (2008). "Dragons in the stacks: an introduction to role-playing games and their value to libraries". Collection Building. 27 (2): 63–70. doi:10.1108/01604950810870218.
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.
- "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.
- "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" by Lloyd Alexander, the inventor of the term "high fantasy", discusses fantasy world-building 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