Welcome guest blogger Sara Letourneau! We connected with Sara on Twitter and through the many places she blogs (see bio below). Sara is super friendly, upbeat and knowledgeable, especially about writing fantasy, so we’re thrilled to have her here today to shed some light on the differences and similarities between high fantasy and epic fantasy. Take it away Sara!
Fantasy literature can be challenging to navigate. Its sheer number of subgenres – and the increasingly blurry lines between them – has the potential to overwhelm even long-time enthusiasts. However, once one understands the subtle differences between these subgenres, it can lead to “a-ha” moments for readers and writers alike.
So, how does high fantasy differ from epic fantasy? When are you more apt to see wizards or warriors, magic wands or swords? And which classic stories are considered high, epic, or both? Let me light a torch and illuminate them for you…
What Is High Fantasy?
In truth, high fantasy isn’t a subgenre, but a classification of the amount of fantastical elements present in a story. With high fantasy, the world is comprised of strange or mythical aspects not found on Earth. Cultural, political, and other types of rules might also differ from those we’re used to. In other words, the more removed the story world is from the “real world” we know, the more likely its story would be called high fantasy. (FYI: The opposite classification is low fantasy, which is set in a more Earth-oriented or recognizable setting, and allows the fantastical and “real world” elements to interact more often.)
The defining element of high fantasy is its setting. Regardless of the time period (past, present, or future), the story’s world must be a “secondary” world, or an imaginary setting created by the writer.
From there, high fantasy can include any (but not necessarily all) of the following elements:
· Magic or sorcery, either with a system of rules (“hard” magic) or a more mysterious, nebulous presence (“soft” magic).
· Invented languages, either included in the text or implied in the narrative.
· Fictional humanoid races such as elves / fairies, angels, or merfolk.
· Mythical creatures such as dragons, griffins, or anthropomorphic animals.
· In some cases, the ability to travel between the real / primary world and the imaginary / secondary world (e.g., portals, rules allowing select characters to make the journey).
C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA is a superb example of high fantasy. Narnia teems with fictional beings, including talking animals (most notably the lion Aslan), dwarfs, unicorns, gnomes, and creatures from Greek mythology. Magic also abounds here, with the ability to thwart the rules of nature for good or evil. For instance, Queen Jadis (a.k.a. the White Witch) condemned Narnia to an eternal winter that thaws with Aslan’s return.
Narnia’s most enchanting element, however, is its portals. From train stations (Prince Caspian) and paintings (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), to literature’s most famous wardrobe, numerous gateways allow children like the Pevensie siblings to travel between Earth and Narnia. This emphasizes the separation between the real world and fantasy, while thrilling its readership with the idea that a magical world could be only a closed door away.
Other Examples: Ursula K. Le Guin’s EARTHSEA CYCLE, Patrick Rothfuss’s KINGKILLER CHRONICLES, Laini Taylor’s DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE trilogy.
What Is Epic Fantasy?
One of fantasy’s most popular and timeless subgenres is epic fantasy. It combines history and legend to tell a tale that excites and entertains. Sometimes it involves a quest. Other times, it focuses on politics or war. Whatever the plot may be, epic fantasy is always massive in length (usually over 100,000 words, though 120,000+ words isn’t rare) and scope.
In fact, scope is what sets epic fantasy apart from other subgenres. The main focus is the plot, allowing the writer to show how the conflict impacts the story world at large. Also, older epic fantasies tend to exhibit a clear-cut “good versus evil” theme, while more recently published examples often explore moral ambiguity through realistic, complex characters with competing motivations.
Other defining aspects of epic fantasy are:
· A story world in a medieval or historical setting, and can be either invented by the writer or based on real cultures and places.
· A large cast of characters, either with a single protagonist or multiple points of view.
· A reliance on subplots to help advance the story, leading to a complex overall plot.
· Action using swords, archery, and other weaponry that is sometimes violent or graphic in nature.
Did anyone think of George R.R. Martin’s A SONG OF FIRE AND ICE saga while reading this list? Both the books and its hugely popular TV adaptation Game of Thrones epitomize epic fantasy. Set in the fictional medieval world of Westeros, this series offers a panoramic view of power struggles between several families, with threats from an exiled princess and supernatural forces on other fronts. It’s intricately plotted, brutally bloody, and mammoth in scale and cast size – and the stakes keep mounting with each book and season.
While Game of Thrones’ subgenre is clear, fans have debated its classification (high fantasy vs low fantasy) for years. Personally, I’d say Game of Thrones is low fantasy. Sure, you’ll find dragons, ice zombies (a.k.a. White Walkers), and religious figures who use magic for prophesying or resurrections. However, Martin’s intent with the books was to create a realistic world that focused less on the supernatural and more on characters, war, and politics. The result is a post-magic society where people no longer believe in mythic forces and beings – until proven otherwise. This skepticism is also reflected in the TV show.
Other Examples: Robert Jordan’s WHEEL OF TIME series, Terry Goodkind’s SWORD OF TRUTH series, Robin Hobb’s FARSEER trilogy.
So… Can a Story Be Both High Fantasy and Epic Fantasy?
Why not? We distinguished Game of Thrones by both subgenre (epic fantasy) and “fantastical” classification (low fantasy). The same can be done for other fantasy stories. So, it’s entirely possible for a novel to be both high and epic fantasy.
And what better example is there than J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS? In fact, anything from his Middle-Earth legendarium could be called epic high fantasy. This beloved secondary world features magic, numerous fictional species (wizards, hobbits, elves, dwarves, orcs) and creatures (dragons, giant spiders, demons), and invented languages. And with The Lord of the Rings in particular, Tolkien uses multiple points of view to tell of the quest and battles fought in order for unlikely allies to destroy The One Ring. See how many boxes we ticked off for both types of fantasy?
Remember: The main keys of high fantasy are an invented world and a high number of supernatural or fantastical elements. For epic fantasy, it’s all about a long-ago setting and a scale of, well, epic proportions. They won’t always collide during a single story – but when they do, the results can be magical and magnificent.
What are some of your favorite fantasy subgenres? How about some of your favorite stories that demonstrate high or epic fantasy, or both?
Sara Letourneau is a Massachusetts-based writer who practices joy and versatility in her work. In addition to revising a YA fantasy novel, she reviews tea at A Bibliophile’s Reverie and contributes to the writing resource site DIY MFA. Her poetry has been published in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two anthologies. Learn more about Sara at her website / blog, Twitter, and Goodreads.