Here’s a Twitter thread that starts with that question. Or almost that question:
C.L. Polk@clpolk· question for you writers and readers of fantasy today! What would you say are the “must-haves” of high/epic fantasy? The things that have to be there or it just isn’t high/epic fantasy
So that’s always interesting. As you see, CL Polk believes that high and epic are essentially synonymous terms. I don’t agree.
I know what I think makes a novel high fantasy as opposed to epic fantasy or adventure fantasy or sword-and-sorcery or something else.
I absolutely do not agree with the definition that high fantasy = secondary world fantasy and low fantasy = contemporary world fantasy, full stop. I see that definition from time to time, and I expect it will be presented in that twitter thread (I haven’t looked yet), but no. Just no. The best terms for those categories are secondary world vs contemporary world. THOSE are clear terms that cannot easily be misunderstood.
As far as I’m concerned, high fantasy is NOT is defined by scope, size, big goals, big consequences, plus a quest structure to the narrative. That is epic fantasy. I very definitely don’t think the two terms are synonymous, though a lot of people do use them that way.
Adventure fantasy can be much smaller scale. It’s just what it sounds like — people having adventures, maybe to save the world, maybe to fulfil some smaller quest, maybe because they got hurled into adventure willy-nilly.
High fantasy is set in a secondary world — that much I agree with. It’s just that there is a vast ocean of secondary world fantasy that is not high fantasy.High fantasy isn’t defined by size, scope, or events. It can be either an intimate story or a broad, sweeping saga.
Along with a secondary setting, high fantasy is defined by tone and style.
The story is told in elevated language — not necessarily flowery or poetic, though it certainly can be; not necessarily Tolkien-esque; but in largely formal language. That’s the style.
High fantasy is not gritty. It can be dark, but it’s not grimdark. It’s not horror though it can grade into dark fantasy. The tone as well as the style is elevated.
So that’s what defines high fantasy as far as I’m concerned: secondary world, told in elevated or formal or poetic language, not gritty, not grimdark.
Let’s see what the answers to the Twitter thread suggest …
Berry Quite Contrary@berrysbramble· Replying to @clpolkMagic. World/country/society wide issues. For example, the chapter with the Shire being invaded isn’t high fantasy by itself, but fits into a larger picture of societal upheaval and invasions portrayed in the books.
This, for me, is a definition of epic fantasy.
Sandstone@quartzen· Replying to @clpolkHigh fantasy: magic, secondary world, less grittiness/”realism” (the deaths are poetic rather than random), I’m inclined to typically say dealing with the affairs of the wealthy and powerful but not sure that’s essential Epic: it’s about scope, conflicts with more than two sides
This is a definition that agrees with mine — not surprising — @Sandstone and I share a LOT of tastes in fantasy and are probably in broad agreement about most definitions.
You see, there’s the secondary world vs primary world definition. I definitely expected that to appear, and here it is.
That made me laugh! I agree. Ursula Vernon / T Kingfisher does write some high fantasy, but not epic fantasy. Not sure what I would call her romantic fantasies, other than “romantic fantasies.” That adds another detail to my personal definition: high fantasy can certainly include romance, no problem there, but if a story is as light in tone as Swordheart, it’s not high fantasy.
Also, I sympathize. The big battle scenes are hard for me, and seldom if ever my favorite part.
Kelsey@thefancyhatlady· Replying to @clpolkI wouldn’t refer to anything as high/epic fantasy that didn’t have a secondary-world setting. I feel like high fantasy requires a lot of magic to be present, which I wouldn’t necessarily say is a requirement for epic fantasy.
Well, I’m not sure! How about you all, do you think high fantasy must include a good deal of magic? I believe I would say no. The Goblin Emperor was one that sprang to mind for me, and there isn’t a lot of obtrusive magic in that one. Here’s another that hits that question:
Simone Sturniolo@SturnioloSimone·Replying to @clpolkHigh fantasy: magic has to be present, obviously real, important, powerful, and possibly soft. Magic with rigid rules is just science by another name (which is fun on its own, but becomes almost sci-fi). Low tech is a consequence, as magic would make tech unnecessary.
I believe I might agree with the “possibly soft” idea. Maybe not! But it’s true that if magic is treated too much as a science, the tone is probably wrong high fantasy.
Simon fae Standingstone ::::@simon_brooke·Replying to @clpolkThe things which make for high/epic fantasy are largely extremely regressive things — like hereditary rights and powers, predestined heroes, and personified evil — which have no place in thoughtful fiction. Avoid them.
Ouch! Oh, that’s almost funny. Obviously I don’t agree that ooh, hereditary kings are BAD in fantasy. Oh no, a predestined hero! I guess this person wouldn’t care for, say, The Fionavar Tapestry. That is striking me as funnier and funnier as I think about it. I don’t imagine GGK gets accused of writing non-thoughtful novels very often. There’s actually a lot of potential for discussion there: Fate as presented in TLotR vs The Fionavar tapestry, go! One could get more than one blog post out of that. I certainly would not describe either work as lacking in thought.
All right, that’s enough! By all means click through to read more responses if you wish. In the meantime, what do you think:
High fantasy: secondary world; maybe a lot of magic; maybe “soft” magic rather than magic-as-science; told in formal, perhaps poetic language; “high” in tone, which means not gritty, not grimdark, but also not too light.
That’s what I’m going with for now!