What makes a book high fantasy?

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.

Examples of intimate high fantasy: The Shape-Changer’s Wife by Sharon Shinn. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. The Keeper of the Mist.

Examples of epic high fantasy: The Lord of the Rings. The Fionavar Tapestry. The Eternal Sky trilogy. Winter of Ice and Iron.

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.

Didi Chanoch@didic· Replying to @clpolkFor high fantasy: Not our world, lots of magic and/or magical beings. For epic fantasy: Big story. Large scope. high stakes.

You see, there’s the secondary world vs primary world definition. I definitely expected that to appear, and here it is.

Kingfisher & Wombat@UrsulaV· Replying to @clpolkI write high fantasy but not epic fantasy, as far as I can tell, because writing big battle scenes would be way too exhausting.

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!

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11 thoughts on “What makes a book high fantasy?”

  1. I always vaguely thought of High Fantasy being somewhat analogous to the “High Church” term used by Anglicans. More… well, “grandeur” isn’t quite the right word, but yes, more elevated. As opposed to a more low-key approach that puts emphasis on the practical over the ceremonial.
    That scene in LOTR where everyone is reunited after (spoiler alert) the ring is returned to the volcano and Frodo and Sam wake up in the tent? If it wasn’t HF, Tolkien would’ve stopped at everyone hugging and catching up on the gossip, not thrown in the eagles singing psalm-like songs and Aragorn showing up to shower the poor habits with praise.
    Just my two ducats’ worth.

  2. “Low fantasy” is very simple.

    So many people have used the term for so many different non-high fantasy types that it has no meaning at all. There has been NO convergence.

  3. high fantasy should have some magic, not necessarily lots, but of the numinous sort, not technology by another name. High stakes, Powerful entities. Characters have standard of behavior and morality and protagonist (at least) keeps to them. Others may not. Not everyone gets good endings, costs are noted. I’m realizing as I write this that I require at least one major character be involved with a Power.
    epic fantasy: scope in world, scope in stakes. /tangent / Which reminds me that I’ve seen (somewhere) Riddle-Master named as a ‘chamber-epic’ fantasy. Elaborated on as the world is small, we cross it several times throughout the tale and it doesn’t take long to get anywhere. So a ‘chamber music’ sized world, but high and epic stakes. /end tangent. magic not necessary but it turns up in most, and can be of any sort. Tone can be any sort, formal or elevated or not.

  4. “Low fantasy”, whatever it may be, surely includes “The Sharing Knife”. After all, Bujold deliberately set out to write it!

    As for “personified evil” not belonging in thoughtful literature–Elizabeth Bear deliberately set out to do exactly that in Steles of the Sky! Alternatively, one can write allegory, a la LOTR, or Le Guin.

  5. LOTR is not allegory. Tolkien explicitly said that he hated allegories, and that his work was not allegory at all. I . . . can’t currently remember the precise term he used to describe his own work, but it wasn’t allegory.
    I agree with your definition of high fantasy, Rachel – elevated tone, not grimdark, numinous or ‘soft’ magic, secondary world. Epic fantasy can be all of those things (but rarely is), with huge size and scope. High fantasy can, at times, be quite small in scope – in which case it’s the tone that matters.
    I also disagree with that last Twitter post. Why would ‘hereditary rights and powers, predestined heroes, and personified evil’ not be thoughtful? Why are they necessarily regressive? That’s just exactly what C.S. Lewis called chronological snobbery – assuming that just because an idea is modern, it must necessarily be better . . . or in this case, more thoughtful. Would they call Oedipus Rex less than thoughtful because it deals with a predestined (tragic) hero?

  6. Methinks he doth protest too much. LOTR is not allegorical in the sense of Narnia, or other CS Lewis. There’s no Aslan or Pilgrim. It certainly isn’t crude allegory, with Ideas personified. (Except possibly Sauron and Saruman.)

    But… he was being cute. He claims his trilogy is Christian, and specifically Catholic. It was written specifically in reaction to the horrors of WWI.* The Shire is an idealized English countryside. Etc.

    * Along with a whole lot of really good poetry, suitable for Memorial Day! Rendezvous with Death, Flanders Fields, Dulce et Decorum Est….

  7. I think we need to remember that to him an allegory was a specific thing, which LOTR isn’t. Pilgrim’s Progess is. LoTR is applicable not allegorical.

  8. This thread inspired me to reread Crown of Stars, by Kate Elliott. I haven’t done it in a long time, as its a septology, each book around 600 pages. But it has one of the all time best villains, up there with Steles of the Sky. Beautiful Hugh is just horrible, horrible, horrible.

  9. This helped prompt a long multi-day discussion between the Teen and I, seguing from our previous topic of ‘high concept’. It came down to first defining fantasy. We then cobbled together a sort of short essay, which I will not spam here, but will take advantage of our hostess’s graciousness to send to her and she can post it if she thinks it worth while.

  10. Yeah, the idea that low fantasy is just a synonym for portal fantasy or contemporary fantasy has always bothered me a little. We have terms for those things that everyone understands already. But if you say low fantasy, that’s not what most readers assume you mean anymore.

    While I appreciate that everyone has their own definitions (and it’s not a coincidence that online bookstores often avoid saying high fantasy entirely), here’s what works for me:

    Epic fantasy is contrasted with heroic fantasy as a matter of scope. Epic fantasy is the fate of the world/universe/reality itself/the kingdom, whereas heroic fantasy tends to concentrate on a smaller scale and more personal scope. In this sense, Lord of the Rings is epic fantasy whereas Conan the Barbarian is heroic fantasy. As a side effect of this, epic fantasy can have a larger cast, though I wouldn’t make that a prerequisite for calling something epic or heroic.

    High fantasy is contrasted with low fantasy as a matter of tone and worldbuilding. Low fantasy tends to lean into realism (which can lead to gritty/grimdark but doesn’t have to). Magic is less likely to show up here, and when it does, it often comes with a terrible cost. It’s not just there for fun.

    This is contrasted with high fantasy, which tends to lean into the magical and more fantastic elements. Magic doesn’t need to be a hard or soft system, but there’s often more of it, and it can go softer without causing problems. While high fantasy can still go dark in tone, noblebright and hopepunk find a home here for a reason.

    A lot of popular books were both high and epic fantasy (Lord of the Rings), so those two get conflated. And a lot of popular books were also both low and heroic fantasy (Conan the Barbarian), so those get conflated as the Sword & Sorcery subgenre.

    I’ve always found those definitions to be useful for talking with friends and recommending books. Unfortunately, if high fantasy has become a watered-down term, low fantasy has no meaning at all on social media. Which is too bad. We could really use accurate terminology to discuss these things with, and we didn’t need another term for portal fantasy or secondary world fantasy.

  11. I agree — I think the term “low fantasy” needs to have a stake driven through its heart at this point, because it just has no consistent meaning and is therefore misleading not sometimes, but a whole lot of the time.

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