Another look at high fantasy

This is a guest post from Elaine T, a frequent commenter, who sent me this in an email. I liked it and asked if I could turn it into a post. Here it is:


At the core of the question of high fantasy is the sense of wonder.

What makes the fantasty, fantastic?  When Jules Verne published Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas a submarine was a fantastic idea, but now it is within our everyday world; and so the book reads as fiction, science fiction, no longer a fantastic and unbelievable voyage.  Our fantasies now are magic and starships and, on occasion, magic starships.  It doesn’t have to have an understandable magic system because it may have no magic at all.  It seems to me that before we define “high fantasy,” we must first define fantasy itself.  So then, what is the root of fantasy- not just in fiction, but in the word itself? Once you know what fantasy is, start defining ‘high’ or ‘low.’

Fantasy. That which is fantastic. Fancy, fanciful. In fiction, what is the fantastic and wonderous?  Dracula, for one is no fantasy, though it is a fantastic tale.  It is terrific and horrorific, evoking terror and horror.  Tarzan is no fantasy, though it is fiction. 

And so we have some science, but it is also fantasy, in that it is fantastic.

The Wizard of Oz is fantasy; but I would hesitate to call it “high fantasy”.  Likewise for Lewis’ Narnia.  They are books that are written on a single underlying concept, an idea and that concept is one that may have made a high fantasy such as LOTR.

Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island is in the same ballpark as LOTR, high concept.  Then, does it stop being fantasy, simply when it  has become real? Twenty Thousand Leagues was a fantasy.  Of these I would cast Verne’s TMI as high fantasy despite its lack of magic.  And raise the question of Frankestein.  These, these trailblazers, for lack of a better word- these books around which entire genres are built; all of them were fantasy when they were written.  Frankenstein, at the least, still is both fiction and fantasy, impossible, implausible, and inconceivable!

A novel may be built around a single underlying fantastic concept; and then we may call it fantasy. And yet, that is not all it takes to make high fantasy.  I turn my attention now to Riordan’s Percy Jackson & The Olympians and P.C. Hodgell’s The Chronicles of the Kencyrath.  Settings so wildly removed they have next to nothing in common with each other. (they’re both fiction.)  But both might be described such that they could sound like high fantasy.  And yet I am hard put to it to call PJ ‘fantasy’ at all.  And  still have yet to understand why.  And the same goes for the Kencyrath:  Gods, monsters and foundations of reality trembling, ancient wars and sleeping evils, and prophecy (can’t forget the prophecy) but the lens through which our narrator views it keeps it solidly in the realm of fiction; that down-toearth tale .  Our protagonist doesn’t think “the fate of the world” she thinks ‘not dying today’ no map no compass no guide. I have the Book, a thing of power, I can A: carry it safely to somewhere no one can use it, B: try to use it rarely because the last man who tried to copy it died one page in, or C:  reluctantly haul it around while ignoring it.

She picks C.

And so it is a fantasy on an epic scale through a downto-earth lens, but it is not High Fantasy.  High fantasy is thinking ahead, making choice D, think about what might be done with it either for good or evil and take appropriate steps.

And then there’s Giftwish by Grahamn Dustan Martin ( a juvenile fantasy from either the 70s or 80s), which has all the markers of high fantasy including prophecies.  Giftwish is closer to being high fantasy than either Hodgell or Riordan, but lacks a key element:  the feel… that nebulous conceptual thread to which all things always return.  (though it is a very good book and has been verbed in this family. To Giftwish something is to try to manipulate the prophecy fulfillment but get the results promised in spite of the manipulation. and to the manipulator’s dismay, usually.)  LOTR has the threat of Sauron and the desire to return to and preserve home twined together, for example. 

And so I fail to define high fantasy in a few words, but have I think a few of the pieces by which High Fantasy may be recognized.

Elaine T


So, there we go. This is getting at something else, related to what I called tone, but perhaps different. I believe I agree that high fantasy has to evoke a sense of wonder in order to succeed, and that quite a bit of fantasy tries to do this but doesn’t quite make it. One that succeeds: The Fionavar trilogy by GGK, which includes many, many moments that evoke wonder.

One that (mostly) fails: The Belgariad, which pulls off this kind of sense of wonder in a few scenes, but mostly reaches for that sense but doesn’t quite make it.

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3 thoughts on “Another look at high fantasy”

  1. So what did you intend to put in as “one that succeeds”?

    The Teen and I have been continuing to discuss the topic and around what makes something feel like fantasy at all. Teen keeps coming back to Why do I think of Verne’s The Mysterious Island as fantasy? What in it is giving me that impression? So… as we unloaded boxes and reshelve half a house’s worth of books, etc (everything on one floor had to move for ceiling & floor work), we’ve continued to poking at the question. We’ve also come up with lots of books containing fantasy trappings but that somehow don’t have that feel.

    Then we switched to discussing poetry, specifically Poe’s Raven. And Teen began reading some commentary on it aloud while I worked and got to this bit: “… so far there has been no overstepping the limits of the real. But in subjects so handled, however skilfully, or with however vivid an array of incident, there is always a certain hardness or nakedness which repels the artistical eye. Two things are invariably required – first, some amount of complexity, or more properly adaptation; and secondly, some amount of suggestiveness, – some undercurrent, however indefinite, of meaning. It is this latter, in especial, which imparts to a work of art so much of that richness (to borrow from colloquy a forcible term) which we are too fond of confounding with the ideal It is the excess of the suggested meaning – it is the rendering this the upper instead of the under current of theme – which turns into prose(and that of the very flattest kind) the so-called poetry of the so-called transcendentalists. ”

    Paused, and we both said THAT’S IT. That is what makes fantasy, that undercurrent, suggestiveness, complexity. That is what there is in the Verne, the mystery, which even when revealed, is still potent, because Nemo is a potent and mysterious figure, containing his own undercurrent.
    I suspect that is why when I first posted in this discussion I remarked I required someone in a high fantasy to be associated with a Power. For that sense of potency, mystery and richness.

    Source of the commentary: Poe himself, in an essay “Philosophy of Composition’ wherein he discusses how he wrote The Raven. And achieved that undercurrent by the way he wrote the last two stanzas.

    – there are several youtubes of famous people reciting it, including James Earl Jones and Christopher Lee, but the one only we can both sit through without our attention straying is <a href=>Digit’s Raven done in character as Grimm, leader of the Grimm Troupe and Nightmare King.

    Apologies for the wall of text, but it really needed the whole thing.

  2. Drat it, I HAD a book title right there, after “One that succeeds.” I must have erased it accidentally while putting in the link. And now, what the heck WAS it?

    Well, I’ll think either of the one I had in mind or something else and add it to the post. WITH a link.

  3. LOTR is the obvious example. I think some of your works in secondary worlds have it.

    Oh, I see you’ve added the link, yes, Fionavar has it.

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