Updated: Aug 19, 2020
Fantasy is a very encompassing genre; it spans into every other genre and the subtopics are endless. There is one major fork in that tree however, and it’s the elements of ‘high’ and ‘low’. Think of it like you’re going to dye a shirt green. You have your bucket of dye and you submerge the blank, white shirt into its depths. If you hold it under for a longer amount of time, the dye soaks completely through and darkens from the prolonged exposure. It has been ‘highly’ exposed. If you give it a quick dunk though, you may not completely soak it through, it comes out lighter in color and in splotches around the shirt. Meaning it has less – or low – exposure.
It’s the same sort of concept in Fantasy. How deep into the fantastical the story goes, will determine if the story falls ultimately on the high or low side of the fork. Let’s take a closer look.
The biggest defining feature between the two is the story’s setting. In high fantasy, the story setting is something ‘other.’ It is not a real-world place. Instead, it’s an entirely separate reality that can stand on its own as such. In contrast, in low fantasy the story setting is familiar, taking place in a real-world environment.
Epic fantasy is often also referred to as high fantasy. This is because the saturation into the genre is more concentrated. This ‘other’ world setting is the reason for this. It’s completely submerged into a fictional setting that was crafted to be theatrical by nature. Yes, there may be some realistic element involved, but the overarching feel is much more elaborate. It is laced with magic, leaving every aspect of the story saturated with the supernatural. This in turn impacts the characters and their arches, as well as the plot, dialogue, and themes.
Typically, low fantasy is more subtle. The world in which it is set will feel familiar, as it’s based out of our reality. The magic or supernatural powers at be in the story will have an interrupting effect on the setting and characters, thus driving the plot and themes forward. There is often a sense as well that the characters involved are wanting to ‘correct’ this magical interruption and return to the comforts of ‘life as they knew it.’
High Fantasy Examples:
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Everything in these books is deeply mythical from the setting, Middle Earth, to the species that inhabit it; dwarves, elves, and hobbits. Even the languages are unique to the story, and that is no small detail!
A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin
Again, we have a world completely on it’s own from our reality. Westeros is a medieval world but made from scratch from the author’s imagination. Reality is placed on hold as the story encounters a variety of magical creatures (dragons!) and supernatural locations that have dramatic impacts.
Low Fantasy Examples:
The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare
A prime example of low fantasy. The main protagonist believes she is an average teenager in modern-day New York, when she is swept up into the secret world of the Shadowhunters. We recognize the world as our own, but her life in it is interrupted and irrevocably changed. In this case, by demon hunters with angelic blood.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians by Rick Riordan
This is best shown by the first books own description: “Twelve-year-old Percy Jackson is on the most dangerous quest of his life. With the help of a satyr and a daughter of Athena, Percy must journey across the United States to catch a thief who has stolen the original weapon of mass destruction — Zeus’ master bolt. Along the way, he must face a host of mythological enemies determined to stop him. Most of all, he must come to terms with a father he has never known, and an Oracle that has warned him of betrayal by a friend.”
What’s your preference? In the end that’s all that it comes down too. Hopefully this helps you define the genre for your next writing project or what book you might pick up next. If you want to be submerged in the mythical in order to escape reality, then the complexities of high fantasy worlds are for you. If you find more comfort in the real world but still want magical adventure, try out some low fantasy works (I highly recommend Cassandra Clare’s work).
In my opinion, I can’t choose, I love them both! Either way, I get to venture into an experience that is unique from anything possible in actual reality, and that, is the real magic of reading.