Fantasy media

Genre studies


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High fantasy, or epic fantasy, is a subgenre of fantasy fiction that is set in invented or parallel worlds. Built upon the platform of a diverse body of works in the already very popular fantasy genre, high fantasy came to fruition through the work of authors such as C.S. Lewis and, foremost, J.R.R. Tolkien, whose major fantasy works were published in the 1950s. While it is far from being the oldest fantasy subgenre, high fantasy, along with sword and sorcery, has become one of the two genres most commonly associated with the general term fantasy.

Genre overview

These stories are generally serious in tone and often epic in scope, dealing with themes of grand struggle against supernatural, evil forces.[1] It is one of the most popular subgenres of fantasy fiction. Some typical characteristics of high fantasy include fantastical elements such as elves and dwarves, magic, wizards, invented languages, quests, coming-of-age themes, and multi-volume narratives.

Sigurd kills Fafnir by Rackham

Sigurd kills Fafnir, by Arthur Rackham

High fantasy is a well-defined genre with established characteristics. This contrasts with low fantasy, a term that can be defined in many contradictory ways, each separate in its own way from high fantasy.

In some fiction, a contemporary, "real-world" character is placed in the invented world, sometimes through devices such as portals to other worlds or even subconscious travels. Purists might not consider this to be "true" high fantasy, although such stories are often categorized as high fantasy due to the fact that they've yet to be classified as their own distinct subgenre, and often resemble this subgenre more closely than any other.

High fantasy worlds may be more or less closely based on real world milieus, or on legends such as Arthurian. When the resemblance is strong, particularly when real-world history is used, high fantasy shades into alternate history.

When the scope is less than epic, dealing with the hero's personal fight for personal stakes against evil forces, the epic fantasy may shade into sword and sorcery.

High fantasy is the most popular and successful subgenre of the fantasy fiction. Its fandom ranges from Tolkien to contemporary. Recent screen versions of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Rowling's Harry Potter and Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe have contributed to the subgenre's continuing popularity. Moreover film adaptations of some novels are in preproduction, such as David Farland's The Runelords, and also Terry Brooks' Magic Kingdom of Landover and The Elfstones of Shannara.


Most high fantasy storylines are told from the viewpoint of one main hero. Often, much of the plot revolves around his heritage or mysterious nature. In many novels the hero is an orphan or unusual sibling, often with some incredible ability or abilities and skills in a particular area (usually either magic or skill with a weapon). He begins the story young, if not an actual child.[2] Some examples of this are J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter, Lloyd Alexander's Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper, Terry Goodkind's Richard Rahl, Nathan Pyles' Aemyn of Quelvyn's Rede, Robert Jordan's Rand al'Thor of The Wheel of Time, Raymond Feist's Pug of Riftwar Saga, David Eddings' Belgarion of Belgariad, Philip Pullman's Lyra Belacqua of His Dark Materials, Tad Williams' Simon of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. In other works he is a completely developed individual with his own character and spirit — David Eddings' Sparhawk of The Elenium and The Tamuli. However, epic fantasy is not by any means limited to a male protagonist, as seen in such works as Elizabeth Moon's The Deed of Paksenarrion and P.C. Hodgell's Jame, for example.

In the beginning of the storyline, the hero is threatened by the unknown force. One reason for such a threat is that, unlike the typical sword and sorcery adventurer, the hero is seldom bored stiff by ordinary life and therefore will not abandon it quickly and on any excuse. While, like Bilbo Baggins, he may be eager for adventure, he is also usually capable of appreciating the quotidian. By the same token, the hero of the high fantasy adventure is capable of completing it and settling down to ordinary life again.

Typically, the hero slowly gains knowledge of his past through legend, prophecy, lost-and-found-again family members, or encounters with "mentor" characters who know more about him than he does. With that knowledge comes power and self-confidence; the hero often begins as a childlike figure, but matures rapidly, experiencing a huge gain in fighting/problem-solving abilities along the way.[3] The plot of the story often depicts the hero's fight against the evil forces as a Bildungsroman. However, the epic adventure is not always quite so stereotyped. A good example of a less stereotyped epic is The Deed of Paksenarrion in which the main character becomes a paladin through her own growing strength instead of it having been forced on her at birth.

In many books there is a knowing, mystical teacher, associated with the Jungian archetype of Senex, or wise old man. This character is often a formidable wizard or warrior, who provides the main character with advice and help. Examples would be: the wizard Kulgan of Riftwar Saga, Albus Dumbledore, Tolkien's Gandalf, Eddings' Belgarath, Jordan's Moiraine and Thom Merrilin, Goodkind's Zeddicus Zu'l Zorander, Paolini's Brom (Inheritance) and Terry Brooks' Allanon. These characters derive originally from the Merlin topos a theme in fantasy fiction flowing from Le Morte d'Arthur (1485).

The progress of the story leads to the character learning the nature of the unknown forces against him, that they constitute a force with great power and malevolence[4]. Facing down this evil is the culmination of the hero's story and permits the return to normal life.

Good versus evil

Good versus evil is a common concept in high fantasy, and the character of evil is often an important concept in a work of high fantasy,[5] as in The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, the importance of the concepts of good and evil can be regarded as distinguishing mark between high fantasy and sword and sorcery.[6] In many works of high fantasy, this conflict marks a deep concern with moral issues; in other works, the conflict is a power struggle, with, for instance, wizards behaving irresponsibly whether they are "good" or "evil".[7]

Saga or series

Role-playing campaign settings like Greyhawk by Gary Gygax and Dragonlance[8] by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis are a common basis for many fantasy books and many other authors continue to contribute to the settings.

From Tolkien to the modern day, authors in this genre tend to create their own worlds where they set multi-tiered narratives such as the Belgariad, Malloreon and Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. Other authors such as Terry Brooks, Stephen R. Donaldson, Robert Jordan, R. Scott Bakker, Steven Erikson, Raymond E. Feist, David Eddings, L. E. Modesitt, Jr., Terry Goodkind and Paul Edwin Zimmer write extended stories over several volumes relating with the same character threads.


There are several publishing companies that are devoted entirely to publishing fantasy literature (or fantasy and science fiction). DAW Books was one of the first such publishers established, and others include Baen Books, Roc, Tor Books, and Del Rey Books.


  1. Philip Martin, The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon's Lair to Hero's Quest, p 34, ISBN 0-87116-195-8
  2. Michael Moorcock, Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy p 84 ISBN 1-932265-07-4
  3. Casey Lieb, "Unlikely Heroes and their role in Fantasy Literature"
  4. Patricia A. McKillip, "Writing High Fantasy", p 53, Philip Martin, ed., The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon's Lair to Hero's Quest, ISBN 0-87116-195-8
  5. Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, p 120, ISBN 0-618-25759-4
  6. Joseph A. McCullough V, "The Demarcation of Sword and Sorcery"
  7. Ursula K. LeGuin, "The Question I Get Asked Most Often" p 274, The Wave in the Mind, ISBN 1-59030-006-8
  8. Dragonlance homepage. Retrieved on 2006-03-02.

See also