Paint the Town “Read”
Episode 2: High Fantasy vs. Low Fantasy — a Detailed Guide
“Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality.
It’s a way of understanding it.”
– Lloyd Alexander
The magic, the world-building, the sweeping romances and the unlikely hero… the Fantasy Genre has something to offer to everyone. A much-needed escape from everyday hardships, great fantasy books show us the world in another guise, yet each is also a universe in itself.
Whether you’ve sat around waiting for your Hogwarts letter or looked for Narnia in the back of your closet, all of us have probably dreamt of falling face-first into our favourite fantasy novels and leaving the real world behind. But this genre isn’t all witches, wardrobes and whimsy! Fantasy doesn’t just offer us an escape from the pressures of daily life but helps us confront them.
Tales from the otherworld allow us to view change, wickedness and heartache through a magical lens, thus, prompting us to make sense of this world and face it head-on. A good fantasy book illuminates the mind with childlike wonder but also lingers in our memories owing to its real-life connections.
Fantasy is one of the most popular genres in speculative fiction– so it’s no surprise that its niches range far and wide. From magical realism to high/epic and low fantasy to swords and sorcery, the list of fantasy subgenres by tone and content is endless.
This article will explore one of the most popular categorizations of fantasy– High Fantasy and Low Fantasy.
A.N: Before we start, I just want to clarify that ‘high’ and ‘low’ is in no way indicative of the quality of fantasy work.
High Fantasy– Also known as Epic Fantasy, this genre is characterized by a massive and extensively detailed fictional “secondary” world with so many different characters that you would probably need a cheat sheet to remember them all. These are tales of epic scales and proportions. The plot generally revolves around some massive event or quest that needs undertaking and often spans over a multi-book series.
Low Fantasy– Set in the real or “primary” world, this genre includes unexpected fantastical and supernatural elements. It basically adds a tablespoon or two of magic to the real world where rules are bent, known mythologies and folklores are explored and magic abounds.
As mentioned before, high fantasy is characterized by a secondary fictional world built from scratch which has very detailed and intricate sets of magical rules and laws. Supernatural elements virtually take over every aspect of the novel from plot, theme, dialogue to characterization and imagery. Think Westeros from A Song of Ice and Fire (and yes, I did write Game of Thrones originally) or Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
On the other hand, low fantasy takes place in a pretty realistic world governed by the usual scientific and rational laws, though with a hint of magic of course. The fantastical element is more of an undertone rather than the centrepiece of the narrative. Sort of like the Shadow World from Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter Chronicles.
The inhabitants of High fantasy might not be your regular Homo sapiens. After all, what is fantasy if not for a few dragons?
Also as mentioned before, there are way, way too many characters; all of whom you need to remember if you wish to make head or tail of the plot. My go-to strategy? Keep family trees and character guides from the internet handy.
The ‘Chosen One’ trope is a common feature as well and the characters tend to be exceptionally skilled at combat, war strategizing, leading battles and are very good-looking. (Okay, maybe I’m just thinking of a Sarah J. Maas novel now)
Characters of low fantasy definitely pulled the shorter straw here. They usually have minimal magical abilities and like us, are clueless about how to deal with the sudden supernatural affairs in their previously normal lives. That is, until the end when they pull off amazing stunts and live happily ever after.
Forget everything on this list and remember this simple formula-
High Page Count = High Fantasy
The plots of high hardcore fantasy tend to be like a day at twisty, turvy land and often revolve around saving the world, good versus evil. You know the usual epic hero stuff. Quests and final book battles are key ingredients along with a pinch of prophecies and/or oracles.
Low fantasy plots often revolve around the unlikely or the reluctant hero and how they come to terms with magical realism.
There are no clear-cut genres of fantasy, as overlapping is commonplace. Thinking about where Harry Potter with its Wizarding and Muggle world is placed? Or maybe Alice in Wonderland?
Well, these books are often called Middle Fantasy with both high-ish and low-ish fantasy elements.
A good way to look at it is like a scale with High and Low Fantasy at two opposing ends. Novels often incorporate a bit of both worlds.
The Real Question
Now for the actual brain teaser: Why read this long, elaborate article about subgenres? (or maybe none of you read till this point and gave up halfway through, I have been told that I tend to drone on like Professor Binns from HP)
And the answer is *drumroll* that subgenres are basically the literary counterpart of your Netflix Recommendations. Loved American Gods? Well, that’s urban low fantasy, maybe check out something more from that genre.
Knowing which subgenre your favourites belong to will help you in finding your next read.
Not sure where to start? Here are a few guides to put you on the right track-
– Bhavya Nayak, Delhi Public School, Noida2 Likes