High fantasy: Wikis


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High fantasy or epic fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy that is set in invented or parallel worlds. High fantasy came to fruition through the work of authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis whose major fantasy works were published in the 1950s. High fantasy, along with sword and sorcery, has become one of the two genres most commonly associated with the general term fantasy.


Genre overview

High fantasy is defined as fantasy fiction set in an alternative, entirely fictional ("Secondary") world, rather than the real ("Primary") world. The secondary world will normally be internally consistent but its rules are in some way different from those of the primary world. By contrast, low fantasy is characterised by being set in the primary world, or a rational and familiar fictional world, with the inclusion of magical elements.[1][2][3]

The secondary world of high fantasy exists, or may be entered, in different forms, for example:[3]

  1. A setting in which the primary world does not exist[3] (e.g. The Lord of the Rings,[3] Discworld,[3] The Wheel of Time)
  2. The secondary world is entered through a portal from the primary world[3] (e.g. The Chronicles of Narnia;[3] His Dark Materials; Xanth, The Dark Tower)
  3. A distinct world-within-a-world as part of the primary world (e.g. Harry Potter,[3] Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Gods of Pegana)

Where the primary world does not exist, detailed maps, geography and history of the fictional world will often be provided. The secondary world is often based on, or symbolically represents, the primary world. For example, Tolkien's Middle-earth is a fictional "time forgotten to history" based on England and Europe.The Oxford of Phillip Pullman's Northern Lights is similar, a world that is "both familiar and strange". Pullman's preface to that book explains that the setting is "a universe like ours, but different in many ways".[3]

In the case of a world-within-a-world, the secondary world will be marked off from the primary world by a physical boundary. In the world of Harry Potter, this is the platform at King's Cross Station at which pupils boards the Hogwarts Express.[3]


These stories are generally serious in tone and often epic in scope, dealing with themes of grand struggle against supernatural, evil forces.[4] It is one of the most popular subgenres of fantasy fiction. Some typical characteristics of high fantasy include fantastical elements such as elves, fairies, dwarves, magic or sorcery, wizards or magicians, invented languages, quests, coming-of-age themes, and multi-volume narratives.

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.

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, 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.[5] Some examples of this are: J. R. R. Tolkien's Frodo Baggins of The Lord of the Rings, David Eddings' Belgarion in the Belgariad and Malloreon, Terry Brooks' Shea and Wil Ohmsford of The Sword of Shannara and The Elfstones of Shannara, Terry Goodkind's Richard Cypher, Robert Jordan's Rand al'Thor of The Wheel of Time, Pug and Arutha of Raymond Feist's Riftwar Saga and Philip Pullman's Lyra Belacqua of His Dark Materials, Ursula K. Le Guin's Ged. In other works he is a completely developed individual with his own character and spirit — David Eddings' Sparhawk of The Elenium and The Tamuli. 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.[6]

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 joys of an average life. 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.[7] 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: Tolkien's Gandalf of The Lord of the Rings, Rowling's Dumbledore of Harry Potter, George Lucas's Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda of "Star Wars", Brooks' Allanon of The Sword of Shannara, Eddings' Belgarath of The Belgariad, Feist's Macros the Black of The Riftwar Saga, and Goodkind's Zeddicus Zu'l Zorander of The Sword of Truth.

In books, there is also a mysterious Dark Lord, often obsessed with taking over the world and killing the main hero. This character is an evil wizard or sorcerer who often tortures and kills innocent people. This character commands a huge army and a group of highly feared servants. Examples would be: Tolkien's Morgoth of The Silmarillion and Sauron of The Lord of the Rings, Rowling's Voldemort of Harry Potter, Lucas's Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine of "Star Wars," Brooks's Warlock Lord of The Sword of Shannara, Jordan's Dark One of The Wheel of Time, and Eddings' Torak of The Belgariad.

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.[8] 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,[9] 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.[10] 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".[11]

Saga or series

Role-playing campaign settings like Greyhawk by Gary Gygax and Dragonlance[12] 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 and Leigh Eddings, L. E. Modesitt, Jr., Glen Cook, R.A. Salvatore, Paul Edwin Zimmer, and George R. R. Martin 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. ^ Buss, Kathleen; Karnowski, Lee (2000). Reading and Writing Literary Genres. International Reading Assoc.. p. 114. ISBN 9780872072572.  
  2. ^ Perry, Phyllis Jean (2003). Teaching Fantasy Novels. Libraries Unlimited. p. vi. ISBN 9781563089879.  
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Gamble, Nikki; Yates, Sally (2008). Exploring Children's Literature. SAGE Publications Ltd. pp. 102–103. ISBN 9781412930130.  
  4. ^ Philip Martin, The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon's Lair to Hero's Quest, p 34, ISBN 0-87116-195-8
  5. ^ Michael Moorcock, Wizardry & Wild Romance: A Study of Epic Fantasy p 84 ISBN 1-932265-07-4
  6. ^ "EpicFantasyZone homepage". http://www.epicfantasyzone.com. Retrieved 2008-10-02.  
  7. ^ Casey Lieb, "Unlikely Heroes and their role in Fantasy Literature"
  8. ^ 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
  9. ^ Tom Shippey, J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, p 120, ISBN 0-618-25759-4
  10. ^ Joseph A. McCullough V, "The Demarcation of Sword and Sorcery"
  11. ^ Ursula K. LeGuin, "The Question I Get Asked Most Often" p 274, The Wave in the Mind, ISBN 1-59030-006-8
  12. ^ "Dragonlance homepage". http://www.dragonlance.com. Retrieved 2006-03-02.  

See also

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