For many people, when they think of “fantasy”, pictures of massive castles, dragons, and knights come to mind. For other people, they think of monsters and heroes walking in our city streets, an addition to our mundane world.
The distinction there is low fantasy vs. high fantasy, and it’s one of the most interesting concepts in genre-fiction.
In this article, I want to try to understand how one genre of fantasy fiction has gotten to be considered “low”, while alternate world works like The Lord of the Rings have attained a lofty “high” fantasy title.
Low Fantasy vs. High Fantasy: Definitions
In the general sense, high fantasy differs from low fantasy primarily because of the setting. High fantasy novels are set in a secondary world, with very little that links them to your present Earth timeline.
When thinking of high fantasy, think Middle Earth, Roshar, or Temerant. These places are so unlike our own that there’s no way they could be mistaken for such.
Low fantasy, on the other hand, brings fantastical elements into our world. Urban fantasy, superhero movies, paranormal fiction—all of these genres could be lumped into the low fantasy basket. Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, Supernatural—low fantasy.
Now, there is a bit more depth to the distinction between low fantasy and high fantasy that I want to discuss, and that’s literary intent.
Agents of Change
Lori Campbell, author of the literary criticism Portals of Power: Magical Agency and Transformation in Literary Fantasy, believes that low fantasy provides a better opportunity to enact social change because of the close alignment to our real world.
And in some ways, she’s correct. It’s much easier to draw comparisons to real-life problems/events when their metaphors occur in a world we understand. For example, in Harry Potter, the Death Eaters represent a rise in alt-right extremism across the world, and the whole conflict might be seen as an analogy for the fight against racism and fascism.
For some people, this metaphor is easier to digest than the real-life situations were white supremacists commit acts of domestic terrorism in the name of a defunct ideology.
But can we really say that Harry Potter is heralding the anti-fascism banner as it’s sole literary intent? Not really. Can we even say that Harry Potter succeeds in taking a firm stance against discrimination because the low fantasy classification makes the stance more digestible? Maybe, but J.K. Rowling’s recent stint of transphobia and bigotry makes her anti-extremism argument less compelling.
However, Campbell’s argument hinges upon the premise that readers are ill-equipped to draw high-level connections between high fantasy and our real world. That’s certainly not the case.
While low fantasy might outwardly present real-life issues because of its proximity to our reality, high fantasy isn’t “high” fantasy because it’s something only the elite can understand. You might have to dig a bit deeper to get to the point of social contention in a high fantasy novel, but if it’s there, you’ll find it. Readers aren’t dumb, and I feel like that’s what Campbell as implied.
How High is High Fantasy?
What I find really interesting about the classification of low vs high fantasy is that one is held in a “higher” regard than the other.
The implication of the term high fantasy is that it’s an elite genre, that it’s held above low fantasy for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the creation of a wholly unique secondary world ranks above the alteration of our own reality present in low fantasy. Or perhaps the sliding scale of low fantasy vs. high fantasy favors the wildly fantastical over all else.
I think this is where we run into the many problems with classifying fiction. There’s no real way to make a checklist that can accommodate every novel, movie, short story, or video game. Instead of getting micro-specific, we have to draw back and become far more general.
Does this story take place in a secondary world? Yes. Then it’s high fantasy.
That just doesn’t seem like an accurate qualifier, in all honesty. There’s so much distinction between high fantasy work, that there almost needs to have a slide scale all unto itself.
For example, The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss are in a secondary world, Temerant, which makes it a high fantasy. But, contrary to other high fantasy novels, The Name of the Wind doesn’t contain dragons, orcs, goblins, elves, or any other manner of typical fantasy creatures.
The story focuses on human interactions, and with the addition of magic, it seeks to explore how that impacts human relationships and character development.
This kind of high fantasy contrasts starkly to the high fantasy that’s been popularized by works like The Lord of the Rings, The Inheritance Cycle, and The Stormlight Archives.
I do think that we have moved away from such strict standards for identifying genres. With the rise of Game of Thrones-like fantasy, people are more inclined to say that The Name of the Wind is just as much high fantasy as The Lord of the Rings. It might not have dragons or dwarves, but it still counts.
Meeting in the Middle
In many ways, I think that the classifications we put on art don’t fully encapsulate the unique microcosm we find behind each book cover. You can walk into a book store and find a vast range of books in the Fantasy and Science Fiction section. Jim Butcher brushing dust jackets with Neil Gaiman, Seanan McGuire cozying up next to C.L. Moore.
The classifications of low and high fantasy are fairly vanilla in their describing power. Sure, a low fantasy might be set in our world, but it could be about ghost-hunting lesbians or it could be about demigods squaring off against titans.
And any power these books might have for enacting social change is purely subjective. You can choose to read a book as a manifesto for change, or you can read a fantasy book as an escapist joyride. Lori Campbell isn’t entirely wrong about low fantasy being capable of spreading change, but at the end of the day, it’s not just low fantasy. Novels from across the sci fi and fantasy gamut have impact every single day, and it’s not because of their classification, it’s because of their power as motivators.
A book won’t go out to a protest or argue with climate deniers. But it could prompt you to. Books motivate us to do better, and if that’s a $3 dollar store vampire romance novel, we don’t judge.