Subgenre Study: High and Low Fantasy

Today we will be looking at High and Low Fantasy and the confusion surrounding the terminology.  It has nothing to do with how good the stories are (Eragon, for example, is high fantasy but most would argue not high quality) but, rather, which fantasy tropes they incorporate.

High Fantasy, sometimes called Epic Fantasy, generally encompasses “traditional” fantasy tropes.  It takes place on a made-up, entirely fictional world, and usually incorporates magic and monsters into the plot.  Low Fantasy, on the other hand, takes place in the real world and may be more subtle in its fantastical elements.

Lord of the Rings is the quintessential High Fantasy but, according to some people, so is Harry Potter.  See, High Fantasy breaks down into three subtypes: 1) the completely made-up world, like Middle Earth, 2) the travel from the real world to a fantasy world, like Narnia, and 3) a made-up world within the real world, like Harry Potter.  High Fantasy often involves a plot of epic scales — war, world domination, the end of the world, things like that.  The plot must be bigger than the characters.  Frodo must destroy the ring, or Sauron’s minions will take over the world.  Prince Caspian must defeat the Telmarines, or the native peoples of Narnia will perish.  Harry Potter must defeat Lord Voldemort, or the world will fall into ruin.  You see my point.  High Fantasy stories often include a classic hero who goes through the Hero’s Journey and focus on a fairly black and white Good vs. Evil.  Common plot elements include prophecies and old, mysterious mentors (who often die, at least temporarily, so the hero can come into their own).

Low Fantasy involves fantastical elements/happenings in the normal world.  What denotes it from something like Harry Potter is that, while Harry Potter takes place in the real world, almost all the story occurs in the made-up magical world.  To make Harry Potter Low Fantasy, Harry would have to live in a normal neighborhood and would probably go to a normal school and would have to hide his powers from the other students.  Low Fantasy focuses on normal lives that are disrupted by fantastical occurrences. The plot is usually more local to the characters, often only affecting them directly, but can involve more epic storylines.  Sadly, Low Fantasy is most usually described as not High Fantasy, so many definitions of this subgenre go along the lines of “If it’s not High Fantasy, it’s Low Fantasy.”  Stories as diverse as Pippi Longstocking and The Dark is Rising cycle are considered Low Fantasy.  A lot of children’s fantasy, which often involves children stumbling upon supernatural elements, perhaps that adults cannot see, is Low Fantasy.

We can go on forever.  High Fantasy tends to come in massive tomes; Low Fantasy can be any size.  High Fantasy tends to be based off Medieval Europe; Low Fantasy can be anything.  Etc, etc, et al.

What do you think, Squiders?  Does a massive High Fantasy series get your heart a-pumping?  Do you prefer the subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) reality-changing ways of Low Fantasy?  Recommendations of books, movies, TV shows for either subgenre?

7 responses to this post.

  1. Great post! While I do enjoy LOTR, I’m more fascinated by low fantasy. You mentioned mostly children’s low fantasy, but Audrey Niffenegger writes low fantasy very effectively for adults. I especially enjoy Her Fearful Symmetry. I would also say that classics such as Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde could perhaps be classified as low fantasy.


    • Interesting thought with Frankenstein and Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — but I would almost put them into science fiction, as both plots are directly related to “science,” as it were.


  2. Very helpful post. I’ve always been a bit confused between the two.


  3. I enjoy both, although I’ve been on an epic fantasy kick lately. If you don’t mind massively huge books, I’d recommend Brandon Sanderson’s “The Way of Kings.”


  4. I enjoy a bit of both when reading, but I find that I prefer low over high fantasy when writing.

    There’s something that bugs me a bit about this definition– it seems quite adamant on saying that low fantasy always takes place in the real world. One of my favourite storylines that incorporates low fantasy, the one found in the Thief games, does take place on Earth, though on a version with a heavily altered history, and that’s something that can only be found out with a bit of observation and research.

    In my opinion, a more accurate definition would be that low fantasy is prone to taking place in either the real world, or a world that is very similar to the real world.


  5. Posted by SleepyDragon1320 on 2013/09/30 at 3:17 PM

    Reblogged this on Sleepy Book Dragon and commented:
    A very interesting look at the differences between high and low fantasy.


  6. […] the Fantasy genre Arthurian Fantasy Comedic Fantasy Dark Fantasy Fairy Tale Fantasy Fantasy Romance High and Low Fantasy Historical Fantasy Mythic Fantasy Off-world Fantasy Quest Fantasy Sword and Sorcery Urban […]


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