High or Epic Fantasy

Fantasy stories are deemed “high” or “epic” if they have epic settings, characters, themes or plots. What makes a setting epic? High fantasy is set in an alternative or fictional world with its own rules. Well, most sci fi and fantasy is. I came across the word extraordinary to describe the main character or hero of epic fantasy. An extraordinary nature, extraordinary abilities.

Low fantasy is set on Earth or a rational and familiar fictional world that has magical elements. Hmm… High, low. These seem like value judgments. Sometimes the familiar alongside the otherworldly brings it all alive, adds power and impact. Would we be as drawn to Lord of the Rings if there weren’t appealingly familiar comforts in cozy Hobbit homes before we encounter Mordor?

Apparently Lloyd Alexander coined the term “high fantasy” in an essay presented to New England librarians in 1969. I love Lloyd Alexander novels. (Did you know his middle name was Chudley?) Like Tolkien, Alexander incorporates humor and humble, ordinary with amazing.

A world-threatening problem. The hero grows in abilities, fights evil forces. These are fairly standard to fiction—the arc. One source says the villains are “usually completely evil and unrelatable.” Is that a put-down? I’d say my villains are usually nuanced. The reader will at times be unsure whether they’re good or bad, or will understand why they are what they are. I think what isn’t typically said is that epic or high fantasy usually has castles, some form of knights, royalty, familiar tropes in it. It is not entirely unique or exotic.

By this definition, I do not write high fantasy. I write “low fantasy.” The low/high denotation reminds me of people seeking enlightenment—higher consciousness—as opposed to embodied spirituality. I’ve always said I want people to be able to live in my stories. My taste in fantasy, as a reader, is real life, with magic just over the hedge, homespun, while also taking me on fantastical journeys. I like the combination. Works I like that are identified as high or epic contain enough that’s relatable, down-to-earth, to anchor me. Labels are usually faulty,


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