Defining Low Fantasy vs. High Fantasy

Wizards, goblins, werewolves, fireballs, banquets, swords, and poltergeists. The wild world of fantasy literature is as varied as it is magical. Yet there has been a persistent vision of dividing the genre along two general, somewhat vague classifications: “High fantasy” and “low fantasy.”

Let’s just admit right now that these labels, to which I’m curiously loyal, are problematic. The very names suggest a top-down judgment on quality or sophistication. I know this since I am traditionally a bigger fan of Low Fantasy, while my husband prefers High Fantasy. I notice that he parses the difference between the sub-genres like he’s swirling a snifter full of brandy and puffing on a pipe.

In other words, he tries to claim anything masterful and deep as High, and everything else is the equivalent of literary potato chips. Really, he takes his life in his own hands with some of his comments on the subject.

This issue boiled over recently during a day of shopping followed by an evening trip to the pub. All day long we debated the definition of the binary classification, with the topic even being stripped of all its meat down to the carcass of sinew and bone over things like “what IS magic”, what defines a quest, to what extent an objective is “world-saving”, and how to properly pronounce “Tolkien”.

On this rainy day immediately following our lengthy pub debate, I have researched and reviewed our conclusions, and present to you, dear reader, the best definitions of each that we could muster.

The Traditional (Wrong) Definitions

Let’s start with the basics of what literary purists and historical snobs might try to assert: The difference between High and Low is solely based on setting. The idea is that High Fantasy takes place in a totally fictional world that is independent of our own in every concept, and where magic, beasties, supernatural abilities, etc. are an open and essential part of the world.

Low Fantasy, on the other hand, takes place in our world and may have an alternate world/plane intersecting with or bridged to it. Magic, supernatural abilities, beasties, etc. encroach on an otherwise “normal” world and surprise the tar out of some of the populace.

Now, I find these definitions totally lacking, and I scoffed about it heartily last night while dipping my chips into coleslaw. After all, defining whether a book is set in “our world” is surprisingly precarious business.

What if the planet is Earth-like in every way, but is not called Earth? What if Earth is known and exists, but is ancillary to the otherwise independent universe of the story? To what extent must the story’s world history align with our world’s history?

Example: Let’s consider A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones). It takes place on a very Earth-like planet that is not named, and may be Earth if history had taken a different path. Some of the magic, fantastical creatures, and non-human races do shock some of the “normal” human characters (though they are recorded in the world’s histories) and the magic does encroach on what is perceived as a normal, everyday world.

By the old-timey definitions I describe above (thanks, Wikipedia), this would more or less land A Song of Ice and Fire in the Low Fantasy category. Yet, the series is most commonly known as High Fantasy (and I agree with this). Seemingly, the traditional definitions have failed the consensus, and just so.

Instead of leaning on such old, dusty concepts of setting solely dividing the sub-genres, let us consider better definitions (according to me, and the few pints of Guinness that contributed to this).

A Better High Fantasy Definition

I can agree that a true High Fantasy world must be largely independent of any Earthly notions or settings. Fine. However, more nuance is required to reach a diagnosis and accordingly I have a list of High Fantasy attributes that can be tallied.

Think of it like one of those magazine personality quizzes. Check the box if the characteristic matches your story. Then add up your check marks. The more you tally, the more likely it is that your story is High Fantasy.

  • The setting is a unique world completely untethered to Earth and its standards or histories.
  • There is a grand scale and mighty themes.
  • There is a central hero, or band of heroes, who may just go on a quest.
  • The over-arching plot objective is to save the world.
  • There is an unambiguous sense of good versus evil.
  • There are well-developed systems of magic that are an integral part of the world.

Now let us do the reverse and consider the checklist for Low Fantasy stories. Dab enough of these characteristics, and your story is in the “Low” realm (no disparragement intended):

  • The setting is at least partially in our own real world, or something very akin to it.
  • Magic, beasties, supernatural abilities, etc. encroach on the regular world and surprise many it.
  • The over-arching plot objective is personal success, profit, romance, or saving one or more people. Perhaps a race of people.
  • The story doesn’t fit into the High Fantasy sub-category. Yes, it’s a catchall.

Magic Systems

I won’t lie, after describing the above (superior) test criteria, Husband scoffed and made a girly noise into his cider glass and insisted that I had overthought it, and he had the one true solution: In addition to the traditional setting requirement, a massive magical system is also a hallmark of High Fantasy.

This is when things got ugly (and I stole most of his chips). Ranking and judging magical systems in fantasy literature is a sad throwback to bias against the lighter works, and even–dare I say it–potentially misogynistic.

The antiquated notion is that Low Fantasy magic is poorly written and poorly defined, tacked on to a story like a cheap pin. The argument often even devolves into asserting that Low Fantasy magic is often treated as evil, corrupting, and untrustworthy.

Hogwash, I say. The very notion that Low Fantasy worlds are often culturally anti-magic is a call-out to Puritanical witch nonsense, and implies that Low Fantasy characters/societies are usually not evolved enough to ascend beyond such hysteria. While such worlds exist in some Low Fantasy stories, it is hardly characteristic of the subgenre and is a denigrating assumption. Plenty of Low worlds are enlightened, nuanced, and openly magical.

Further, there are many well-developed Low Fantasy magical systems that take the time to craft an intricate, thoughtful world of magics and magic users.

Example: A Discovery of Witches (Deborah Harkness). I feel silly even to name a single example as that accepts the premise of the argument. But in Harkness’s book (and subsequent books), a system of magic is described in detail and used for good and evil motives, being plenty trusted by most magic users and some non-magic users.

Let’s not pretend all High Fantasy titles have well-crafted magic systems, either (*cough*, George R.R. Martin) nor do they need them.

If you ask me, citing magical systems in this context is fantasy snobbery on parade, and I’m pretty sure my girl Rachel Morgan would back that up.

Examples of High and Low Fantasy

Now that we’ve considered the mainstream arguments for subdividing the fantasy genre, let’s look at some popular titles and where they most often land according to most people who discuss such things at length:

High Fantasy Examples

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
A Song of Ice and Fire series, George R.R. Martin
Mistborn series, Brandon Sanderson
Eragon, Christopher Paolini
The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss

Low Fantasy Examples

The Dresden Files series, Jim Butcher
A Discovery of Witches, Deborah Harkness
The Hollows series, Kim Harrison
Mercy Thompson series, Patricia Briggs
American Gods, Neil Gaiman
The Sookie Stackhouse Novels series, Charlaine Harris

Up-For-Debate Examples

His Dark Materials series, Philip Pullman
Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling

The Harry Potter Conundrum

We can’t end a review of this topic without addressing the great Harry Potter conundrum. The series is, all at once, both High and Low Fantasy and is where most of these classification arguments go to die.

Let’s start with magic, which, along with its users encroaches on muggle’s mundane lives, surprising those who become aware of it. Although, usually, the surprise and memory are suppressed, so does that count as encroaching? Also, there are plenty of magical (or hybrid) families who are well aware of magical abilities. So from the muggle side, it’s a Low Fantasy series. From the side of the Grangers, Weasleys, Longbottoms, etc., it’s a High Fantasy series.

Then there’s the starkly defined sense of good and evil, each side fighting for victory throughout. That points to High Fantasy. But in the early books, the good-guy gang is fighting a pretty weak opponent who in the short-term is really only threatening a handful of students and the school. So do we consider that Voldemort was a small-scale opponent or a long-term hazard? I suppose we must since it doesn’t seem right to isolate individual books within a series. So now we lean toward High Fantasy.

Then there is the wizarding world. What does it signal? It is a separate fictional setting, though not necessarily independent of the “real” world. Or is it? Could the wizarding world function if the muggle world perished? And is the wizarding world actually on Earth? Or in another dimension? What happens if planet Earth is destroyed?

Perhaps you can understand how this series has become the ultimate crossover shoulder shrug in the fantasy debate.

One Final Test to Classify Them All

Okay, let’s have a little fun with this subject as we wind up our debate. Over the last pints of the evening, I devised a tongue-in-cheek quiz that should settle any questions with authority. Here it is.

If you answer “yes” to at least three of these, you have a High Fantasy story:

  1. Is there a long-ass journey as part of a quest?
  2. Could your DM make a campaign out of the story?
  3. Are there dragons?
  4. Is there a wizard?
  5. Are the names of characters, towns, and titles hard to pronounce?
  6. Does someone scale a mountain?
  7. Did the author invent an actual language just for the story?
  8. Does the hero brandish a sword?
  9. Does the book have a map of the land?
  10. Will Peter Jackson not stop making movies based on the books?
  11. Are there more than 100 horses in a scene at any time?

Wait, there can’t be just eleven excellent questions. Please do comment with more saucy suggestions for identifying High Fantasy, and I’ll keep adding to the list.

Na lû e-govaned vîn.