If you’re a fan of fantasy, you’ve probably noticed that fantasy can be broadly divided into two categories, high and low fantasy, and that within those two broad categories there are any number of sub-genres, including historical fantasy, contemporary fantasy, paranormal romance, science fantasy, epic fantasy, urban fantasy and more. And not everyone agrees on what these mean; some people use contemporary fantasy and urban fantasy interchangeably, while others consider urban fantasy to be a subset of contemporary fantasy. Take Harry Potter as an example. It can be considered contemporary fantasy, because its setting is contemporaneous and it’s set at least partially within the primary (or real) world. However, it can also be considered high fantasy, because it’s chock full of magic, it deals with high-stake battles between good and evil, and it’s largely set in the secondary (or imaginary) world. At the same time, it’s probably not urban fantasy, because very little of it takes place in a city, and the magical world rarely interacts with the mundane.
As I’ve read, I’ve noticed there are no fewer than three, somewhat contradictory, distinctions between high and low fantasy:
- The level of magic. High fantasy is full of magic. The protagonist is likely a magic-user him/herself, or else is a part of a world stuffed with faeries, magical artefacts, centaurs, and other fantastical elements. However, this definition perhaps excludes what is often considered to be the defining work of high fantasy: The Lord of the Rings. By the time that book is set, magic is on the wane in Middle-earth, and with the exception of the Ring, the driving force behind the plot, and a few gifts from Lothlórien, much of the story is more interested in the politics of the (magic-free) human countries and the actions of the (equally magic-free) hobbits.
There’s also the question of fantasy worlds where magic has been waning or lost and is returning, as in A Song of Ice and Fire or Throne of Glass. In the Throne of Glass novellas I don’t think there’s a single instance of magic, but by the second book in the series it’s quite prominent. Likewise, A Game of Thrones has a few, isolated instances of magic, such as the ravens that carry messages and the Others in the prologue. Several books later, and they’re joined by dragons, a priestess who gives birth to a murderous demon, a child who can inhabit his wolf’s body in dreams, and ever more magic. Where these works fit on the high/low continuum varies depending on which book in the series you’re reading, making it hard to decide where the series fits as a whole.
Moreover, there are urban fantasy series with more magic than you can shake a stick at. Take The Dresden Files, for example. In addition to a protagonist who’s a wizard, there are, amongst others, faeries, werewolves, hexenwolfs, loup-garous, three vampire courts (with a fourth off-screen), angels, fallen angels, magical dogs, shapeshifters, and a sentient island. This series features way more magic than, say, The Lord of the Rings, yet it is unlikely anyone would argue it’s high fantasy for the simple fact that it’s set in the real world.
- The setting. High fantasy is set in the secondary world, while low fantasy is set in the primary world. Generally-speaking, people will accept as high fantasy stories like Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia, which feature protagonists from the primary world but in which the bulk of the action occurs in a clearly-delineated secondary world. This would place The Lord of the Rings, Throne of Glass and A Song of Ice and Fire all firmly in the high fantasy field.
This is probably the simplest distinction, but not necessarily the most accurate. Many readers would argue A Song of Ice and Fire, for instance, is not high fantasy because it deals more with political machinations and non-magical warfare than with magic, and where magic appears it rarely drives the plot.
- The story. High fantasy is epic, about the battle between good and evil, perhaps featuring a Dark Lord and a Chosen One. The stakes are high, affecting entire nations or worlds. Low fantasy is about people, not themes or morality. The stakes are individual, not national. Again, however, this is not a clear-cut distinction. A Song of Ice and Fire has high stakes, and it’s on a grand scale, sweeping over a massive continent and beyond. However, it’s far from a battle between good and evil. More like evil and slightly-less-evil. Similarly, Throne of Glass is, as of the end of book 2, largely about Celaena’s struggle to live a life free of interference. However, I think it’s safe to say that at some point it will be about fighting the clearly evil king.
On the other hand, Harry Potter‘s central plot is about a Dark Lord and a Chosen One, yet at the same time the story is largely Harry’s personal coming-of-age journey, and certainly in the early books Voldemort is more of a shadow than a genuine threat. Likewise, The Dresden Files, while about Harry Dresden’s personal journey, also features high-stakes good-versus-evil battles.
Where, then, do we draw the line? Do we need to draw one at all? To an extent, no, we don’t. If a book has magic in it, it’s fantasy, and in many cases that’s enough. That being said, it can be useful because in one or two words you can give a person a brief description of the overall tone and style of a book, which can be useful when sharing recommendations. Of course, that doesn’t mean that every book must be shoe-horned into a single sub-genre of fantasy. Perhaps a series like Throne of Glass can be described as developing from low to high fantasy, or Harry Potter as high fantasy with elements of contemporary fantasy.
Most sub-genres of fantasy, however, are considered a sub-set of either high or low fantasy, and therefore they are the most basic starting point for categorizing a particular book or series. Based on the three points above, I would argue that the basic distinction between high and low fantasy is one of familiarity. Low fantasy is set in a world we recognise – either the real world or a secondary world that follows more or less the same physics as our own, and often resembles our world in another era – and focuses on personal stories and characters we as readers can relate to. High fantasy, by contrast, is more alien. The world, while internally consistent, follows magic over science, and is set apart from our own. The story, too, is more strange, dealing with grand, sweeping conflicts rather than the day-to-day. Even these distinctions are fluid, though; even as sub-genres of fantasy exist because it is such a hugely varied genre, they fall flat because authors constantly write stories that blend aspects of different sub-genres into their own unique world. Ultimately, it’s worth having a vague understanding of the differences so as to be able to discuss different fantasy works, especially for readers new to the genre, but these categorizations can only do so much.