SF/F Genre Glossary

What is Epic Fantasy / High Fantasy?

This is a continuation of the Science Fiction / Fantasy Genre Glossary Project posts. For the complete genre index click here.

What is Epic Fantasy /  High Fantasy?

This is what most people associate with the term fantasy. Epic fantasy is often used interchangeably with high fantasy, but occasionally used to describe a separate sub-genre. I won’t go into the differences.

Characteristics of Epic Fantasy / High Fantasy

  • Set in a pre-industrial secondary world where magic is real.
  • The scale of the novel is grand: takes place over a long period of time, and involves multiple settings.
  • The stakes are high: failure of the protagonist will result in the death of a nation, the end of the world, or the triumph of evil over good.
  • The enemy is evil incarnate. There is no moral gray area.

Literary Example: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.

 

Here I’d like to propose a secondary definition:

Epic fantasy can also refer to a multi-volume continuing fantasy series. These series are by nature epic in scope: use multiple points of view, contain complex storylines, take place over long time spans. For example, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time or George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice.

As always, please feel free to add to the discussion!

16 Comments

  1. I would agree with you for the most part. “Epic” type fantasy is all about scope to me; it should encompass a wide area or numerous different social groups and regions, that kind of thing.

    I always thought “High Fantasy” was the kind with elves. You might need to get a ruling on that.

    1. Elves were my first idea (or Tolkien spin-offs) when it came to high fantasy, but I couldn’t find any real definitions while I was doing my research online. Maybe it’s so obvious that no one’s bothered defining it?

  2. I tend to associate ‘High Fantasy’ as being more traditional, with Dwarves and Elves and Orcs, and usually told in a style of writing that is a little older than the modern. Basically, Tolkien. You also know that everything is going to turn out ok, and that there isn’t a lot in the way of blood and gore and over the top violence.

    Epic Fantasy, I’d probably put Terry Goodkind and Stephen Erickson at the top of that list, currently. It’s a lot more ‘realistic’, lot grittier (Goodkind just *loves* beating up his main characters, and Erickson kills them all off), and doesn’t have the ‘happy ending’ that usually resides with High Fantasy. It’s the happiness of the modern world infecting the story telling. Epic Fantasy tales aren’t fables any more.

    1. I think maybe the trouble with trying to define and classify stories is that the genre boundaries overlap. A traditional fantasy can also be epic. However, an epic story may not always be traditional.

      And here I thought this genre definition project was going to be simple 🙂 How naive of me.

      1. Well, for a project like this, you can more or less multiply the actual work required by somewhere between 3 and 5x the estimate, and then you’re close to how it actually turns out. And if you over-shoot, well, just makes you feel better when it’s done quickly.

        I tend to drop authors into one category, regardless of how they may overlap with another. This, of course, makes the assumption that that one defining characteristic is the most important one. And in some ways, I think High Fantasy and Epic Fantasy are mutually exclusive. Both can be ‘epic’ with a lower case ‘e’, in as much as they span many books and have a scope that covers a world, but when you treat them as (Sub) Genres, that Epic Fantasy and High Fantasy mean two different things.

  3. I tend to think of High Fantasy and Epic Fantasy as two distinct genres that happen to have a very wide area of overlap (kind of like the classic depiction of a Venn Diagram, with mostly overlap). In other words, a large category of works happen to be both Epic Fantasy and High Fantasy.

    I wouldn’t classify “High Fantasy” as “Fantasy with Elves” but I would classify it has fantasy in a pre-modern, usually pre-industrial (i.e. medieval) setting, though I wouldn’t limit it to a European or European-like setting, in scope. One definition of High Fantasy is that it is fantasy set in an alternative or “secondary” world: an invented world that can be either wholly independent from or linked to the “primary” or “real” world. This latter is a definition that includes both Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.

    Epic, as suggested above, is really more a classification of scope of the work. In many ways, epic means “big”, but what it really means, I think, is that it hearkens back to the “Epics” like The Odyssey, the Illiad, Gilgamesh, and Beowulf, etc. In other words, an Epic is primarily concerned with the Heroic Journey and set against a Mythic backdrop.

    Given those two definitions, it’s easy to see how many works can be both. However, it is theoretically conceivable that a work could fall in one category and not the other. For instance, Piers Anthony’s Xanth books (at least the first few) are High Fantasy, but not really Epic Fantasy.

    1. Thanks for adding to the debate Stephen!

      I agree that a work could fall in one category but not the other. However, I’m not entirely convinced that “high fantasy” should have so broad a definition, as most fantasies are set in a secondary world (excluding perhaps urban fantasy/magical realism/paranormal). I don’t think I would categorize Harry Potter as high fantasy.

      I think these definitions are not yet quite complete but we’re getting closer?

  4. The “Secondary World” definition comes from Wikipedia. My own definition is mostly the pre-modern/pre-industrial setting part (which you use in your post as well), which is a little more narrow. I bring it up because it’s easily possible to have an epic fantasy that is not set in a pre-modern setting (for example, Stephen King’s “The Stand”, which some would classify as Horror b/c King wrote it, but which I don’t think is horror at all) and which is therefore not “High Fantasy” but is very clearly “Epic”.

    Out of curiosity, though, how would you classify Harry Potter?

  5. P.S. I certainly don’t classify HP as “Epic”, per se, but I think I do personally classify it as “High”.

    That said, also, my definition doesn’t matter much either way. I love reading what I love reading…!

    1. Yes that’s very true! In the end, classifications don’t really impact my enjoyment of a story at all.

      I’m not sure where how I’d classify Harry Potter. It’s set in a contemporary world and not pre-industrial one. I think it might cross the into urban fantasy very slightly due to the city setting, but I think I need to get further along into this genre project to do a better job at classification.

      It does, however, follow the young ordinary boy discovers he has special powers, learns to use them under the guidance of wizened wizards, and must master his powers to save the world, trope. A bildungsroman / coming-of-age story perhaps?

  6. Harry Markov

    Good definitions. I am not sure what it was, but the line between epic & high was thin and concerned the involvement of the world within the novel as to how much politics is involved, treaties etc etc. The high fantasy would be something more passive in battles, while epic would be well ‘epic’ in sense of battles. This my reasoning though.

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