Do you love fantasy literature? Do you know where it came from, or how it became what it is today? Is there a particular sub-genre that you prefer over others? Do you know how many different kinds of fantasy genres there are, or what they are?
Navigating the murky waters of fantasy literature and its accompanying sub-genres can be a daunting task, especially for the newcomer. I hope to shed some light on the darkness, and reveal what may be some hidden wonders.
In this second section of a three-part journey, I’ll be examining each of the major sub-genres of fantasy more closely. In the first part, we looked at the history and evolution of the fantasy genre as a whole. This time, we will be focusing more on the content and differences of the four major sub-genres of fantasy literature. In the third part, we will explore the more niche sub-genres and sub-sub-genres that tackle very specific themes.
This is not intended to be a complete or exhaustive list. The sub-genres featured here are ones that I feel are the more widespread or influential types of fantasy. Also, there will be examples of authors or books for each sub-genre. I make no judgement as to whether these works are the first, most important, or best quality works among their peers. They are, merely, examples. This is an editorial article, and while I try to be as informative and objective as possible, my own experiences and opinions will be represented herein.
With so many sub-genres of fantasy to cover, it can be difficult to even know where to start. Many of us have been reading fantasy for years, or even decades. We know what we like, and generally have a good idea of where to look for it. Many will even have our own favorite sub-genre and will seek out new works in this category.
For those new to fantasy literature, or those who wish to embark on a journey of discovery, figuring out which sub-genre to explore can be a difficult decision. The first thing to ask yourself is, “What kind of story do I want to read?”
Are you looking for a world-changing struggle against the powers of darkness? Maybe a rogue scoundrel stalking the night? Perhaps the adventurous tales of a marauding swordsman that are full of action more suit your interests. Or maybe you want to laugh at the hi-jinks of a group of half-witted goblins! Just from these questions, we can see that the fantasy genre has a lot of options!
When many think of the fantasy genre, the typical definition that comes to mind fits the sub-genre of Epic Fantasy. A standard definition of epic fantasy can be considered thusly:
Epic fantasy is a sub-genre of fantasy literature wherein the scope of both the setting and the story is large, in as much as it often involves world-changing events such as wars between nations.
The quest to bring the one ring to Mordor in the Lord of the Rings trilogy by Tolkien is probably the most famous example of this sub-genre. The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan is also another great example of epic fantasy.
When you pick up an epic fantasy novel, you usually know what you have in your hands before you even crack it open. It is probably going to be big, and heavy! If you look on the shelf, there might be two, five, or fifteen more volumes after the first! Often, epic fantasy spans millions of words!
There are a few features of epic fantasy that make it what it is, and other features that one expects to see but are not definitive for the genre. What really makes a story fall into the realm of epic fantasy is two things: the scale and the consequences. Epic fantasy deals with events spanning entire nations, an entire world, or an entire universe. These events are never trivial in nature, and the very fate of the world may be decided within these prodigious volumes. At the very least, the borders of nations or fate of a populance are at stake.
Some features are less defining of epic fantasy, but often appear in these books simply due to the scope of the conflicts addressed. The most obvious of these is the presence of massive armies. They may be on the march, or there may be pitched battles between thousands of warriors. Even if armies are not the focus of the book, they’re probably going to get a mention. Another usual feature is the “Dark Lord”. Often, the primary antagonist in epic fantasy is the ruler of a kingdom in his own right, or some dark force bent on world domination. Finally, one often sees the “Fellowship” (to borrow from Tolkien) present in epic fantasy. A large cast of diverse protagonists set on identical, parallel, diverging, and/or converging paths to achieve a common goal.
Epic fantasy and high fantasy share many common themes and attributes, but the next section will focus on the distinction between the two. For now, let us define High Fantasy.
High fantasy is a sub-genre of fantasy literature which takes place in a secondary world setting which contains mythical creatures, cosmological beings, and/or magical forces. High fantasy also deals with the actions and decisions of one or more protagonists as they undertake some sort of mission or quest.
Fine examples of high fantasy would be the Earthsea Cycle series by Ursala K. Le Guin and the Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb. In these series, there are elements of magic in a secondary world, but the story is more concerned with the journey of the protagonist than any world-changing events.
When we pick up a work of high fantasy, we have many expectations. Among these are a world full of magic, and this is probably one of the most defining features of high fantasy – the other being fantastic creatures. Wizards, dragons, and heroic warriors wielding enchanted swords are all things one looks for in high fantasy. Also expect to meet some interesting characters from diverse cultures, such as dwarves and elves!
None of these things, of course, are necessarily definitive of high fantasy. They are all, however, ingredients in the genre. Should you take them all out, you no longer have high fantasy. A world without magic but populated by elves and dwarves could still be considered high fantasy, as could a world peopled only by humans but full of magic! Among all of the sub-genres of fantasy, high fantasy may be among one of the hardest to define. The easiest rule of thumb, though, is to ask if the setting is entirely fictional and if there are elements of the story that do not and could not exist in our own world. If you can say yes to both of these questions, then you are most likely looking at high fantasy.
Here is where the real debate starts! Depending upon whom you ask, some will say that epic fantasy and high fantasy are interchangeable terms. In fact, Wikipedia is one such resource that does just this:
High fantasy or epic fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy, defined either by the epic nature of its setting or by the epic stature of its characters, themes, or plot.
Does that not sound like our definition of epic fantasy? Where are the elements of high fantasy in that definition? Where is the secondary world, magic, and mythical creatures?
Better questions can be asked to settle this, though:
Are high fantasy and epic fantasy mutually exclusive?
According to our definitions, high fantasy must be set in a secondary world with unrealistic elements and epic fantasy must contain elements of setting or story that have a word-changing scope.
A high fantasy setting could be the location of an epic war of nations, and likewise and epic war of nations could involve magic and mythical creatures.
No, they are not mutually exclusive. A story may contain elements of both sub-genres.
Are high fantasy and epic fantasy mutually inclusive?
Again, high fantasy defines a setting of the fantastic, while epic fantasy defines a scale of events.
A high fantasy story need not concern itself with world-changing events.
An epic fantasy need not include magic or mythical creatures.
No, they are not mutually inclusive. A story need not contain elements of both sub-genres.
Why is there such a debate?
Many works of fantasy literature do not fall neatly into a sub-genre definition. Often, they will toe the line between two different categories, or dive into both with enthusiastic aplomb! Do not think that any story is limited to only two categories. Often, a book might sit comfortably into three or four definitions.
The reason for the high fantasy versus epic fantasy debate is that there have been so many epic fantasy books written that occur within high fantasy settings. This is not a rule, but it is the most common occurrence of the genre. I will admit that I cannot think of a single epic fantasy that does not count as well as high fantasy. Some may argue that the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin is not high fantasy. Go take another look, though, and I’m confident that you will notice some dragons and magic in those books.
Reluctant heroes, simple plots, exotic settings, and beautiful women are elements of the heroic fantasy. I could not define this better than L. Sprague Le Camp did in her introduction to the 1967 edition of Conan by Robert E. Howard (which is an excellent example of this sub-genre.)
[Heroic fantasy is]…fiction wherein one escapes clear out of the real world into one where all men are strong, all women beautiful, all life adventurous, and all problems simple…
The focus of the heroic fantasy is often on a singular protagonist. This does not preclude the existence of a strong ensemble, but their own arcs will be far secondary to the main character’s. Often, this protagonist will be a strong, yet simple. Often of humble origin, he will find himself thrust into the plot against his will and forced to overcome challenges he had never expected to face.
Other times, our hero may simply be on a journey of self discovery. Possibly, he is a sell-sword simply seeking to fill his own purse. Regardless, the focus will be on this one character who most likely is handsome and resorts to wielding steel to solve most problems. These problems will be small in scope. The danger is immediate, and the threat is to the protagonist himself, another character, or a small populace.
As the name of the sub-genre implies, however, we expect our protagonist to be heroic. Saving the damsel in distress, defeating the crooked politician, or slaying the rampaging monster are things he will do based upon his own moral code more than for his own profit. One telling sign of a heroic fantasy is when the arc of the main character is more important than the overall plot of the story.
Sword and Sorcery is often considered a cousin to the heroic fantasy, and it is possible for them to overlap. More often than not, however, a story will fall neatly into one or the other sub-genre. Our next section will endeavor to explain the distinctions.
Sword and Sorcery is a sub-genre of fantasy that focuses on a single morally compromised protagonist involved in fast-paced and plot-focused adventures in an exotic fantasy setting.
The Swords series by Fritz Leiber is considered by many to be the founding work of this sub-genre. In these books, the warrior Fafhrd and the magic-wielding rogue The Grey Mouser are set into daring adventures. More often than not, however, their primary goal is either their own well-being or the acquisition of wealth.
Like heroic fantasy, sword and sorcery will involve simple stakes and a narrow setting. There will not be world changing events. The conflict may be stealing a ruby from a wizard’s tower, or defeating some monster for the treasure in its lair.
Unlike heroic fantasy, the focus is not on the character’s journey. Rather, the protagonist(s) have a rather flat arc. This is not to say they are not interesting, but they do not change over the course of the story. The focus is more on the plot, the conflict, and what the actions the protagonist(s) must take to overcome the challenges placed before them. This method of storytelling is ideal for a serialized character, because the character remains the same and only new plots must be devised.
Also, you probably noticed the use of the possible plural “protagonist(s)” in the last paragraph. This was deliberate, because while sword and sorcery stories may only involve one main character, there is very often two. The very name of the sub genre implies the presence of a warrior and a wizard working together, although this is by no means a rule of the genre.
Debate time again! This one is much more simple, however. The problem we have is that the definitions of both genres share two very important things in common: focus on an individual or a small number of characters, and a narrow scope of events and consequences. The lines between heroic fantasy and sword and sorcery are definitely blurry, but I think that there are two main elements to examine when defining which sub-genre a work fits into.
The first of these is which literary element is the focus of the story. If it is the character arc of the protagonist, we are most likely looking at heroic fantasy. If the character has a flat arc, and the focus is on the plot itself, then this would be Sword and Sorcery. The second thing to ask about is the morality of the character. If the character seems to do what is right because it is the right thing to do, we are most likely dealing with heroic fantasy. If the character is only interested in his own well-being, then this sounds like sword and sorcery.
What about a plot-driven story about a morally upright citizen, or a robust character arc about an ethically questionable scoundrel? This is where things become confusing, and I would say that these stories toe the line between the two sub-genres. I would, however, lean more heavily towards our first distinction and look more at whether the story is plot-driven or character-driven.
Click here to continue to part three of The Fantasy Genre, where we will continue to explore the sub-genres of fantasy literature. This next installment will look at the more specifically defined subgenres such as urban fantasy, flintlock fantasy, and dark fantasy. See you again soon!