For a newbie jumping into the world of fantasy. It can be hard to know the differences between the Fantasy genre, and all of its subgenres. Below are some details on what each genre means and I’ll provide an example of what to read.
The main difference between fantasy and high fantasy is that high fantasy is a sub genre of fantasy. Not all books that are fantasy are high fantasy. But all books that are high fantasy are fantasy novels. A fantasy novel can contain as much fantasy elements as the author needs to tell their story. While high fantasy needs to have high quantities of the fantasy element.
What is Fantasy?
Fantasy is the umbrella genre of High and low fantasy. While High fantasy has set rules, a fantasy novel has far more freedoms. Such as setting the novel in our world. It can contain mystical creatures but can also be limited to our environment. It’s all under the command of the author.
High fantasy, unlike low fantasy is set in another world and not on our home planet Earth. There are many examples of this. Such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Because of this setting natural rules do not need to follow the same rules as ours.
Another important aspect is that good and evil have to be clearly defined. There can be very little grey areas and the heroes must always be good. They cannot generally have a bad bone in their bodies. And if they do it is very minor.
Due to this very strict set of rules, it can easily be catered to younger audiences who may struggle to understand that most people are morally grey. They are also great to read when you don’t want to have to think about the character’s ulterior motives. A good example is The Hobbit, where the dragon is clearly the villain.
High fantasy also tends to set its timeline back to when we had knights, kings and castles. But often the castles and knights are used to battle the mythical beasts of fantasy rather than other groups of humans.
Examples include The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit, The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb, Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series. You can read a review of the first book here. All four of these series are based in other worlds and also have varying degrees of fantasy.
However, just because a novel is high fantasy, it doesn’t mean the quality of the writing/plot etc are of high quality. It just means there are a lot of fantasy aspects to the book, such as world, mythical beings and magic systems.
Low fantasy is usually set in our world. Either as present day or in the past, again usually during the age of knights, samurais etc. This means the world building elements do not take up as much room in the novel compared to a high fantasy novel. Harry Potter is a great example of this where it is very much set in United Kingdom and most of the history has remained intact.
Another aspect that doesn’t always have to be included is that the mythic beings need to be more centred in reality. But again this can be followed loosely. Since centaurs, minotaurs and even dragons (not fire breathing) would be possible if evolution took a different turn. It could also include dinosaurs.
Even though it is called “low” fantasy, this isn’t commentary on the quality of the work. Rather it is the quantity of the fantasy aspect in the novel. And the opposite is true with high fantasy.
Other examples of Low Fantasy are Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher and Cassandra Claire‘s Mortal Instruments. These are all worth a read especially since most of the laws of physics etc are very similar to our own.
So What is the Difference?
Fantasy can either be High Fantasy or Low Fantasy. All high fantasy novels are also considered fantasy as this is the parent genre. High fantasy is the type most imagine when talking about it. Especially in the gaming world, either video or tabletop. Both allow the reader to escape from reality.
Check out this blog post for examples of what to read depending on your age group.