Yesterday the #FeministSF chat on Twitter was looking at Epic Fantasy, in particular whether it is possible to have an Epic Fantasy that isn’t all about war. During the discussion someone asked what the difference is between “Epic Fantasy” and “High Fantasy”. No one had an easy answer at the time, and anyway it isn’t the sort of thing that lends itself easily to 140 characters. However, shortly thereafter I had dinner with Farah Mendlesohn and Edwards James, so I asked them for an opinion.
Before getting on to their responses, I should note that Wikipedia has an entry for High Fantasy. It isn’t very helpful as it starts of by equating High and Epic Fantasy. However, it does provide an alternative definition, which I will return to in due course.
In search of a definitive answer, Edward reached for Gary K. Wolfe’s Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy. This book dates back to 1986, and Gary admits that it is a bit out of date, but it is an excellent starting point. Gary’s definition references an ur-text: The Fantastic Imagination: An Anthology of High Fantasy, published in 1977. In their introduction the editors, Robert H. Boyer and Kenneth J. Zahorski, describe High Fantasy as fantasy set in a secondary world, as opposed to Low Fantasy which is set in our world.
Edward, Farah and I all agreed that this was a fairly useless definition as it bears no relation to how the term is used today. It is a useful categorization when looking at the structure of fantastic stories, but the term High Fantasy has always seemed to me to be more about the subject matter of the story, not about structural devices. Interestingly, however, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) also uses this definition. As I am in London at the moment, I will try to make time to talk to Mr. Clute about this.
Anyway, onwards. Farah suggested a political definition. That is, High Fantasy is all about the doings of royalty and the nobility, while Low Fantasy is all about ordinary people. That’s in interesting option, though my immediate thought was of The Lord of the Rings. Clearly there are kings and queens involved, but the central story has very deliberately been made about ordinary people — the Hobbits — who have been caught up in these momentous events.
My own preferred definition, which is cited in the Wikipedia article, is that High Fantasy concerns itself with the battle between Good and Evil, whereas Low Fantasy eschews such moral absolutism. I guess that’s a sort of theological definition.
What, then, of Epic Fantasy. Wolfe and Clute are in agreement here that Epic Fantasy must share some of the attributes of the Epic — that is, a lengthy prose poem dealing with the exploits of great heroes, and often of the foundation of a nation. Both men bemoan the fact that the term has become somewhat debased thanks to the habits of marketing people who have used the word “epic” to mean simply “very good” or even just “very long”. Epic fail, perhaps. Clute in particular is keen to distinguish the Epic from Heroic Fantasy or Sword & Sorcery. That is, many fantasy stories deal with the adventures of great heroes but, unless those characters cast a shadow on history thanks to their involvement in great events, their stories cannot be described as Epic.
It seems fairly obvious to me that while a High Fantasy (regardless of your definition) can be Epic in scale, it is not necessarily so. As to the original question, it seems to me that it would be quite hard to write a story that covers momentous historical events and significant social change without involving conflict of some sort, and at the very least the threat of war by some of those involved. A Feminist version thereof could not hope to avoid the topic of war. All it could do is show that war is neither the first, only or best recourse in such circumstances. I recommended the work of Laurie Marks and Glenda Larke.