Telling your Highs from your Epics

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 This book dates back to 1986, and Gary admits that it is a bit out of date, but it is an excellent starting point.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.

15 thoughts on “Telling your Highs from your Epics

  1. High Fantasy has pointier crowns & Epic Fantasy has more bracken on their shoes.

    Wait. Does that mean Lord of the Rings is both??

    I still recall my first ever convention panel (on High Fantasy), at which I got frustrated by the fellow panellist who (it felt like) had been attacking everything I said, and asked “if that’s high fantasy, what’s LOW fantasy?”

    To which she replied, “That’s what you write, dear.”

    1. There is a good case for the argument that High Fantasy is read/written by people who think their books are more important than those of other people.

  2. Coincidentally, and unrelated to the chat on twitter, I’ve been thinking about scale, and stakes in secondary world fantasy. When is fantasy an epic fantasy, and when is it adventure fantasy or sword and sorcery.

    I wrote a blog post about it, not yet published by SF Signal.

  3. Can you have Epic Fantasy that isn’t about war?

    It’s been a while since I last read Patricia McKillip’s Riddle Master trilogy, but if I recall correctly, there is no war as such in the story (though there is conflict) – and I would certainly call it epic, since the conflict and its outcome affect several nations.

    A related question: Is The Hour of the Dragon (aka Conan the Conqueror) Epic Fantasy? It does deal with conflicts between kings and sorcerers, and the outcome does have the future of a kingdom at stake. In fact, the overall plot has a lot in common with The Lord of the Rings: An undead sorcerer from an earlier age is awakened, and a magical artifact has to be brought to a certain place in order to break his power. A lot of questing and a few battles take place before this happens. One would generally categorize the book as Sword & Sorcery because of the series it is part of, and the length (ca. 255 pages) is far from epic, but I still think it belongs under Epic Fantasy.

    1. I read the Riddle Master trilogy so long ago that I can’t rely on my memory of it, but it does sound like an excellent suggestion.

      I’d been thinking about Conan the Conqueror myself as an illustration of the point at which Conan’s life changed from being merely heroic to being the stuff of epics.

  4. My understanding of the high/low distinction is the same as that of Wolfe/Clute, mostly because that’s where I came across the terms. Having said that, I heartily dislike them, because it’s impossible not to valorize them to some extent (c.f. high-brow and low-brow), and it’s not desirable to write value judgements into the very names of the genres we discuss. I’d rather ditch the terms entirely – and have, for my own part – than reach for some relatively-random alternative.

    Farah’s mapping of high and low onto social class at least mirrors usage (people do talk about high and low class), but your objection that there’s no reason why a fantasy can’t encompass both seems a sound one. As for your own idea, I don’t really see why ‘high’ should imply Manicheism or ‘low’ moral complexity and relativism. Better to find a more descriptive term for that distinction.

    I wonder how you feel about the Earthsea books as an epic series including heroic deeds that change the nature of society, but doesn’t involve war – in the conventional sense of pitched battles, opposing armies, etc.?

    1. Earthsea is another good suggestion, though to a certain extent large parts of the plot depend on a conflict between the magicians and the dragons. It’s not conventional war, but the Dry Land always seemed to me something that is the product of a war.

      I take your point about not wanting to use high/low as descriptions, but if I have to do so I’d prefer to do so in a way that implies the high is bit silly.

  5. I’ve always thought of “epic fantasy” having a similar place in fantasy to “space opera” in science fiction: large-scale action with the fate of the universe (or a good chunk of it) in the balance.

    Examples: The Lord of the Rings does count, because of the massive armies all over the place and the long journey to Mordor; the Narnia books don’t count other than the last one, where Narnia experiences its End Times, and the current series of Narnia movies is a horribly misguided attempt to turn the stories into epic fantasy.

    1. I think much of the early space opera was more like swords & sorcery in space, but the very term “opera” does imply something done on a grand scale. The term appears to have moved from being a term of abuse to one of grudging respect, which complicates things somewhat. Stableford and Langford address it at length here.

  6. Epic fantasy = broad scope of action. It will involve multiple locations and probably long, tedious travel between them. Because this inherently involves significant discomfort for your characters it usually takes a big motivator (like the possibility of painful death) to make it plausible, hence war is a popular theme.

    High fantasy has elves and dwarves or other magical races, low (ordinary?) fantasy just has magic.

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