Genrely Speaking: High Fantasy

Welcome to Genrely Speaking! Today we’re going to tackle the genre of high fantasy, a kind of story about the conflict of good and evil, the nature of humanity and formidable legions of heavy cavalry making glorious charges to save the day. Or, at least, that’s what most people think of when they think of high fantasy, probably because they’ve seen the movie versions of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. And in a way, they’re not wrong. The Downfall of The Lord of the Rings and the Return of the King is the definitive example of high fantasy. Tolkien codified many of the things which embody the genre today. It’s true, he based his stories on many of the epic myths he studied and taught as a professor, but stories like Beowulf don’t actually meet all the modern criteria of high fantasy. Strange, but true.

So what are the characteristics of high fantasy? I’m glad you asked!

  1. A world distinct from our own, usually existing in some kind of idealized Middle Ages, with it’s own history, geography, customs and very often peoples. There can be no cheating here. There can’t be connections between our modern world and the world of the story, or really our world at any point. The fantasy world must stand on its own, and any similarities between the two superficial at best. This first and biggest criteria is what keeps the old bardic tales from counting as high fantasy – they all supposedly happen at least in part somewhere in the world as we know it. It also rules out a lot of modern day fantasy such as The Chronicles of Narnia, which contain fully realized fantasy worlds that are visited by people from our own.

  2. An emphasis on the motivations of the character to enter into conflict, usually to protect something or achieve a moral purpose, such as redeem the family name or atone for some crime. This is what rules out a lot of “swords and sorcery” tales from the genre. High fantasy is not about mercenary warriors seeking to amass fortune or wizards delving into lost secrets so they can amass more and more power. It’s about the efforts of people to achieve something they perceive to be a noble end (whether it proves to be noble or not is part of the journey) and in doing so putting the things they value to the test. Most sources will tell you that these two things are the standards by which high fantasy is judged. However, for the purposes of this blog (which is why Genrely Speaking exists, after all) I add one other requirement, as sort of an extension of this one.

  3. The depiction of magic and the supernatural as rare, and outside the scope of everyday life. The purpose of high fantasy is to sketch the conflicts between light and dark in epic proportions. That’s easily undermined if the conflict comes down to who has the most magic mojo. At the end of the day, Sauron wasn’t defeated on the fields of Rohan, or at the walls of Gondor or the gates of Mordor. It wasn’t even because Frodo was willing to go, or Sam turned out to be a determinator made of iron. He was defeated because, decades before, Bilbo had compassion on Gollum and spared his life. Of course, without all those other people working to stall Sauron and divert his attention, it’s unlikely Frodo and Sam could have made the trip to Mount Doom. But without the compassion of Bilbo, none of the rest would have mattered. It was the unforeseen consequences of Gollum standing in the shadow of the volcano with Sam and Frodo that ultimately made Sauron’s defeat possible. In the end, that is the kind of thing that sets high fantasy apart from the rest.

What are the weaknesses of high fantasy? With all the crazy epic plots, focus on the fate of the world and themes of good and evil, it’s very easy to loose track of the individual human characters that are caught up in the whirlwind. Since no experience is really meaningful to us unless we can relate to it, that means the impact of high fantasy can be significantly weakened if not done well.

Note that this doesn’t mean there can’t be nonhuman characters in high fantasy in order for it to resonate with us. Hobbits strongly appeal to the human desire for safety and comfort, things just about everybody wants. They’re relatable, in fact much more so than some of the technically human characters, like Aragorn (how many here are born to be kings?) The importance is to keep these relatable characters in the spotlight as much as possible, while still keeping events moving as well.

What are the strengths of high fantasy? The ability to look at ugly things about ourselves from a safe vantage point. The veneer of a fantastic setting makes it easier for us to look head on at the kinds of evil that high fantasy tries to portray. While it’s very easy for the evil to become totally remote because of the fantastic skin put over it, the best writers remember to keep pointing out the potential for evil that exists in the best of us. Saruman the White and Denethor, Steward of Gondor are both excellent examples of Tolkien reminding the readers that the enemies were not orcs – it was evil. Sure, Sauron and the orcs were handy personifications of it, but the selfish cruelty they represented can easily show up everywhere.

High fantasy is a troubled genre. In many ways Tolkien, as it’s codifier, casts a shadow that people have had a hard time overcoming. Elves, dwarves and rings are all fantasy tropes that are deeply rooted in the audience’s mind. However it also has great potential as a storytelling medium, potential that is at least partly untapped. It’s worth an occasional read, at least to see where the genre is at. What works do you think embody the genre best?

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