Wilson & Alroy on High Fantasy Novels  


So, just what is high fantasy? There's a narrow definition and a broad one, and on this site we use the broad one to encompass a series of interrelated, but pretty distinct, subgenres and subsubgenres, but not subsubsubgenres, unless we've confused ourselves, which happens all the time. Anyway, here we go. (JA)

High fantasy

No matter how you cut it, surely the epitome of high fantasy is J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings trilogy. So, let's start by listing its prominent elements:

  1. A targetted audience of adults or teens, not children
  2. A made-up world (or continent, or at least country)
  3. Made-up cultures, sometimes with made-up languages and religions
  4. Medieval technology, often with a feudal social structure
  5. Magic, often practiced by wizards and the like
  6. Non-human races like elves and dwarves
  7. Monsters like trolls and mythical creatures like unicorns
  8. A pantheon of gods who meddle in human affairs
  9. Epic battles of good and evil
  10. Earth men allowed, but no interstellar travel

Put this all together and you get a common definition of high fantasy, but one leaving you just with Eddison, Tolkien, and maybe one or two others like Pratt who wrote before the mid-60s Tolkien boom, all thanks to the whole epic struggle thing. That seems hopelessly narrow. For example, it completely leaves out William Morris, the clear modern originator of this broad genre, not to mention (say) Dunsany and the sword & sorcery genre or subgenre that he partially founded, or Peake's singular Gormenghast books, or Mirrlees, or Lindsay. It doesn't even really work for Arthurian legends, the definite, authentic medieval antecedent of this whole thing, whatever you want to call it.

You could try cutting it down to bare bones: items 1 through 4. That's going too far, however, because now you're including all manner of fantasy-influenced science fiction, including planetary romances that no-one would call true fantasy at all (see science fantasy below). So, instead we'll use a compromise solution: 1 through 4, and also 10, which safely insulates our little make-believe kingdoms from the real world (even though it allows inserting any number of terran adventurers, which is the most common plot device in the whole genre).

By using such a definition, we're successfully excluding from this discussion not just planetary romance, but all sorts of fantasies in the broad sense, for example, those nominally taking place in the real world, but involving magic (e.g., Harry Potter), near magic (e.g., Charlie And The Chocolate Factory), or supernatural elements (e.g., the entire horror genre). (JA)

Epic fantasy

What, then, to call the Tolkien school? After all, Tolkien imitation has become a major literary industry, and many people do equate it with high fantasy. Perhaps the term epic fantasy, or the hybrid epic high fantasy, is good enough. Indeed, if you google "epic fantasy" and "Tolkien," you get about twice as many hits as with "high fantasy" and "Tolkien." So, this usage actually seems to be a pretty conventional one - sorry, Wikipedia. (JA)

Children's fantasy and fairy tales

One awkward problem with this whole approach is children's literature. We simply chose to throw it out with item 1. However, it's often hard to say what's for kids and what's for grownups. I'd read Tolkien maybe three times by age 12, which isn't anything unusual at all for grown-up fans of fantasy. Tolkien's The Hobbitt was never intended to be anything other than a kids book anyway. At the other extreme, you have otherwise perfectly rational adults like my own brother (name withheld) reading and enjoying all manner of kids books, which is no surprise because many of them are written simultaneously for children and adults.

The classic example of cross-generational appeal is probably Lewis Carroll and his Wonderland. That, however, fails our criteria because Wonderland's random assortment of bizarre characters more or less operates within 19th century British culture, which he was trying to satirize, and has no fake languages or coherent, consistent fake cultures of its own. Then there's L. Frank Baum's Oz, which does sort of have those elements, and many of the others in our master Tolkien list. That, however, is pretty hard to push as being cross-generational.

Things get extremely ambiguous when it comes to fairy tales, which go back forever, not just to the Brothers Grimm. Key high fantasy elements like medieval settings, magic, monsters, and of course fairies run all through that genre. Indeed, George Macdonald's keystone Victorian fairy tales not only were a staple of the Ballantine "Adult" Fantasy series, but were among the few clear influences on Tolkien. Things are so confusing that Tolkien even felt obligated to write a long, rambling, eventually unconvincing essay (included in The Tolkien Reader) in which he tried to define fairy tales and argue that they really were for adults. Ultimately, on this site I'm going to define high fantasy as excluding fairy tales simply because that's common English usage - sorry, J. R. R. - and I'm just not interested in reading the stuff. (JA)

Sword & sorcery

Although William Morris had already invented the invented medieval worlds of high fantasy back in the 1890s, it wasn't until Robert Ervin Howard came up with Conan the Barbarian in 1932 that the subgenre of sword & sorcery was born.

There are some real differences between epic high fantasy and this genre. The former stems from Morris via Tolkien, the latter from Howard; the former often betrays its artistic pretensions with classical scholarship, the latter doesn't, and was produced for pulp fiction magazines and cheap trade paperbacks; the former focuses on conveying a sense of mystery and magic and is often pretty cerebral, the latter is entirely focused on delivering fast-paced adventure plotlines.

All of that aside, most often people point out that epic fantasy involves ensemble casts of characters waging sweeping wars to save the world and blah blah blah, whereas sword and sorcery is usually about, well, some guy who looks like Arnold Schwardzenegger (or actually is Arnold Schwarzenegger) kicking serious butt. I think the latter distinction, which goes right to the heart of the debate over defining "high fantasy" (see above), is pretty academic. Plenty of keystone high fantasy just isn't about the fate of the planet, plenty of Tolkien imitators (or maybe most of them) are shameless hacks, and it's possible to write about kicking butt using polysyllabic linguistic adornment. But in any case, both genres are about heroes battling their way through fantasy worlds with medieval milieus, the afore-mentioned monsters and magic, and typically pantheistic mythologies. So, the connection between them is pretty strong.

Howard did have some influence in his time, with Moore's Jirel Of Joiry and Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories owing an obvious debt. But Howard's original stories weren't published in book form until the 50s, and only really became popular in the 60s with their repackaging in the crassly padded-out Lancer series, contemporary with the Tolkien boom. The books have continued to sell like hotcakes ever since, and naturally a flood of imitations quickly spewed forth.

Perhaps the chief imitator was none other than BAF editor Lin Carter, who conspired with L. Sprague de Camp to rewrite and stretch out the Lancer books, and then produced a long series of his own series. According to Carter, the other major sword & sorcery authors through the early 70s were Poul Anderson, John Jakes, Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Andre Norton, and Jack Vance. I discuss Anderson, Norton, and Vance under "Science fantasy." Leiber's just plain fun, and although Moorcock's terrible, I'm interested in him because I found his hero Elric compelling when I was a child.

Jakes' Brak the Barbarian books appear to be pretty minor, and not clearly more important than other late 60s Conan ripoffs like Gardner Fox's Kothar series and Karl Edward Wagner's Kane series. More interestingly, Jane Gaskell's Atlan novels, like Moorock's, just barely predate the Lancer books and are not merely Conan imitations - they feature a female hero, possibly only the second in sword & sorcery history after Jirel Of Joiry. There are plenty of other sword & sorcery authors I'm not even going to worry about. (JA)

Dark fantasy

Although apparently some horror fans call any horror with a supernatural element "dark fantasy," I've more often seen the term used by fantasy fans to refer to high fantasy that incorporates a major element of horror. The prototypical example is Lovecraft, although Smith is very much part of the same genre, and maybe even more so, because his work consistently uses high fantasy themes, whereas Lovecraft is all over the place. I've also seen this term applied to Moorcock's Elric series, but I'm not really sure I see the connection yet. Moorcock does seem to like scary monsters, and Elric is a nasty guy who uses black magic to further his own ends, but I wouldn't call his work Lovecraft-like. Maybe I just need to read more of each author. (JA)

Historical fantasy

Cabell Swann Kurtz?

Science fantasy

A remarkably common premise of science fiction is a world where high fantasy tropes like medieval-like kingdoms, sword-wielding heroes, alien species masquerading as mythological beasts, and even science-based pseudo-magic all abound. Typically, the heroes are space travelling humans who land on primitive worlds - witness the seminal (and bizarre) A Voyage To Arcturus or Ursula K. Le Guin's Ekumen series, which constitutes much of her ouevre. Marion Zimmer Bradley's endless Darkover series and Anne McCaffrey's equally endless Dragonriders of Pern series are also generally in this tradition. That's the high end: the low end is an endless series of out-and-out Burroughs ripoffs called sword & planet stories (see below).

I'm not very interested in this broad genre of "planetary romance," because it's just too far from fantasy and I've only got so much "leisure" time to waste. However, I'm making an exception for Andre Norton's original 1960s Witch World series, because it's apparently more similar to standard high fantasy than most other books in the subgenre, it's set in a parallel universe instead of a distant planet or solar system, it's relatively early, it was considered to be sword & sorcery fiction by contemporaries like Lin Carter, and I'm curious to see Norton's point of view as a female writer.

I'm also making an exception for two books that use the transported macho Earth adventurer premise, but take place in out-and-out high fantasy worlds that willfully throw together traditional fantasy elements: Anderson's Three Hearts And Three Lions, and Heinlen's Glory Road.

A major subgenre of science fantasy, and not of planetary romance, is the "Dying Earth" scenario. The term was spawned by a Jack Vance novel from 1950 that I'll review, but the concept goes back to William Hope Hodgson's 1912 The Night Land: millions of years in the future, the sun is dying, and the only surviving humans have regressed to primitive technology, creating an excuse for what is fundamentally fantasy fiction. An even earlier precedent is H. G. Well's The Time Machine, but that differes importantly because a contemporary human is the main protagonist. As it happens, there aren't really that many Dying Earth books from before the 1980s, so I won't be wasting much time with them. (JA)

Sword & planet

While we're on the topic of science fantasy, if you're not familiar with Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars series, you must have slept your way through the early 20th century in sci fi 101. The basic premise of an Earthman being transported to a inhabitable Mars (or Venus, or whatever), crossing swords with humanoid villains, and making off with a princess in the predictable denouement goes back to Edwin Lester Arnold's 1905 Gullivar Jones, and arguably even to Wells and Verne, but the John Carter series was one of the all-time most influential works in early science fiction and fantasy. Like Howard's Conan series, it inspired a long list of imitations after being revived during the 60s SF/fantasy boom, enough so that the term "sword & planet" needed to be invented to describe the subgenre.

Certainly, there's a real connection between high fantasy and the Warlord of Mars scenario: they both stem from turn-of-the-century heroic action/adventure pulp fiction a la Haggard, and the whole "save the princess through enlightened swordplay" thing is also the main plot device of sword & sorcery. However, it's a stretch; the subgenre doesn't really share too many themes with high fantasy or even high-end planetary romance (see above). And I've got my hands way too full. So, I'm going to take a pass on this body of sophisticated literature. However, Wilson has plans to at least tackle the original John Carter books. (JA)