Of the many genres I’ve encountered over the years, Fantasy remains my favorite. It was the first one I was introduced to as a child. When I was very young, my mother would read the Chronicles of Narnia books to me and my brother before bed. Some of my favorite characters call this genre home. In fantasy there are stories capable of evoking powerful emotions and breathtaking worlds begging to be explored. If one were to examine the fantasy genre closely one would find classical archetypes, philosophical debates, and themes that connect to an audience on a deep, emotional level.
The roots of fantasy stories are the mythologies of human history. Bygone cultures are rife with stories of supernatural deeds, monsters prowling the dark corners of the world, and the eternal struggle between good and evil. These stories (mostly conveyed through oral traditions) were meant to highlight societal norms while simultaneously showing actions a given culture felt were abhorrent. The tales of the Greek gods, the Egyptian pantheon, and the poetry of the Bhagavad Gita are just a few examples of Old World stories containing the elements of fantasy.
The Legend of King Arthur would be a prime example of an Old World story that closely fits our modern understanding of fantasy fiction. It helped inspire the creation of many of the tropes common to the genre. A youth from humble origins is revealed to be the lost heir of the king. A magical sword is used to unite the land under justice and peace. A seductress uses magic to topple the reign of the noble king. All the hallmarks of epic fantasy are there in the King Arthur legend. Quite a few modern authors have written versions of the Arthurian legend, each of which focuses on a different aspect of the age-old story.
Modern fantasy fiction as most readers know it is not a monolithic entity. Various subgenres have cropped up over the last century. Some of the most well-known ones are epic fantasy (often referred to as high fantasy), low fantasy, sword and sorcery, and urban fantasy (also called modern fantasy). These subgenres have developed their own tropes, clichés, and expectations. There are giants in each one of them as well as unsung authors who never achieved mass appeal.
When mainstream culture mentions fantasy fiction, more often than not it’s referring to epic fantasy. Stories such as Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, Chronicles of Narnia are just a few examples. Epic fantasy is at once the most translatable (in terms of narrative structure) and the least successfully translated (due to scale and budget). Often structured around battles of good and evil, epic fantasy contains a narrative perfect for other entertainment mediums. The pitfall of adaptation is scale. High fantasy often involves massive battles, an intimidatingly large cast of characters, and magical elements which require extensive (and expensive) CGI.
The themes of epic fantasy are as large as the setting. Lord of the Rings can be seen as a meditation on the power of internal and external evil. For A Song of Ice and Fire, the overriding themes can be seen as the cost of power and the horrors of war. These are big ideas and that is where epic fantasy excels. Epic fantasy has often touched on philosophical principles like the nature of evil, free will versus fate, and the proper application of temporal power. Unfortunately, the big ideas can also cause epic fantasy to fail as a storytelling medium. This is due in no small part to the laziness of writers who use surface themes without digging any deeper. When literary critics compile lists of “the most important books” one or two high fantasy novels (or series) will make list.
If there’s a high, there’s also a low. Low Fantasy is a debatable label for a genre due to its negative connotation. The name actually refers to the decreased amount of fantastical elements common to epic fantasy. Low fantasy also tends to be set in a real-world type setting, which further distinguishes the subgenre from epic fantasy (which almost always relies on manufactured worlds as settings). Low fantasy often overlaps with modern fantasy but low fantasy is not beholden to be set in the modern day or in an urban environment. Books such as Tuck Everlasting, comics like Preacher, and TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer are examples of low fantasy.
Low fantasy stories can be as grand as high fantasy in terms of overall scale but they tend to focus on more personal stories. Buffy deals with female empowerment as well as serving as a metaphor for teenagers accepting the responsibility of adulthood. Preacher attacks the Judeo-Christian notion of a deity controlling the universe by using motifs and imagery from Westerns, which adds a level of moral ambiguity. Tuck Everlasting confronts our oldest fear: growing old and dying. Personal stories dominate low fantasy in much the same way that massive story arcs and large casts are endemic of high fantasy.
Sword and sorcery fantasy is an interesting genre. Largely defined as self-contained adventure stories with fantasy elements, sword and sorcery incorporates classical elements like from the Allan Quartermain stories. Sword and sorcery straddles the line with historical fantasy, often taking place in fantastical pre-history or alternate Earths. This genre tends to produce a large number of short stories, due to the focus being on single adventures. Serialized stories involving the same character are quite normal. The Conan the Barbarian stories, the Elric of Melnibone series, and the Kane the Mystic Swordsman series are prime examples of the genre. When literary critics decry fantasy fiction as being overly-simplistic, odds are they’re referring to sword and sorcery.
Unlike high fantasy (or low fantasy for that matter), sword and sorcery involves a substantial amount of moral ambiguity. Anti-heroes like Elric and Kane, who possess lustful appetites and penchants for extreme violence, are normal for this genre. Black and white morality doesn’t fit well here, allowing characters to act in ways antithetical to the epic fantasy subgenre. This also allows sword and sorcery to overlap with other genres easily. It’s not uncommon to see a sword and sorcery series have elements of science fiction, dying earth, horror, and cosmic horror show up in the story. Sword and sorcery is strongly associated with the pulp era, where writers like Robert E. Howard got his start and made the genre popular. One of the sharpest criticisms of this subgenre is the lack of strong female characters and the lack of prominent female authors. That trend has changed over the last few decades. There are not as many grand themes in sword and sorcery as there are in high or low fantasy. This isn’t to say that there’s not much meat on the bones of these stories. The emphasis of sword and sorcery is creating a sense of high adventure in the reader.
Urban fantasy is one of the newer subgenres of fantasy, only being recognized as one within the last 25 years or so. The draw of urban fantasy is taking fantastical elements and placing them in modern, urban settings. Like sword and sorcery, urban fantasy lends itself effortlessly to serialized stories. As mentioned before, urban fantasy and low fantasy can often be interchangeable. There’s also a strong connection between paranormal romance and urban fantasy. There tends to not be as many philosophical meditations in urban fantasy as one would find in epic fantasy. What the genre has in spades, though, is intricate plotting, substantive character focus, and a penchant for social commentary. The hallmark series in the genre can be argued as the Anita Blake series, the Rachel Morgan novels, and the Dresden Files series.
As a general rule, urban fantasy tends to be more plot-driven than the other subgenres of fantasy. The subgenre also serves as a counter-point to sword and sorcery. The majority of authors and main characters in urban fantasy are women. Strong female archetypes are the norm, such as with Anita Blake (a necromancer who hunts vampires and other supernatural creatures) and Rachel Morgan (a powerful witch who works as a skip tracer). Law enforcement/vigilantes/private investigators are also the norm, bridging urban fantasy with hard-boiled detective fiction and murder/mystery. I’ve been reviewing the Dresden Files series for the past several months and found it to be a great example of combining an overarching metaplot and personal, first-person driven mysteries. The one downside to urban fantasy is that the stories can become deeply formulaic.
Fantasy as a genre has proven to be a venue for amazing stories. Within the ranks of great writers, fantasy authors are the closest to the Old World storytellers. Fantasy uses the myths and legends of bygone eras to reaffirm and explore our cultural values. Whole worlds and cultures have been created in fantasy fiction, which takes more imagination than your average fiction writer is capable of. The sheer amount of imagination required for a fantasy story to work is what draws me to the genre. It remains an exciting genre to delve into, one I will gladly indulge in for the foreseeable future.