Genre Clarification: Epic Fantasy and High Fantasy

Often, you will see the type of fantasy made popular by Tolkien referred to interchangeably as either high fantasy or epic fantasy.

So really, are these two terms interchangeable?

They certainly go hand in hand, but most writers are of the opinion that they are actually distinct subgenres in their own right.

So… how do you tell the difference?

Epic Fantasy

Epic fantasy is relatively self-explanatory in that it deals with the scope and scale of the story.  Something is of epic scale if it threatens an entire world or universe.  Epic stories don’t just involve a village, city, or even country, they are far more wide-reaching and are filled to the brim with so many characters you may need to keep a list of them to hand.  To accompany this epic plot, you often have a novel of epic length.

You know the kind… where they could double as weights or door stops in a violent storm.  Epic stories also tend to have fairly black and white ideas of good and evil/light and dark. Think Jedi versus Sith, everyone in Middle Earth that’s not under Sauron’s control, or Belgarion’s questing party against Torak in The Belgariad.

This genre also tends to include magic in some guise as well as characters on a quest, but these are elements they also tend to share with the high fantasy subgenre.

High Fantasy

In comparison, high fantasy is set apart mostly by its tendency to focus on characters rather than an epic scale of the events.  The world tends to have very specific, well-defined magic rules.  While epic fantasy also often involves a kind of quest, the quest of one – or a few – protagonist takes center stage in a high fantasy piece.  The choices made by the individuals are what matter most. An easy way to picture this difference is to look at The Illiad, with its tremendous cast of characters and major war as an epic fantasy, with its counterpart, The Odyssey, focusing on the journey and accomplishments of one man as high fantasy.

My current favorite is The Dark Artifices series by Cassandra Clare.

If you write in one of these genres, feel free to drop a comment with your thoughts below!


Book MarksGenre Clarification

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