Sub-genres of fantasy literature are manifold and multiform, each pursuing and providing a different central idea around which a magical, marvelous world is built. However, to truly understand what each sub-genre entails, one must first look into what fantasy itself is as a genre/type of literature. This series of articles will begin with an overview of most commonly referenced theories of fantasy and the fantastic, and will then move on to explore and analyze fantasy’s most prominent sub-genres.
Theory of Fantasy Literature 101 is divided into six chapters including:
3. Theory of Fantasy Literature 101: On Epic Fantasy
4. Theory of Fantasy Literature 101: On Magical Realism
5. Theory of Fantasy Literature 101: On Grim-dark Fantasy
6. Theory of Fantasy Literature 101: On Sword & Sorcery
Middle-Earth, Westeros, Narnia – these worlds are all secondary to our own, they constitute alternative realities in which authors have placed their narratives. The narratives and characters thus become products of that secondary world into which they are deeply immersed. If the author is successful, the audience also partakes in that immersion. Infrequently, however, epic fantasy is equated with high fantasy, but the latter is a term both broad and misleading. A discussion on the differences will be provided, followed by more insights into the epic fantasy subgenre as a whole and where it stands among other subgenres of its ilk, viewed through the lense of J. R. R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin's fantasy worlds.
The label of ‘high fantasy’ is problematic because of its inherent implications. The term 'high' commonly refers to literature that is very well regarded from a critical standpoint. For example, Greek tragedies were seen as a higher form of literature than Greek comedies – this qualitative and hierarchical nature of the term can also be applied to the modern discussions on the differences between classic and genre fiction. Broadly speaking, high fantasy “consists entirely of fiction set in secondary worlds, while the ‘low fantasy’ with which it is immediately contrasted consists of fiction set in the primary world, into which magical objects are introduced piecemeal” (Stableford 2009, p.198).
This definition does not, however, account for the qualitative implications of the term. Besides, the true margins between high and low fantasy are difficult to determine. Brian Stableford, a British science fiction/fantasy author with more than seventy novels to his name, speaks of a division based on a primary and a secondary (alternative) world. By that definition, Tolkien’s work is high fantasy, while the fantasy work of J. K. Rowling is considered low fantasy.
Nikki Gamble (Founder and Director of Just Imagine and Associate Consultant at UCL's Institute of Education) and a Bath Spa University colleague, Sally Yates (2002), wrote on children’s literature. Fantasy was found to be an important aspect of literature intended for young audiences, and when they defined high fantasy, they listed three ways of entering the secondary world – of these, the third is of particular interest because they claim that “the alternative world is a world-within-a-world, marked off by physical boundaries” (p.103). The example they provide is Rowling’s Hogwarts, a space shielded by magic from the non-magical, primary world. However, this is in clear opposition to Stableford’s definition, because Hogwarts does not constitute a secondary, alternative world – it is merely a physically/magically secluded area of the primary world.
Thus, the division of high vs. low is not a clear one: besides, it seems to function best as a negative definition, where one explores what high fantasy is not in order to best explain it. Epic fantasy is far removed from the notions of high vs. low: it stems from the tradition of the epic, of a “long narrative poem, usually based in mythology and featuring legendary heroes” (Stableford 2009, p. 130). In the tale of Gilgamesh, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Ramayana – we follow heroes on epic journeys or amidst epic events where their names become etched into legend. This tradition was continued through epic poetry of later centuries (Milton’s Paradise Lost is perhaps the clearest example), but also existed earlier in the form of texts such as Beowulf or Kalevala. These journeys and events take place on Earth, are a part of the primary world – today we see them as fantasy, but in days of their creation the audiences may have seen them as much more than that (besides, elements of Homer’s Iliad are recollections of actual historical events).
From a qualitative standpoint, the epics could be seen as ‘high’ literature, but their events unfold on Earth, therefore, they slip away from the mold of high fantasy. On the other hand, there is a clear barrier between the world of gods and world of men in Homer for no man can access the world of gods: that fits the aforementioned definition of high fantasy by Gamble and Yates. The notions of high vs. low are much too subtle to be accurately traced and divided. However, the tradition of the epic in grand works of fantasy is most definitely overtly present.
Tolkien was a scholar of the English language, but was also an Anglo-Saxon scholar, and he studied and even translated Beowulf – the influence of this tale on his own fantasy work is unmistakable. The conceptional similarities between the two worlds are irrefutable: presence of ancient monsters, settlements as safe havens amidst a world of danger and darkness, the guiding nature of wyrd/fate, a heroic protagonist (or several heroic protagonists)… Apart from these quantifiable features, however, another element exists: the epic feeling of the narrative. Enumerating each element by which Tolkien achieves epic grandeour of his world falls outside the scope of this article, but one example should certainly be given. Heide Estes (2017), Professor of English at Monmouth University, wrote on the significance of ruined landscape for the Anglo-Saxon societies:
Anglo-Saxon descriptions of their own buildings, and particularly their focus on ruins, gives us a view into a culture that sees itself as built on the remains, literary and physical, metaphorical and literal, of previous cultures (p. 61).
Tolkien uses this in his own world-building where he frequently mentions ruins of once great cities, cultures, etc. This creates a sense of enormity, a sense of history, it gives gravity to each consequent event and location that the Fellowship/Frodo visits.
Similar grandeur was achieved by George R. R. Martin’s, still unfinished, A Song of Ice and Fire, but his is a world built on a different basis: a vastly more (geo)political one. The audience’s interest is maintained because of the political intrigue and the 'game of thrones', with overtly fantastical elements existing in the background. There is a threat of the north and a threat from the east: one wields ice, the other fire. A seemingly localized conflict of multiple waring kingdoms (a single continent) is expanded with the epic history of the enemies from the frozen north and of winged terrors from the distant east that once ruled the very kingdoms that are now in turmoil. Elements of Westeros’ deep history are sprinkled throughout, constantly reminding the audience that they are witnessing a mere moment in time.
Works such as Beowulf, Kalevala, Iliad, and Odyssey are closer to the subgenre of mythic fantasy: they are steeped into the cultures for which mythologies did not signify erroneous belief of past times. In a sense, epic fantasy carries on that legacy, and in doing so becomes an overarching subgenre of fantasy literature - one that within itself may contain all others, one that can be colored differently depending on authorial intent. Therefore, The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire are extremely different pieces of literature even though both are of the epic fantasy scope. Tolkien heavily influenced the development of quest fantasy and, to a certain extent, of sword and sorcery, while Martin's work is a perfect example of grim-dark approach to fantasy literature.
Ria Cheyne (2019), Lecturer in Disability Studies at Liverpool Hope University, notes that "fantasy ... promises resolution—the satisfaction of the problem solved or quest completed—and affirmation" (p. 110). Although Cheyne's comment was made on fantasy as a whole, it especially rings true if one considers epic fantasy for which the completion of the journey is paramount. If we may again take a step back to Beowulf, there the hero is victorious, the day is saved, but the hero also dies. However, what matters for the epic storyline is that the world, the society, the culture gets to live on: epic tales deal with events that have the power to bring about an apocalyptic end. Beowulf is written in a way where such an end is first presented through monstrous humanoids that easily slay human warriors - a hero must step in or the monsters would run unchecked. Similarly, but on a much grander scale, Tolkien's and Martin's epic worlds are also in search of heroes.
Brian Attebery (2018), an American writer and professor of English at Idaho State University, defined epic fantasy as a “story writ continentally” (p. 1) – we witness how the unfolding events affect the known world with interspersed elements of briefer stories that account for the vastness of the world’s history. When Gandalf describes topological locations to Frodo, he also describes them to the readers; when Tyrion Lannister shares wise truths with Jon Snow atop the fantastical, seven-hundred-feet-tall wall of ice, the readers become aware of a time in that story that came before and a time that is sure to follow.
It would be one thing to consider Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom as a singular event that may or may not bring demise to the Shire. But Frodo’s failure of destroying the Ring would not only have brought an end to the Shire nor only to the Middle-earth of the third age that the trilogy speaks of – it would bring an end to the entirety of Middle-earth’s history, to everything that came before. A cataclysmic failure in the grand narrative of Middle-earth’s epic history. In much the same way, if the undead forces of the north conquer Westeros, it will not be an end of that one squabble for the iron throne – it will be the end of Westeros as a whole, an epic, apocalyptical event perhaps labeled as the Great Intrusion.
In epic fantasy, the audience witnesses an event of epic, continental, worldwide consequence where heroes must prove themselves capable of being saviors once again. As grim as epic fantasy can sometimes be, it offers a sense of hope. Ulysses arrives home, Beowulf saves his people, Frodo destroys the ring - regardless of how grand the narrative grows to become, it always hinges on individuals, on heroes. Sometimes they are great warriors of kingly descent, but often they are unassuming hobbits whose triumph stems from courage, love, and a desire to preserve - be it epic poems read by a pyre or contemporary fantasy read in warm households, the values promoted remain the same: everlasting tokens of hope.
Attebery, B. (2018). Introduction: Epic Fantasy. Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 29(1 (101)), 1–3. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26627595
Cheyne, R. (2019). Fantasy: Affirmation and Enchantment. In Disability, Literature, Genre: Representation and Affect in Contemporary Fiction (pp. 109–134). Liverpool University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvsn3pp7.8
Estes, H. (2017). Ruined Landscapes. In Anglo-Saxon Literary Landscapes (pp. 61–88). Amsterdam University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt1zkjxx3.6
Gamble, N. & Yates, S. (2002). Exploring Children’s Literature: Teaching the Language and Reading of Fiction. Paul Chapman Publishing.
Stableford, B. (2009). The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. The Scarecrow Press.
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