Question: What is the difference between high fantasy and low fantasy?
There are several ways people have attempted to define these terms. Essentially, the difference has to do with the extent to which the story is set in the real world versus
a world that is far removed from present reality. Low fantasies take place in worlds that largely resemble the real world, with some fantastic or supernatural elements added. High fantasies take place in different worlds, with different natures, that are mostly unconnected to the real world.
For instance, The Lord of the Rings
is a high fantasy that takes place in a different world (Middle Earth) that resembles ancient Europe. The author, J.R.R. Tolkein may have expressed the belief that in his mind Middle Earth was our world, but there are clear differences such as the existence of magic, species (intelligent and non) that do not exist in the real world world, and a rich history of events that did not happen in real history.
C.S. Lewis's Narnia books are similarly set in a world whose only connection to ours is a magic portal. Again, though Narnia resembles something out of our history, it is a world that is different in many ways (magic, talking animals, mythological creatures, etc.). Peter Pan
is another example in which a magical journey which only a few can take leads the characters to a world that resembles the past but where magic occurs and mermaids and fairies live.
We should also note that, in a high fantasy, the fantastical elements such as magic and other species are accepted as normal by the inhabitants of the fantasy world.
So to summarize, high fantasy worlds are separated from the real world by...
1. Apparent historical period. They frequently resemble a period of history far removed from the reader's (typically one in which technology and civilization is less developed).
2. The presence of supernatural powers and species that don't exist in the real world.
3. Travel from the real world to the fantasy world is either minimal or non-existent.
4. The supernatural elements of the fantasy world are accepted as natural throughout the world.
Often, high fantasy stories will involve the exploits of upper class characters, such as kings, queens, knights, etc., in addition to the other elements. However, this is not a rule.
Note too that, if a story resembles a high fantasy except that the world contains advanced technology rather than or as well as magic, it will generally be called by another name. If spaceships are involved, it may be termed a "space opera" (e.g. Star Wars
). Without spaceships, it may be called a "planetary romance" (e.g. John Carter, Warlord of Mars
for a low fantasy...
Low fantasies usually take place in a world that is almost identical to the real world, with the mostly same history and geography. However, low fantasy worlds are based on the idea that there are things in the real world that humanity does not know about. These can include species that have remained hidden for the most part (vampires, werewolves, the Loch Ness monster, etc) or things that operate on different physical laws we have not discovered (magic).
Low fantasies can include urban fantasies, such as Twilight
or Kelly Armstrong's werewolf books.
In some low fantasies, magic existed in the story world in ancient times, even if it can no longer be created at present. Consequently, some objects or beings left over from the past still possess magic properties. (This is a common device in gothic stories.)
Sometimes, a low fantasy world is based on the idea that a separate community of magical or supernatural beings exists in the real world, but is hidden from most people. Examples include Harry Potter
, City of Bones
, or Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children
Low fantasy worlds provide much easier interaction between between the fantasy elements and "real" world elements, even if it is only one-way. For instance, in Harry Potter
wizards easily interact with the muggle world, although they keep muggles from visiting or seeing certain parts of the wizard world, such as Hogwarts. Similarly, vampires and werewolves usually manage to keep their existence a secret from most humans, while still interacting with and feeding off humans on a regular basis.
To help with the secrecy, the supernatural community is usually either small or has access to magic that helps keep them hidden.
So a low fantasy world...
1. Resembles the real world for the most part, but...
2. Includes supernatural species or magic within the real world.
3. Is one in which knowledge of the supernatural elements is kept secret from ordinary people.
4. Feature interaction between people in the real world and the supernatural elements.
Some people think of low fantasy as fantasy stories where the major characters are lower class, but this is untrue.
Finally, some alternate history stories occupy a middle ground between high and low fantasy. I'm thinking here of stories that take place in a world that resembles the real world except for one important change in history, such as a major event that happened differently or a supernatural element or being that caused history to unfold differently. In such cases, the fantasy world shares a history with the real world - but only up to a certain point of departure. The story takes place long after this departure point, so that the world looks quite different from our own.