Differentiating between these two sub-genres can be a challenge, especially for those that are new to the fantasy genre. To the untrained eye, these reading subtopics appear to be identical, if not awfully similar.
I took it upon myself to investigate the distinctions between these two sub-genres to pinpoint the defining characteristics of high fantasy vs low fantasy. After collecting my research, I compiled all of my findings in the following article.
Without further ado, let’s dive into it!
The primary difference between high fantasy and low fantasy is the setting. In high fantasy, the story takes place in a secondary fictional setting that is utterly independent of the real world. In low fantasy, the story takes place in a familiar, real world setting.
The setting is the most prominent distinction between high fantasy and low fantasy. Occasionally, even with this particular distinction in mind, differentiating between high fantasy and low fantasy is not so cut and dry.
Some additional information to help you distinguish between these two sub-genres is discussed in greater detail in the latter portion of the article.
The Primary Difference Between High Fantasy vs Low Fantasy
As mentioned above, the primary difference between high fantasy vs low fantasy is the setting of the story. Below, we will be analyzing these precise disparities in the setting.
Definition of Low Fantasy
Low fantasy is defined as a subcategory of the fantasy genre that is identified by supernatural occurrences encroaching on the real (primary) world.
The phrase “low fantasy” is not indicative of the quality of the fantasy work. Rather, the word “low” is a relative term used to express the amount of traditional fantasy outlined in the story.
In the definition of low fantasy, I alluded to the “primary world.”
For those that do not know, the primary world is the real world.
It is the world that we are familiar with. It is the world that we see on a day to day basis. A primary fictional setting is still rational at its core, upholding many of the fundamental rules that govern the universe.
Low fantasy always takes place in this primary, real world setting. Magical affairs interrupt this real world setting. The way low fantasy stories are structured, realism is at the forefront of the story.
The fantastical components are incorporated as undertones rather than centerpieces of the story.
Definition of High Fantasy
High fantasy is defined as a sub-genre of the broader category of fantasy that is characterized by extravagant characters and a massive fictional world that is extensively detailed.
High fantasy is also referred to as epic fantasy. Again, the word “high” does not label the quality of the fantasy work. It is merely a means to indicate the level of traditional fantasy implicated in the narrative.
I mentioned the phrase “secondary world” in the definition of high fantasy. What is the secondary world you may ask?
The secondary world is totally separate from the real world.
A secondary world is a fictional setting that is crafted from scratch. There may be realistic elements involved, but fantasy is the overarching component of secondary worlds. As opposed to low fantasy, the essence of the setting is far more grandiose and theatrical.
Supernatural elements virtually take over nearly every aspect of the novel in high fantasy. The entire framework of the world is altered as a result of magic. The plot, dialogue, setting, theme, characterization, imagery are all influenced.
Thus, the author must take much more into account when incorporating magical elements into the story. Once the magical ingredients are decided upon, it is much more difficult to uproot these supernatural facets from the story compared to low fantasy.
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What to Do if the Nature of the Setting is Unclear
Sometimes identifying whether the fictional world is primary or secondary can be a challenge. Certain worlds are comprised of both realistic and fantastical elements in relatively equal amounts. When faced with a complex situation like this, I ask myself the following question:
Do the other literary elements (plot, characterization, theme, conflict, etc.) appear to emphasize realism or fantasy?
Often times, these other literary elements are the key to unlocking which sub-genre the story belongs to. For instance, if the main conflict of the story revolves around a quest for magical knowledge, I would lean toward high fantasy in a 50/50 scenario.
On the other hand, if the characters have minimal magical capabilities and tend to face problems that are more realistic in nature, I would lean toward low fantasy in a 50/50 scenario.
This is a useful tool because often times high fantasy and low fantasy exist on a scale. It is difficult to find a fantasy narrative that is unquestionably low fantasy or unquestionably high fantasy. Fantasy stories frequently incorporate a mix of both realistic and fantastical features.
Importance of Knowing the Distinction Between High Fantasy vs Low Fantasy
So now that we are familiar with all the differences between high fantasy vs low fantasy, we now must ask ourselves…
Why does the distinction between high fantasy vs low fantasy matter?
For one, knowing the characteristics of each of these sub-genres is a tremendous help to readers that are trying to identify their reading interests.
It can be burdensome to choose the next book to read. There is a vast selection of books available today. So much so that the sheer number of options can be overwhelming to a reader that is looking to try out something new.
It is often difficult to know where to start looking for the “perfect book.”
One helpful tool in choosing the next novel to read is familiarizing yourself with the different literary genres.
You can begin to narrow down your list of possible novels through identifying book genres that pique your interest. From there you can narrow down even further into sub-genres that intrigue you.
Next thing you know, you will have simplified your list of possible books to a specific category of a few book recommendations that suit your interests.
This same process of elimination can be applied to a curiosity in the fantasy genre. Say that you know in your heart that you have a firm passion for fantasy. The only thing is that you have trouble singling out which fantasy novels are optimal for you.
Knowing the differences between high fantasy vs low fantasy will save you the time and energy of having to sift through every fantasy book review out there to find the right book.
If you have a special affinity toward high fantasy, explore book recommendations within this specific sub-genre. The same holds true for low fantasy. You can simplify your research exclusively to low fantasy if you take special interest in this particular subcategory.
Examples of High Fantasy
Here are some of the most prominent examples of high fantasy in literature. I provided these fantasy works to give you some concrete examples of each sub-genre. These will ultimately give you a better grasp at the difference between high fantasy and low fantasy.
A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin
If you were wondering whether or not the highly acclaimed series by George R.R. Martin was high fantasy, here is your answer!
The epic ambience of Westeros, the setting of A Song of Ice and Fire, is a prime example of a secondary world setting.
This medieval world is entirely made from scratch. There are a variety of mythical creatures, such as dragons, as well as supernatural locations that affect the novel dramatically. The realistic elements of Westeros definitely take a backseat to the fantastical elements.
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The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Middle Earth is another iconic secondary world setting in the realm of fantasy.
Again, there are unique mythical species, such as dwarves and elves, that inhabit Middle Earth. Magic is the focal point of this secondary world. The fantasy elements of Middle Earth overtake any semblance of realism in The Lord of the Rings.
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Examples of Low Fantasy
To juxtapose the models of high fantasy, I provided some examples of low fantasy. This will give you some perspective on what types of settings a low fantasy novel describes.
The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks
The Indian in the Cupboard takes place in contemporary times. The plot of the story revolves around a boy in his room who discovers that his cupboard has supernatural powers. Although these supernatural elements are present, fantasy in the traditional sense of the word is rarely present.
The real world setting overshadows the fantastical undertones of the story, deeming it low fantasy.
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American Gods by Neil Gaiman
In American Gods by Neil Gaiman, modern life is the staple of the setting. Elements of mythology play a role in the story, however, the framework of the story is not epic in nature whatsoever.
Unlike high fantasy stories where the world is constructed from scratch, the setting of this novel is modeled after everyday life.
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Is high fantasy or low fantasy more popular?
High fantasy is the more popular of the two sub-genres.
I attribute much of the popularity of high fantasy to the early works of J.R.R. Tolkien. His work with The Lord of the Rings forever changed the fantasy genre, inspiring other author to model their style of writing after him.
Thus, there was a tremendous upsurge in the amount of high fantasy novels released compared to low fantasy novels.
Is high fantasy or low fantasy better to read?
It all comes down to preference.
If you are drawn to intricate, complex mythical worlds so that you can thoroughly escape reality, high fantasy is probably your best bet. In contrast, if you enjoy stories that merely tweak the natural workings of the real world, low fantasy is right up your alley.
If you are asking for my own personal opinion, I tend to lean more toward high fantasy. I just love venturing into something that is completely different from my own life experience!