The Varieties of Fantasy

Fantasy is usually idealistic: In fantasy, the inner world of psyche is often more real than the physical world. Indeed, the physical world is little more than a cloudy mirror reflecting the soul.

1. High Fantasy

High Fantasy represents an ongoing markets for those readers who were dazzled by J.R.R. Tolkien’ LOTR and want to red more stories like it. High Fantasy seeks to  deliver what Tolkien delivered: richly developed worlds peopled by believable characters, with an overall atmosphere of magic and wonder. Such worlds are a refugee from the drab, technocratic world of everyday life. They are places where traditional values hold sway, but both men and women can be equally heroic; and where nature is an ally and friend, to be wooed with magic rather pillaged with machinery.

High Fantasy has its basis a kind of idealized society, and most High Fantasy plots revolve around a threat to that society. One or more of its members, often the lowliest must face up to the threat and return the world to its natural state. (You’ll noted that this is a good capsule summary of LOTR). The threat is usually personified evil in the form of a sorcerer, warlord, or unchained demon. High Fantasy allows a lot of scope to explore character and relationships.

Places to start reading High Fantasy:

  • The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Wheel of Times series, by Robert Jordan
  • Tigana, by  Guy Gavriel Kay
  • Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson
  • The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley


2. Traditional Fantasy

Some critics, such as author John Clute, don’t consider many High Fantasy stories to be fantasy at all, and point to different literary form as the true bearer of the title. Why?

In Traditional Fantasy, there is no objective “outside” world. The world is a reflection of the psyches of the characters; the characters may also be symbolic reflections of the world. What occurs in the mind can just as easily occur physically, because there is no real distinction between the two.

This being the case, Traditional Fantasy is more dreamlike, less dependent on logic.

Much of what passes for fantasy these days is just science fiction in disguise: Adventures told in worlds where the physical laws are different, allowing “magic” in some form or another. But there is  still a physical world in these stories, and it is still more “real” than what goes on in the minds of the characters. So these tales, which are often written in High Fantasy mode, are still rationalist, materialist fiction.

Well, that certainly sounds like an academic argument! It is, until you look at some of Traditional Fantasy of the pre-Tolkien era. It’s remarkable, and obviously different from High Fantasy. In Traditional Fantasy, illogical and impossible things happen all the time, but we don’t question them. They fit the psychology of the situation, after all. The dreamy sense of being transported to another kind of existence is the hallmark of Traditional Fantasy-and explains why stories such as the Arthurian Legend have remained popular, not just for years, but for centuries.

Traditional Fantasy and High Fantasy blur together. If you want to write about a fantasy world peopled with complex and socially diverse characters, and with stable “laws” of magic,  you are squarely on the science fiction side of High Fantasy. If your worlds are quirky, unpredictable, and operate not according to laws but according to the logic of dreams, then you’re writing in traditional fantasy mode.

Places to start in reading Traditional Fantasy:

  • The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison
  • Gormenghast, by Mervyn Peake
  • The Book of Knights, by Yves Meynard
  • The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis
  • A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin


3. Dark Fantasy

Dark Fantasy takes the internalization of the outside world one step further: In Dark Fantasy and horror, the physical world is a reflection of the subconscious, dark, and animalistic side of our psyches.

Dark Fantasy appeals to lovers of the Gothic. Vampires abound in such tales, as do demons and seductive magic that lure people away from civilization morality. Dark Fantasy plays with uncomfortable attractiveness of evil.

Places to start in reading Dark Fantasy:

  • Interviews with the Vampire, by Anne Rice
  • Blood Roses: A Novel of Saint-Germain, by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
  • The Dark Tower series, by Stephen King
  • Dark Ladies, by Fritz Leiber
  • The Thief of Always, by Clive Barker


4. Modern Urban Fantasy

Modern Urban Fantasy is comparatively recent trend. These are stories set in present day, with all its technology, industry, worries, and distractions. Into this mundane world, however, a little magic appears … and so the characters in a Modern Urban Fantasy take a journey away from their ordinary lives. Modern Urban Fantasy brings a sense of wonder back into details of everyday life.

In Modern Urban Fantasy, the city’s still full of trucks, garbage, and workers laying asphalt. In the bushes, though, there are wood elves and other fabulous creatures, who sometimes maintain the lives of the trees and hedges, without our knowledge.

Places to start in reading Modern Urban Fantasy:

  • Jack, The Giant Killer, by Charles de Lint
  • Little, Big, by John Crowley
  • Arc of the Dream, by A. A. Attanasio
  • The Fionavar Tapestry, by Guy Gavriel Kay


Excerpts from THE COMPLETE IDIOT’S GUIDE TO PUBLISHING SCIENCE FICTION by Cory Doctorow and Karl Schroeder

Thanks to my fellow Eorlingas Waldo ‘Bombur’ Tjahja.


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