Thursday, April 17, 2008

Fantasy Heroes: High Fantasy

JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is the prototypical High Fantasy series, but it’s much harder to describe the “archetypal” hero in this type of fantasy than in Sword and Sorcery. The main reason is that there is more likely to be a group of heroes in this kind of fiction, rather than one, and the heroes are much more varied. I do believe there are some general commonalities, however. These are:

1. The heroes in High Fantasy are closer to real people than in Sword and Sorcery. They often don't have any great strength or unusual fighting abilities. In fact, they often start the story out as rather weak. But they get stronger and they develop skills as they go. Frodo from Tolkien's trilogy is an example here. Stretching the point a bit, so is Luke Skywalker from the Star Wars series.

2. The hero of High Fantasy is seldom a loner. Almost always he or she has companions, and often the companions have some particular skills that the hero needs to help him succeed in his quest. The companions also have weaknesses as well, and the hero must know these and take them into account.

3. High Fantasy heroes are almost always honorable. They are good, upstanding citizens who are trying to cope in tough circumstances. As a correlate of this, many of these heroes would have been happy to stay at home and are forced into adventure by the circumstances of their world. (In Sword and Sorcery the hero wants the adventure.)

4. High Fantasy heroes generally undergo much more character development than do those in Sword and Sorcery. They change more over the course of the story, and this is typically illustrated by their growth in strength and maturity. The Sword and Sorcery hero begins the story already at the full tide of his/her strength. Contrary to what many people think, I don’t believe this reflects an immaturity on the part of the writer of Sword and Sorcery. Rather, I think it reflects that fact that Sword and Sorcery is typically “episodic” while High Fantasy is “epic.” Of course in an epic you have more room to develop characters.

5. High Fantasy heroes also have a goal, but it can be more properly termed a "quest." It is something that is both personal and universal. They are not seeking to enrich themselves but to save the world. This also reflects the more epic scale of this type of story.

So what should I add to this list?
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37 comments:

Greg Schwartz said...

Another great post! The only thing I could think of to add to it would be that usually (I think) the group of heroes is very diverse. Elves, dwarves, humans, half-breeds, etc. I know that's the case with Lord of the Rings, as well as with most of the books in the Dragonlance series and Death Gate Cycle (the only other ones I can think of off the top of my head). And they don't always get along with each other, but they tolerate one another for the sake of the quest.

that's just my two cents.

Lana Gramlich said...

Oftentimes fantasy heros start out as young nobodies, only to end up being "the prophecied one" who must grow up & train to save the day at the end. But you kinda covered that...

Regarding #4, I hear the following song in my head;

Any time you need to go
From just a beginner to a pro
You need a montage...montage!
Even Rocky had a montage...MONTAGE!!!
Always try to fade out of a montage...
If you fade out it seems like more time has passed in a montage...

;)

the walking man said...

I think that in Tolkien's work, the only "high fantasy", I have read many times. The hero's always had an un-abashed humility and dream for a better world.

Where in the sword and sorcery (just coming from a very limited reading knowledge) the hero wants the fight, knows they will win the fight because they are the biggest dog on the block.

.02 cents.

peace

mark

Merisi said...

Couldn't one see the hero in "High Fantasy" carrying the humble hopes and aspirations of common good men, perchance bringing them to greater hights?

Sam said...

Sounds good to me!
There is something a bit formula-like in the constuction of a high-fantasy tale, but readers like to latch on to the familiar character types, it makes them easier to identify with, perhaps.

December/Stacia said...

Thanks for this! I've always been confused by the difference.

Sidney said...

I'd agree Luke fits. I suppose the Sword of Shannara and following titles would be a good contemporary example, and you know many of the game-based titles kind of straddle the line between S and S and high fantasy. "Forgotten Realms" comes to mind, where you have teams taking on the various quests that often involve very S and S challenges.

I think with Lord of the Rings it's interesting that the weakness or temerity of the central characters becomes a key to the theme of the "smallest" having a big contribution to make to the world.

J. L. Krueger said...

Heroic self-sacrifice would seem to be high on the list for High Fantasy heroes. I think this is distinct from both #3 and #5. It is that ultimate defining quality.

They may not actually pay the ulimate price in the story, but they willingly face it for the good of their companions or their world. Frodo and indeed Luke Skywalker have that quality.

ChristineEldin said...

Agree with Greg!
I don't have much to add. In fact, nothing.
I've always hated fantasy. So why am i flying through this middle-grade book that is nothing but fantasy? It's fun and funny. But still, I have a lot to learn. And read.
Thanks for this concise list!
:-)

Charles Gramlich said...

Greg, Yes, I should probably have mentioned the diversity in races among these groups of heroes. Good point.

Lana, lol. Now I will be hearing that too.

Mark, I'd say that's pretty accurate.

Merisi, that was certainly the case for Frodo.

Sam, I suspect there is a basic formula for all styles of writing, including literary. In some cases it's easier to see than in others.

December/Stacia, your welcome.

Sidney, I'm seeing too, I think, a fair number of combinations of the two types of heroes in the modern stories, and certainly in gaming.

J. L. Krueger, thanks for stopping by. I think you're right. I should stress the self-sacrificing aspects more for High Fantasy. This is certainly not true of the S & S hero.

Christine eldin, sometime you'll have to explain to me why you've hated fantasy. Let's discuss ;)

Bernita said...

Think that the Wheel of Time is also high fantasy by your criteria.

writtenwyrdd said...

Good insights. I think one thing that you might add is that High Fantasy quest 'teams' tend to form a complete and whole 'person' among themselves. Where one is flawed, another covers that gap.

cs harris said...

Interesting insight.

SQT said...

I always thought David Eddings followed the High Fantasy formula to the letter.

The enemy also always seems to be kind of the ultimate evil. Not a lot of ambiguity between good and evil in these books-- real life should be so easy.

Erik Donald France said...

Cool. I guess it's worth noting that in epic "High fantasy," there's more room for killing off some of the heroes along the way.

This could be said of epic "non fantasy" war stories, too.

steve said...

One thing I'd add is what Tolkien called the eucatastrophe--at a point when everything looks hopeless,somethings happens to turn the situation around for the better--"The eagles are coming!"

Charles Gramlich said...

Bernita, I would tend to put it there, although I haven't actually read any of those books. It looks more Tolkienesque than Howardesque to me, though.

Writtenwyrd, good point. I tried to indicate that slightly with my point about how the hero has to take into account weaknesses of the group but I could expand on that quite a bit and make it more specific.

Candy, thankee.

SQT, I agree. Very much so.

Erik, good point. With an ensemble group you have a chance to kill some heroes.

Steve, I should probably add that for sure. I don't really like that kind of thing but it is a characteristic.

Billy said...

This is a great series you're doing. Frodo and Skyewalker--perfect examples.

Shauna Roberts said...

It sounds as if the high fantasy story fits Joseph Campbell's hero's journey closely, while the S&S story doesn't. Would you agree?

writtenwyrdd said...

I think Shauna has a point about Campbell's Hero's journey. I thought that as well. Mythic tropes find their way into high fantasy quests. All that 'saving the world from ultimate evil' stuff sort of attracts it, lol.

I love epic fantasy primarily because of the heroic and self-sacrificing tropes.

Charles Gramlich said...

Billy, thanks, glad you are enjoying.

Shauna, I generally agree. I think part of the issue is that High fantasy stories usually feature most or all of the story arc for a Campbell hero while S & S gives a viewpoint of the hero only at one point of that arc. It may be that it doesn't look like Campbell because it's only a segment.

Writtenwyrd, I like the self-sacrificing elements as well. See my response above to Shauna about the mythic elements.

ivan said...

Well, I kind of dug the first para of The Hobbit.
"In a hole, there lived a hobbit."

Hey, I think I finally know who I am.
But there are these ewok-like tendencies.
Tend to chatter, and carry a small spear.
Trying to be George Lukas.

X. Dell said...

Since I have seen Star Wars, and have read a couple of books in the Lord of the Rings series, I think I have a good grasp of what you mean by High Fantasy. This subject matter is a bit beyond my ken, however, so I'm curious as to who, in more general literature, would be a character more illustrative of Sword and Sorcery. The closest I could come up with, off the top of my head, would be Superman, and I'm sure he's inappropriate.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ivan, I always liked how the Ewoks lived in trees.

X-Dell, well if you ever saw the Conan movies with Arnold you've seen a sword & sorcery character certainly. The comic book character "Thor" would probably illustrate this. I wouldn't put Superman there because he is too law abiding and rule based. The Hulk would have some of the characteristics as well.

Randy Johnson said...

I'm not a big fan of High Fantasy. It seems I have a low threshold of boredom. I've read The Hobbit and LOR several times(The Hobbit more), but nothing else by Tolkien. The Wheel of Time I stopped after three books. Goodkind's series after two, George R.R. Martin after one. You'll notice a downward spiral. I've concluded the problem's me and not the quality of the writing. To many people read and are enthusiastic about these books for me to come to any other thought. I can't explain it.

Miladysa said...

Another enoyable post :-D

I love High Fantasy and am not sure how much Sword and Socery I have actually read.

To me, High Fantasy always seems to have a lot of history to it, the tale usually starts off about half way or perhaps even three quarters of the way through the adventure taking place in the book you are reading.

Leigh Russell said...

There are plenty of other heroic figures, but I always think of Frodo as the hero of Lord of the Rings.

laughingwolf said...

i'm here thx to miladysa... and very pleased to meet you...

you have a lot of amazing friends, too :)

Enemy of the Republic said...

May I link your blog. I'm a fantasy nut and I've written posts about the stories in the past. I tend to stick to LOTR (book and film) and Star Wars, but recently one of my students told me to look at the archetypes of the Wizard of Oz. I will come back and do your post justice. Right now on my blog, I am being more personal--I'd like to get away when I am finally out from shadow.

Charles Gramlich said...

Randy, I tend to prefer Sword & sorcery to High Fantasy as well. Sometimes those multi-character epics just really get tiresome to me. The only other high fantasy I really enjoyed was Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenent series.

Miladysa, I sometimes wonder if high fantasy appeals more to women and sword and sorcery more to men.

Laughingwolf, thank you. I'll stop by your spot as well.

Enemy of the Republic, certainly, if you'd like to link to me please do. I will link to you as well. Thanks for stopping by. I believe that the Wizard of OZ is definitely closer to the High fantasy concept.

laughingwolf said...

thx for dropping over, charles

since my dad died in february, i have not been in the mood to write a thing

once i see thu the fog, i'll be at it again....

Charles Gramlich said...

laughingwolf, I'm sorry to hear about your father. I wish you well. My father died in April, but many years ago. I posted a poem about him called "April Again" on March 30, I think. Two of my friends have lost their fathers this year so it's been a tough one so far.

Travis said...

The characteristics you name, and those of the commenters here, are particularly why I am more drawn to high or epic fantasy.

LOTR is the most ready example, and one most people recognize. Another good example is David Eddings Belgariad and Mallorean, or any other stories crafted by the team of Leigh and David Eddings.

Two other good examples would be the works of Raymond Feist and Steven Brust.

Charles Gramlich said...

Travis, I have the Eddings books but just have never gotten around to reading them. I do believe there are some good things and some weak things about both types of fiction but they each have many fans.

SzélsőFa said...

Wow, I like this description a lot, Charles.

laughingwolf said...

thank you, charles... it has been a tough year for many

blessings to your friends for their losses....

-tony

Charles Gramlich said...

Szelsofa, thanks.

Laughingwolf, no problem.