Friday, May 28, 2010

Fantasy by Definition: Part 3


3). The third category of Heroic Fantasy is “High Fantasy.” The emphasis in this type of work is on a Mythic adventure, either a quest or a large scale (often world spanning) conflict between the powers of Light and Dark. The hero is usually not bigger than life. In fact, he, or she, is often rather small and weak physically, though there is usually a tight knit band of followers or friends who help the hero. The heroes are generally chosen for their role by some greater power and usually do not know how strong they really are at the beginning of the story. However, the hero usually grows into his or her role as the work progresses.

Supernatural forces are integral to High Fantasy, and there are almost always magical items such as rings, or swords, or enchanted armor that can help or hinder the heroes in their quests. There is also much less emphasis on individual physical combat than in Sword and Sorcery or Sword and Planet fiction. The High Fantasy setting is a mythic world, usually an ancient Earth, that is populated by elves, dwarves, dragons, goblins, or recognizable variants of these. Dragons seem particularly indispensable.

J. R. R. Tolkien is the writer who established the tropes of High Fantasy and his Lord of the Rings trilogy is still probably the best example of it. (My illustration this time is of a Tolkien scene, but not done by Frazetta.) Dennis L. McKiernan essentially retold the whole Tolkien trilogy in his own trilogy, The Iron Tower. Stephen R. Donaldson told an even larger story than Tolkien with his Thomas Covenant series. Other popular writers in the field have been Piers Anthony with his Xanth series, and Robert Jordan with his Wheel of Time series. The blogosphere’s own Bret Funk is working in this field with his Path of Glory series. I would also claim that the Harry Potter series falls into this category, although the edged weapons are minimized and the setting is more modern.

There is a larger percentage of women writers in this genre than in any other type of Heroic Fantasy. Patricia McKillip, Anne McCaffrey (perhaps), Joy Chant, Darlene Bolesny, Margaret Weis, and J. K. Rowling are just some of the many women writers who have enriched the genre. It also seems to attract more women readers than either S and S or S and P, and that may be because the potential roles for women characters are broader in High Fantasy than in the other two.

One difference between these three subgenres is in the level of good versus evil that exists in them. In High Fantasy, we generally need to speak of EVIL in all caps because it is often a Satanic inspired, soul-destroying force that wants to bring darkness to the whole world. In Sword and Sorcery, the Evil is not so all powerful, although it may well be equally nasty. In Sword and Planet fiction, the evil is generally far more human than in either of the other types. Vohanna, the villain in my Talera novels, is more an S and S type villain than a standard S and P type.

High Fantasy is currently the most popular form of Heroic Fantasy and is the only one of the three we’ve discussed so far that is being widely published by major publishers today. I think there are two main reasons. First, the “growth” of the hero across the course of the books is an attractive quality to many readers. They like to see the character gain strength, perhaps because it offers hope that they, too, can grow. Second, I think the fact that High Fantasy appeals more to women than the other two types is a big plus as far as publishers are concerned.

There are two more differences between the three subgenres that I’d like to mention. One, while S and S works well in short stories, and S and P works well in a series of short novels, High Fantasy’s natural form seems to be the trilogy and beyond, and not the kind of short 70,000 word novels that characterize S and P. High Fantasy novels are often “big.” Two, High Fantasy lends itself better to humor than the other types. Sword and Sorcery is most often very grim. Sword and Planet fiction often does have some humor but it seldom plays a prominent role. High Fantasy, perhaps because of its ensemble cast of characters, allows more opportunities for humor to occur.

There are a couple of stories in Bitter Steel that fit within the High Fantasy subgenre. Both are humorous pieces, “Worms in the Earth,” and “Mirthgar.” They are not really typical of the genre—for that you should read some Tolkien—but here is a sample from “Mirthgar.”

“But it was in the first days of iron winter that the worst news came. A ravening band of Oinks was seen in the northern mountains and as far south as Mirthwood. Outlying farmsteads were deliberately infected by the Oinks with voracious termites, and settlements along the Mirth River stirred uneasily behind their wooden walls. At night, the winds snuffled blackly outside the doors of men, and in the cold skies were heard the howls of Wereagons and their Hobblen riders.”
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31 comments:

Ocean Girl said...

Charles, I can't contribute a worthy comment. No sex?

ivan said...

...Out of my depth here, but there's a pretty good sex scene in the Epic of Gilgemesh...How far back is that--five thousand years?

Old Umbaba, the wild man finally gets it. And I guess he'd be going um-ba-ba!
...I think I need to get out more.

ivan said...

Whoops.

I got it all back asswards.

Umbaba was the tree god and not the wild man....Gotta stop drinking.
However, It was the Wild Man who got wood.

Richard Prosch said...

Great series of posts. Donaldson's six Thomas Covenant books were staple food for me one summer. I've never gotten around to reading the "Last Chronicles..."

Tom said...

Good write-up, yet again! One thing, though. Tracy Hickman is a man. ;) But the point is well-taken.

laughingwolf said...

lol... love the wordplay in your excerpt!

and thx, now i have the definitive handle for my wip... all this time i thought it was a 'horror fantasy', now i know it's 'high fantasy' :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Ocean Girl and Ivan, I'm confused as to where the "sex scene" stuff comments came from. I don't think I mentioned sex in the post. Perhaps that was your meaning, Ocean Girl?

Tom, oops, I did not know that. Thanks for the heads up. I've corrected it. I have a couple of their books but have not read them.

Laughingwolf, horror fantasy actually sounds pretty cool. I think there is a difference in how horror tropes like monsters are used in the horror genre as opposed to the fantasy genre. Maybe I'll post on that one of these days.

Heff said...

Women/High Fantasy....Go figure.

Charles Gramlich said...

Richard, I'm the same. I devoured the first six Covenant books but just haven't had the urge to go for the last ones. They are so different, but the "Land" sure was well conceived.

Charles Gramlich said...

Heff, LOL. Could be.

Cooper Bard said...

Interesting. I was waiting for this one. According to your take, my novel series may be closer to high fantasy than I believed. In fact, I just rec'd a query reject from Marlene Stringer saying she doesn't rep much high fantasy and I hadn't thought it that to begin with. Again...interesting. Apparently my synopsis spoke "high fantasy" to her.

Bernita said...

"Oinks?" Charles, that's delicious!

BStearns said...

Fantastic post. I gotta say, hands don Lord of the Rings best thing I've ever read. You really put it into perspective for me why I like to read High Fantasy so much. I love epic, world spaning events and love to see characters rise above themselves. I think the great thing that Tolkien did with LotR is that rather than just have the main character rise up, he put it in all of them, to varying degrees. I might have to check out these Thomas Convenant books if they are as good as you say. Great post, and keep the good stuff coming!

-Bryan
sff-hub.blogspot.com

BStearns said...

Note to self, proofread before you post comments. It's hands down, not don. Don't want people getting confused and thinking I'm making a move on this "don" character cause that could get messy.

-Bryan
sff-hub.blogspot.com

Randy Johnson said...

Probably my least favorite of the Fantasy types you've discussed(except for Mord of The Rings and The Hobbit). I get bored easily and these series that run on and on and on...

I, too, read the Thomas Covenant books many years back and, about all I remember, was the leprosy. Never even thought about trying the later books.

I have a friend, male, who loves Weis and Hickman(I don't get it), though I do agree that this type probably appeals more to women.

SzélsőFa said...

congratulations on Bitter Steel being published!

RA said...

High Fantasy being my favourite, I had been waiting for this one. Thank you very much, these definitions have been eye opening on more levels than one. :)

BernardL said...

I agree the most enticing aspect of this type fantasy is the character growth in the face of adversity. Do you think Harry Harrison's 'The Stainless Steel Rat' series ranks as high fantasy? The hero (James Bolivar DiGriz) certainly grows during each outing. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Cooper Bard,for the closing post in this series I'll talk about some exceptions to the rules. But I think these are generally how these are characterized. Terms do change over time, of course. Thanks for dropping in.

Bernita, thanks, I had fun with that one. That whole story was a hoot to write.

Bryan, lol. For me, it depends a bit on my mood. Sometimes I want the detailed character development, sometimes not. The scale of the High fantasy work though really allows for that kind of development. I'd bet you'd really like the first trilogy in the Thomas Covenant series. If you really like Tolkien you probaly will.

Randy Johnson, It's certainly the least of the four for me as far as frequence of reading. I do like it at times, but I kind of have to be in a committed mood. And the real long series I just won't touch.

SzélsőFa, thanks much. I got my copies today.

RA, glad you found them useful. I've enjoyed doing them. And thanks for visiting.

BernardL, I've only read one of the Stainless steel rat books. I think they are a bit too high tech in most aspects to really fit these molds, but they may be variations on a theme.

Cloudia said...

LOST aspired to this category I think...




Aloha from Hawaii, Charles

Comfort Spiral

Travis Cody said...

I would add two other writers to your list of high fantasy contributors. In fact, I would call them masters of the genre.

The first is David Eddings, solo and in partnership with his wife Leigh, in the Belgariad and Mallorean series. They have created other characters in other worlds, but the 10 book story of Belgarion is my favorite. The second is Jim Butcher with his Codex Alera series. They both hit every point in your essay, and they do it well.

I like these two writers because of the way Eddings and Butcher present the big EVIL. Eddings approaches his EVIL as a character...an accident of fate embodied first by a fallen god and then by an ambitious sorcerer. Butcher's EVIL is even more compelling because it comes from a hive species simply attempting to survive and propagate itself.

The two main characters, Garion and Tavi, start small and seemingly weak, surrounded by protectors and teachers. Through the journey they find their inner strength and power, maintain a humble demeanor, and use it all to defeat the big bad scary.

Sorry to go on and on...but this is my comfort zone.

Charles Gramlich said...

Cloudia, I never got around to watching Lost. Maybe they wanted a bit of it.

Travis Cody, I have several of the Eddings books and read only the first one years and years ago. I've intended to go back and read the whole thing. I'd definitely include him in High fantasy. I haven't read any of Butcher's work yet so can't say much there.

sage said...

I should have my daughter read these posts--she's bright, but had the hardest time trying to write a "fantasy" for a recent english assignment (I don't remember doing things like that in the 6th grade). For some reason, I was thinking about the Biblical story of David, the shepherd, meeting the Goliath as I was reading this.

JR's Thumbprints said...

It's all too complex for me, but there's definitely a market for it. The best I can do is to depict my fictional characters in shades of good and evil and hope for the best. Congrats on Bitter Steel.

Charles Gramlich said...

sage, quite a lot of stories in the Bible have fantasy elements. The whole Moses leading the people out of Egypt is definitely a "high fantasy" type of story, whether one accepts it as true or not. Maybe I should discuss this in Heroic historical.

JR, thanks. Depending on what I'm writing, I either like characters with gray shades or black and white. In Cold in the Light, most characters have those gray shades. In the Talera books, there are more black and white heroes and villains.

Mary Witzl said...

As soon as I started reading this, I thought about hobbits and Harry Potter. These are the kinds of heroes I like best: the type that don't look or necessarily act like heroes from the get-go. It's so much more satisfying when they eventually carry out their heroic feats.

Mimi Lenox said...

Modern spiritualist seekers speak of souls being "incarnated" and "contracted" before birth to accomplish soul tasks on earth in search of the soul's perfection - even going so far as to suggest that we all choose our parents. Your description of the hero's growth reminded me of that rather complicated and radical viewpoint.

This is not a genre I typically read but the comparisons are interesting to make.
Thanks for "teaching" me today.

Charles Gramlich said...

Mary, a lot of folks do find those heroes appealing and I like them too, although they are not my primary favorite kind of hero.

Mimi, there is an element of that in quite a lot of fantasy, in some Sword and Sorcery and quite a lot of High fantasy.

Lauren said...

The Tolkienesque High Fantasy sub-genre tends to be my favorite sub-set of fantasy (although I like my evil to be a little less clear and more what you defined and Sword and Sorcery). You are right that there do seem to be more female voices in this sub-genre than the others, which is interesting.

I do like your four part series and your great descriptions. Actually, I like all series whether in book or blog post form...perhaps leading more towards my penchant for High Fantasy as, you are right, it does seem to lend itself towards trilogies and beyond very nicely.

Charles Gramlich said...

Lauren, There is definitely a gender thing. Far more women than men prefer the high fantasy subgenre. There are exceptions, of course, but the general rule applies.

Barbara Martin said...

Thanks for this, Charles.

My WIPs have been labelled dark fantasy, but they do contain high fantasy elements: i.e., character growth, and chosen for their parts by a higher power.