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.”