My beta reader posed a question to me this week after I told her that a story I’d written wasn’t suitable for submission to a call for high fantasy. “What on earth is high fantasy?” she asked.
It took me back to my days as a newbie writer when I was unfamiliar with a great many literary terms that I now use without a second thought. How quickly I had forgotten that feeling of not knowing something that everyone else seemed to know, while being too embarrassed to ask for an explanation!
Publishing is an industry like any other with its own jargon and conventions and we can’t expect new members to understand all the terminology from the outset. New writers are emerging every day and somehow they have to learn writerspeak as quickly as possible if they are to fit in and benefit from membership of this club of ours. Who better to educate them than those already initiated? Genres and sub-genres are a particularly complex subject and the old lags perhaps have a moral duty to help the new intake understand the lingo and conventions so that the entire industry maintains current standards.
So what do we mean by high and low fantasy?
The Exile of Elindel, Book I of my epic fantasy trilogy, is a good example of both categories. It is partly set in the real world of Anglo-Saxon Britain (low fantasy) and partly in the make-believe world of Elvendom (high fantasy).
High and low fantasy can exist in the same book, the same world too, and they can interact with each other, even overlap, but there is a major difference between them, and certain rules must be respected by the writer.
Take high fantasy, where everything is made up. The only limits are imposed by the writer’s imagination. Of course, the reader may have certain preconceptions; for example, about elves, who are usually expected to live in forests, have pointed ears and wield magic. But because this is high fantasy the author can play around with the genre. For my part, I decided that my elves would only have magic if they were royal elves. They also have the ability to understand the languages of men and animals and it made sense to me that they would be vegetarians. I could have chosen any number of mythological or magical creatures to add colour to the narrative but, in Book I at least, I decided to make up my own. No unicorns or pixies for me, just shendkin and fetchen. (You’ll have to read the book to find out what they are!)
Low fantasy places greater restrictions upon the author; it has rules and boundaries. In The Exile of Elindel, the low fantasy element consists of an Anglo-Saxon settlement in 500CE, and while some might criticise the accuracy of my historical research, the characters I portray must adhere to the strictures of their nature, setting and time period. This isn’t Dark Age Britain: The Hollywood Years with extras sporting wristwatches. The mead hall can’t have wi-fi and no one is going to send or receive a text. The Saxons didn’t have bicycles, potatoes, chocolate or bananas. There wasn’t any canned food or ball point pens. Electricity hadn’t been discovered. There were no newspapers or clocks. Shopping as a concept had yet to be invented. Even reading and writing were beyond the ken of most people.
In the same way, because these people are real humans whose existence is based on fact, they can’t sprout wings and fly. Nor can they shoot laser beams from their eyes.
But if they can, they’ve entered the realms of magical realism and that’s an entirely different genre!