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When attempting to classify works in the fantasy genre, you often hear the term "high fantasy" used. Less common, but still present, is the term "low fantasy".

As commonly understood, what's the main distinction between high and low fantasy? (Is there also a "medium" fantasy?)

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    Inspired by this question, where questioner and answerer appear to be using different definitions.
    – R.M.
    Commented Jan 12, 2018 at 14:37
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    tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HighFantasy has some good pointers (warning, TVTropes!) as well as some other levels of Fantasy apart from those two.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Jan 12, 2018 at 14:39
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    @Valorum It appears not to be entirely opinion, as some things are well-defined as high fantasy or low fantasy. Whether any particular story is high or low fantasy can be a matter of opinion. Who would say Lord of the Rings is low fantasy, or that Harry Potter is high fantasy? Commented Apr 17 at 17:31
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    I'm not sure this is opinion based. Either there are some widely acknowledged definitions of the terms "high" and "low" fantasy, or the terms are meaningless. Claiming this is opinion based is effectively the same as claiming "there are no agreed upon definitions of any kind". Is this the case? I doubt it... To answer this question, one merely has to provide the definitions from some well known reference, even if they are not 100% definite.
    – Andres F.
    Commented Apr 18 at 3:15
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    @Valorum I don't want to drag this any longer, since I truly don't know whether this is opinion-based or not. But let me say you're accepting authority every day: what is and isn't scifi according to this site, many of the Meta decisions, etc. Scifi is a "community", there is some consensus about some things and definitions. It's seldom black and white, but consensus does exist on things, otherwise we wouldn't even be able to tell which questions to close or keep open. I'm just arguing it's not clear to me no definitions exist here. But I'll shut my trap now, I've made my point (I think).
    – Andres F.
    Commented Apr 18 at 15:32

3 Answers 3

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If Wikipedia is any guide: Low Fantasy

Low fantasy or intrusion fantasy is a type of fantasy fiction. It has been defined as fiction where magical events intrude on an otherwise normal world. It thus contrasts with high fantasy stories, which take place in a fictional world with its own set of rules and physical laws.

High Fantasy

High Fantasy was a term coined by Lloyd Alexander in 1971. It means a fictional story that takes place in an entirely different, alternate or secondary world.

High Fantasy is also known as Epic Fantasy

There isn't a "medium" fantasy but there are other genres:

  • Heroic Fantasy
  • Sword and Sorcery
  • Medieval Fantasy
  • Historical Fantasy
  • Hard Fantasy

You can read about them and more in Wikipedia... List of Genres

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  • Do note that definition on Wikipedia changed mid-2017. In early 2017 it was talking about the prominence of fantastical elements and the fantasy being set in a rational world. Often a world different from earth but following clear, rational and logical rules.
    – Drejzer
    Commented Nov 17, 2023 at 15:43
  • Well, but Lord of the Rings is generally considered High Fantasy - and yet, according to Tolkien, it takes place in our own world. In fact, even the Wikipedia article linked in this answer mentions LotR as an example of High Fantasy.
    – Misha R
    Commented Nov 17, 2023 at 19:07
  • Probably best not to quote Wikipedia, which is playing a game of "telephone", and instead go directly to the sources. Wikipedia is not an authority on scifi. Who claimed these were the definitions? Quote them instead.
    – Andres F.
    Commented Apr 18 at 3:17
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You can find two definitions/understandings of the distinction:

One, which is based on how prominent the fantastical elements are, and the works being set in a rational world. With this definition, Game of Thrones is Low Fantasy. And you probably could consider Conan such as well. This definition was present on Wikipedia in early 2017 (and presumably before that, I didn't check further back) before being replaced. There High Fantasy has fantastical races, monsters, wizards and the like.

The other definition is based on "separation of worlds" in which "Low Fantasy" is fantasy interacting with our mundane reality; either by magic being in another world to which characters gain access, a separate "hidden" world, or magic mingling with the mundane on earth. With High Fantasy being a fantasy set in a different world. This puts Harry Potter and Shadowrun as Low Fantasy, while having Conan and Game of Thrones as High Fantasy.

I personally find the latter... Unnecessary, considering there is already "Urban Fantasy", "Magical Realism" and "Portal Fantasy" that should cover those ranges.

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    May I ask why did I get the downvote, and how to fix the issue?
    – Drejzer
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 17:24
  • I didn't downvote, but I wouldn't quote Wikipedia, which is not and has never been an authority on scifi. Instead, I would investigate the sources of those claims and -- if they are reputable in scifi fandom -- quote them instead.
    – Andres F.
    Commented Apr 18 at 3:19
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This is highly subjective and I have no sources to quote, however. I prefer to think of "High Fantasy" as taking part in a more thoroughly fleshed out world other than our own i.e. Middle Earth, Westros, or Narnia, and having somewhat magical elements; rather than "low" fantasy being more like King Arthur and the Round Table, Robin Hood, the and the like which take place in our world with our lack of true magic, our beliefs and social foundations.

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    At least part is social class 'high' fantasy is arthurian knights, or the men of numenor, and the great elf lords of Tolkien, where as low fantasy is as you say Robin Hood, and the 'thief adventurer swordsman' Conan, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. The High generally has a good vs evil plot, the low aggrandishment and 'thieves in the house' backstabbing in which heroes are dark and antiheroes abound. Commented Jan 12, 2018 at 18:44
  • So your interpretation is more of a moral dilema, What if the morals of a particular world do not agree with Earths i.e. Tale of Ice and Fire? Where there is no definite "right" or "good" character. Commented Jan 12, 2018 at 18:52
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    I haven't read it, but I'd incline it towards high as involving kings and court intrigue but perhaps it needs a middle category 'parahistorical fantasy' perhaps, as it has - from what I've heard - a wars of the Roses dynastic feel. As to your suggestion about 'middle fantasy' - I'd suggest Discworld. Commented Jan 12, 2018 at 18:54

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