A dragon rising behind a stone tower. A knight in shining armour riding off to battle. A thief darting in the shadows of the night. Magic, mystery, tragedy. These are what we think of when we think of high fantasy. High fantasy is a sub-genre characterised by its location in a world utterly separate to ours. This makes it very easy to escape into, totally apart from the problems of our world, surrounded by the comfort of controlled danger. This allows writers total freedom to create anything they can imagine without the constraints of realism. This has resulted in some of the most impressive (and most enjoyable) literature in the world; think Tolkein, George R.R. Martin, Anne McCaffrey. But with this lack of restriction, the genre also leaves the door open for some seriously problematic ideas to be excused. Nevertheless, high fantasy is an incredibly popular and timeless sub-genre, which retains its hold on readers as much today as it did in 1896 when The Well At World’s End was published.
High Fantasy is, by nature, set in a world totally apart from our own. Stories usually take place in a glorified European, medieval-esque world with knights and castles and swords, but with magic of course. This isn’t always the case, and recently there’s been a move away from that kind of setting with, writers such as Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn trilogy) modernising his setting and introducing technology, and Elizabeth Lim (Six Crimson Cranes) creating an East-Asian inspired world rather than a European one. Whilst books like these are rare, there is a definite increase in more different and diverse settings.
However, the traditionally European setting has often led to authors feeling the need to insert ‘historical realism’. This implies diversity shouldn’t exist in this genre and excuses gratuitous violence and sexism. Yet the foundation of this argument is incorrect as diversity of all kinds has always existed in Europe. It further implies that high fantasy should inherently be based on European Middle Ages. In a scenario where the author creates every aspect of the world they write, why should they be limited to Europe? Why the Middle Ages? Why should they be limited to any expectations from our world at all? Whilst there is nothing wrong with the European-esque setting, its association with outdated beliefs and attitudes just reinforces the need for normalising diverse settings within the genre.
Due to the open-endedness of the genre, there aren’t a lot of commonly used archetypes. However, it can be expected that there will usually be an evil character or force which is beyond redemption and, opposing that, a character representing the purity of the good side; for example, Frodo and Sauron.
High Fantasy will often also incorporate mythical races (elves, dwarves, orcs, etc.), and these races often determine the individual’s characteristics. An elf will be gentle and flighty but deadly, a dwarf will be hardy and rough around the edges, orcs are evil. This is mostly based on Tolkein’s representations but has been strongly maintained throughout most of the genre. It is only recently that high fantasy is moving away from these stereotypes and allowing for more flexibility of interpretation.
However, the genre’s nature of being totally separate from the real world has often been used to excuse problematic representations. Even though it is ‘just fantasy’, negative representations promote values and perspectives that can cause harm in real life. As a result, we should be wary of the (often coded) representations of characters and relationships in high fantasy.
One of my all-time favourite tropes is found family. Who doesn’t love a group of quirky strangers who grow to love each other and have each other’s backs? From The Lord of the Rings trilogy to Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, found family is a staple of high fantasy literature and one of its biggest selling points.The sheer prevalence of this trope in high fantasy is drawn from the prominence of plots involving small groups of people drawn together in a mission bigger than themselves. My one complaint? Don’t Unfound The Family (looking at you, Tolkein).
Nearly every high fantasy series has more books than anyone could realistically read. Think Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series (26 books), and Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Cycle (30 books). Part of the reason for this is the incredibly extensive worldbuilding that goes into every high fantasy series. What’s the point of having ten continents and thousands of years of history if the series only gets to explore a little? Epic adventures are, by nature, long and open-ended. As long as the author can keep selling books, they can keep the series going. There are, of course, a few notable exceptions, such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But even that series had a prequel (The Hobbit) and the The Silmarillion, a standalone book detailing the history of Middle Earth. The conclusion? If you want to start a high fantasy series, be prepared to be going for a very long time.
One of the most iconic tropes of high fantasy is epic quests for good vs evil. Whether it’s the knight fighting the dragon, a war between the soldiers for good and the soldiers for evil, or people banding together to fight some alternative threat, high fantasy almost always has a clearly defined and unapologetic ‘evil’ which must be beaten. Though this is a simplistic perspective to hold on anything, it’s comforting to read about a world where ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are clearly defined and plain. Even more so, it is comforting to know that good will always win. Frodo throws the ring in the volcano, the evil king is overthrown, evil magic is dispelled.
A common trope in high fantasy novels is the ‘one evil race’, the physical manifestations of darkness, which must be defeated in order for the heroes to win. This can be found in nearly every early high fantasy series, including Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (the orcs) and Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar Cycle (the Tsurani). Whilst a good vs evil story is not necessarily problematic, it can become an issue when one race is wholly, unchangeably evil, particularly when those races are often coded as Eastern or Middle-Eastern (usually a reflection of Western conflict at the time of writing). Some authors have attempted to address this problem by inverting the trope. For example, Steven Brust (Vlad Taltos series) noted that ‘Easterners’ were human and ‘Westerners’ were an elf-like and powerful but remarkably un-self-aware other. Whilst this effort to challenge Eurocentricity is important, it still defines the politics of the world by racial boundaries where an entire population can be right or wrong. Recently, there has been a move away from the evil race trope altogether with Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, and Elizabeth Lim’s Six Crimson Cranes. Each of these focuses more on power struggles and individual fights with broader consequences. The stakes are much the same as earlier books, but evil is represented in other forms. Whilst none of these books are without problems (some more than others), this is a step in the right direction.
The Well at World’s End is said to be the first published high fantasy novel, first published in 1896. This is a very traditional knight-and-princesses high fantasy adventure, and although it’s relatively niche now, it had a strong influence on later authors like Tolkein.
Tolkein is often said to have popularised high fantasy with The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Honestly, this is one of my favourite high fantasy reads. It can be a bit tricky to get into and it’s certainly not short, but it is just so beautifully written and the plot is just so engaging I honestly couldn’t put it down.
A Game of Thrones is perhaps one of the most well-known high fantasy novels and really adheres to all the expected tropes and characteristics, including the bad ones. It is certainly engaging but also notoriously R-rated, and this can make it difficult to appreciate at times. That said, if you’re willing to brave the gratuitous violence and graphicness, it’s not one of the most popular modern high fantasy series for no reason.
The Dragonriders of Pern series is one of my favourite high fantasy series just because of how different it is. McCaffrey is a genius at creating systems that naturally evolved from the environment, moving away from traditional Middle-Ages-esque settings, and portraying the discovery and development of new technologies throughout the series. Exciting and intriguing, this is one of my highest recommendations for this genre.
The Riftwar Cycle is one of the more famous (and long) high fantasy series from the 80s. It has wizards and dragons and a war between worlds and is generally a pretty fun series (even if it takes roughly 50 years to read). However, it is one of the core contributors to the ‘one evil race’ trope, which makes it, at times, difficult to read. If you can look past that and you’re looking for a classic medieval-esque, epic-quests-and-battles kind of book, this is a good option.
Earthsea Cycle is one of high fantasy’s most iconic series. Beautifully written and taking place primarily over four short novels, this is a high fantasy classic with wizards and dragons and mazes and strange magic. It is also one of the most beautifully written high fantasy series I have read both in terms of clarity (it takes real talent to balance plot and worldbuilding) and the way Le Guinn writes. I could not recommend this more.
Terry Pratchet’s Discworld series is a rare comedic take on classical high fantasy. It takes place on a flat world supported by four elephants on the back of a giant turtle, and this really epitomises the vibe of the series. It has all the typical elements of the genre (wizards, soldiers, witches, dragons) but nothing is what you'd expect. All the books are short, light reads, and if you enjoy them there are about a thousand sequels, so you will never run out of content.
The Mistborn trilogy is a fun new high fantasy series that combines elements of sci-fi with magic. I love the innovative nature of magic in this series, founded on logic and rules rather than innate wizardry. I found the last book a little slow, but overall this is an incredibly engaging series and there are a number of spin-offs if you get really into it.
Six Crimson Cranes is, though relatively new, one of my favourite examples of high fantasy. It takes the magic, demons, princes and princesses of classic high fantasy and combines them with an East-Asian-inspired world. It is based on the Grimm Brothers' 'The Six Swans' fairytale, but in Lim’s retelling it becomes so much more. It is one of the most effective, engaging and beautifully written high-fantasy novels I have read, and it is a top recommendation for anyone wanting to explore the genre.
If you love high fantasy, check out this playlist on Spotify!