As a long time fantasy reader, I had come across Low Fantasy before. However, I never really looked into it. To me, it was always just “the opposite of High Fantasy” in my mind and I left it at that. I didn’t need to know more. Nothing I read was ever advertised as low fantasy, so I just assumed that it didn’t really touch on the parts of fantasy I liked.
Little did I know when I started researching this post, but Low Fantasy is not very simple. I can’t wait for next month when I research High Fantasy and find out that that isn’t simple either.
A Mess of Definitions:
What I found was that no one can agree on a definition for Low Fantasy. I suspect that at one point there may have been a more standardized definition, but over time the edges blurred. Now, it seems like every resource I pulled up had a different definition. In fact, the first resource I pulled up I read and went, “Wait, isn’t that just urban fantasy? What is the difference?”. It got even more confusing from there.
At first it seems like they all agreed, but then I started noticing subtle differences. And then I started noticing contradictions. And different people labelling the same series different descriptors. Just when I thought I had a handle on things, I talked to friends who said they had a completely different idea of what low fantasy was than literally every other resource I found and I had to go back to the beginning.
Eventually, I narrowed down specific categories people talked about when it came to Low Fantasy. These aren’t all that are talked about, but they are the most common I saw. Keep in mind that sometimes I found disagreement even within the specific category by different people. And there are contradictions everywhere.
Secondary World vs Earth (AKA Primary World)
This category is why low fantasy is also sometimes labelled intrusion fantasy, which is not something I have ever heard of before now. It is also the most common definition I have seen. This is where fantasy and/or magical elements intrude on an otherwise mundane world. As Book Riot says, they infuse the ordinary with ephemera.
This category seems like a walking contradiction at times. A lot of places say that low fantasy has to take place in the primary world, Earth. The most mundane of all. Then others say that it takes place in the primary world at least part of the time, such as in portal fantasy. Or that the primary and secondary worlds are intertwined, such as with a lot of urban fantasy. Which great, that is helpful. We’re off to a great start.
Yet even this doesn’t seem to fit all examples of low fantasy people have. For some people, they take a different approach to what a mundane world is. The best description of what I mean here is Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire. Most people that I have seen label Game of Thrones as low fantasy, though plenty label it high fantasy. Yet it doesn’t take place on Earth so what gives, right? Well, while I haven’t read or watched the series, what I do know about it is that in the beginning there is essentially no magic. Tales of what magic could do, or myths people held, but very little concrete information. But as the series progresses more and more bits of magic intrude on what was to the characters a rather mundane world before all this stuff happened.
In fact this seems to be corroborated by Brian Stableford in his 2009 book The A to Z of Fantasy Literature. He says that low fantasy stories are set either in the real world or a fictional but rational world.
High Magic Use vs Low Magic Use
For some, stories that have little magic in them are Low Fantasy. The stories where it is rare or practically nonexistent. A common theme with this particular category is that while magic does exist, the entire world does not know this. However, this doesn’t by any means include all low magic Low Fantasy. This does a good job of catching subgenres like Magical Realism and Urban Fantasy. Yet some of the most popular examples of High Fantasy also have low magic worlds.
This seems to be a newer category when it comes to describing Low Fantasy. It seems to have come about after Low Fantasy stopped being a more prominent term to describe parts of the fantasy genre and more people became unfamiliar with the term.
Another way I saw Low Fantasy distinguished from High Fantasy was through the use of themes. A lot of resources had elements of this category, but they weren’t really well defined or laid out. Some were. All the Tropes includes things like morality and scope, for example. However, I found this post by The Other Press to be the best well laid out when talking about this category. Here is what they say about the themes of Low Fantasy:
The antithesis of this would be fantasy that focuses on the darker aspects of human nature and very personal conflicts. Instead of farm boys becoming champions, the protagonists are often anti-heroes who are morally ambiguous at best.
I think that this category has some potential, but needs to be looked into more.
Nonrational vs Rational:
Perhaps the most bizarre definition I found, yet it strangely works. Sorta?
Low fantasy features nonrational happenings that are without causality or explanation because they occur in the rational world where such things are not supposed to occur.
This is a definition, that once I saw it I just knew I needed to know more about it. While it seems to support the first section about the secondary vs primary world, it opens up to an entirely complex, generic answer that one can read whatever they want into it. This can mean so many different things that I am actually impressed, and I’m going to need some time to break this down.
While this turned out to be a relatively common definition, finding the source was surprisingly difficult. It appears to have originally been in a long out of print collection of essays titled Fantasists on Fantasy: A Collection of Critical Reflections from 1984 and just kept getting passed on through time. This may be the oldest definition of low fantasy that I can find.
To me, at first this reads that low fantasy is fantasy that takes place where you wouldn’t expect fantasy to take place. Which.. yeah makes sense. Yet this gets complicated pretty fast. For example: does “nonrational” and “without causality” mean that you can’t have a low fantasy book with a hard magic system, with defined boundaries where the reader or characters gain an understanding on the rules of how the magic works? Or, does this mean that no one in the story can truly understand what is happening in story? You can pick at this definition for a while, and I really wish I could read the full piece this comes from to see what else they say.
Lastly on this topic, I found a journal article titled Assumptions of Reality: Low Fantasy, Magical Realism, and the Fantastic. While it talks mostly about comparing low fantasy, the fantastic, and magical realism, looking at just how much of a story is real to what party (the reader/author, the narrator, and the characters in the story), it does bring up rationality at the end.
In fantasy with an apparently primary-world setting (low fantasy), the rational primary-world world-view is shared initially by the protagonist and the other characters in the story, but not by the third-person narrator, who is omniscient and knows better. The protagonist is soon enlightened, but most people are not. Unlike magical realism, therefore, low fantasy maintains the primary-world rules of reality, even when the protagonist no longer believes in them, because there are other people in the story who still do. Yet, although low fantasy is like the fantastic in presenting two contradictory world-views, there is no antinomy. The reader is quickly made aware that the primary-world rules are illusory, even though they are held to be true by most people in the world of the story. Unlike the fantastic, therefore, low fantasy leaves the reader in no doubt that it is the secondary rules that really apply.
At this point I’m not even certain if that contradicts everything I’ve said before now. I do find it interesting, though.
Historical vs. Modern:
Weirdly, I couldn’t find an origin story for the term. I say weirdly because when I was doing my post on Space Opera, every single article I came across told me its history. I can only guess that Low Fantasy was introduced as a term shortly after High Fantasy was by no one in particular for no real reason in particular and it just stuck around.
In the previous section I talked about seemingly old and new definitions. Because that is what I seemed to find. That before the 1990s, Low Fantasy seemed to be used if not frequently, than not rarely either. People in fantasy seemed to have a fairly good idea of what Low Fantasy meant. And then for whatever reason, it stopped being used as a term. I’m not certain when, and I’m not certain why. In fact, I’m still quite a bit confused how Urban Fantasy came to be a term at all in the face of Low Fantasy existing.
Nowadays, I don’t think I’ve seen the term Low Fantasy to describe any new release. It seems to get tacked on after the fact by fans, not publishers or authors. And even then, it is rare to see. Which is why I feel like a high level of definition drift has occurred. Between when it was a more common term and now, Low Fantasy has undergone changes. Everyone has a different definition, everyone uses it different, and often two people have completely contradictory definitions.
A Special Note on Lord of the Rings:
Lord of the Rings breaks everything. Everyone is certain that LOTR is high fantasy. It is the quintessential high fantasy series. The entirety of low fantasy appears to be built on describing a system that isn’t Lord of the Rings. So what happens? Let’s see, shall we?
Primary World: Often saw the argument that Arda is a constructed world, therefore LOTR is high fantasy. Except Arda is Earth.
Low Magic Use: for a series that has Elves and Dragons, LOTR has surprisingly little magic. The way I read it, while the magical exists, it isn’t something everyone can use, many probably never come across it. There are few wizards and little outright magic.
Nonrational: If we take the end of the definition, “because they occur in the rational world where such things are not supposed to occur.” Well, this goes back to the low magic use argument. To the normal inhabitant of The Shire, for instance, this should not be happening. This is beyond their scope, beyond their world. And yet it is happening anyway.
Thematically: This is the only one that holds up when you look at LOTR and Low Fantasy. The series does not examine human nature, it does not have gray morality, and it isn’t down to earth.
This series single-handedly made everything about low fantasy more confusing than it had any right to be.
A Conclusion, of sorts:
Low Fantasy does not matter. I feel like I should argue that it should just be forgotten about. It doesn’t do any good to keep it around. This is one of those genres that is described as an afterthought, to describe what something isn’t more than what something is. While High Fantasy itself tends to be stories about the duality of good vs. evil, High Fantasy itself does not need an opposite to keep it in check and does fine enough on its own. Perhaps it is time to let it go.
Also, I don’t wanna talk about portal fantasy right now.