Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings established the template for Epic Fantasy. Heroic in scope and simple in its conventions, Epic Fantasy takes place in a fully realized imaginary setting, complete with its own geography, history, languages, races, and powers. The plot is linear, often involving a long and dangerous journey over great distances. Action is either episodic (featuring a series of mini-adventures) or heroic (featuring large-scale battles between rival armies). The cast often includes non-human characters (elves, dwarves, etc.), and the principle characters conform to archetypes (Prophetess, Hero, Trickster, Innocent Fool, etc.).
Like epic fantasy, High Fantasy takes place in an entirely imaginary secondary world. The features of this world, however, are conceived with close reference to a historical model. (Katherine Kurtz’s Gwynnedd, for instance, is a fantasy analogue of 12th century Wales.) This historical modeling lends substance and sophistication to the fantasy realm, affording scope for more complex action and character development. At the same time, the presence of magic enables the writer to explore an attractive range of imaginative plot possibilities.
Historical Fantasy, by contrast, is rooted in the real world. The story is born at when somebody stumbles across a point in history and pauses to wonder, “What if… ?” Adopting the period setting as his/her starting point, the writer then begins importing those fantasy elements (magic, inhuman creatures, shifts in perception, perspective, or state of being, etc.) which service the plot. It’s more challenging to write than high fantasy insofar as you have to be ready to do your homework, but it’s a great way to go hunting for story ideas and I highly recommend the thrill of the chase.
A closely related sub-genre is Contemporary Urban Fantasy. In works of this kind, the time is the present, and the place is a modern city. Truly wonderful things can happen under when traditional elements of fantasy – monsters and magic – collide with the mundane world of department stores, bag ladies, and mid-town traffic…. Cityscapes also provide setting for Dark Fantasy: that branch of fantasy that incorporates neo-gothic elements of horror.
There are, of course, other sub-genres (for instance, Comic Fantasy as epitomised by Terry Pratchett), but this list will serve to conclude my review of the origin and development of the fantasy genre.
Next month, we start delving into the art of writing fantasy.
Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.