Sunday, January 23, 2011

Displacement, the real world and fantasy: a definition

When Teresa of Shelf Love mentioned "high fantasy" several weeks ago, I found myself reading through a rather enlightening Wikipedia article and list of books. I wondered at the definition of high fantasy and realized that I didn't quite agree with the Wiki definition... nor several titles included in the list.

According to Wikipedia, fantasy is comprised of two main sub-genres: high fantasy, and the so-called "sword and sorcery" fantasy (whatever that is...). These two, while fairly encompassing, seem to leave many loopholes and bad combinations. Here's how I see it:

Highest of fantasy
Fantasy can be divided into two: modern and high. High fantasy contains books with a complete displacement, often including an extreme use of imagination in creating a world utterly different from our own. Magic may appear to be completely normal and integral to the created world, though the books need not necessarily be magical fantasy. I wouldn't exactly define Lord of the Rings as "magical", but fantastic (from fantasy) it certainly is. This is the more classic, romanticized sub-genre.

What, then, is modern fantasy? Here are any books that create a fantastic world alongside the real world. These are books that use our world and add to it magical or fantastic elements. Harry Potter, then, for all its adventurous and romantic roots, would fall squarely into the modern category. The brunt of creature based fantasy, or urban fantasy (Twilight, etc.) would also be called modern.

Modern magic
A final group (though not entirely deserving of its own sub-genre) would be those books that successfully combine the two. Here might fall in portal worlds (like His Dark Materials) or books that have both real and magic worlds (Inkheart, The Neverending Story and The Dark is Rising sequence are all very different examples of this).

So is fantasy only defined by these two? Obviously not. No genre is ever fully encompassed by two generalizations. But these two subjects cover a lot of ground, enough to satisfy me. You'll have to tell me if you agree or disagree.


  1. This is a fascinating set of distinctions, and one that I have wondered about for a long time. (I've especially wondered what people meant by high fantasy.) Thanks for enlightening me!

  2. this is a really interesting definition. even though my blog has been classified as a fantasy blog, I've struggled to find passion with the types of books contained in the 'high fantasy' section. i am certainly more interested in the third distinction: the successful combination of the high with the modern. I'm so glad to know there are categories for it!

  3. Sometimes I think there are as many genres as there are books!

  4. Huh! I've never heard of the sub-genre "high fantasy". There do indeed seem to be as many genres as books.. and with a type of book as inventive as fantasy it almost seems silly to try and group them all together.


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