If you’re curious about the difference between high fantasy vs dark fantasy, you’ve come to the right post!
Before I dive into this specific comparison, let’s discuss fantasy subgenres briefly.
if you are a fan of the fantasy genre, you probably know that there are several different subgenres within the umbrella of “fantasy.”
There are so many in fact that it can be hard to distinguish between all these subgenres.
And while the subgenre of a novel is not of huge importance, it is something to consider.
Figuring out which subgenre you prefer can simplify the book selection process.
In fact, narrowing down your interests within the fantasy genre is something I think every fantasy lover should consider doing.
And one of the biggest subgenres within the fantasy genre is high fantasy.
Dark fantasy, however, is a bit less popular.
Regardless, these two subgenres have their similarities, differences, and distinguishing features that I’ll discuss in this post.
High fantasy is a broad subgenre of fantasy that encompasses many of the most popular books within the genre. Though there may be aspects to a high fantasy that mirror real life, the bulk of the story relies on magic, fictional creatures and elements, and a fictional world unlike our own to move the story forward.
These features are in stark contrast to another fantasy genre, low fantasy.
And if you’re curious about this comparison, check out my low fantasy vs high fantasy post.
High fantasy is also called “epic fantasy.” If the characters in the novel are going on a quest or some kind of epic journey where magic plays a key role, that novel is most likely considered high fantasy. You can likely name quite a few high fantasy novels that consist of epic quests (like Lord of the Rings). These tend to be very popular novels.
Another key aspect of high fantasy is the amount of lore that is important to the story. High fantasy requires the reader to be familiar with the lore of the universe in which the story takes place. You may need to have some knowledge about elves or previous wars that took place before the novel’s first page. In most cases, the author will give the reader everything they need to know in terms of lore, though it may not all be laid out in simple terms.
High fantasy novels follow their own set of rules. They do not have to adhere to the laws of our universe. That does not mean they can’t adhere to our laws, they are just not bound to them. Because high fantasy takes place in a secondary world, the author is free to create their own laws and rules that they want their characters to follow. The rules that exist in high fantasy may not exist for us, but they tend to be consistent. What is true in the novel one day is still true the next day.
Dark fantasy is a much smaller subset of fantasy that many people may not even know about. This subgenre includes all the typical aspects of a fantasy novel, but it also includes elements of horror and fear. Dark fantasy novels are usually somewhat frightening and gloomy too.
Dark fantasy is not bound to either the primary world or the secondary world. In other words, dark fantasy can also be low fantasy, but it can only have elements of high fantasy since it lacks many features of high fantasy by its nature. Dark fantasy differs from the horror genre in that it still relies on magical elements to move the story forward. A horror novel may be one about a serial killer, but a dark fantasy would be about a serial killer who is also a werewolf.
What makes dark fantasy isn’t always easy to articulate, but you typically know one when you read one. The magical elements will let you know that it is a fantasy, while the darker tone of the novel typically indicates that it is dark fantasy.
This darker tone can manifest itself in a variety of ways. For instance, a dark fantasy may not have an unhappy ending. Also, in these novels good does not necessarily win every time. And the main character may be someone who makes bad choices, or they might even be an evil character. There is often no “hero” at all in dark fantasy. The main characters are not always the most intelligent or smartest people. They are often more average than typical fantasy characters.
The main thing to look for in a dark fantasy is a sense of fear.
Examples of High Fantasy
As I mentioned, high fantasy is an incredibly popular subgenre of fantasy, so you may already be familiar with novels that fall into the genre. Novels like The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones are classic high fantasy. These novels have epic quests, fantastical elements, and they are set in fictional lands unlike our own. These fictional lands have their own sets of rules. They also have non-human characters, many of which are not real creatures.
Though the novels listed above may have suspenseful and scary moments, the overall atmosphere of these novels is not scary. These novels are not considered dark fantasy because the most important aspect is the magic, not the fear, and there’s a sense of good triumphing over evil.
Examples of Dark Fantasy
Also like I mentioned above, dark fantasy is a lesser-known subgenre of fantasy with fewer examples to consider than high fantasy.
That said, one of the most popular dark fantasy writers is Stephen King with his novel Gunslinger being a great example of dark fantasy. If you have read any of King’s novels, you know the vibe that his books have. They are dark and mysterious, and they often have characters who are in somewhat of a grey area, not being clearly good or evil. King’s novels often include an element of magic or the supernatural, which makes them fantasy. They are typically more of low dark fantasy.
As stated previously, the main thing to look for in a dark fantasy is an element of fear or horror and a lack of a clear fight between good and evil. If the author sets up terrifying and suspenseful scenes in their book, you are likely reading a dark fantasy. The magical elements of a dark fantasy may or may not take place in the real world, but that is not of great importance in dark fantasy.
High Fantasy Vs Dark Fantasy: How to Choose
Dark fantasy and high fantasy are definitely important genres within the umbrella of fantasy. Though these two genres may have some similarities, they are also quite different and distinct from one another. Dark fantasy plays into the fear and dark elements of a story. High fantasy focuses more on the magic and the adventures that the characters go on.
Knowing the difference between high fantasy and dark fantasy can be very important when it comes to choosing a fantasy novel to read. If you are not a fan of dark and scary books, you will definitely want to stay away from dark fantasy unless you want to sleep with your lights turned on at night. Dark fantasy is suited for the reader who wants to be on the edge of their seat while they are reading.
If you enjoy going on a quest with the characters in the novel you are reading, high fantasy is probably the genre for you. These characters may be flawed, but they are generally “good,” and they are usually very likable. The themes and atmosphere of a high fantasy novel are definitely lighter than dark fantasy. You shouldn’t have to worry about having nightmares with high fantasy. The scary elements in a high fantasy are usually few and far between. They are much tamer than dark fantasy.
Now the next time you set out to choose a fantasy novel, hopefully, you will know whether you prefer high or dark fantasy. And hopefully, with that knowledge, you can make informed decisions and find your new favorite novel!