For many readers, low fantasy vs high fantasy is not something they concern themselves with.
It may not even be something they are aware of.
Most readers are familiar with the general features of fantasy; that it often contains magical elements set in a fictional world or universe.
And typically, the stories are inspired by ancient folk tales or even mythology.
Also, many of the elements within a fantasy story do not exist in the real world, though they can.
These fantasy features are part of what make reading fantasy books a great way to escape reality.
So if most fantasy books contain some of these features whether they are high or low fantasy, why does distinguishing between high and low fantasy matter?
It can actually be really helpful in determining what you like or don’t like within a genre.
If you’re like me and find yourself loving some books but not others within a genre, knowing the differences in sub-genres can help you zero in on just the sort of books you like (and avoid the ones you don’t like)!
However, determining the differences between sub-genres can often be a struggle for those who are unfamiliar with them.
That said, once you understand the differences, it is actually quite simple.
Keep reading to learn more about low fantasy and high fantasy, how to distinguish the two, and examples of each!
This sub-genre is also sometimes called intrusion fantasy, which gives you a good idea about what it actually is.
Low fantasy is fantasy that intrudes on the real world.
Its events and characters exist in the primary world (a fictional version of the real world or the world in which we exist).
Because the characters in a low fantasy story exist in the primary world, they typically must follow the rules of our world such as needing oxygen to survive and obeying the laws of physics unless magic is at play.
Low fantasy usually also consists of characters going about their daily life in a manner that is like one we would also experience.
For instance, low fantasy characters often go to work or school like many of us in the real world.
What makes it fantasy is the aspect of one or more magical or supernatural elements that do not exist for us.
The Primary World
The most important part of a low fantasy novel is the setting. If a story takes place in California, that is the primary world, so it is considered low fantasy.
If it takes place in Middle Earth, that is definitely not low fantasy because it is a completely fictional world that we cannot travel to.
The main way to distinguish low fantasy from high fantasy is to determine if you are reading about the primary world or the secondary world.
I’ll discuss edge cases in the sections below so keep reading if you’re curious about exceptions.
If you understand what makes a story low fantasy, then you probably already have a good idea about what makes high fantasy.
High fantasy is also called epic fantasy, which gives you a sense of what kind of story you are going to read.
It is a fantasy story that doesn’t have to follow any rules of the real world because it doesn’t exist in a primary world similar to our own.
The author of a high fantasy creates an entire universe for their story to take place in that may or may not adhere to the rules we know in our world.
High fantasy stories also often include non-human characters and beings live elves, dwarves, etc.
They also include magical elements and daily events that would not happen in our lives like characters embarking on epic quests.
The Secondary World
As stated above, one of the biggest differences between high and low fantasy is the setting in which they take place.
Thus, if your book takes you to an entirely fictional world, that is the secondary world.
So it is almost certainly high fantasy.
High fantasy can become confusing because even if some of the elements of the story exist in the real world, the location is fictional.
If this isn’t clear, don’t worry.
I’ll unpack this more in the following sections.
Low Fantasy vs High Fantasy: Unclear Settings
By now you know that the setting is one of the most important aspects of determining if a story is high or low fantasy.
But what if the setting is somewhat unclear?
Well if the setting exists alongside the real world, it’s still low fantasy.
For instance, Harry Potter is a low fantasy story because Hogwarts (a fictional location) exists alongside the real world.
In other words, characters in low fantasy can visit and experience real-world locations even though the setting may occur in a fictional place.
On the other hand, high fantasy books have no relation to the real or primary world.
Characters in them cannot visit the primary world because the primary world does not exist in high fantasy.
For example, Frodo from the Lord of the Rings could not ever visit the primary world or any world like it.
But what if a story takes place in an entirely fictional environment that only seems like the real world.
Even in this instance, as long as the fictional world operates very similarly to our own, it is likely low fantasy.
Other Story Elements to Indicate Low Fantasy vs High Fantasy
The setting isn’t the only determinant of high or low fantasy.
Elements like plot, themes, and characterization can also help you determine whether the story you’re consuming is high or low fantasy.
To help determine whether something is high or low fantasy, consider the following question:
“Are the elements of the story more realistic or fictional?”
A low fantasy story will lean more towards realism, and a high fantasy story will lean more towards fiction.
Another good way to determine if a story is high or low fantasy is to take a look at what the main characters are doing and what their goals are.
Are they dealing with the problems of everyday life with some magical elements thrown in the mix?
Are they coming home from school and talking to their mom who also happens to be a mermaid?
If these sound familiar, the story is probably low fantasy.
In low fantasy, there is a bit of magic thrown into an otherwise pretty typical life.
However, if a character is going on an epic quest, the story is probably high fantasy. As we learned, another name for high fantasy is epic fantasy, so these stories tend to be very big.
They have big plot points and larger-than-life storylines that wouldn’t exist in the real world.
It takes a completely fictional universe to house a story like this.
Plus, the protagonist of a high fantasy story is usually on an epic quest to defeat some ultimate evil character or force.
On the other hand, low fantasy doesn’t feature epic clashes between good and evil as frequently.
High fantasy also typically has more characters and many of them are often non-human.
However, low fantasy can also include non-human characters.
The Grey Area
Some fantasy stories are very straightforward and easy to determine if they are high or low fantasy.
For others, the distinction is much harder to make.
That’s why it helps to think of high and low fantasy as a sliding scale and not necessarily two separate categories.
Many stories will fall somewhere in the middle.
In fact, the grey area between low and high fantasy is where many great stories exist.
In these cases, it is usually more a matter of debate whether they are low fantasy or high fantasy.
Examples of Low and High Fantasy
A story like The Lord of the Rings is high fantasy.
It takes place in Middle Earth, which is a secondary world, and there are many non-human characters as well.
Many of the characters have special powers and abilities, the main premise of the story is an epic quest, and there are magical elements that could never happen in the primary world.
It is a very straightforward example of high fantasy.
On the other hand, the novel Tuck Everlasting is a great example of low fantasy.
Almost every aspect of the story is realistic and it takes place in our world.
However, there is one magical element to the story which makes it fantasy.
There are no elves or dwarves, and the story consists of people doing everyday things that we would also do in our day-to-day lives.
Not all stories fall perfectly into one category or the other.
Much more often we see stories that end up somewhere in the middle.
Take Harry Potter, for example.
This story exists in the real world; the characters interact with non-magic people, they travel to real cities such as London.
They do everyday things like homework and playing sports.
But this story also transports the characters away from the real world to a magical world that doesn’t always follow the rules of the primary world.
Here the characters interact with beings such as house-elves and giants.
Plus, the first Harry Potter book is much more clearly low fantasy, whereas the last Harry Potter book introduces more high fantasy elements with an epic battle against evil.
I would still describe Harry Potter as a low fantasy series.
However, Rowling does introduce some high fantasy elements to the series, particularly as the series advances.
Low Fantasy vs High Fantasy: Why it Matters
Now that you hopefully have a better understanding of low fantasy vs high fantasy, you may be wondering why it matters.
What difference does it make if the story you want to read is high or low fantasy?
Like I mentioned above, knowing the difference between high and low fantasy and which you prefer will make picking out your next book much easier.
If you prefer low fantasy and don’t like high fantasy, you may not enjoy Game of Thrones.
However, if you prefer high fantasy, a book like The Indian in the Cupboard probably won’t contain the elements that you enjoy in a fantasy novel.
Knowing the difference will make your selection process much easier and more narrow, which for any book lover is always a good thing.
The next time you read a fantasy novel or watch a fantasy movie or tv show, take note of whether it is low or high fantasy.
Make a mental reminder for yourself to determine which sub-genre you prefer.
It will make selecting your next fantasy novel much simpler.
Low Fantasy vs High Fantasy: Conclusion
I hope this article has helped you understand the difference between these two sub-genres!
And if you need help coming up with a book title for your low fantasy or high fantasy novel, check out:
Lastly, feel free to message me in the comments below if you have further questions about this topic!