So I decided to write a post on the differences between Epic Fantasy and High Fantasy. I won’t pretend here that I am an expert on the topic, but I will confess that I started with a deep conviction that I knew the answer.
Let me tell you what my first understanding of these genres was: High Fantasy relates to stories that take place in completely fictional, medieval-like settings, and have some magic. Epic Fantasy is more about scale, as a sort of derivative of Epic poetry, which relates to great feats that affect humanity. So, again, according to my understanding, Epic Fantasy is fiction in which the fate of humanity or at least of the kingdom or world of the characters is at stake. It is fiction that usually involves armies and wars, or at least great heroes who accomplish tasks that will have a greater impact in their worlds. Because epic is about scale, it could also relate to the length of the series, to the amount of worldbuilding and characters in it, and to the time span of the story.
So that was my understanding, but, nevertheless, I decided to search and check, and, to my surprise, this is not how everyone understands these two genres. To start with, Wikipedia, our great repository of human knowledge, treats these terms as interchangeable. If you look for Epic Fantasy, it redirects you to High Fantasy. In terms of medieval-like settings, some people will say that this is a major characteristic of Epic Fantasy, which is the opposite of what I first believed.
Mackenzie Flohr, author of Rite of Wands, agrees with the definition of Epic as relating to a medieval-like setting. For her, “Epic Fantasy is found in medieval settings where the story is focused on good versus evil while high fantasy is character driven set in an alternate reality, and the character’s well-being is not really thought of”. This definition is in line with the grand scale of Epic Fantasy, because there is not anything greater than good versus evil. The idea of High Fantasy as being character driven is interesting as well. Of course, the hiccup is that these two genres often walk hand in hand, as is the case of Rite of Wands. Fhlor explains why the book belongs to both genres:
The Rite of Wands belongs to both due to my book being set in a medieval alternate Ireland (called Iverna) during the 13th century. My book is character driven, and events do happen regardless of the consequences for my characters.
To me, any fantasy which takes place in a completely fictional, secondary world would classify as high fantasy. Epic fantasy tends to be more philosophical and ponder deep themes (think Tolkien). Pondering deep themes in my fiction is a favourite pastime.
Starscape and Sea of Crystal, Sea of Glass both belong… guess what? To both genres. Both novels are set in fictional universes, ponder big themes, and the stories are also about events that have a great impact on the greater world. Starscape has a legendary sword, a dragon, and the legend of Stars falling from the Sky. Not to miss, and, again, it is both Epic and High Fantasy.
Benita’s definition that High Fantasy is about fictional settings is one that I have come across a couple times. I agree with it, but with one caveat: the setting cannot be modern, or we cross into Science Fiction territory. While one could argue that the distinction would be not the setting, but the role of technology, I believe that there are Space Operas in which technology does not play any important part.
Oh, well, we are getting in a somewhat nebulous territory in the distinction between Science Fiction and Fantasy, which is not what this post was aimed at. Either way, perhaps the “lack of advanced technology” means that High Fantasy is set in a fictional setting that will more likely resemble a time in the Earth’s past, since it was when we did not have technology. It might just be a coincidence that so many works have a fictional universe that resembles Medieval Europe, but I believe it is also High Fantasy if it resembles Medieval Asia, Africa or Middle East, or it resembles Antiquity.
So now, back to the distinction, or lack of, between Epic Fantasy and High Fantasy, I am starting to wonder if the distinction is relevant at all. First of all, most works that belong to one genre tend to belong to the other. Second, there is some sort of overlap between the definitions. I know that some books claim to belong to only High Fantasy or Epic Fantasy, but it might be a simple matter of taste or personal preference. On the other hand, I’m here thinking that a very personal story set in a fantastic setting resembling Medieval Europe would count as High Fantasy, and not Epic Fantasy… Now oops, some would say that it is still Epic Fantasy because of the setting.And that is where there might be some confusion.
So, in the end of my little research for this post, my answer is that I am confused. Sci-Fi Fantasy Reads will always continue to have both High Fantasy and Epic Fantasy, because it is about authors and publishers describing their own works, but I do wonder if there is a real distinction between the genres or if perhaps a more precise definition, and a certain consensus needs to be reached.
And you? What’s your take on it?