I’ll be honest, I haven’t really dabbled in proper, tangible fantasy until recently. My reading of The Hobbit by Tolkien made me enthusiastic about ‘traditional’ high fantasy to a certain degree, but, as it turns out, it also helped me figure out that it is the other biggest flavour of fantasy that best fits my writing preferences.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I like reading pretty much all kinds of fantasy, but I do hold that preference when it comes to the writing part of my habits. And for that, I intend to answer, for myself and for anybody else that cares to take a gander, what exactly is ‘low fantasy’?
First of all, let us address the fact that ‘low’ refers merely to the indulgence and density of the fantasy within the actual story and has nothing to do with the quality of the writing. And another thing that has been buggering me since I started to look into formal definitions for this kind of thing. Let it be said, and let it be understood: low fantasy stories don’t necessarily have to take place in the real world.
It’s an option, and from what I’ve seen, a very popular one, but it’s not mandatory by any means, much less so a factor that can by itself determine whether the story belongs to ‘high’ or ‘low’ fantasy. No, I think that the division among the ‘fantasies’ is better perceived in the same way as the difference between hard and soft science fiction, and the biggest factor that defines the essence of the genre is its thematic.
For the purposes of this context, let’s say that “fantasy” refers to something that incorporates magic into it. There is much magic to be found in high fantasy, taking Tolkien’s work as an example, which works with a magic that appears to envelop the world, but is otherwise mysterious, with nobody other than wizards and mages knowing the full extent of its secrets. Low fantasy also contains magic, but its influence on the events of the story can be expected to be much lesser than that found in the magic high fantasy exerts. This is because the nature of magic and its users is usually not the focus of a low fantasy story, but rather an element that is used to complement it. In the scenarios I talk about, magic tends to be setting, not substance.
There is another major element that pervades anything that is to be qualified as fantasy, and that is the presence of mythical creatures and races. These might be borrowed from an already existing mythology, or created for the purposes of the story. In high fantasy, these are prone to have a set personality and tendencies which their entire race fits, where exceptions are few and notable. Not so much in low fantasy– while the presence of these fantastic races also tends to be a big deal, the setting usually calls for them to behave in a way not much different from certain variations of human nature. If they band together, it’s usually because this benefits them in some way, or perhaps they are united against what they perceive as a common threat, but individuals among them might desert and follow their own ways at any time, unlike the races in high fantasy, which tend to have their reasons for living the way they do ingrained into their own ‘being’, and very seldom abandon it out of personal impulse.
That leads me into what some people consider to be the biggest factor that tells the two kinds of fantasy apart: the morality. Something that a lot of high fantasy works are (in)famous for is the fact that their characters usually tend to let their actions be determined by whether they are following a path of good or evil, and it is generally very easy to tell the two apart– so it presents a more ‘black and white’ sort of morality, the kind where there is no question that the heroes are doing the right thing by fighting the villains, because the villains are definitely doing what they are doing to benefit only themselves, or even purely out of spite. In low fantasy, there tends to be a much lesser contrast between the characters’ motivations, with the villain often doing what they are doing because they think that they are the heroes of the story, and that the heroes are evil for trying to stop them. On the other hand, the heroes are more vulnerable to being perpetrators of acts that would certainly cause people to question whether they can still be considered ‘good’, with the final motivation and resolution of their actions being the primary factor in determining this question.
Again, while I certainly must say I find high fantasy interesting and enjoyable to read, I must take a preference towards low fantasy for when there comes the hour to craft stories. My favorite flavour of fantasy is that which blurs the line between itself and science fiction, but that’s a story for another day.