Out of all the types of fiction out there, one genre has always been able to capture my attention better than any other. Now, I’m going to try to explain why. It is the masterpiece of the human imagination, testament to storytelling creativity, and obsession of nerds all over the world. I’m referring, of course, as you already know from the title, to high fantasy.
Now I know that I need to clearly define “high fantasy” before anything else, to dispel any confusion. High fantasy is a fiction genre in which a writer creates an entirely new and unique world from scratch. I cannot stress this enough: High fantasy has nothing to do with the quality of the writing. I’ve seen way too many Potterheads get their panties in a knot when I tell them that Harry Potter isn’t high fantasy. It takes place in the UK, a real place that J.K. Rowling very much did not invent. (Although the idea of an island across the sea that calls orange pulp “juicy bits” seems like it could only come from an eccentric author’s imagination.)
The granddaddy of all modern high fantasy is J.R.R. Tolkien. Before he came along, the genre was basically nonexistent. But when Lord of the Rings took off, it inspired so many similar stories (and some blatant copycats) that high fantasy finally became part of mainstream literary culture. The thing with Tolkien, though, is that he put so much thought into his world, and wrote so much canon, that you practically need to take a class and study his work in order to understand it all. It’s books like these that give high fantasy the reputation of belonging exclusively to uber-nerds. The truth is, there are plenty of high fantasies that are simple enough for anyone to understand. John Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice series, written for tweens, is a great example.
There is one huge disadvantage with an entire genre spawning from a single recent body of work, though. When people hear the word fantasy, they tend to conjure up pretty similar images: A faux-medieval Europe landscape filled with knights, wizards, elves, dwarves, dungeons, and dragons, with a morally unambiguous conflict between good and evil. You would think that in a genre that requires huge feats of imagination, there would be more variety. Unfortunately, so many take such direct inspiration from Tolkien that a lot of people feel that the genre is stale. I would argue that this isn’t the case, however. While there are lots of popular stories that do this, like Game of Thrones, there are plenty of original ones out there if you know where to look. For example, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is rooted in wild west mythology. The Bartimaeus trilogy is based directly on Victorian London. Young adult books Rebel of the Sands and The Wrath and the Dawn both have close ties to middle eastern stories like Arabian Nights. Then there’s the Edge chronicles, which feature a bottomless drop at the end of the world, and battleships that fly with the use of floating stones and are weighed down with solid lightning. There are other options, and not all fantasy has to have dragons and knights.
And that’s what I love about high fantasy. There is absolutely no limit to what a writer can do. Stories are supposed to provide an escape, and when you can leave the world you live in completely behind for a while, that’s the best kind of escape there is.