During the last century, numerous authors and editors and fantasy fiction fans have pondered the different sub-genres of fantasy literature. Today the numerous sub-genres come in many shades, but there was a time not so long ago when the majority of fantasy literature was less diverse.
Fantasy used to mean, basically, guys in armor swinging swords against bad guys, quite often dragons or giants or trolls or ogres or some other nasty beastie. Obviously that is oversimplifying the last century of fantasy literature, but it also holds true to a large extent, at least until perhaps a couple of decades ago. Of course there were speculative authors working in fantasy who were writing outside of the norm, but the general public’s perception, often even the reading public, was of guys in armor swinging swords against bad guys.
To some extent, the general public’s view today of fantasy literature might not have changed all that much, but I’d argue this has changed somewhat because of the popularity of romance-oriented fantasy, historical fantasy and, to quite a large extent, the Harry Potter phenomenon.
But to look at the roots of 20th Century fantasy literature, one will find the majority of fantastical writings break down into two broad areas: high fantasy and Sword and Sorcery.
Again, this is an oversimplification, especially for hardcore fans, but it is also one that’s not too far off the mark.
For modern readers, high fantasy is often considered to have begun with the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, he ofThe Lord of the Rings fame.
The title of “father of Sword and Sorcery” is most often laid at the feet of writer Robert E. Howard, the creator of numerous iconic characters, the best known being Conan the barbarian.
Obviously there are deeper roots to fantasy, ones that go back literally thousands of years, but for sake of brevity, let us focus upon these two writers and their comparative sub-genres.
Both writers featured men with swords setting things right within the worlds the writers had created.
There is pretty much where any similarities end.
Tolkien’s heroes were figures stepping forward to save the world from evil, and his best-known protagonists were usually not of the sword-swinging type.
Howard, on the other hand, focused on brawny men who used a sword to fill their pockets with gold or for other personal reasons. Any saving of the world or of a kingdom or of a damsel was pretty much a byproduct, often a mere happenstance.
Tolkien’s writings, and that of his forerunners and predecessors, are generally labeled high fantasy to an extent because they focus on what are considered higher ideals.
Sword and Sorcery fiction, on the other hand, is usually expected to focus on darker or self-serving human qualities.
There is nothing wrong with either type of fiction, both often enough bringing enjoyment to the reader.
Over the years, many have struggled with definitions for these two sub-genres of fantasy. Also, many related sub-genres have appeared, including epic fantasy, heroic fantasy, etc.
To get specific about such definitions is a subjective matter. A definition that works for one person might not work for another. And any solid definition is bound to bring forth detractors and exceptions to the rules.
However, that being said, one of the distinctions that can be found between high fantasy and Sword and Sorcery is a differentiation in expectations of civilization.
Sword and Sorcery often deals with civilization falling apart, or a complete lack of civilization. Sword and Sorcery often enough focuses upon the barbaric, sometimes even reveling in such.
High fantasy, on the other hand, lends itself toward a more positive look at civilization, toward a hope that civilization can and will prevail over the barbaric.
There are all shades of this to be found in fantasy, but the frameworks often enough remain. High fantasy, of course, generally focuses upon a more historic form of civilization, often looking upon older ways of living with a fond remembrance or even antiquarian delight. Sword and Sorcery cuts through this, suggesting civilization is not only unsustainable, but often enough not worth sustaining.
Works of fiction that look at futuristic forms of civilization, sometimes in a positive aspect but often enough negatively, usually are more appropriately labeled science fiction than fantasy.
To break down fantasy into further sub-genres (epic fantasy, etc.) goes beyond the scope of this post, and is itself worthy of another article.