Archive for May, 2011

Monday Masterclass: elves

This week I look at elves – their real-world origins in myths and folk tales, and how they’ve been portrayed in various works of fantasy.


The word ‘elf’ comes from the Old English ‘ælf‘, which ultimately probably comes from a Proto-Indo-European root of ‘albh-‘, meaning ‘white’ (also the root of the Latin ‘albus‘). The Germanic word ‘Alp‘, meaning ‘incubus’, is also related to it – it survives in German in the word ‘Alptraum‘ – ‘nightmare’.

The word ‘elf’ is present in various Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian names. ‘Alfred’ means ‘elf-counsel’; ‘Alvin’ means ‘elf-friend’ (and ‘Gandalf’ – the name of a dwarf in the Norse Edda – means ‘wand-elf’). The word ‘oaf’ is a variant of ‘elf’ and used to mean ‘a changeling’ or ‘a foolish child left by the fairies’.

Norse Elves

The elves of Norse mythology were similar to humans in appearance, except for being more beautiful. They were semi-divine beings, possessing supernatural powers. They come in three – or maybe two – or maybe just one type. There are ljósálfar – ‘light elves’, the ‘true’ elves; there are also references to dökkálfar (‘dark elves’) and svartálfar (‘black elves’). These latter may be the same; or one of them (or both) could be another name for dvergar – dwarves. It’s difficult to say for sure as there are few references to elves (of whatever kind) in surviving Norse poetry and prose.

The álfar lived in Álfheimr (‘elf-home’), while the dark elves lived underground or in mountain caves – or, alternatively, in Svartálfarheimr.

Elves were associated with health, fertility and ancestor-worship (and were similar, in this respect, to Roman household deities). Wikipedia has this quotation from Kormáks Saga:

Þorvarð healed but slowly; and when he could get on his feet he went to see Þorðís, and asked her what was best to help his healing.

“A hill there is,” answered she, “not far away from here, where elves have their haunt. Now get you the bull that Kormák killed, and redden the outer side of the hill with its blood, and make a feast for the elves with its flesh. Then thou wilt be healed.”

Folkloric Elves

From being creatures of great beauty, strength and lore in Norse myths, elves changed during the Middle Ages into mischievous, or downright malignant, creatures of diminutive stature (although there exceptions to this description). The mythos of Norse and Germanic elves combined with Celtic traditions, and also perhaps with the Christian demonisation of anything pagan, to produce a being that was a feature of much literature of the early modern period and into the Victorian era.

The story of the Erlking’s daughter (as set down by Johann Gottfried von Herder) concerns Sir Oluf riding to his wedding when he is distracted by elven music. The Erlking’s daughter tries to seduce him with gifts and gold, but he leaves – though not before she strikes him. The next day, before his wedding, Sir Oluf is found dead.

In ‘The Elf of the Rose’, a Hans Christian Anderson fairy story, the elf of the title, who lives in rose blossoms, witnesses a murder and informs the dead man’s lover of the fact while she sleeps. She finds his head and plants it in a pot with a sprig of Jasmine. Although she dies of grief, her brother – the murderer – is killed by the spirits the a jasmine flower.

It’s possible that the earliest depictions of elves with pointed ears date to the Victorian period.

Other Elves and Elf-like Beings

The word ‘ælf‘ was used in Anglo-Saxon translations of Greek and Roman myths to refer to nymphs. The Icelandic huldufólk (hidden people) could be seen as elves (or dwarves). German folklore has moss people and weisse frauen (‘white women’). In Irish folklore, the aos sí (or daoine sídhe or the sídhe) are similar to elves. Welsh folklore has the Tylwyth Teg.

In the folkloric tradition, elves, fairies, gnomes, pixies, hobgoblins and so on are all hard to distinguish from each other definitively; they are all portrayed more or less similarly as very small, michievous beings. The Christmas Elf derives from the elf of early modern folk tale – although it also has similarities with the dwarf of Norse mythology, which was a skilled craftsman.

Elves in Fantasy Fiction

The line between the fairy tales mentioned about and true fantasy literature is blurred, but it is certain that elves were protagonists and antagonists in genre stories from its earliest days. The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany is a tale of cross-cultural marriage and anguish; it dates from 1924. The Broken Sword (1954) by Poul Anderson is a Norse-style story that tells of Skafloc, a half-elf who is captured by elves.

Where Victorian literature portrayed elves as malicious or at least morally ambiguous beings, J R R Tolkien instead took the depiction of elves back to its Norse roots, making them beautiful, noble and partly divine in nature. Tolkien’s writing concerning elves (or Elves – Tolkien capitalises the word; other writers follow suit, but some write it all lower case) spans The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and beyond.

In the mythos of Middle Earth, the Elves awoke in the first age and were eventually discovered by the Valar, who invited them to travel to the Undying Lands. Many of the Elves accepted, but some got lost or otherwise detained on their journey west across Middle Earth. Those who remained were the Elves of the stories of Middle Earth. After the War of the Ring, many of these finally went to the Undying Lands. Those who didn’t apparently degenerated into the elves of folklore – ‘a rustic folk of dell and cave’, according to Galadriel’s prediction.

Tolkien’s elves are immortal (although they may be killed or die of grief), have ‘leaf-shaped’ ears, lack facial hair (apart from Círdan – which may have been a mistake), and have a number of superhuman powers: keen senses, enhanced strength, the ability to read minds and see the future, and the ability to make magical or enhanced items such as the lembas bread and cloaks given to the Hobbits in TLotR.

Elves have appeared in many post-Tolkien novels, in one form or another – many of them either resembling Tolkien’s Elves or deliberately contrasting with them. Terry Brooks’s The Sword of Shannara features Elves, along with along with Men, Dwarves, Gnomes and Trolls. The Elfquest comics by Wendy and Richard Pini have elves that are descended from shapeshifting humanoid aliens that have interbred with wolves (which makes them part of the science fiction genre, technically; arguably, one could even say that Vulcans are sf’s elves). In Tad Williams’s Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series, one group of the near-extinct, near-feral elves, or Sithi, seeks to revenge itself by destroying humankind. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series features elves that are decidedly less than benign: they steal children and use enchantment to fool people into thinking they are beautiful.

In both The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and its sequel, The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner on the one hand, and Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry on the other, elves – or similar beings – are referred to by their original Norse names of: lios alfar are benign creatures, while svart alfar are evil and more like the goblins of Tolkien’s works. The Malazan Book of the Fallen has three related races – the Tiste Liosan, Tiste Edur and Tiste Andii. They come from, respectively, the warrens of light, shadow and darkness – thus resembling the three kinds of elves mentioned in ancient Norse literature.


Although elves have become a cliché, they are a firm fixture in the wider fantasy genre. While fantasy authors these days don’t write about such beings per se, they are still provide the inspiration for many aloof, nature-loving, magical races. And in the worlds of gaming – be it tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons or computer real-time strategy games like Warcraft – elves are an essential part of the experience.

Elves are mysterious, often dangerous, but also steeped in sadness. Tolkien’s elves are wise and stoical, but they live so long and experience so much, that eventually they must retire from the world. The elves of folk tales that trick people and steal children are just as melancholy, yearning for things that will only bring them grief in the long run.

Whatever the future of elves within the genre, it will likely be a diverse one, with a range of portrayals from the traditional (and traditional within different traditions: Tolkienesque, fairy tale, Norse mythology) to the original. So far much of the reimagining of elves has been a reaction against Tolkien and towards a medieval model. I’m sure there’s great scope for doing something completely different with elves – the trick will be to retain their essential elvishness.

Sources: Wikipedia, Malazan Wiki, The True Elves of Europe, Timeless Myths, Ask Nicola,,, Fairy Tales Collection, Suite 101.

Friday Fast Forward Rewind

Here are a handful of fantasy-related pieces that piqued my interest this past week. May they pique yours also.

Wednesday Word of the Week: soigné

Post your own soigné sentences in the comments below.

/swɑnˈyeɪ; Fr. swaˈnyeɪ/

1. carefully or elegantly done, operated, or designed.
2. well-groomed.

Also, soi·gnée .

1915–20; < French, past participle of soigner to take care of < Germanic (compare Old Saxon sunnea care, concern)


How would she have preferred it: in terms of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, the ’50s school of highway engineering or, most soigné of all, the Embarcadero Freeway?

Source: The Atrocity Exhibition by J G Ballard.

Monday Masterclass: a history of the sword

The sword is an iconic artefact, both in reality and in fantasy. Today’s masterclass takes a look at the development of this weapon in the real world. Unfortunately, this is a very Eurocentric history – I don’t have time today to make it globally comprehensive; also, much of the information I’ve found on the web also focuses mainly on the European tradition of sword-making and use.

Definition and Etymology

A sword is a weapon made of a long blade with a sharp point and one or two sharp edges; it is held by the hilt, which is protected by quillons or crossguard. Swords are used for slashing, hacking and thrusting (depending on the design and composition), and differ from many other basic weapon types (such as the axe and bow and arrow) in that they have no other purpose but warfare.

The word sword comes from the Old English sweord, from the (hypothetical) Proto-Germanic swerdan, and ultimately from the (also hypothetical) Proto-Indo-European swer-, meaning ‘to cut’.

Bronze Age Swords

The earliest bladed tools made by humans were made from stone, such as flint. Stone, however, is much too brittle to have been made into the long blades required for swords, so it wasn’t until people discovered how to work metal that swords were developed. Simple metalworking – hammering – goes back at least 9,000 years and likely involved the metals gold and copper. Smelting ore to create pure metals may have evolved from annealing – heating beaten metal to restore its malleability. This development led to the creation of bronze about 5,000 years ago, which is an alloy of about 90% copper and 10% tin (different combinations were also used).

Bronze was stronger than copper and allowed knives and daggers to become longer until they became swords (the difference between sword and dagger is essentially arbitrary). Bronze swords were still quite short, however – 20 to 30 inches (50 to 75 cm) in length; longer weapons would have lower tensile strength and break easily. Bronze swords were cast in clay or stone moulds and their edges were then forged to create cutting blades.

One of the earliest swords was the sappara or khopesh, a Sumerian sickle-sword. This was apparently used from the third millennium BCE until 1300 BCE and evolved from the crescent-bladed axe.

In Europe, early swords could be divided into two types: dirks (a type of dagger) and rapiers (swords designed for piercing thrusts rather than hacking and slashing). Such blades were originally cast without tangs (the part of the blade extending into the grip), and instead had hilts of horn or wood riveted to the bronze. These rapiers were broad-bladed – for extra strength – yet light.

Other types of Bronze Age sword include the leafbladed sword – one that, from the hilt, narrows, widens, then narrows again to the point – and the Naue II, a straight-edged and long-lasting design. During the second millennium BCE, the Chinese developed swords with a high tin content, which made their weapons more brittle. In India in the same period, swords were commonly made out of copper alone.

Iron Age Swords

There was actually a long overlap between the use of Bronze Age swords and that of Iron Age weapons. By the end of the Bronze Age, sword makers had reached the pinnacle of design and technology; iron working, by contrast, was still relatively primitive. Although iron would come to be a much more reliable material, in the early Iron Age, bronze and iron swords were fairly equally matched. For instance, Roman writers commented on Gaulish warriors having to pause to bend their iron swords back into shape during battles.

The major advantage iron had over bronze was the availability of the material; tin was quite a rare substance. Bronze Age swords were status items that were owned only by chieftains and the rich. With the advent of Iron Age technology, whole armies could be equipped with swords, a fact that helped the advance of the Greek empire, and later the Roman empire. Densely packed bodies of men fighting in such armies needed to be armed with short swords to avoid interfering with their neighbours (even though iron would ultimately allow for much longer weapons).

The process of creating pure iron for swords involved removing the oxygen from iron ore with a bloomery. Iron ore was heated along with charcoal; the carbon in the charcoal combined with the oxygen in the ore, thus leaving a pure iron ‘bloom’, which was then hammered to remove further impurities. The resulting metal was wrought (or worked) iron.

Iron swords spread throughout Europe during the Hallstatt perdiod – from around 1200 BCE to 600 BCE. When this culture ended, swords were briefly replaced by knives, but were revived with the advent of the La Tene culture (6th to 1st centuries BCE).

Iron Age swords include the Greek xiphos (which was originally made from bronze) and Roman gladius (which was inspired by swords of Iberian warriors; it’s also the origin of the word gladiator); the Romans later developed the gladius into the longer spatha (the word spatha is the root of spade, the playing card suit). At lengths of 24 to 34 inches (60 to 85 cm), the spatha provided a longer reach. When wielded by infantry, it had a sharp point; the cavalry version had a rounded tip to avoid riders stabbing themselves in the foot.

Medieval Swords

The spatha evolved in the late Roman era and beyond –  first into swords of the Migration Period, measuring 28 to 32 inches (71 to 81 cm) in length; then into the 8th century Viking sword. Viking swords were even longer – 37 inches (93 cm) and up to 40 inches (100 cm) in Norman times – but they remained single-handed weapons. A fuller (a groove along the flat of the blade) was used to improve the sword’s flexibility and keep its weight down.

During the late first millennium, the technique of creating swords from steel was perfected. Steel is an alloy of iron and about 1 or 2% carbon. Carbon was added to iron by a process of migration, heating the iron in a container made of a high-carbon substance so that the iron absorbed some of the carbon and thus became steel. The Chinese had another method of making steel – hammering iron and pig iron together.

And this practice of forge-welding metals of differing composition together became pattern welding, of which Damascus steel is perhaps the best known example (although no one now knows exactly how Damascus steel was made); swords made in this fashion could be made harder and tougher than blades forged from single metals. The surface of these blades retained an attractive ripple effect.

Viking swords themselves developed into arming swords – also known as knight’s or knightly swords – which were used from around 1000 to 1350 CE. These weapons measured about 36 inches in length (91 cm) and weighed about 2.5 pounds (1.1 kg). They were single-handed weapons that were used in conjunction with a shield or buckler and were worn by knight even when not in armour. The arming sword was one of  the first to sport the classic cruciform shape by incorporating a more pronounced crossguard.

As the medieval period progressed, swords changed in response to new types of armour. Swords needed to be heavier to be wielded with sufficient force to pierce mail or, later, plate armour. Nevertheless, swords were rarely the ungainly monsters of Hollywood movies. For instance, the two-handed longsword, which was used from the 14th to the 16th centuries, was 41 to 47 inches (105 to 120 cm) long and weighed 3.1 pounds (1.4 kg). The longsword was a quick and versatile weapon, the use of which was taught by schools of swordsmanship.

Renaissance and Modern Era Swords

On the other hand, some swords did become huge. The Zweihänder (literally, ‘two-hander’), also known as a greatsword, was up to 71 inches (180 cm) long and weighed as much as 7 pounds (3.2 kg). One sword, supposedly wielded by the legendary Frisian Pier Gerlofs Donia, is 84 inches (213 cm) long and weighs 14.5 pounds (6.6 kg). Some Zweihänders had long ricassos (a blunt part of the blade close to the hilt) protected by flukes that allowed them to be gripped near the middle. They were used for chopping and batting aside pikes and other polearms.

The arming sword eventually (via the side-sword) evolved into the rapier of the Renaissance period. The rapier was a sword with a long, narrow blade of maybe 39 inches (1 m) and was lightweight at around 2.2 pounds (1 kg). It often had a complex basket or cup encompassing much of the hilt and the ricasso, so that the rapier wielder could grip the sword around the crossguard for better control. Some designs had sharp edges along their length, other only from the middle to the tip and still others were only sharp at the point. Rapiers were popular among civilians and many lost their lives in duels using them.

The next step in the evolution of the sword was the small sword (or dress sword or court sword), which developed from the rapier and was used in the 17th and 18th centuries – and even up to the early 20th century. The small sword was around 24 to 33 inches (60 to 85 cm) long. The sabre, a curved, single-bladed sword was used by cavalry during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.

Although the development of firearms has made the sword obsolete it is still used by military forces around the world, either as part of regular or dress uniform. Sword fighting in its various forms is also a popular martial art in many places.

Sources: Wikipedia, Bronze Age Craft, Bronze Age Swords, Suite 101, Rise of Civilization, 2-Clicks Swords, Iron Age Armoury, How Stuff Works, ARMA,

Friday Fantastic: Maps of Westeros by Other-in-Law

The above map of Westeros, the continent upon which most of the action in George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire takes place, was created by someone called Other-in-Law – apparently using only Microsoft Paint (the free, basic graphics program that comes with Windows).

Click here to see the massive full version – click on the image to zoom right in for all the juicy detail. More of Other-in-Law’s maps – of specific locations, and one of the whole world of ASOIAF – can be seen here.

Friday Fast Forward Rewind

Another batch of fantasy-related goodies for your weekend reading pleasure.

Writing diary

Yesterday, after weeks of slow preparation – preparation which is by no means complete … not by a long chalk – I started work on the actual text of my novel. Version two of my novel, in fact (the first version was started in November for National Novel Writing Month – I got 16,000 done before I realised I wasn’t accomplishing what I wanted to and needed much more planning).

I wrote a couple of hundred words yesterday and a couple of thousand today. Seems to be going well. I have a better understanding of structure, now, and a good idea of what this story is supposed to achieve, both in terms of plot and theme.

Look forward to more updates in the future.

Wednesday Word of the Week: alectorian stone

An obscure item this week – although not the most obscure term used in The Worm Ouroboros, by any means. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says it comes from the Greek word for ‘cock’, ‘alectōr’; Wikipedia lists several ancient Greeks with this name – I wonder what that says about them. I also found an interesting excerpt from a New Zealand newspaper from 1890 on the subject of magical rocks, in which the alectorian stone is mentioned.

Know of any other apotropaic minerals? Post them below.

A stone, said to be of talismanic power, found in the stomach of cocks. Those who possess it are strong, brave, and wealthy. Milo of Crotōna owed his strength to this talisman. As a philtre it has the power of preventing thirst or of assuaging it. (Greek, alectōr, a cock.)

Source: Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

Against such peril I had provided certain amulets made of the stone alectorian, which groweth in the gizzard of a cock hatched on a moonless night when Saturn burneth in the ascendant.

Source: The Worm Ouroboros by E R Eddison.

Monday Masterclass: fantasy sub-genres

This week I will outline the main sub-categories of fantasy. This is not as easy a task as it might appear as many sub-genres overlap, many are more properly sub-sub-genres and others a synonyms of other sub-genres; in further cases, the definition of a sub-genre might be difficult to pin down. The list below is presented in alphabetical order, each entry containing a description, important sub-categories within the sub-genre and examples of stories and authors.

Arthurian Fantasy

Technically, we could put Arthurian fantasy under the heading of historical fantasy, but it’s such an important sub-genre that I think it deserves its own listing. As you would expect, Arthurian fantasy deals with King Arthur and the Matter of Britain.

Arguably, any tale of Arthur and his knights could be classified as Arthurian fantasy – there is no consensus on whether he was a real king of Dark Age Britain, or even a real anything. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae popularised Arthur’s legend back in the 12th century and contained many fantastical elements. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the early modern period and Victorian era, the story of King Arthur exercised a great hold on many literary figures from Thomas Mallory (author of Le Morte d’Arthur) to Alfred Lord Tennyson (who wrote Idylls of the King) and Mark Twain (who gave us the satire A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court).

In terms of contemporary fantasy there are such works as The Once and Future King by T H White, The Forest House by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle, Haydn Middleton’s Mordred series – and many others. Still other works of fantasy have Arthurian elements to them without being overt re-tellings of the Matter of Britain; these include The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay and Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood and its sequels.

Comic Fantasy

Comic fantasy is that with the primary goal of making the reading laugh. It combines all the elements of non-fantasy humour – slapstick, wordplay, irony, comedy of errors, surrealism etc – but also very often contains a large dose of satire: specifically satire of the fantasy genre, but also satire of real-world topics.

Comic fantasists often write long-running series of stories involving the same world or characters. They include T H White (The Once and Future King), L Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt (the Harold Shea stories), Piers Anthony (the Xanth books), Robert Asprin (the MythAdventures books), Terry Pratchett (the Discworld series) and Tom Holt (various books).

Contemporary Fantasy

While some sub-genres of fantasy are very specific, this one is very broad and may contain various sub-categories. Contemporary fantasy is any story set in the present day of something closely resembling our own reality – it’s not actually our own reality because of the presence of some aspect of the fantastic. Contemporary fantasy often overlaps with low fantasy, but the two are not quite the same – contemporary fantasy is tied to our own time and world, where low fantasy is not. Urban fantasy is perhaps the most popular sub-category of this sub-genre.

Contemporary fantasies include J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, Neverwhere and American Gods by Neil Gaiman.

Dark Fantasy

Dark fantasy is a sub-genre containing elements of fantasy and horror. Where characters in a typical fantasy novel might be inspired to awe and wonder by the magical beings and events they witness, dark fantasy protagonists are afflicted with terror. The term dark fantasy has been used as a synonym for horror, but with the proviso that the horror elements are supernatural in nature.

H P Lovecraft’s tales of the Cthulhu Mythos are dark fantasy, as are Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane stories, Michael Moorcock’s stories of the demonic sword-wielding Elric, Clive Barker’s Weaveworld, and many, many horror stories.

Epic Fantasy

Epic fantasy is what I think most people would think of as fantasy per se. An epic fantasy story is one set in a secondary world concerning an epochal conflict between good and evil and often involving a quest on the part of the main protagonist. Epic fantasy is high fantasy because magic is an acknowledged part of the mechanics of the secondary world (as opposed to low fantasy, where it’s largely secret); high fantasy is not epic fantasy, however, because epic fantasy refers to a type of story, where high fantasy refers to a type of world. Epic fantasy is also broad in scale, dealing with a number of protagonists in various locations, and usually requires a minimum of three volumes to relate the narrative.

Epic fantasies are among the most famous examples of fantasy literature and include The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien, The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R Donaldson etc.

Fairy Tales

Fairy tales are usually short narratives that involve traditional magical beings such as witches and wizards, elves, trolls, goblins, fairies and so on. They are set in (or taken to be set in) the real world, although the specific location is often vague and unimportant. Some fairy tales have happy endings, some are rather darker; many involve a lesson about morality. Older fairy tales are traditional, but modern writers have either written fairy tales or used fairy tale elements in their fiction.

Madame d’Aulnoy wrote many fairy tales, as did Hans Christian Andersen (the Brothers Grimm, by contrast, collected them). Fairy tale fantasies include Phantastes by George MacDonald, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany and Stardust by Neil Gaiman. Re-tellings of fairy tales include The Bloody Chamber (various stories retold from a female point of view) by Angela Carter, Beastly (‘The Beauty and the Beast’) by Alex Flinn and The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents (‘The Pied Piper of Hamlyn’) by Terry Pratchett.

Heroic Fantasy

Heroic fantasy is very similar to swords and sorcery – but with less sorcery. It’s a difficult sub-genre to define and distinguish from other types of fantasy – after all, all stories have their heroes, one way or another. It is very similar to epic fantasy, in that it is often a story of the titanic struggle between good and evil – but with special emphasis on the personal struggles of a, usually, larger than life hero or band of heroes.

David Gemmell (the Drenai series) was a practitioner of heroic fantasy, as are writers such as James Barclay (The Chronicles of the Raven trilogy) and Joe Abercrombie (The First Law trilogy).

High Fantasy

High fantasy is another broad category that can encompass many other sub-genres. In a high fantasy story, magic is a widely known and widely present part of the world. The amount of magic shown in the story may be high or low, but it is not a secret nor a surprise that magic should exist; indeed, magic is essential to the world as it is known by its inhabitants. The ‘high’ in high fantasy does not refer to quality in the same way that high art is seen as better or more intellectual, more challenging than low art.

The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien is high fantasy, as are The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson and The Riddle-Master Trilogy by Patricia McKillip. J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series is a mixture of both high and low fantasy: in the world-within-a-world that is Hogwarts, magic is commonplace; beyond, in the world of the Muggles, wizardry is a secret.

Historical Fantasy

Again, another broad categorisation that contains many other sub-genres such as Arthurian fantasy, mythic fantasy, gaslamp fantasy (Victorian era fantasy; similar to steampunk but with less emphasis on science and technology), Celtic fantasy, Wuxia (Asian fantasy with an emphasis on martial arts), Medieval fantasy and prehistoric fantasy.

Examples include David Gemmell’s Lion of Macedon and Dark Prince, Katherine Kerr’s Deverry books, Jin Yong’s Condor Trilogy, Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Last Light of the Sun and Jean M Auel’s Earth’s Children series.

Low Fantasy

In a low fantasy story, magic is a part of the world, but it is either largely a secret, known only to a few individuals with special training or ancestry, or it is simply not an integral part of most people’s lives; in other words, a low fantasy setting is largely a mundane one, but with some magical elements. Low fantasies are often set in the real world, but they don’t have to be; if they are set in a secondary world, that world must be largely mundane, operating on non-magical principles. Low fantasy also tends to be more morally ambiguous than high fantasy. Again, ‘low’ is not an indication of the quality of the literature.

Low fantasies include most, maybe all dark fantasy and supernatural horror stories, a lot of children’s fiction with magical aspects, such as The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynn Reid Banks, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, and aspects of the Harry Potter books by J K Rowling.

Magic Realism

Magic realism, while it contains fantasy elements, is perhaps not properly thought of as a sub-genre of fantasy as it comes from a different tradition and has different aims. It is the most literary of the sub-categories listed here, and, as is often the case with the divide between literary fiction and genre fiction, its focus is more on the interior life and development of the protagonist, on the quality of language, and on political critique. Another difference is authorial reticence: in a fantasy novel, with that genre’s emphasis on world-building, all the magical aspects of the world will be explained to some degree or other; magic realism will often just let strange events, being etc stand on their own without explication.

Examples of magic realism include One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ by Jorge Luis Borges and The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie.

Science Fantasy

Science fantasy is yet another sub-genre that is hard to put an exact definition to. It essentially a mixture of science fiction and fantasy, but the way in which those two elements are combined. There may simply be high-technology and magic present side by side in the world; or the technology could be powered by magic; or the science fictional elements could be presented in a fantasy idiom, or vice versa. The similarity and potential interchangeability of science fiction and fantasy are highlighted by Arthur C Clark’s famous maxim, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’

There are a couple of related sub-genres that can be mentioned under this heading. Arcanepunk is a genre in which technology and magic are intimately interconnected, the latter often powering the former; this is a sub-genre often represented in roleplaying and computer games. Hard fantasy (which name is based upon hard science fiction) is a sub-genre in which the magical element of the world is treated in as realistic and rigorous a way as possible – as if it were a physical law alongside gravity and electromagnetism.

Examples of science fantasy include The Book of the New Sun (an example of the dying Earth sub-sub-genre) by Gene Wolfe, The Space Trilogy by C S Lewis, the Barsoom books (also characterised as sword and planet) of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Anne McCaffrey’s dragon-filled, science fictional Pern series.

Superhero Fiction

Another sub-genre that may not belong here, superhero stories are, in some ways, more part of the science fiction genre, but they also have a great deal of fantasy within them. Thor, Hellboy and Spawn are examples of the more fantastical superhero characters.

Sword and Sorcery

As noted above, sword and sorcery is very similar to heroic fantasy. In some ways, sword and sorcery is to fantasy what sci-fi is to science fiction – a somewhat debased, low-brow interpretation of the genre with the emphasis on action, adventure and excitement. Sword and sorcery is high fantasy. It differs from epic fantasy in that S&S stories have a much smaller scale narrative, focusing on the struggle of a single character or small group of characters against some relatively local foe (usually a sorcerer or magical beast); there is no global contest between good and evil; the heroes tend to be motivated by personal gain.

The archetypal sword and sorcery hero is Conan, created by Robert E Howard, but inspiration for the sub-genre goes back to such works as Homer’s Odyssey, Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott and the Arabian Nights. Other sword and sorcery tales include Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique and Hyperborean stories, C L Moore Jirel of Joiry stories and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories.

Urban Fantasy

Urban fantasy is a sub-category of contemporary fantasy that is specifically set in cities – although it could take place in the past, present or future. Vampires and similar folkloric beings are often protagonists or antagonists in urban fantasy; the heroes are often detectives of one kind or another. The urban fantasy genre often overlaps with that of paranormal romance.

Among the many urban fantasy titles are Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files and The City & the City by China Miéville.

Weird Fiction/the New Weird

The original weird fiction was that produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by writers such as H P Lovecraft, Arthur Machen and M R James and is a mixture of fantasy, horror and science fiction. The term came about largely because those three genres hadn’t yet acquired those names let alone any fixity of definition. Early in this century, this blurring of genre lines has enjoyed a resurgence and writers have started describing their work as the New Weird. Sub-genres such as slipstream – that which combines or falls between sf and fantasy – and bizarro fiction – that which employs surrealism, satire and the grotesque – are closely related.

Weird stories include Books of Blood by Clive Barker, King Rat by China Miéville, City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer and Shatnerquake by Jeff Burk.


Like any genre worth its salt, fantasy is a broad church, as I hope the above list of definitions and examples illustrates. It’s also one that has undergone a lot of change. While the fantastic is, arguably the oldest of all literature (think of the Old Testament or the epic of Gilgamesh), it has only existed as an identifiable genre for maybe 150 years (going back to George MacDonald) – or 60 years as a marketing genre. In its recent history, the boundaries of fantasy have evolved from the amorphousness of weird fiction to the rigidity of high versus low fantasy to a new permeability with slipstream and the New Weird. The inclusion of magic realism and superheroes, of elements of horror, science fiction and even romance show that fantasy can be all things to all men (and women, of course).

What are your favourite sub-genres of fantasy? What sub-genres have I neglected to mention? Are genres and sub-genres even relevant to today’s authors and readers? Speak your brains by posting a comment below.

Friday Fun: The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam

The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam is a list of 75 questions compiled by David J Parker to test whether your fantasy novel is a load of derivative rubbish. If you answer yes to any of the questions then it’s bad news for you. It begins:

  1. Does nothing happen in the first fifty pages?
  2. Is your main character a young farmhand with mysterious parentage?
  3. Is your main character the heir to the throne but doesn’t know it?
  4. Is your story about a young character who comes of age, gains great power, and defeats the supreme badguy?
  5. Is your story about a quest for a magical artifact that will save the world?
  6. How about one that will destroy it?
  7. Does your story revolve around an ancient prophecy about “The One” who will save the world and everybody and all the forces of good?
  8. Does your novel contain a character whose sole purpose is to show up at random plot points and dispense information?
  9. Does your novel contain a character that is really a god in disguise?
  10. Is the evil supreme badguy secretly the father of your main character?
Much as I love The Wheel of Time, question 33 is hilarious: ‘Is your name Robert Jordan and you lied like a dog to get this far?’
Read the full list here.