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.
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 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).
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 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 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 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 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 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.
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.
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, 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 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.
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 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.