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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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High and Low Fantasy
I put this query out on Facebook but may as well repeat it here, since the answer hasn't come zinging back in unambiguous terms as yet...

Who coined the terms "high fantasy" and "low fantasy" - both the concepts and the actual phrases? I feel this is something I ought to know just like that, since they have historically had quite wide currency, even though (for several reasons) I dislike and avoid them myself.

Yeah, I dislike them so much I stopped reading anything that mentioned them. So I don't know.

My guess, after a short check via the google N-gram thing, is that the use of the two terms as opposed to each other started around 1978, in Dark Imaginings, a work of literary criticism by Robert H. Boyer, Kenneth J. Zahorski (which I haven't read).
The term "high fantasy" seems to have been around since the mid-nineteenth century, though.

Editing to add: The term "low fantasy" was around earlier in the 1970s, but it looks like it was then being used by psychologists to describe children who didn't fantasise much, as e.g. "Seven- to nine-year-old boys were initially administered part of the Michigan Picture Test and then categorized as High and Low Fantasy on the basis of their scores..."

Edited at 2014-04-20 02:47 pm (UTC)

The Encyclopedia of Fantasy credits low fantasy to Boyer and Zahorski, but in the introduction to The Fantastic Imagination from 1977.


Interesting - thanks! I would assume (though I've not looked into it yet) that "high fantasy" in a 19-century context would mean something very different from its use in opposition to "low fantasy" - more a matter of elevated expression or even the rank of the characters involved. Mind you, those connotations linger even its later usage, along with a motley rag-bag of other ones (one reason why the term has very little utility).

My feeling is that "high fantasy" was the original and was used to distinguish Tolkienesque fantasy from whimsy or fairy tales. "Low fantasy" was a much later coinage. Is there anything in Rhetorics of Fantasy about the origins of the terms? I know that Farah defines her own categories, but was there anything in there about "high/low fantasy"?

Unfortunately, I honestly can't remember and also can't remember where my copy is. My books are very disorganised at the moment. :(

I'm away from my books atm and so can't check, but I don't remember her discussing it. If she did I imagine it would have been as part of clearing the ground for her own taxonomy, which is set up quite differently of course.

If I can find my copy of Rhetorics of Fantasy I'll see whether "high/low" is mentioned. It might have been briefly discussed in the introduction and of course it's a reputable source.

I think high fantasy was used to distinguish epic fantasy from sword and sorcery. The fate of kingdoms (or the world) vs. wandering fighters.

In the nineteenth century, the expression "high fantasy" occurs quite a lot with the apparent meaning of "vivid fantasy" or "extreme fantasy." I wouldn't count that kind of usage as a genre term at all -- more praise of the author's imagination.

I rather thought Lin Carter or L. Sprague de Camp came up with "high fantasy" as a genre term, but I may well be thinking of "heroic fantasy."

I can't answer your question, because I don't know. Your post did get me thinking. About the difference between fantasy (whatever height) & magical realism.

I'm rereading Gabriel García Márquez, & that got me thinking too...

Magical realism is one of the many things the high/low distinction wasn't built to deal with - though I suppose it would probably be low if one were forced to choose (which one isn't, of course).

Well, quite - because the two are different.