The Silliness of High and Low
I’m not a fan of the concept of high and low fantasy. To me, high fantasy is limited to epic fantasy (with maybe certain heroic subgenres being included). By contrast, low fantasy is too broad. Is fantasy genres that do not share epic tropes really all low fantasy? This does not work for me. Indeed, it would be better to just go with the subgenres without any further separation.
Now, I get that the terms high and low fantasy are meant to relate to setting. A constructed world or an extremely altered Earth is referred to as high fantasy, and a setting that is based on a recognizable Earth is often termed low fantasy.
But, the problems come in when one realizes that this system is not perfect. Middle Earth is set in Earth’s distant past, but it is an Earth so different, so altered that it might as well be a different world entirely. The same can be said of Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age, it is set on Earth, but an Earth so altered and fantastic as to be another world. Middle Earth is high fantasy, but the Hyborian Age is low fantasy. Why?
Well, the issue is that the Conan Saga is sword and sorcery, not epic. This is when a form of genre classism comes into play. I mentioned earlier that epic fantasy often seems to be the only genre that is included in high fantasy. When I mentioned that low fantasy is muddled and broad, I meant it.
Furthermore, high fantasy gets muddled when one thinks of non secondary epic fantasies. Harry Potter is an epic fantasy set on our own contemporary Earth with just a separate and hidden wizarding community. While the novel takes place almost exclusively within that hidden community, the known world is still very present. So should this be high fantasy or low fantasy? The setting, I argue, should mean it is a low fantasy, but most people place it in high fantasy because it has epic tropes.
So, is it the setting or is it whether the work is epic or not? I think that the binary was originally intended to be based on setting but gradually came to be so closely equated to epic fantasy that the two genres have become synonyms of each other.
So, I think it has come time to discard the two terms entirely. Instead of utilizing high and low fantasy, which are inherently class based terms (and imply a ranking system), I propose using a more clearly setting based system. If a work is a constructed world or an Earth so clearly altered as to be a constructed world, then it is a constructed world fantasy. If a work is set on Earth (even if it takes place in a hidden world or a slightly altered Earth), then it is an Earth based fantasy. And that way, there should not be a synonym between any of the terms of fantasy.
To conclude, I dislike the terms high and low fantasy. I think they do not work and they come across as being a little silly.