If you think High Fantasy belongs to the annals of pretentious book history, think again. It's still alive and well despite the genre's reputation for being, well, a bit of a senior citizen. Pretty much everyone outside of the genre just squints at it and mutters "hmmm....Tolkein..." before dismissing the whole thing, but those of us on *the inside* know better.
The High Fantasy world has fully embraced the indie era, and books in this category are still being regularly bought and published by traditional houses. Big names like Holly Black, Sabaa Tahir, and George R.R. Martin have made this genre their home, and they're consistently popping out books to populate it.
With the rise of self-publishing and the resulting muddling of genre conventions (epic-fantasy-scifi-werewolf-romance, anyone?), High Fantasy's backbone tropes have gotten a bit lost in the crowd. Consider this your vaguely passive-aggressive reminder of what makes this category the bestseller powerhouse it is - and enjoy a few trips down memory lane along the way!
Trope One: A Whole New World, A.K.A "I Don't Think We're In Kansas (Or Real Life) Anymore..."
In conventional terms, High Fantasy is separated from other forms of Fantasy by its setting - which is always a unique, author-created world apart from our own. Unlike Urban or Low Fantasy, High Fantasy takes place on its very own map, without bringing in real-world locations at all.
This feature is, for many fans, what makes High Fantasy novels so compelling. Personally, I think this makes a lot of sense. If Tolkein had made Frodo go traipsing through the American midwest, for example, the journey wouldn't have been nearly as compelling. It also would have included too much corn, and no one wants that.
Luckily we were given the creatively-named "Middle Earth" instead. Less corn, more caves, and a generally more enveloping setting. Yay!
A lot of people find Earth to be a bit of a mess, and it's hard to imagine epic characters and vast new frontiers occupying our garbage-heap cities and alarmingly conformist suburbs. High Fantasy authors realized this early on and said, "hey, guess what? F*** Earth - I'm making up my own world. And it's going to have, like, a lot of mountains and volcanoes and sh**."
Way cooler. Also, this created a booming market for whoever draws those fancy maps in the front of High Fantasy novels, which was an added bonus. You guys are great, whoever you are.
Trope Two: High Fantasy Themes Are...Not That Complex.
If you think about it, 99% of High Fantasy novels could have the exact same synopsis and no one would even notice.
"This guy/girl/mystical being was minding their own business when - out of nowhere - some a**hole came along and screwed the whole thing up. Now this rather unqualified hero/heroine has to go on a big long adventure and do like, magic stuff to fix things. There's probably a horse, maybe a dragon, and likely some sort of prophecy going on here, and I bet there's going to be swords, too. It'll be great."
The themes included in this basic model are generally straightforward: there's a main character who must determine their place in the whole "good vs. evil" paradigm - even though it's usually pretty obvious which side they're leaning toward, honestly - and there's a bad guy that has to be dethroned or otherwise defeated.
There's going to be a few internal struggles as the hero/ine grows and faces more intense challenges, and their character development will almost always follow a predictable upward arc. Themes like war, tyranny, sacrifice, and nobility will make requisite appearances, and the "hero's journey" is literally a concept taken from the High Fantasy genre.
The themes we see in High Fantasy are simple, and readers like it that way. This is because simple themes tend to be big themes, and it's also why the genre is synonymous (or identical to) the Epic Fantasy genre. Our conceptions of overarching morality, right vs wrong, and deep commitment to a greater cause form the beating heart of the High Fantasy genre and its common themes.
Trope Three: You Know What's Cool? Magic. Oh, And Medieval Weaponry. Let's Stick Them Together And Call It A Day.
Is there anything more satisfying than a two-chapter, absolutely ridiculously well-described fictional battle scene? I mean, come on - this sh** is like a 20-page orgasm for writer and reader alike. It's the fiction scene that makes or breaks a High Fantasy story.
Of all the tropes in High Fantasy, my favorite has to be the predictable yet consistently gratifying use of epic battle scenes and fancy-a** swords. Or axes (cough, the Jewel Chronicles, cough). Sometimes spears? But only when an author really wants to break the mold.
High Fantasy transports us to another world and another time - and that time tends to be a free-for-all of medieval, renaissance, and classical eras, all hooking up like cats in literary heat. As readers, we love it. We're getting the best of all those vague, old-timey ages when, we assume, people were just cooler than they are now.
Plus, you know, magic. Sprinkle that sh** in and you've got yourself a sale, buddy. Tropes like big battles and manly, stabby weapons are par for the course in High Fantasy, and they always have been. It's what readers expect when they buy a book in this category - and reader expectations are what turns tropes into a genre in the first place.
Tolkien wrote some books. Readers decided they were High Fantasy. The inclusion of magic systems (often astoundingly simple yet somehow still complex), classical weaponry, and fight scenes became defining features of the genre as soon as readers said "hey, this is so cool that I hope every book like this one has the same stuff!"
So, yeah. Swords. Spells. Gotta have 'em.
Trope Four: What's With The Tall Elves, Guys?
Contrary to popular belief (or at least what I've unilaterally decided is common belief), High Fantasy does not depend upon the inclusion of elves. I mean, don't get me wrong - hot, tall elves are totally great and definitely deserve a lauded place in the genre. Legolas can get it.
They aren't a requirement, though. Sadly. Elves are simply a representation of a much broader High Fantasy trope, which is the inclusion of multiple non-human races within the overarching setting. These can be well-known creatures like Orcs, dragons, fae, or mermaids, but they can also be completely unique and specific to certain authors.
There are also plenty of examples of human-but-also-more groups like mages, wizards, and whatever the hell that sexy dude from The Witcher is, so the possibilities are quite vast. Again, this is all tied into the High Fantasy conception of "wow, Earth and humanity are kind of...boring. I want to experience something way more bad***."
Enter the sexy elves. And assorted others, but whatever - we all know they're not nearly as cool. Otherworldly and decidedly non-human or only-kind-of-human races (but not aliens, or it's sci-fi) are integral to pretty much every example of High Fantasy storytelling you can think of.
Trope it up, Legolas - I'll just sit back and watch.
Here, Have Some Honorable Mention Tropes.
I'm no expert, but I am a huge book nerd who reads up to 5 novels a week (I wish I were kidding). So, while I have noted the major tropes in my perennially adored High Fantasy reading list, there are a few others that are present but harder to qualify.
These are the honorable mentions of the High Fantasy trope world.
That One Scene Where Everyone Is In A Forest And It's Dark. Bonus points if it's a magic forest with wise (or, alternatively, bizarrely antagonistic) trees.
Caves. Tunnels. Who Even Decides To Live In A Cave Anyway? Bonus points for this trope come with oddly elaborate cave-cities with big a** pillars.
Runes Are Cool, But What Do They Mean? The hero/ine thinks these runes are pretty, but they have to wait a while before they can actually read them. Better hire a wizard-turned-translator, Eragon. Or a sexy elf.
Add Some Curse Words, But Make Them Fancy! Since we're living in an alternate world, naturally people can't drop f-bombs...unless it's something like "by Fenrir's blundering butthole!" or "Fates' arsehole, [insert character name]! Don't you have a GPS?"
You Know They're Bad Guys Because They're Ugly. It's actually kind of rude if you think about it - the ugly enemies aren't usually cool enough to be the bad guy, just really disposable catch-all enemies for the good guys to slaughter. Maybe our shallow-ness is why Orcs decided to be bad guys, but you don't think about that because you're selfish.
In Conclusion, I Have Only A Basic Idea Of What I'm Talking About, But I Hope This Was Enlightening!
Somewhere in the great beyond, I hope Tolkein is looking down on me and thinking about this abomination of a post. That would make me happy. High Fantasy is a genre that is guided by big honking tropes that at first glance seem almost limiting in their vastness - but as we've seen, they can take on many versatile and amusing forms.
This Daddy Of All Genres isn't going anywhere, either. It touches on some of our most deeply held ideas of what Fantasy is, and these tropes have become integral to many of our favorite stories. As long as there are worlds to build and swords to name, High Fantasy is here to stay.
Disclaimer: This writer does not condone, support, or otherwise approve of Orc discrimination in any form, and is an equal-opportunity author. Orc rights are non-human rights. Fight the prejudice.