high fantasy n.

a subgenre of fantasy set in an imaginary world, typically having a medieval-style society and level of technology, usually featuring a quest or a conflict between Good and Evil, and often written in an elevated style

The 1971 quot. from Lloyd Alexander was the keynote lecture given at the October 1969 meeting of the New England Round Table of Children’s Librarians; the term seems to have derived its currency from this meeting (Eleanor Cameron’s use earlier in 1971 explicitly acknowledges the 1969 meeting). The more general expression is frequently found earlier, referring indistinctly to various kinds of fictional writings.

SF Criticism


  • [1929 H. P. Lovecraft Silver Key in Weird Tales Jan. 44/1 page image H. P. Lovecraft bibliography

    Ironic humor dragged down all the twilight minarets he reared, and the earthy fear of improbability blasted all the delicate and amazing flowers in his faery gardens. The convention of assumed pity split mawkishness on his characters, while the myth of an important reality and significant human events and emotions debased all his high fantasy into thin-veiled allegory and cheap social satire.]

  • [1954 Saturday Review 16 Jan. 10/2 page image

    There are some writers of distinction who make an impression upon their area of culture which cannot be measured by the usual criteria of literary excellence. Leonard Bacon was such a man. As a poet he had to his credit a shelf-ful of books which ranged from social satire to narratives of high fantasy and lyrics of great emotional intensity.]

  • [1965 Saturday Review 2 Oct. 40/3 page image

    Tolkien’s fantasy was preceded by an overture called The Hobbit, and both works were imported by Houghton Mifflin in what is known as ‘sheets’; and here is where H-M ran afoul of the copyright law…. The case is interesting because it shows that the law, like Tolkien’s books, has its moments of high fantasy.]

  • 1971 E. Cameron High Fantasy: ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ in Horn Book (vol. 42, no. 2) Apr. 130 page image Eleanor Cameron

    It is not in the least surprising that Ursula Le Guin should have written, in A Wizard of Earthsea, a work which is a noble example of the term ‘high fantasy’. Of this term she has said, ‘I think “High Fantasy” a beautiful phrase. It summarizes, for me, what I value most in an imaginative work: the fact that the author takes absolutely seriously the world and the people which he has created…that he plays his game with all his skill, and all his art, and all his heart. When he does that, the fantasy game becomes one of the High Games men play.’

  • 1971 L. Alexander in Horn Book (vol. 42, no. 6) Dec. 577 (title) page image Lloyd Alexander

    High Fantasy and Heroic Romance.

  • 1973 N.Y. Times 30 Sept. (Book Review section) 10/3

    Once an author sets his own high standard it is difficult not to compare his succeeding work with it. And compared to the high fantasy of ‘The High King’ or the picaresque romance of ‘The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian,’ Lloyd Alexander’s latest book seems like a packaged deal. It is a mock medieval adventure complete with a crotchety wizard, a naïve and good-hearted hero, a spirited heroine, a trusty, phrase-making friend, and a pair of unscrupulous villians.

  • 1977 R. H. Boyer & K. J. Zahorski Fantastic Imagination 2

    High fantasy consists of fairy tales and myth-based tales: fairy tales, those ancient and new stories which take place in the mysterious other world of faërie, such as Beowulf or J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit; myth tales, stories whose setting is the realm in which gods and men have commerce, as in the Welsh Mabinogion or in Lloyd Alexander’s The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain. This is not to say that ghost stories, fables, folk tales, or satirical farces are not fantasy. To the extent that they take place in an unreal world or conjure up people or happenings which, according to realistic norms, are impossible, they are indeed fantasy. But they are not high fantasy. A number of traits combine to produce a work of high fantasy. High fantasy has an other-world setting, whether this be Middle Earth or Brocéliande, or whether it be the sacred grove of Ashtaroth or the cottage of the Fates. The characters in high fantasy include a generous number of imposing figures who, with their magical or supernatural powers, inspire wonder or fear or often both: Elfin kings, wizards, unicorns, and demigods. High fantasy deals with recognizably archetypal themes and motifs such as the initiation into manhood, death and rebirth, and most frequently with the courage an individual needs to undertake the fateful quest. And, finally, as befits the settings, characters, and themes of high fantasy, the style is elevated, often figurative as it must be to evoke the imaginary worlds it deals with.

  • 1980 D. Bachmann in Dragon Aug. 50/1

    We might note that games which are limited to the acquisition of power are of the ‘sword & sorcery’ variety; those games which also include nobler objectives are, at least, moving toward High Fantasy.

  • 1986 G. K. Wolfe Critical Terms for Science Fiction & Fantasy 52 Gary K. Wolfe bibliography

    High fantasy, fantasy set in a fully imagined Secondary World, according to Boyer and Zahorski, as opposed to Low Fantasy which concerns supernatural intrusions into the ‘real’ world.

  • 1998 Speculations Aug. 5/2

    High Fantasy is a subset of fantasy. It invariably involves a quest. It usually pits Good against Evil in one form or another, and Good always wins.

  • 2002 C. de Lint Books to Look For in Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Oct.—Nov. 58/1

    Until Sojourn, we've seen very little high fantasy with realistic art (if, considering the subject matter, you'll pardon the term realistic). And certainly not on a regular monthly schedule, with high storytelling values. The storyline is largely successful as well, if a little familiar in places. There is an evil lord of darkness whose armies have taken over all the known kingdoms. Set against him is a very small, but growing band of rebels, on a quest to recover long-hidden magical artifacts they have been told will help them defeat him.

  • 2002 Science Fiction Chronicle July 21/2

    Of course that has to include all the talking animal stories, fairy tales, and takeoffs (Captain Underpants, for example) as well as straight forward [sic] high fantasy.

  • 2003 R. Horton Short Fiction in Locus Apr. 15/1

    Elysian Fiction (<www.sfroundup.com/elysian>) is devoted to fantasy, often quite traditional high fantasy, mostly featuring newer writers, though the quality is somewhat uneven.

  • 2013 C. Barker Ever-Expanding Weaveworld in Fangoria (#319) 70/2 page image

    Nobody predicted that I would jump sideways into fantasy. Not high fantasy, of course, like stories with kings and princes and what have you, but into a sort of modern epic fantasy.

Research requirements

antedating 1971

Earliest cite

Lloyd Alexander, in The Horn Book (publishing an earlier essay)

Research History
Alexx Kay submitted a 1986 cite from Gardner Dozois in Dozois' "The Year's Best SF Third Annual Series".
Enoch Forrester submitted a 1980 cite from "The Dragon" magazine.
Enoch Forrester submitted a 1998 cite from Mike Resnick's "Ask Bwana" column in Speculations.
Jeff Prucher submitted a 1986 cite from Gary Wolfe's "Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy".
Jeff Prucher submitted a 2003 cite from Rich Horton's review column in Locus.
Jeff Prucher submitted a 2002 cite from Charles de Lint's review column in F&SF.
David Bratman submitted a 1977 cite from Robert H. Boyer and Kenneth J. Zahorski's "The Fantastic Imagination".
Bill Mullins submitted a 1973 cite from the New York Times Book Review.
Mike Christie suggested the Lloyd Alexander essay "High Fantasy and Heroic Romance", published 1971 (though originally delivered in 1969), which is normally regarded as the coinage of the term; Jesse Sheidlower tracked down this essay.

Last modified 2023-07-13 21:26:20
In the compilation of some entries, HDSF has drawn extensively on corresponding entries in OED.