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FLAVORS OF FANTASY: SOME QUICK DEFINITIONS

March 8, 2012

You’ll find whole convention seminars devoted to the fine line separating various fantasy and science fiction sub-genres, and those discussions can range from spirited and friendly to near-riots. Though there may be a few instances where most people can easily agree, and some sub-genres seem pretty obvious, like steampunk or so-called “erotic fantasy,” others are a little trickier to nail down. I’ve written before, for instance on the line between urban fantasy and horror—that one has really been confused over the past several years.

But what about the “big three” fantasy sub-genres, and how Arron of the Black Forest fits in?

Mel and I have used the term “sword & sorcery” to describe the series, and have kept that in mind when writing it. But what does that mean?

First, let’s start with the “big three,” the three primary divisions of traditional fantasy. And by traditional fantasy I mean fantasy with a vaguely medieval technology level in a secondary world (a world created entirely from the author’s imagination, like Middle Earth or Faerûn) rich in magic and monsters.

Epic Fantasy

This is the biggest of the three, and I mean literally. Here you’ll find those giant books by the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, and Robert Jordan. These are big books, with big events. The short definition: In epic fantasy, the hero is trying to save the world.

High Fantasy

Often barely one notch down on the “epic” level, high fantasy can have all the same richness in worldbuilding as epic fantasy, but the stories themselves tend to be a bit more contained. The Forgotten Realms novels fall into this category (I know that for a fact, too, because for a decade and a half or so I put them there). This is fantasy’s middle ground, with motivations that are a little more personal. The short definition: In high fantasy, the hero is trying to save the kingdom.

Sword & Sorcery

This is too often seen as fantasy’s poor cousin, the realm of the pulp potboiler. But it’s in this subgenre that some of the genre’s legends, like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, plied their trade. It’s also making something of a comeback in the work of authors as diverse as Steven Brust, Ari Marmell, and Mel Odom and myself. This is fantasy that’s lighter on the worldbuilding and political intrigue, heavier on the action and more narrow in its focus on a single character. The short definition: In sword & sorcery, the hero is trying to save himself.

To be clear, I’m a huge fan of all three of these sub-genres and many, many others, too. I’m not at all trying to make the case that one is better than the others. I’ve written high fantasy in the Forgotten Realms line, The Haunting of Dragon’s Cliff is an intentional effort to wield sword & sorcery, and I also have an urban fantasy novel making the rounds with editors as we speak. But when Mel and I started discussing the idea that became Arron of the Black Forest, we were both drawn to that everyman hero, the classic fantasy barbarian. Sword & sorcery gives us a chance to tell personal stories of personal courage, personal sacrifice, and personal danger.

I think I’m drawn to that becuase in reality, I feel a lot more like a sword & sorcery barbarian, plying my trade in a world that’s barely comprehensible, let alone controllable. I vote and stuff, and try to be a good citizen, but the fact is it’s not up to me to save the kingdom (or the republic), let alone save the world. I’m not a politician or even a soldier. I just don’t have that power—I’m not in that position. But in navigating the everyday “dangers” of paying bills, raising kids, managing a career . . . it’s me (with a lot of support from family and friends) against . . . what? The world? No, not really. “The world” isn’t out to get me, any more than “the world” was out to get Conan, or Arron. But every once in a while there’s the occasional evil wizard or demon cultist that jacks up my credit card rates or causes my car to need a sudden, unexpected, and costly repair.

And like Arron, I wade into battle secure in my own ability to fend off the enemy and live to fight another day.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. John Stone permalink
    March 9, 2012 1:35 am

    I’ve always thought of Moorcock’s Elrik as Sword & Sorcery, but is it possible he’s something else Anti-High Fantasy– he’s trying to destroy his own kingdom and steal the princess he gave away to his right-minded cousin?

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