These stories are often serious in tone and epic in scope, dealing with themes of grand struggle against supernatural, evil forces. Some typical characteristics of high fantasy include fantastical elements such as elves, fairies, dwarves, ogres, goblins, giants, dragons, demons, magic or sorcery, wizards or magicians, constructed languages, quests, coming-of-age themes, and multi-volume narratives.
In some fiction, a contemporary, “real-world” character is placed in the invented world, sometimes through framing devices such as portals to other worlds or even subconscious travels.
High fantasy worlds may be more or less closely based on real world milieux, or on legends such as the Arthurian Cycle. When the resemblance is strong, particularly when real-world history is used, high fantasy shades into alternative history.
The high fantasy genre’s fandom ranges from Tolkien to contemporary. Recent screen versions of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit as well as Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader have contributed to the genre’s continuing popularity. Moreover, film adaptations of some novels are in preproduction, such as David Farland’s The Runelords, and also Terry Brooks’s Magic Kingdom of Landover as well as The Elfstones of Shannara.
Many high fantasy stories are told from the viewpoint of one main hero. Often, much of the plot revolves around his or her heritage or mysterious nature. In many novels the hero is an orphan or unusual sibling, often with an extraordinary talent for magic or combat. He or she begins the story young, if not as an actual child. In other works he is a completely developed individual with his own character and spirit. High fantasy is not limited to a male protagonist.
The hero often begins as a childlike figure, but matures rapidly, experiencing a huge gain in fighting/problem-solving abilities along the way. The plot of the story often depicts the hero’s fight against the evil forces as a Bildungsroman.
In many books there is a knowing, mystical mentor/teacher. This character is often a formidable wizard or warrior, who provides the main character with advice and help.
In some books, there is also a mysterious Dark Lord, often obsessed with taking over the world and killing the main hero. This character is an evil wizard or sorcerer, or sometimes a kind of god or demon. This character commands a huge army and a group of highly feared servants. In some works the villain may have had a predecessor/s who might have been superior or inferior to them.
The progress of the story leads to the character learning the nature of the unknown forces against him, that they constitute a force with great power and malevolence.
Good versus evil
The good versus evil fighting against each other is a common concept in high fantasy, and the character of evil is often an important concept in a work of high fantasy, as in The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, the importance of the concepts of good and evil can be regarded as the distinguishing mark between high fantasy and sword and sorcery. In many works of high fantasy, this conflict marks a deep concern with moral issues; in other works, the conflict is a power struggle, with, for instance, wizards behaving irresponsibly whether they are “good” or “evil”. In some works, as in large parts of Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, the struggle between good and evil is mainly used as a backdrop for more intricate conflicts of interest, such as conflicts between different factions formally on the same side in the good vs. evil conflict.
Recent fantasy novels have begun to depart from the more common good vs evil background that became prevalent after The Lord of the Rings. Prominently, George R. R. Martin’s acclaimed A Song of Ice and Fire series more or less abandons the good-evil paradigm in favor of a more politically based and multifaceted struggle between different ruling families, most of whom display both good and evil tendencies in pursuit of power, which takes the place of the main catalyst of the story. Although several characters who have a civilised, trustworthy guise do perform terrible acts of cruelty marking them as morally degenerate, their intentions are not necessarily “evil”.