When most people think of ‘real’ fantasy, they’re thinking of high fantasy. This is the heartland of the genre, the place where sweeping epic narratives tell of the heroic struggle of good against evil. High fantasies are set within vivid, detailed worlds which never existed – not magical versions of history, not the places that legends occurred in, but in entirely separate realms of magical wonder. In fact, the real central hero of a high fantasy is often the land itself. While a broad range of heroes and villains struggle against one another, it is the land that is truly in peril, the land that is there in every page, and the land that forms the emotional backdrop for the story. Tolkien referred to these realms as ‘secondary worlds’, a term which has gained some common use with fantasy scholars.
High fantasy is also referred to as epic fantasy or heroic fantasy, and these names give a clue as to its real nature. Tales of high fantasy are epic in scope, heroic in the breadth of their vision. There may be a main hero, but he or she will encounter a whole cast of other characters, and their actions and interactions form a web spanning both story and land. The world itself has a specific culture, history, geography and bestiary, and the story would fall apart without it.
High fantasy usually comes in big packages. Novels of 500 pages and more are common, and frequently form part of a trilogy – or more; some core sequences have run to a dozen books. At some point though, the nature of the epic story requires a resolution. Even the longest high fantasy series must eventually come to a recognisable end. For a while, anyway. It’s not uncommon for an author to follow a core trilogy with a sequel trilogy, a prequel trilogy, or even a parallel ‘sidebar’ trilogy.
These early works provided vital service preparing the ground for the 20th century’s greatest fantasy novel, JRR Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”. It was first released in three volumes from 1954-55, but it is not a trilogy so much as one long novel with six sub-sections. Tolkien himself fought hard to have the book published as one piece. At first, the Lord of the Rings seemed destined for the same sort of obscurity as Morris’s and Eddison’s romances, and it took over 10 years to gain wide acceptance.
It was with the controversial publication of the American paperback editions, in 1965, that The Lord of the Rings finally took off. The row over the pirate edition probably helped draw the attention the book deserved, and it became one of the soaring bestsellers of 20th-century fiction. Its immense success stemmed from the incredible richness of Tolkien’s grand narrative, and the sheer power of the land of Middle Earth.
Readers who made it past the first chapters – which are really just cozy – soon found themselves succumbing to the spell of the grander narrative. It is as a timeless quest that the book really succeeds. The mysterious portents, the hard travelling, the stunning landscapes, the encircling foes, the urgency of the task in hand, the magical revelations – all are handled with a superb sense of story-telling rhythm. It is a slow rhythm, for it is a very long novel, but in its leisurely way it builds an almost tidal power.
Tolkien became a huge seller in the 1960s. His work cleared a space for all forms of fantasy to take root in the marketplace. It took twelve more years before Tolkien’s direct legacy became apparent, though. The year 1977 marked the turning point – not “The Silmarillion”, but the first appearance of two big new instant bestsellers by previously unknown American writers. Both would have been inexplicable, and probably unpublishable, if Tolkien hadn’t gone before.
Terry Brooks’s “The Sword of Shannara” was condemned by some reviewers as a ‘rip-off’ of Tolkien, but it still sold spectacularly well and set a pattern for many more novels to come. Stephen R. Donaldson’s “Chronicles of Thomas Covenant” was a more original and interesting work. There is no doubt that it was inspired by Tolkien’s example. Donaldson offered a detailed secondary world – the Land, where the hero, magically displaced from our Earth, embarked on a mighty quest to defeat the corrupting powers of evil. Although the Land bore a hint of resemblance to Middle-Earth, Thomas Covenant himself was a very different character to any hero of Tolkien’s. A depressive, frequently hostile loner who suffers horribly with leprosy, Covenant cannot bring himself to believe in the Land. The alienation and resentment of this denial makes him do some terrible things, and tragedy piles on tragedy as he leads the Land to the very edge of ruin before finding the strength to let himself truly engage.
With the arrival of Brooks and Donaldson, high fantasy entered an era of commercial acceptability, becoming a type of novel which has made its authors and publishers rich. This was a vast change from the earlier part of the century, where works such as “The Worm Ouroboros” did well to sell a few hundred copies on first publication. It leads the field, now: it is simply what fantasy means to most people. If current trends are anything to go by, it will continue to give a great deal of pleasure to millions of readers for years to come.