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Fellowship of the Ring: Conventions of film, conventions of genre

[ 182 ] October 1, 2012 |

(One of the visual rhetoric posts born of this course. If it seems a little more basic than the rest of those posts, that’s because it’s the first real day of class and I have to start somewhere.)

I have one goal here: to define “high fantasy” as a genre through Fellowship of the Ring. There will no doubt be academic arguments about the particulars—the true extent of Tolkien’s influence, for example, or the necessity of orcs—but I want to sketch out the basic generic qualities of high fantasy in a portable manner, i.e. one that will also apply to Game of Thrones. Meaning the most commonly argued generic feature to qualify as unnecessary baggage is this one:

Works of fantasy exist in a world utterly unrelated to the one in which we live and are therefore purely escapist.

Because, at the very least, whatever work I do with Fellowship also needs to apply to Game of Thrones. That and it’s just wrong. Anything written by a human being in a particular historical moment belongs to that particular historical moment even if it depicts a different or invented historical moment. The rest of the generic features of high fantasy I want to pull from Fellowship via an immanent analysis of the film itself, and what better place to begin than with maps?

Lord of the rings - fellowship of the ring00001

Maps are important because 1) sentences like “Go north until you hit Chicago and hook a left and you’ll end up California” don’t make intuitive sense in fantastic worlds, and 2) the most common plot elements in fantastic works, quests and wars, are map-driven affairs. You need to know who’s where and in relation to what in an invented world, and that requires special attention be paid to maps. Though the visual presentation and manipulation of maps is prevalent in high fantasy—as is evidenced both above, viewing Peter Jackson’s zooming around the map of Middle Earth, or in the opening credits of Games of Thrones—it should be noted that as a film convention, it predates high fantasy as a genre. (Spielberg’s clearly referencing something here.) Another common element in high fantasy would be a token of power:

Lord of the rings - fellowship of the ring00013

Like one of those. In the case of Fellowship, the ring functions as both a token and embodiment of power, whereas in Game of Thrones, the Iron Throne will merely be the token awarded to the winner of the game, but in both cases there’s an item whose acquisition is certral to the plot. In Fellowship, Jackson establishes and maintains the significance of the ring by constantly zooming in on it. The frame above, for example, belongs to a sustained zoom:

Lord of the rings - fellowship of the ring00011Lord of the rings - fellowship of the ring00011Lord of the rings - fellowship of the ring00011Lord of the rings - fellowship of the ring00011

But Jackson’s always zooming in on the ring. To wit:

Lord of the rings - fellowship of the ring00171Lord of the rings - fellowship of the ring00171Lord of the rings - fellowship of the ring00171

That’s Frodo at The Prancing Pony, but note the difference between the sustained zoom on Sauron’s hand and the interrupted zoom on Frodo’s fingers. Jackson’s taking advantage of our implicit understanding of filmic convention when he zooms in on Sauron’s hand: he knows that such zooms are sometimes intended to convey a thought process-in-process, so by sustaining the zoom it appears as if the ring itself is thinking. The edit from the extreme close-up of the ring to Frodo’s face and back to an even more extreme close-up on the ring breaks up the continuity of the zoom, meaning the ring doesn’t appear to be thinking so much as conversing with Frodo. It’s asking Frodo to put it on, and from one shot to the next is becoming more insistence, hence the increasing extremity of the zoom. That’s a literalization of the typically figurative allure of a token of power. Who falls victim to this allure?

Depends on what you mean by “victim.” In one sense, the victims are a few singularly important people through whom the narrative will be focalized; in another, it’s the anonymous hordes whose fates will be decided by which of those singularly important people acquire the token of power. For example, here’s a singularly important person surrounded by his anonymous horde:

Lord of the rings - fellowship of the ring00029

You can tell Elrond’s important both because of the central framing and the difference in costume: it’s not just that he’s not wearing a helmet, but that not wearing a helmet makes his full face available to the audience. (See here for a preview of why that’s important.) It goes without saying that in terms of genre it’s the singularly important people who undertake quests and the anonymous hordes that go to war. It’s also worth noting the color of Elrond and his anonymous hordes, which for historical reasons typically fight against anonymous hordes that look like this:

Lord of the rings - fellowship of the ring00019

I’m not saying that dark skin and unconventional jewelry decisions necessarily indicate that a character in a high fantasy will be less-than-noble, but neither am I denying it. (There’s a reason that conversations like this one happen, and about Peter Jackson, no less. I include that link not so you’ll click on it so much as to avoid having that conversation again at this particular moment.) But more on that later, because at this point it would behoove us to unify the generic conventions I’ve identified as succinctly as possible:

High fantasy consists of narratives in which singularly important people go on quests for tokens of power in order to facilitate or forestall wars between anonymous hordes and all of that can be tracked on maps.

That seems like a fair assessment of the genre, as established in Fellowship, don’t you think? If you don’t, what essential features do you think I’ve missed?


Comments (182)

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  1. Verplanck says:

    The arc of the high fantasy narrative often involves the coming-of-age (or coming into power) of the protagonist. Quite often it’s the ‘humble servant boy with ancient royal heritage’ thing. Similarly, coming to grips with power (and realizing the effects of true power, whether political or magical, or both) is a common struggle for the main character.

    Never quite put my finger on the map thing. No wonder I like high fantasy so much.

  2. John says:

    A couple of thoughts here. The first is that my understanding of Tolkien’s mythology is that he understood it to take place in the distant past of our world – and so to not be “a world entirely unrelated to the one in which we live.” So certainly not “entirely unrelated,” even in the narrow sense.

    A second thought is that it seems a bit odd to define high fantasy as a genre through a film. High fantasy is a literary genre which has, for the most part, only been translated into film or television very erratically, if at all. What was the most successful pre-Lord of the Rings high fantasy film? Willow? There’s really almost nothing. And when looking at genre, it seems like this is important, isn’t it?

    As far as the definition, well, I’m not sure. There hasn’t been much (any?) questing for tokens of power in A Song of Ice and Fire (or Game of Thrones) up to this point – certainly none in the main Westeros storyline.

    • Leeds man says:

      What was the most successful pre-Lord of the Rings high fantasy film?

      Excalibur? The Sinbad, Hercules, Jason films? Not sure how they wouldn’t be classified as high fantasy.

      • John says:

        That’s pretty weak sauce. And I’d say that King Arthur definitely shouldn’t count as high fantasy.

        • Leeds man says:

          Why John? What disqualifies Arthur? The fact that Malory wrote in the 15th century rather than the 19th, 20th or 21st? I’d be fine with that stipulation, but I think the question is worth asking.

          • John says:

            Well, I’d say that the lack of a secondary world is important to defining “high fantasy,” and it’s definitely missing from King Arthur (and the Arabian Nights and Greek mythology, for that matter).

            • Leeds man says:

              I think you’re confusing the mists of time with the mists of mythology. Arguably, The Iliad took place in our, primary, world, but Arthur and the others took place in parallel, magical worlds.

              • Hob says:

                But that’s not what the tellers of the Arthur story are asking you to believe; part of the point of the story is that it is our world and that it explains and/or foretells things about our world.

                I don’t think a “parallel, magical world” was a concept that existed in literature at that point. If you wanted to make up a strange far-away kingdom where they do everything differently, you would say “Egypt” or “Sweden” or any place you were fairly sure your readers hadn’t been to. You wouldn’t say “England, but not this England.”

                • Leeds man says:

                  I don’t think a “parallel, magical world” was a concept that existed in literature at that point.

                  Not explicitly, no. Fair enough.

              • John says:

                I’m not sure I understand the distinction you’re trying to make between the Iliad and the Matter of Britain. Medieval people did believe that Arthur was a real person in much the same way that ancient Greeks believed that the Trojan War was real.

                • Leeds man says:

                  Well, from what I’ve read, the Iliad is a distorted echo of a real (Mycenaean Age) Trojan War. You could make the same argument about Arthurian stories, but they are much further removed from a putative Briton-Saxon conflict.

                • John says:

                  The Iliad is also pretty far removed from the realities of Mycenaean Greece. This seems like a difference in degree more than a difference in kind.

                • JRoth says:

                  I don’t think the Iliad is as far removed as you think. Subsequent portrayals of the stories in the Iliad are, tending to dress Mycenaean warlords in Hellenic finery, but Homer “remembered” a lot of truth about that civilization. Whereas, whoever Arthur might have been, he most certainly was not a Christian knight in armor – and that imagery goes back to the earliest tellings of his story. Everything I’ve read indicates that, insofar as there was a real Arthur, he existed in Roman or immediately post-Roman times, but the Romans are not part of Malory or his antecedents.

                  Unless I’m forgetting something, of course.

                • Malaclypse says:

                  Unless I’m forgetting something, of course.

                  You forgot all of Book 5 of Malory, yes.

                • Leeds man says:

                  You mean Book II? The one in which Britain had conquered Rome?

                • Leeds man says:


                • John says:

                  Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s versions of Arthur certainly view the Roman period as ending only a few generations before Arthur, and put Arthur’s reign in the context of the battle against the Saxon invaders – both of them draw on Gildas’s probably genuine history of the period. It’s the French Lancelot-Grail cycle that starts to remove Arthur from his original historical context.

        • Artor says:

          Arthur is not High Fantasy? Really? The whole genre of High Fantasy is styled in imitation of the old epics like the Arthur cycle, the Ring of the Nibelungen, Beowulf & the Sagas.

      • Snarki, child of Loki says:

        The Princess Bride, of course!

      • Malaclypse says:

        What was the most successful pre-Lord of the Rings high fantasy film?

        The first Star Wars movie.

        • cpinva says:

          that was the first thing that came to my mind:

          The first Star Wars movie.

          but then i started arguing with myself over the distinction between high fantasy and sci-fi, or can they be one and the same? technically, Star Wars takes place in our universe, just in a different galaxy, and different galaxies do exist in our universe. so, if buy the argument that, in order to be high fantasy, it must take place in a world that doesn’t actually exist, then Star Wars doesn’t qualify.

          • John says:

            I don’t think high fantasy has to take place in a world that doesn’t exist. It has to take place in a world that is distinct and independent from our world. That secondary world can be located, for convenience’s sake, in the distant past or the distant future or another galaxy, or wherever.

          • Njorl says:

            “Star Wars” is fantasy, not science fiction. Consider the intro:
            “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

            That is a direct and successful attempt to connect the setting to our childhood stories which began with ” in a kingdom far far away…”. It is saying “Not here. Our rules don’t apply.”

            Lucas tried to make the second set of movies as science fiction, and it was a disaster.

        • John says:

          I guess I’d agree, but I think it is significant that the first Star Wars movie is disguised as science fiction.

      • rea says:

        What was the most successful pre-Lord of the Rings high fantasy film?

        Arguably, the Wizard of Oz.

        (And I think it counts, like Narnia, even though there is a frame story that ostensibly connects the world in which most of the film is set to our world.)

    • SEK says:

      The first is that my understanding of Tolkien’s mythology is that he understood it to take place in the distant past of our world – and so to not be “a world entirely unrelated to the one in which we live.” So certainly not “entirely unrelated,” even in the narrow sense.

      That’s just a common definition, and I wanted to reject it off-the-bat because it runs contrary to a class whose aims are rhetorical.

      A second thought is that it seems a bit odd to define high fantasy as a genre through a film. High fantasy is a literary genre…

      It’s just for efficiency purposes: they’ll be reading Game of Thrones and watching the series, so I wanted something I could present in a week and a half that would establish the conventions of the genre.

      There hasn’t been much (any?) questing for tokens of power in A Song of Ice and Fire (or Game of Thrones) up to this point

      Well, there’s the Iron Throne itself in Westeros, and the dragon’s eggs in Essos, if we limit it to the first novel/season.

      • John says:

        That feels like a stretch. The dragon eggs are not attained by Dany through a quest. She is given them as a wedding gift. And the iron throne is not a “token of power” in this sense at all. By the same logic, wouldn’t a movie about a plot to steal the Crown Jewels be a movie about a “quest for a token of power?”

        And I will say that while the formulation of a definition of high fantasy that you reject is clearly wrong, I do think that the idea that it must take place in a “secondary world” seems really important to what high fantasy is. It’s the “pure escapism” part and the “utterly unrelated to the world in which we live” that make it easy to reject it.

        • Hob says:

          Yeah, I don’t think you’re going to find many people who would actually insist on the “utterly unrelated” or “purely escapist” points. Those are strawmen not worth addressing.

          The only reason the term “high fantasy” was invented was that Tolkien introduced a kind of large-scale world-building that there wasn’t really a previous point of reference for. In order to follow what’s going on in The Lord of the Rings, you have to accept that a bunch of made-up places and languages and species exist that everyone in that world takes for granted. It’s true that Tolkien described Middle-Earth as our distant past (though he waffled on that point later), but knowledge of our real past is neither necessary nor useful in following the story. Similarly, many things in A Song of Ice and Fire somewhat resemble things from Earth, but you can’t deduce anything about Westeros just by knowing real European history– you have to get all the relevant information from Martin.

          If you start broadening the term as Scott is doing, then clearly something like Orlando Furioso would qualify, because it’s full of quests and tokens of power and heroes who fight with huge faceless armies. But Tolkien’s approach to storytelling doesn’t resemble Ariosto’s at all, and his world-building asks much different things from the reader. Lumping them together hides more than it reveals.

          • John says:

            Well put. And I’d add that I think a modified rewrite of Scott’s original straw man, something along the lines of “works of high fantasy take place in a secondary world that is distinct from the world we live in,” does a much better job of fitting both Tolkien and Martin than Scott’s eventual definition.

          • wjts says:

            …Tolkien introduced a kind of large-scale world-building that there wasn’t really a previous point of reference for.

            What about Robert Howard’s Conan and Kull stories?

          • Hob says:

            Of course, these waters were already pre-muddied, because the Conan stories which are often used as a counter-example don’t really have any connection to historical reality, despite being set in the past. I think there you have to get into authorial intent and what kind of contract they’re making with the reader. Howard, like Ariosto, is telling you that this is real history because there’s a tradition of doing that to give your romances a certain gloss of authenticity, to facilitate borrowing from other historical tales (in effect treating the past as a shared universe), and to reinforce certain ideas one might like to believe about the world (you’re descended from awesome people such as these).

            • John says:

              Hmm…another issue is that Conan is generally a “sword and sorcery” type story, which I think is usually contrasted as a different sub-genre from “high fantasy.” While sword and sorcery stories often take place in a secondary world of some sort (e.g. Lankhmar and the rest of the world of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser), they tend to have very different thematic foci.

              • Sword and sorcery tends to be low fantasy, as well.

                • John says:

                  Well, not necessarily. Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser certainly isn’t low fantasy in the sense that it’s set in the real world.

              • John says:

                I think a key difference is that in sword and sorcery, the setting is incidental, whereas in high fantasy, it is of fundamental importance.

                In sword and sorcery, the author can basically make up the world in an ad hoc manner as he goes along, just making up things that serve the purposes of the individual story he wants to tell. High fantasy conceives the world beforehand, and the world and its history are generally a crucial part of the story.

                • Lurker says:

                  Yep. Due to this, Sindbad is low fantasy. The story doesn’t really have a steady world. Instead, the storyteller has the freedom to bring up anything she needs in her story. (She, for the storyteller is Sheheradze.)

        • Anonymous says:

          Well ASOIAF is quite carefully and consciously not built around a quest, but rather a struggle for power, so ‘the quest for the iron throne’ is metaphorical even within the world of the books. There are quests, though, just not for tokens of power. (Magical artifacts are pretty thin on the ground, actually. The eggs and the horn are the only ones I can recall offhand, and the latter has been kept noticeably to one side.) Most of the quests are for knowledge – Ned’s investigation – or for people – Brienne’s search for Sansa. Jon and the Watch go questing beyond the Wall. Tyrion unwillingly goes questing after Dany. Martin’s subversion is the apparent certainty that no one quest, no one discovery, no one artifact or special person can mend the Five Kingdoms, but they’re all there. (Joe Abercrombie’s First Law books do a more savage deconstruction of those genre conventions.)

      • Tehanu says:

        I wrote a whole book on this so I have rather more than one dog in the fight. “High” fantasy is an essentially useless term. It was meant to distinguish fantasy that had a “high”, that is, serious, purpose from other kinds of fantasy. But it is normative rather than descriptive; it’s trying to assign moral and/or literary value to something based on its genre conventions instead of on whether it’s any good. If you want to talk about “mythopoeic” or “heroic” or “comic” or “adventure” fantasy, then at least you’re making distinctions that actually identify what’s going on in a story. But calling something “high” implies that it must be better than something that isn’t high … and there are about 8 zillion books out there, set in distinctive, separate worlds, that people call “high” and that totally suck (e.g., and this is far from the worst, every word that Terry Goodkind ever wrote).

    • Simon says:

      What was the most successful pre-Lord of the Rings high fantasy film?

      Two possibilities: Star Wars or The Wizard of Oz.

    • Julia Grey says:

      There hasn’t been much (any?) questing for tokens of power in A Song of Ice and Fire (or Game of Thrones) up to this point – certainly none in the main Westeros storyline.

      Although I’ll accept The Iron Throne as the token of power for the moment, I really think the token(s) of power in the overall Game of Thrones story line so far has been the Dragon Eggs and (now) the Dragons themselves.

      However, I am also willing to accept that they will be an important part of the future acquisition of the Iron Throne. It has also been hinted that there will be some kind of “melding” of human and dragon, or Whitewalker and Dragon, or Red Witch and Dragon, or some other unholy combination. I would expect a new, more-than-strictly-human power to arise.

      Why, then, would the Throne at King’s Landing necessarily remain THE center of power? Wouldn’t the New Thing then become the “token” everyone is seeking?

  3. Leeds man says:

    The Worm Ouroboros is a pretty straightforward power struggle, sans tokens.

  4. Colin says:

    No original thoughts, other than I hope there are many more FOTR (and LOTR) posts like this coming in the near future?

  5. Dr Paisley says:

    I think you have to add something about the development of ordinary folk (Frodo, Sam, Moxie and Pepsi Dingleberry) into Singularly Important People, espcially since they don’t turn out to be the long-lost relatives of a SIP (Bilbo wasn’t a SIP, because he never did anything with the object of power).

  6. dcgaffer says:

    Read Davids Eddings’ Introduction to the “The Rivan Codex.” He provides a template (including how Epic Fantasy is directly descended from Medieval Romance) as to how to write High Fantasy in his own snarkilicious way. Love Tolkien, but LOTR is always serious. Eddings hides the seriousness with hilarity (in part to ensure some measure of commercial success).

    • Murc says:

      Do not listen to this man.

      Never read anything by Eddings unless you want to understand how to write amoral dickheads on a quest to conquer the world while dressing them up in tropes that make them appear to be heroic. This applies especially to the Elenium and the Tamuli.

      • John says:

        Eddings was at least pretty refreshingly honest about being a hack. As a teenager, I rather enjoyed his amoral dickheads, too. I don’t have any particular interest in revisiting him to see if I was wrong, because, you know, he was basically a hack.

  7. Alan Winston says:

    I guess I’d want to include “invented world” and something about “prophesies” in my definition. Otherwise a WWII spy/commando movie about blowing up the German heavy-water plant (or stealing the plans for the German heavy-water plant) meets your definition.

    • John says:

      You certainly don’t need prophecies – there’s no real prophecies in Lord of the Rings, for instance. But, yeah, as I said above, I think “invented world” or “secondary world” is an absolutely necessary piece of what high fantasy is.

      • Malaclypse says:

        there’s no real prophecies in Lord of the Rings, for instance

        No living man may hinder me!

        “Tears unnumbered ye shall shed; and the Valar will fence Valinor against you, and shut you out, so that not even the echo of your lamentation shall pass over the mountains. On the House of Fëanor the wrath of the Valar lieth from the West unto the uttermost East, and upon all that will follow them it shall be laid also. Their Oath shall drive them, and yet betray them, and ever snatch away the very treasures that they have sworn to pursue. To evil end shall all things turn that they begin well; and by treason of kin unto kin, and the fear of treason, shall this come to pass. The Dispossessed shall they be for ever. …”

        “Over the land there lies a long shadow, westward-reaching wings of darkness. The Tower trembles; to the tomb of kings doom approaches. The Dead awaken; for the hour is come for the oathbreakers: at the Stone of Erech, they shall stand again and hear there a horn in the hills ringing. Whose shall the horn be? Who shall call them from the grey twilight, the forgotten people? The heir of him to whom the oath they swore. From the North shall he come, need shall drive him: he shall pass the Door to the Paths of the Dead.”
        —Malbeth the Seer

        • John says:

          Alright, you got me. That being said, the second one is from the Silmarillion, while the first and third are only of tangential importance to the story.

          • Leeds man says:

            I swear I’m not singling you out John :), but the third one is pretty crucial to the outcome of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.

            • John says:

              But you don’t need a prophecy for that story element to work – Aragorn could take the paths of the dead without there being a prophecy that says he will do it. And you certainly don’t need the prophecy for Eowyn to kill the Witch King – it’s just a nice little tangential point that makes the story more dramatic.

              • Leeds man says:

                Aragorn could take the paths of the dead without there being a prophecy that says he will do it.

                Elrond to Elrohir to Aragorn:

                Bid Aragorn remember the words of the seer.

                • John says:

                  Yes, that’s how the mechanics are done in the book. That doesn’t mean that this prophecy is actually essential to the plot in any way. They could just as easily remind him of the existence of the House of the Dead, and that the Dead owe him their allegiance, without there being a prophecy at all.

                • Leeds man says:

                  John, with that reasoning you could say there are no real prophecies in any story, because you could rewrite around them.

                • John says:

                  I don’t think that’s the case at all. Compare to, say, Eddings’s Belgariad, where prophecies are of such central importance that one of them is a character. Or to The Silmarillion, where the Doom of Mandos is a central organizing principle of the entire story. In Lord of the Rings, the prophecies are of marginal and tangential importance. They refer only to secondary subplots. Nothing Frodo and Sam does is prophesied. Nothing in the first two books is prophesied. The two prophecies in the book are concerned with minor subplots, and removing them would leave the book barely different. In fact, the movie version of Return of the King did excise the Paths of the Dead prophecy, iirc.

                • Leeds man says:

                  Oh John, don’t get me started on the fucking movie version. Leaving out the prophecy was the least of Jackson’s sins (miscasting the worst, I think).

                • dave says:

                  If by “miscasting” you mean that every one of the “good” characters had piercing blue eyes while all the “bad” characters had brown eyes then I agree completely.

                  I really like Peter Jackson as a filmmaker, but I think the dude might have some subconscious issues with race.

                • Leeds man says:

                  I hadn’t noticed that Dave, but then I have blue eyes.

                  Frodo and Aragorn were too young (and Frodo too whiny), and there is never an excuse for John Bloody Rhys-Davies (esp in two roles).

                • John says:

                  John Rhys-Davies was certainly a bit hammy, but my general feeling about criticism of the movie is that it comes from people who can’t enjoy things, or who perhaps enjoy not enjoying things. Turning the Lord of the Rings books into movies as good as Jackson’s were was a remarkable achievement.

                  Were they perfect? Did they get every single possible thing right? No, of course not. I thought the third movie, in particular, had some serious flaws.

                  But those movies are remarkable achievements, and I find the whininig of fans (who, without them, would have nothing to whine about except Ralph Bakshi and the Rankin-Bass cartoons) to be unconscionable.

                • Leeds man says:

                  I enjoyed the TV adaptations of Dune and Gormenghast immensely, and think LOTR could be done properly in that format. Jackson’s was a monumental effort which I did not enjoy. “Whining”? “Unconscionable”? My goodness.

                • JMP says:

                  But the TV version of Dune was horrible, while the Lynch movie version, while it had its flaws, was much, much more enjoyable to watch.

                • Leeds man says:

                  But the TV version of Dune was horrible

                  Oh stop your unconscionable whining.

                  I did like the look, and casting, of Lynch’s film, but the ending sucked it all into its own little black hole of absurdity. That’s probably not Lynch’s fault though.

              • JazzBumpa says:

                Aragorn’s ancestry is of vital importance, ans is related in prophecy. So is the reforging of the sword Narsil.

                • John says:

                  Aragorn’s ancestry and its importance is only vaguely related to prophecy as such. The movies took out the prophecy and still managed to maintain most of the story elements. (And we were, I recall, originally talking about the movies, no?)

          • Leeds man says:

            And the first is too.

          • Mayur says:

            There’s also the entire character element to the Wise of foresight, which if not stating explicit prophecy is certainly alluding to it.

        • rea says:

          Faramir’s (and once, Boromir’s) dream:

          Seek for the Sword that was broken:
          In Imladris it dwells;
          There shall be counsels taken
          Stronger than Morgul-spells.
          There shall be shown a token
          That Doom is near at hand,
          For Isildur’s Bane shall waken,
          And the Halfling forth shall stand

          • John says:

            True. There are certainly prophecies in LOTR. I withdraw the claim that there aren’t. I still maintain that the prophecies in LOTR are mostly of incidental importance, as compared to many other works of “high fantasy,” where their importance is central.

      • joel hanes says:

        Boromir and Faramir’s dream:
        … the eastern sky grew dark, but out of the west a light shone forth, and from that light a voice called out, saying:
        Seek for the Sword that was broken
        In Imladris it dwells.
        There shall be taken counsels
        Stronger than Morgul-spells.
        There shall be shown a token
        That Doom is near at hand.
        For Isuldur’s Bane shall waken,
        And the Halfling forth shall stand.

  8. Spoffin says:

    That seems like a fair assessment of the genre, as established in Fellowship, don’t you think? If you don’t, what essential features do you think I’ve missed?

    The defining feature of the Fantasy genre surely has to be magic. I mean, there has to be something that provides the fantastical element that gives the genre its name, no? And that’s one of major tropes that Game of Thrones tries to undermine – the prologue sets up the book like its high fantasy, complete with magical monsters and everything, but there’s a palpable absence of magic for almost the whole of the rest of the book.

    • Snarki, child of Loki says:

      I think Fred Pohl? described it thusly:

      A short, elfin pointy-eared creature is dressed in traditional elfin garb, with a conical soft fabric hat that protrudes strait up from his head.

      He walks vertically up a wall, while the point of his hat flops downward. That’s science fiction.

      He walks vertically up a wall, with the point of his hat remaining strait up on his head. That’s fantasy.

  9. Jim Harrison says:

    What about Wagner and all the epic and saga that proceeded his Ring operas? No maps, but magic objects and anonymous hoards, not to mention giants and dragons and dwarves.

    • Malaclypse says:

      Good point. Wagner’s setting, much like Faerie, is inherently unmappable. That, perhaps, ties into the claim that Camelot, also unmappable, is something other than high fantasy.

      • John says:

        I think that, in general, works based on classical and Norse mythology, the Matter of Britain, the Matter of France, and other mythologies, really can’t be classified as high fantasy. Certainly, they are not normally so classified.

        • Spoffin says:

          I think that might be unnecessarily restrictive. The genre of a work is surely different from its setting, and if you set your high fantasy story in a classical period or a Norse setting, you might use the Greek gods and monsters or the Norse pantheon.

          • John says:

            Again, I think a key aspect of “high fantasy,” as a genre, is that it is set in a secondary world. As such, a story set in the classical period or a Norse setting can certainly be fantasy, but it can’t really be high fantasy.

            • Spoffin says:

              But, those stories ARE set in other worlds. R

              • Leeds man says:

                Spoffin, I think John and Hob covered this higher up in the thread. The audiences for these stories didn’t see the settings as other worlds.

                • Spoffin says:

                  Well, even if that’s true (and I’m not convinced, cos the realm of the gods is almost inherently another world), if a modern author wrote a story about the goings on in Asgard or Olympus, it would be understood by its intended audience as being of another world.

                • John says:

                  Stories based on Norse and Greek mythology generally don’t take place in Asgard and Olympus.

                • Spoffin says:

                  Well, I think they tend to split their time between the real world and some fantastical one, with the hero journeying between them as per Joseph Campbell.

                  Nevertheless, how about Xena Warrior Princess? Ancient Greek setting and mythos, swords, shields, gods, magic – high fantasy? Or not?

                • John says:

                  Xena and the Kevin Sorbo Hercules series are not high fantasy. They’re closer to classic sword and sorcery, with a wandering pair of heroes getting into various ad hoc adventures in a world with few if any consistent rules.

                  I think the key here is that high fantasy has to exist in a clearly imagined world, with clearly imagined rules and history and geography. The more I think about this, the more I think that the map is incredibly important, but not really for the purpose of tracking journeys. The map is important because it means the author is making a deal with us at the beginning. “This is the world the story takes place in.”

                  The key to something being high fantasy, I think, is that the invented world is an integral part of the story, and has a coherent internal logic of its own.

              • Spoffin says:

                repost, internet user fail:

                But, those stories ARE set in other worlds. Stories of classical mythology, like The Odyssey, Jason and the Argonauts are palpably set in lands (and seas) that are not real. Olympus is not a real place. Nor is Asgard. Even at the time, these stories were regarded as taking place in worlds not our own.

                So even if the secondary world thing is essential, that doesn’t disqualify stories based within the mythologies you mention.

                • Mayur says:

                  Not really. To the Norse and the ancient Greeks, Olympus and Asgard were real places. “World” in this case is, I believe, being used as a synonym for “universe,” not “planet.” You’d have to argue that the Norse didn’t see their actual world as Midgard and part of the Nine Worlds, or that the Greeks didn’t actually believe that the gods lived on Olympus or somewhere up in the sky.

                • John says:

                  The Odyssey and Argonautica are not particularly set in Olympus; Ithaca was certainly a real place.

                  And the real point of a “secondary world” in the classic high fantasy sense is that it’s basically independent of our world. Gandalf can’t travel from Isengard to London. Athena most certainly can travel from Olympus to Ithaca. There are imaginary places in the stories of Greek mythology, but not imaginary worlds.

                • Spoffin says:

                  Gandalf can’t travel from Isengard to London, but Susan and Peter and Edmund and Lucy can and do travel from London to Narnia. Do you think that the Chronicles of Narnia aren’t High Fantasy? How about Alice in Wonderland? Harry Potter? Or The His Dark Materials series? They all have different relationships between the magical world and ours. (I would tend to call all of them high fantasy, you might disagree). I don’t think that the relationship between the worlds is always clear cut, or offers a necessary or sufficient condition.

                • John says:

                  Alice in Wonderland certainly isn’t high fantasy. I’d say that the others are marginal cases. I don’t think Narnia is really high fantasy. I’m less sure of the other two, which do seem to feature some of the major aspects of high fantasy. I’ve not read the Pullman, but the Harry Potter series, I think, is rather an amalgam. I’d not have any major problem classifying none of those works as high fantasy.

                  Note, by the way, that none of your examples has a map.

                • Spoffin says:

                  Fair enough then, if we have no agreement on what falls within the category, there’s basically no chance we’re going to agree on the definition of the category.

                  For myself, I still kinda think there should be a (stronger) distinction between genre and setting, so that High Fantasy doesn’t just mean swords and spells and a medieval Europe-style costumes, and that something like “Arabian themed High Fantasy” isn’t a contradiction in terms. Otherwise we might as well define High Fantasy by pointing at Tolkien and saying “things that are pretty much like that” – at which point I would probably just ditch the term altogether.

                • John says:

                  I would agree that high fantasy doesn’t require a European-type location, although the vast majority of high fantasy does incorporate such a setting. As I say above, I think the key distinction is that high fantasy must incorporate a fully imagined secondary world, while “low fantasy” creates its universe in an ad hoc manner to fit the story the author wants to tell.

                  In that sense, I suppose that Pullman and the Potter series can be seen as high fantasy (although the latter certainly incorporates elements of low fantasy). But stories based on mythology generally will not.

      • gmack says:

        agner’s setting, much like Faerie, is inherently unmappable. That, perhaps, ties into the claim that Camelot, also unmappable, is something other than high fantasy.

        I want to come back to this idea from Malaclypse, because I think it may be onto something important. One of the distinctions between what we might call “high fantasy” of the modern Tolkien variety and more traditional mythologies is the idea of the map. It is quite true that Greek or Norse mythology contained mythical places, but to my knowledge (I’m hardly an expert), there was never any effort to provide maps to these places; I don’t know of any efforts to provide, say, directions for how to get to the river Styx or to Asgard. Their “presence” in the world is effectively mythical or metaphorical. Yggdrasil is a way of understanding the metaphysical structure of the universe, not a place one can go and visit or see.

        The map, by contrast, is a way of making a mythical world intelligible or rational. Mordor–the source of evil–is a place, and it’s over there, and we can follow directions and visit it if we want. In its original form anyway, Valinor is an actual continent to the west of middle earth. One can get in a ship and sail there (this changed later of course, with the “bending of the world;” Valinor then becomes something closer to a Christian heaven, a space that is somehow above and beyond our world). Perhaps, then, the current fantasy genre is a kind of application of “enlightenment” principles of intelligibility to mythical subject matter? If so, then the question is not so much about the relationship between “our” real world and the imaginary universes of the fantasy, but rather about how we conceptualize these imaginary universes, i.e., whether they are mappable or not, or whether mapping them is integral to understanding the literature and what’s being said in it. Personally, though I think this way of thinking about it might be interesting, I’m not sure how well it actually applies to Tolkien, but I’ll have to think further on the matter.

  10. Jackmormon says:

    One of my favorite games with a new “high fantasy” novel is to sit and look at the map for a few minutes before reading anything. The task is to determine what village the protagonist will hail from. My lifetime average is about 2 for 3—maybe 3 for 5 if I’m scrupulously honest about it.

    The easiest guess is top-left quadrant (where you would start on a page, but also the placement of England on a map of Europe…).

    Another good way to narrow it down is to look for a small village near enough to a major trading post that the protagonist can set foot on the wider world before boring the audience to death.

    Generally speaking, these heroes come from the peripheries of Empires, so you don’t want to wander into nations that the map has somehow also indicated is Other. Paucity of place-names, or, in the case of Tolkien’s Mordor, seriously foreboding (and implausible) geology.

    Anyway, it’s a good game, so I thought I would share.

    • IM says:

      Doesn’t really works with Earthsea. Nothing special about the island of the protagonist on the map. It is a bit peripheral, that much is true.

      Counter-example: memory, thorn and sorrow starts right at the royal court, in the middle of the map.

      Two examples of High Fantasy by the way. Is Disc world high fantasy or low or vacillating wildly from one to other?

  11. SEK says:

    I’ll reply specifically to everyone tomorrow afternoon, but I do want to note that I wasn’t creating a “straw man,” or debunking one. I wanted to establish that my two texts can both refer to the same world, and then identify the characteristics of the genre through an immanent critique of Fellowship … which I’m just beginning to do. As noted, this is for the first day of class. My definition at the end there is provisional upon many things, including what I’ll present on the second day of class.

    I just don’t want anyone to think I’m arguing finished products, here.

  12. cpinva says:

    actually, i couldn’t stomach the ring trilogy, i just found the whole thing ridiculous and deadly dull reading. dune didn’t do it for me either. more of a straight sci-fi geek i guess. although, i did read all the Conan books and saw the movies.

    oddly enough, when i finally decided to take a look at the the Game of Thrones series on HBO, i found them entertaining. go figure.

    • Halloween Jack says:

      I didn’t like LOTR when I was a teenager; even though I felt that I had to read it to get my geek card, it seemed like a real slog that took an inexplicable amount of drudgery to get through for something that was supposed to be a “fantasy”. I gave up not long after Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli pause in their quest–with the hobbits and the ring that has to be destroyed to save the fucking world missing–and spontaneously compose an elegy for Boromir, who was kind of a dick anyway. I re-read it when I was more than twice as old as the first attempt, after the movies were underway, and did much better, although I tend to agree with China Mieville that the movies were much improved by doing away with a lot of the superfluous stuff like the aforementioned elegy and Tom Motherfucking Bombadil, “a cod-folk nature spirit whose soliloquies sound like the ramblings of a village idiot” and still the reigning champion of Least Favorite Fantasy Characters.

      • Leeds man says:

        My experience was the opposite; I put off reading it because I didn’t want to be a geek, got it as a gift when I turned 18, couldn’t put it down, and reread it immediately. One of us must be utterly contemptible. We’ll toss a coin sometime.

      • Uncle Ebeneezer says:

        I tried it in my mid-twenties and got all the way to about 100 pages into Return of the King but never finished. I recall having the thought on several occasions “Christ, if I want to spend this much time on the genealogy of fictitious characters I’ll read the god-damn Bible!” Also I felt like I never really connected with the characters. Frodo was the one I was rooting for because Tolkein told me to, not because there was anything particularly compelling about him. But then again I was never a big fantasy guy either (aside from The Dark Tower, which is a much different beast.)

    • Halloween Jack says:

      Also, in overrated SF: Dune, Starship Troopers, Ender’s Game.

      • Hob says:

        Now there’s a a carefully argued, non-inflammatory comment that’s sure to lead to hours of profitable discussion.

        • Halloween Jack says:

          None of those books are without their critics (although Dune‘s reputation is probably most intact, and Ender’s Game the least, in reaction to OSC’s rampant homophobia); the movie of Starship Troopers is usually seen as a satire of the book. And, of course, “overrated” doesn’t mean “utterly without merit”, it means exactly what it means. None of the three is anywhere near as well-written as any random book in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series, but they were hugely influential in their time, and should be celebrated as such, but only as such, IMO.

  13. Other elements of high fantasy I’d throw in (while echoing Winston on prophecy and a wholly invented world):
    * a romantic and cosmic view of morality, with the plot revolving around a clash between pure good and pure evil.
    * magic that is blatant, reliable, understandable, and world-shattering in power. Granted, it’s fair to argue that this is for the most part a post-Tolkien embellishment within high fantasy, but it’s a major difference.
    * a positive view of medieval political and social relationships, drawn from an uncomplicated and unreflective embrace of fairytale/folklore tropes. Good kings and brave knights abound, peasants are happy and humble (and peasant protagonists are revealed as noblemen in disguise), poverty and inequality, disease, injustice and discrimination don’t exist unless a Bad King or Evil Tyrant is in charge (again, borrowing pretty heavily from the Fisher King land-is-the-king trope).
    * related to that, a romantic and anti-modern tendency that views nature as superior to civilization, that valorizes the golden past and looks askance at progress and technology.

    • ajay says:

      All four of those rule out “Game of Thrones” completely.

      • Heron says:

        As it should; LotR isn’t high-fantasy and it never was. The designation didn’t even exist when it was written, early adopters of the term which included LotR under it were using “high-fantasy” not as a descriptive phrase but as a normative one to distinguish between “literary” and “respectable” works like LotR and the “low” works of Pulp writers, and later descriptivists only kept it included under that designation because, by the time they came along, it was conventional to think of LotR as the “quintessential high fantasy epic”. Just consider the amount of time Tolkien spends on domesticity and class-signifiers; he practically recreated English village life in The Shire, and that’s not the only intentional closeness to the real world in the work.

        • Heron says:

          Gah; you wrote Game of Thrones and I read that as LotR for some bizarre reason! Stoopid brain! Anyway, the same applies to GoT; Game isn’t high-fantasy and it was never intended to be. Martin came up in the explosion of Pulp authors in the post-war era, and he’s stated before that he’s inspired by the “realist” tradition in the work’s politics and characterization and the “obscurantist” tradition in its magic and gods. Both are hallmarks of “low-fantasy” works.

          • Spoffin says:

            See, I’m not sure about that. Because I’m almost totally convinced that the whole point of GoT revolves around the Ned Stark twist. Cos, its SO much the defining feature of the book, that the person overwhelmingly set up to be a classic protagonist of a Tolkein-style fantasy story gets killed off three quarters of the way through the first book. And from the germ of that idea, Martin sets out to subvert every other Tolkien-style fantasy genre trope that he can. But to not-play the genre tropes, you have to be inside the genre. (though I guess you could argue that Martin fucks with the genre rules so much that he nudges the work outside the genre)

            • John says:

              I’m not sure how Ned is the classic protagonist in a Tolkien-type story. Usually the classic protagonist of typical high fantasy is a clever kitchen boy who turns out to be a hidden prince. Ned doesn’t really fit that template at all.

              Furthermore, the fact that his children are half the POV cast foreshadows the idea that he’ll die. The most obvious literary precursor to Ned that I can think of, in terms of a heroic fantasy type story, is Duke Leto in Dune. Who also dies, although much earlier in the story.

              It’s not the conventions of high fantasy that make us think of Ned as the hero. By the conventions of high fantasy, it is obviously Jon Snow who is the hero, even if he doesn’t get much face time. One could make a case for Arya or Bran or Dany, too, although all of them subvert some of those tropes, unlike Jon, who is pure hidden prince kitchen boy (to the extent that he actually is a hidden prince, almost certainly). But certainly not for Ned.

              It’s the conventions of what is the actual genre of Ned’s part of the story – the noir mystery. What does Ned actually do in the story? He tries to figure out who murdered Jon Arryn, in a place where he’s the only honest man in a world of corruption? And what does he discover? A hidden secret of incest (à la Chinatown, if you will). None of that has really anything to do with the conventions or expectations of high fantasy. These are the conventions and expectations of the detective story.

              And, of course, the detective story ends with the white knight detective solving the case and bringing out the truth, and the corrupt villains dying. So the twist, in fact, undermines those narrative expectations, not the narrative expectations of high fantasy.

              One could say more broadly that Martin does a lot of extra things to twist the knife – in particular, Ned’s execution takes place after several chapters in which Martin seems to be indicating to us that Ned will be spared.

              But whatever narrative assumptions are being overturned by Ned’s execution, they aren’t the narrative assumptions of high fantasy. The wise, middle-aged father figure is, in fact, exactly the character who dies in high fantasy.

              • Halloween Jack says:

                I’m not sure how Ned is the classic protagonist in a Tolkien-type story. Usually the classic protagonist of typical high fantasy is a clever kitchen boy who turns out to be a hidden prince. Ned doesn’t really fit that template at all.

                Tolkien’s major work isn’t a “typical high fantasy”; the “hidden prince” would be Aragorn, aka Strider, who, far from being a lowly kitchen boy, is one of the Dúnedain, who have the same general reputation for badassery as the Texas Rangers do in real life.

                The closest to a lowly kitchen boy in LOTR is probably Samwise, although Frodo is also pretty lowly; he doesn’t have much in the way of distinction save for having a rich uncle (part of whose legacy ruins Frodo’s life permanently), he gets into Mordor mostly by virtue of his literal lowliness (plus Samwise, of course, who is at least as important to Frodo as Alfred is to Batman), and arguably fails at his task.

                • John says:

                  Well, no LOTR isn’t really typical high fantasy – but look to Eddings’s Belgariad, or Brooks’s Sword of Shannara, or Jordan’s Wheel of Time or Goodkind’s Sword of Truth.

                  The archetypal high fantasy was formed based on certain elements of Lord of the Rings, but Lord of the Rings itself doesn’t slavishly represent the tropes very well.

                  Note, beyond this, that none of the potential heroes of LOTR very closely resembles Ned Stark.

                • Leeds man says:

                  Frodo is also pretty lowly

                  No, Frodo is definitely an upper-class twit (by virtue of his mum being a Brandybuck). He’s Bertie Wooster writ small, as are Merry and Pippin.

                • John says:

                  Pippin and Merry are. Frodo is upper class, but obviously not depicted as a twit.

                • Halloween Jack says:

                  I meant in the grand scheme of things, Leeds. When you have the Middle Earth equivalent of a NATO conference at Rivendell, no one cares who your mom’s family is back in East Bumfuque (except for Gandalf, but he gets the idea that lowly=slipping under Mordor’s DEW line).

                • Leeds man says:

                  no one cares who your mom’s family is back in East Bumfuque

                  I will just point out that it is pronounced East Bumphy.

                • Leeds man says:

                  Jack, there is a somewhat more serious point here. The hobbits are initially dismissed by most of the High and Mighty, but look at the ease with which Frodo gets an audience in Rivendell (and later, with Faramir), Merry is accepted in Theoden’s court, and Pippin in Gondor, once they show they speak the same language. LOTR reeks of class.

                • Malaclypse says:

                  Except Frodo is accepted in Rivendell because of Bilbo, and the fact that he is the flipping Ringbearer, while the audience with Faramir is an interrogation. Pippin is not accepted by Denethor, who is clearly doing this to shut Gandalf up, while the Rohirrim are portrayed as a classless semi-barbarian society.

                • Leeds man says:

                  Malaclypse, I suggest you read the relevant passages again, with an ear to the language used. Samwise Gamgee could have said the same things (to Faramir at least), and been dismissed out of hand, if he had even been given an audience. Merry and Pippin knew the language of fealty, and that certainly had an impact on Theoden and Denethor, even if Denethor had his own agenda. That Frodo was the ringbearer is irrelevant. They could have just taken it off him, if they’d had the balls.

                • Leeds man says:

                  the Rohirrim are portrayed as a classless semi-barbarian society.

                  Royal Houses and Marshals aren’t classes?

                • Malaclypse says:

                  There are certainly not classes like in Gondor.

            • Heron says:

              Ned isn’t the classic Tolkien protagonist. Tiny clever country-squire-thieves are the typical Tolkien protagonist. Ned is Aragorn. He’s the Heavy or the Ace; the good guy version of The Dragon.

  14. KWillow says:

    At a SciFi Convention about 20 years ago, I listened to a panel discussion on the difference between “fantasy” and science fiction. Not everyone agreed on every point, but people did conclude the fantasy has 1) a magical element and 2)usually pits innocence & “goodness” against complete “evil”. The Force in Star Wars is (I think) the magical element making it a fantasy swashbuckler rather than real science fiction. There was very little science! The Ring in LOTR is of course, evil magic. Even The $6,000,000 (or whatever) Man, tho ostensibly “science” based, is more a good vs. evil theme. The hero is able to beat up all the villans and stop the [plane,train,spaceship] crash with his magical strength because he is Good, more than because he has a magic enhanced eye & leg.

  15. 'stina says:

    One of the things I love about LotR is the influence of Star Wars. Which, of course, was influenced by the original LotR text.

  16. Heron says:

    I’ve always thought of High Fantasy as a settings distinction. If you have a world where magic is a prevalent and well-developed tool, where people live in towering, flying, crystal cities, where heroes are all young, beautiful, frequently half-dressed, and flying around on dragons and rainbow-powered robot pegasi, then you’ve got a High Fantasy setting. High Fantasy is Flash Gordon, High Fantasy in John Carter of Mars, High Fantasy is Wheel of Time, High Fantasy is He-man, High Fantasy is Excalibur, High Fantasy is 1970s van paint-jobs. So the genre traits here would be, to lift a phrase from Tolkien himself, a world with low “applicability”; one where there isn’t much symbolic or allegorical connection to real life, and not much concern for the problems of real societies. Poverty doesn’t exist except perhaps for the hero to rise out of to prove his worth, racism either doesn’t exist or is merged with nationalism/patriotism via global wars, magic and technology are deeply intertwined if not indistinguishable, Gods are present and interactive, governments are stable and unchanging over the long-term, and Monarchy really is what it claimed so long to be; a semi-divine institution held by paragons and demi-gods who rule with wisdom, grace, and compassion and whose legitimacy guarantees prosperity and moral-uprightness throughout the land.

    Low-Fantasy is the flip-side of the coin. It’s high-applicability fiction; fiction where you can see our world and recognize allusions to it and its problems throughout. It’s pulp, it’s noir, it’s “realist” and “naturalist”. There’s filth in it, and poverty, and hatred, and bigotry, and psychosis, and neurosis, and powerlessness. The gods are distant and incomprehensible, wizards are barely human entities or entirely alien, magic is dangerous, rare, and corrupting, nakedness is vulnerability, our heroes are deeply fallible and hounded by fear. I’ve typically thought of the difference not as one of scale, but detail.

    • Lurker says:

      I am an engineer. Now I understand the morbid interest many of my colleagues take in the specifics of the Manhattan project. That was engineering high fantasy at its best:
      *A group of technical experts from various backgrounds, but all white and male
      *in the middle of the desert
      *under a benevolent government
      *with unlimited funding
      *working their magic
      *to create a Wunderwaffe
      *and to destroy the evil.

      At least that is how it is presented in the “Brighter than a Thousand Suns”.

    • Malaclypse says:

      Which category is Discworld?

      • Lee says:

        The early Discworld were clearly parodies and satires of fantasy. Very early on they morphed into parodies, satires, and comedies of various parts of the modern world like rock and roll, the press, and racism using the vehicle of a city thats like a fantastic version of 18th century London with early 19th century clothing and technology ranging from late medieval to the early 19th century.

        • John says:

          Typically, the early parody is of low fantasy sword and sorcery type stuff. There’s actually an explicit parody of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in Bravd and the Weasel. The Night Watch books are also clearly parodying sword and sorcery type stuff, as well as the police procedural mystery novel.

          • ajay says:

            There’s actually an explicit parody of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser in Bravd and the Weasel.

            And Pratchett does his own bait-and-switch there, because the opening scene in the very first book is the two of them described in detail, standing watching the city burn, and then Rincewind comes up and starts talking to them for a bit, then walks off, the point of view stays with Rincewind, and we never hear anything at all about Bravd and the Weasel again.

          • IM says:

            what about DEATH?

      • MPAVictoria says:

        The fucking awesome one.

    • Njorl says:

      That’s always the feeling I had for the term “High Fantasy”, but it seems like other people have their own definitions.

  17. Wally Plahutnik says:

    If you haven’t already, look at Erling Holtsmark’s papers on the incorporation of Classical tropes into popular works like Burroughs’ Tarzan. It will give you insight into how to structure your outline of the genre. Cuz Katabasis, bitches! Seriously, good stuff you should look at for this project.

  18. DBrown says:

    By the way, Orcs were NOT dark skinned in LOTR. They were also Elves (just twisted and broken. So, unless Elves were dark skinned, then Orcs would be white, too.) So Tolken would NOT have viewed them as black skinned.
    For Tolken, what really made an Orc an Ocr was how it spoke (that is very critical in understanding all of Tolken’s works for common evil characters.) The bad guys spoke in low ‘class’ language and that was their main distinction, not skin colour (couldn’t resist the spelling usage.)

  19. Lee says:

    My favorite debate on fantasy is the much alligned essay in the first issue of the Jewish Review of Books that sought to answer, Why is there no Jewish Narnia? That is why hasn’t a Jewish culture and religion influenced a fantasy work they way Christianity influenced in Narnia and Middle Earth. A lot of people hated the essay but I thought it made sense.

    Anyway the essay argued that there are wide variety of reasons Judaism as played minimal influence in high fantasy unlike Christianity, Paganism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, etc. Historically, Jews don’t have good reasons to be fond of the Middle Ages or anything between the Great Jewish Revolts and Jewish Emancipation. Sociologically, Judaism has a different ethos. Its collectivist, this worldly, and technical rather than individualistic and salvationist. Religiously, Judaism is reluctant to externalize evil the way that other religions do in order to preserve strict monotheism.

  20. JazzBumpa says:

    This entire thread quickly degenerated into the most extensive straw man flinging adventure I’ve ever seen.

    Genre, per se, has absolutely nothing to do with literary quality and very little to do with incorporated tropes and cliches.

    Genre designations arose for marketing related reasons. Repeat: genre is a marketing scheme! If you enjoyed Tolkein, maybe you’ll buy something by Eddings, so we’ll stack them up on adjacent shelves in the book store.

    Everything else is either post-hoc rationalization, parody or deliberate pastiche.


  21. rea says:

    here’s a singularly important person surrounded by his anonymous horde

    Although at that point, it’s not his horde–it’s Gil-Galad’s horde. Elrond is Gil-Galad’s herald, not the power in his own right that he later becomes. I suspect he isn’t the holder of one of the three at that point in history, either.

    • John says:

      I don’t know that it’s ever made completely clear, but I think the story in “Of the Rings of Power” in the Silmarillion is that Gil-Galad gave Vilya to Elrond for safe keeping at some point before they marched off to war.

      • rea says:

        Which is a tad odd–if Gil-galad gave it to Elrond for safe keeping, you’d think he’d send Elrond safely to the rear. And of course, nobody would dare use the three as long as Sauron was stll in possession of the one.

        • John says:

          Elrond was his herald. I’m not sure he was in the thick of the fighting. And, no, they weren’t using the three before Sauron’s loss of the One Ring. They were just holding onto them.

    • Leeds man says:

      Is Gil-Galad even mentioned in the films? My impression is that Elrond was portrayed as Top Elf as far back as The Last Alliance, which seems a reasonable simplification for cinematic purposes. And I coulda sworn I saw Elrond joining in the face off with Sauron in the movie.

  22. Lindig says:

    What about something like “Silverlock” by John Myers Myers. It certainly seems fantastical (and it has maps), but I’ve always slotted it in the picaresque section.

    And what about Katherine Kurtz’s series based on the Welsh Mabinogion? That certainly seems like High Fantasy to me, but maybe I just have low tastes.

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