The Subgenres of Fantasy
Fantasy is one of the most massive and most famous literary genres. Contrary to popular belief, fantasy is not a single genre rather a combination of many diverse genres. Fantasy continues to grow as a genre, as the subgenres are constantly updated and combined to create more.
As of the moment, there are 58 distinct fantasy subgenres. Below are 10 of the most popular.
- Alternate World
Also known as allegorical fantasy, alternate world fantasy’s main distinction is the involvement of parallel or hidden worlds. Some popular novels that are in this category include CS Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Alternate world fantasy often melds with other subgenres such as Arthurian, heroic, mythic, and sword and sorcery.
Bangsian fantasy stories deal with the afterlife. Its name comes from 19th century author John Bangs, whose works often reflect this. While this type of fantasy has been around since before the 19th century, it was John Bangs who made it popular. Bangsian stories evolved from interacting with Hades in the Underworld to historical figures traversing the afterlife, to fictional accounts of life after death, such as in Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones.
Contemporary or modern fantasy deals with the idea of magical creatures hidden among humans and is set in the modern era. Contemporary tends to overlap with other subgenres such as allegorical, urban, heroic, and mythic. Examples of contemporary fantasy are Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series.
- Court Intrigue
The main distinction of court intrigue fantasy is its setting. Court intrigues take place in a royal court, with major themes conflict, politics, and government. Another distinct characteristic of court intrigue is a complicated plot. Currently, the most famous example of court intrigue fantasy is George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Stories involving King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table may also fall under court intrigue but have their own subgenre, which is Arthurian fantasy.
- High Fantasy
High or epic fantasy is often what people think when “fantasy” is mentioned. High fantasy is, for many fans, the crux of the genre. High fantasy’s main distinction is that it’s set in a completely fictional world and involves many different characters. High fantasy stories often deal with themes of good versus evil, complicated magic. These stories may also fall under most of fantasy’s other subgenres. The best example of high fantasy is JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
Juvenile fantasy stories are those written for a younger audience. The definition of juvenile fantasy encompasses both children’s and young adult fantasy. These stories have younger main characters often possessing special abilities or objects. Juvenile fantasy often involves otherworldly nature and a sense of wonder, making it appeal to its intended age group. Popular examples are L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
- Low Fantasy
Low fantasy is better known today as magical realism. Low fantasy stories are often written with conscious opposition to high fantasy. These stories involve simple magic (or none really) in real world settings and lack the grand themes and struggles often found in high fantasy. A great example of low fantasy Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers.
Medieval fantasy is set in the Middle Ages before the modern industrial era. Many of these stories are built around the European Middle Ages and adapt the same culture. Medieval fantasies may be confused with the court intrigue genre, as they involve similar elements. However, court intrigue focuses on politics, and medieval does not. Magic is an important element in medieval fantasies, with stories often involving sorcerers, dragons, and the like. Prominent examples of this subgenre are T. H. White’s The Once and Future King and Christopher Paolini’s Eragon.
Superhero fantasy comes more in comic book than in novel form. Superhero fantasies feature one or a group of the following: humans with extraordinary abilities, supernatural creatures taking human form, or extraterrestrial beings who are more powerful on earth. These superheroes, either by themselves or in a group, have to save the world from a powerful super villain. Popular examples of superhero fantasy come from DC and Marvel Studios: the Justice League, the Avengers, the X-Men, and plenty more.
Urban fantasies are set in the real world, with aspects of fantasy. The stories can involve alien races, mythological creatures, paranormal forces, and more. Urban fantasies do not always have magic as a major element and are often grittier or more romantic stories. Teen fantasies, such as The Blue Bloods series by Melissa dela Cruz and The Immortals by Alyson Noel, often fall under this subgenre.
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