Literary Terms: High Fantasy, Low Fantasy, Magical Realism, and Frame (Portal) Stories

Long ago, in a different world, I was a German major (among other things) at University. One of my most memorable seminars was one focused on my favorite genre, fantasy. While there are those who argue that this is “merely” a genre, the incorporation of themes, structure, and leitmotifs in these stories has made them rich to study. From the perspective of my class, this stretched back to the German Romantics in the late 1700s with their freighted search for the Blaue Blume. In fact, my seminar was offered by the German department at my university, by the same professor who taught us about Sturm und Drang and literary Romanticism (long since retired). As rooted in academia as this seminar was, though, some of the things I learned have come up in the context of my writing life, and some of my author friends have requested that I cudgel my brain to share the snippets of what I remember having learned in the early 90s.

According to my professor, there are two main classes of fantasy: low fantasy, wherein the world of the story is recognizable to its readers, and high fantasy, wherein the world is completely made up and operates on its own rules/laws, and likely has its own languages, flora and fauna, and magical tropes including (but not limited to) spells, potions, etc. Because of its familiar world setting, magical realism is related to low fantasy, but follows a slightly different set of rules and conventions. Any of these can take advantage of the frame/portal story convention to make the bridge between the familiar and the unfamiliar.

The primary text of our class was Michael Ende’s Die Unendliche Geschichte (known to Americans as The Neverending Story). This is a classic frame story with a young boy who lives in a world we recognize being sucked into a high fantasy world through the portal of a magical book. There were a couple structural elements that made the story unique: printing the frame story in one color of ink and the fantasy in another, as well as starting each succeeding chapter with a word that began with the next consecutive letter of the alphabet.

Another text we addressed was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ 100 Years of Solitude. This one is considered a seminal introduction to magical realism, with the action taking place in a fictional (but reality-based, almost everyman style of) South American town over the course of a century. The language is at once lyrical and matter-of-fact, and incorporates ghosts and mystical experiences with as much believability as the buildings and courtyards in which those occurrences are recounted as everyday happenings.

From the primary divide of whether we can recognize the world in which the story is set (i.e. whether a story would fall into the low fantasy or high fantasy classification), a multitude of sub-genres have sprung. Interestingly, in refreshing my memory for this post, I’ve discovered that the same course taught by a different teacher or in a different language might very well use different terms. A few useful references that provide some insight into these differences are:

  1. It’s All Fantasy (fantasy genre guide)
  2. The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature
  3. Fantasy – Definition, History, Characteristics and Meaning
  4. Gizmodo’s list of 10 fantasy terms
  5. TV Tropes main fantasy entry

Given the nature of myths and legends, fantasy has long been a useful framework for humans to put themselves in an unfamiliar space to explore universal themes from a different perspective. Together with Science Fiction, it forms the Speculative Fiction genre world, which is where my author brain is happiest playing. In fact, I consider one of the themes of my published stories to be “there is magic in our world, have we but the eyes to see it.” From this perspective, while it’s useful to consider genres and tropes, I find I have the most fun exploring how those can be bent into new versions of themselves–though I don’t foresee myself spending too much time in entirely made-up places. In the meantime, I’m laughing at my ability to retain such snippets for so long, even when they have no real bearing on an author’s ability to produce a good, engaging story.

2 Responses to “Literary Terms: High Fantasy, Low Fantasy, Magical Realism, and Frame (Portal) Stories”

  1. Victoria says:

    Great article.
    “In fact, I consider one of the themes of my published stories to be “there is magic in our world, have we but the eyes to see it.””
    A favorite theme of mine too. Because . . .there is, and most people aren’t aware of it. From the assuredly true, such as the presence of undiscovered creatures in our ocean depths that we would take for aliens if we saw them, to the truths known to believers, such as miraculous events that are little known outside of faith circles, we don’t really know our world. We are limited by our five senses, but there is much more to reality than we can perceive.

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