This is Berk. It snows nine months of the year, and hails the other three. Any food that grows here is tough and tasteless. The people that grow here are even more so. The only upsides are the pets. While other places have ponies or parrots… we have… dragons.
-Hiccup of Berk, How to Tame Your Dragon
Several weeks ago, we began our journey into exploring themes of fantasy. First, we started with High Fantasy and explored the ever evolving tropes that exist within genre fiction. Now it is time to take a step back to discover what lays beyond in the sub-genre dubbed, “Low Fantasy”. Often when we think of fantasy we think of the obvious concepts of elves, dwarves, and humans. Of powerful mages who wield might magicks against their enemies.
Low Fantasy changes this and often magick becomes rare or non-existent completely. TvTropes.com is a bevy of definitions for Low Fantasy, and I think the first we should examine is the notion of Mundane Settings. A fantastic example of this is the How to Tame Your Dragon franchise. Set on an unnamed world focused primarily on Vikings, the series is bereft of most the magic often seen high fantasy. There are no elves to teach ancient lore, nor are there any Dwarves to smith the finest steel.
No in this way series focuses instead on magical creatures which are simply a part of the world around them, of these, are Dragons. Now in this world, Dragons and Humans are perhaps the only sentient species. Dragons have their own rough sense of culture with an alpha leading large groups of them. Otherwise, there is no spell casting. Even the more “magical” concepts such as a flaming sword are created via engineering and using draconic materials. Suspension of disbelief for How to Tame Your Dragon is still quite high, but we aren’t following an unrestricted or even restricted set of magical rules that change the fundamental laws of reality.
Cynicism and Morality
Another aspect of Low Fantasy is Cynicism that pervades the world itself. Chief among the examples is Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) which started initially as a mythic low fantasy setting and has risen with each novel. But Planetos is still a good look in how Low Fantasy settings often settle on Grey Morality to tell their stories. Each House of Westeros has their own agendas and their moral ethics. The Starks with their unbending desire for honor and the Lannisters bear a strong desire to rule. Then we add in even more dynastic politics and we see a world bleeding gray wherever the reader can see.
High Fantasy series historically have focused on black and white or simply good versus evil in the greater scheme of storytelling. Black and white morality helps the reader feel a sense of grounding. Orcs are bad, and humans are good. But, more often than not this kind of thinking leads to a lot fo the more dangerous devices we employ in writing. It removes any real face to why we face evil, and it can lead to a lack of understanding of good writing. Low Fantasy seems to take its cynical viewpoint on morality is meant to provide a greater focus on the individual rather than the greater whole.
I believe in that the surge in “Dark Fantasy” novels was born out of the Low Fantasy desire for controlled magick and for settings that were more grounded in what we know of in reality. We will cover that even more so at a later date.
Methods and Sorcery
Magic and Sorcery are usually far more limited in Low Fantasy, and this has a startling effect on the world setting in general. Instead of grand sorcerous actions that will destroy the world, it is often the work of someone with greater numbers, better fighters or much more. In Song and Ice and Fire, the Game of Thrones itself is the source of much power. The Lannisters do well because they have the money and troops to back themselves.
In Conan the Barian stories, we see many great monsters in the form of giant snakes and much more. The World of Cimmeria is a vibrant world filled with ancient demons and powerful magicks that Conan has a right to distrust. The method in this world is focused on the raw power of humans rather than the abilities of the supernatural. Conan’s power come from his Barbarian guile and the ferocity of his bodily self. Strength alone at times was all that Conan could call upon or pure ferocity of spirit. Magic often in these worlds is a dangerous thing and one that is outright frightening. Wizards and Sorcerer’s a corrupt individual who draw their supernatural skills not from natural magical energy, but from deals with demons or powerful antediluvian ancient artifacts.
An Older Genre Birthing New Ones
We have already discussed how Dark Fantasy arises as a subgrene of Low Fantasy and much more. The popularity of Low Fantasy has increased over the years. Shows such as Salem, or Penny Dreadful tow the line between Urban Fantasy with the darker notions of Low Fantasy’s history. Much of the historical context of Low Fantasy relies heavily on the early Pulp Movement and authors such as Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard. Modern takes on Low Fantasy often involve a focus on Victoriana settings or darker horror movements. Where the genre will go in the future is anyone’s guess, but it certainly has had an impact on modern writing as a whole.