Low Fantasy is a catchall, and rather inexact, term for that sub-genre of fantasy
that is neither high
nor Heroic Fantasy
, and usually not Urban Fantasy
, though it may overlap with the other sub-genres. Not a good way to define a genre, but English is funny like that — especially our particular brand of it
The designation is not a description of the quality of the work, but rather the amount
of fantasy, and the number of fantastic or otherwise supernatural elements, it contains, which can be rather difficult to measure. Sometimes comedies are also excluded from the genre, but either way the works that remain don't have a natural unity.
However, while there are no features all Low Fantasy has in common, there are features common in many low fantasies, each the opposite of one of the defining features of High Fantasy:
- Mundane settings: Urban, historical, After the End, or otherwise subdued and only sparsely supernatural. A clear contrast to High Fantasy's wildly superpowered setting.
- Cynicism: Low fantasy is famous for its gray morality (or in nastier cases, Black and Gray Morality), while high fantasy is famous for its Black and White Morality.
- Human dominance: worlds which are populated mostly (or even exclusively) by human beings rather than the usual Tolkienesque mix of elves, dwarves and other humanoids.
- Plot scope: Tends to focus more on the survival and tribulations of one or a few individuals rather than the whole world. A villainous king who steals a magical artifact is less likely to be trying to bring back the Infernal Legions of Hell and conquer the world.
- Heroism: High fantasy heroes are usually all-around nice guys who stand up for the little guy and fight the bad guy. Low fantasy heroes tend to be bitter cynics desperately clinging to their broken moral compass or devil-may-care anti-heroes who save the woman from the evil sorcerer just for the sex. At the very least, they tend to be closer to one of the many shades of Anti-Hero than a Knight in Shining Armor.
- Methods: Victories achieved through physical combat, not magical battles or moral superiority - the defining feature of Heroic Fantasy.
- Tone: Tends to be darker or more comedic than your average high-fantasy world.
- Sorcerers: In high fantasy, they're kindly old men who sling fireballs in the name of justice, with the exception of the villain. Magic also tends to be treated as a wondrous force that binds the world together. Low fantasy (just like its sibling genre Dark Fantasy) treats sorcerers as freakishly evil, and quite often insane people who would sacrifice a thousand virgins to some hideous monstrosity from another dimension just to increase their power a tiny bit. Magic is well within Things Man Was Not Meant to Know territory and is often thought of as the evil corrupting force that entices innocent people into doing anything for power. And this all assumes, of course, that magic exists at all - there are examples where magic is essentially non-existent.
- War: In high fantasy a clear "Good vs. Evil" smackdown between civilized races and the Always Chaotic Evil races. In low fantasy, a useless war between two empires to make their lands marginally bigger.
Low magic tends to indicate low fantasy, but not always: The Lord of the Rings
, Trope Maker
for High Fantasy
, is set in a low-magic world.
Distinguishing between low fantasy and soft science fiction
can be tricky. Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian
, wrote both; the Cthulhu mythos is
Not to be confused with Demythtification
, which is deconstructed mythology
Compare with Magic Realism
, Mundane Fantastic
and Dark Fantasy
. Contrast with Standard Fantasy Setting
, Dungeon Punk
, and Urban Fantasy
, plus the tropes mentioned above.
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- Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit has a disillusioned cynic trying to make up for her past deeds. Fictional medieval setting with limited magic.
- Spice and Wolf: one of the two main character is a wolf goddess in humanoid form, but the plot is mostly about the mundane things she and the trader she travels with encounter.
- Conan the Cimmerian, the epitome of Heroic Fantasy (or, Sword & Sorcery), is an oft-cited example of low fantasy. Just as Lord of the Rings created high fantasy, Conan founded the genre of Low Fantasy (Sword & Sorcery).
- Wikipedia cites the publication of Robert E. Howard's story Red Shadows (featuring Solomon Kane) in the August 1928 issue of Weird Tales as in fact "the first published example of Sword and Sorcery." No matter which character was first, it was still Howard who created and pioneered the genre.
- Shadow of the Lion by Eric Flint, Dave Freer, and Mercedes Lackey is a good example. It is set in ancient Venice, and, though magic exists, it has little more to do with the day to day life of most citizens than historical "witchcraft" did, and, indeed is treated in much the same way. Except of course for protagonist Marco Valdosta who ends up fulfilling his destiny as a mage by acting as a vessel for the Winged Lion of Venice and saving the city. Virtually the only other fantastical elements are spirits/demigods and demons (from whom humans draw magical power, so arguably these two are just different aspects of the same element).
- A Song of Ice and Fire: Although the series does have shapeshifters, necromancers, sorcerers, priests that can perform miracles, magic and talking doors, it is primarily a gritty, realistic take on the genre. In particular, the series is famous for its cynicism and its strict adherence to each character's highly biased point-of-view. Added to that the broad political scope, extensive world building and bicontinental-sized, complex threats as The Magic Comes Back (with all the implications that this isn't necessarily a wonderful thing to be celebrated as it impacts the politics in various ways) and, well: it lands bang on the border between Low and High Fantasy.
- Eisenstein's Sorcerer's Son is fairly idealistic, but the small scale plot and human dominated world are enough to mark it as low fantasy.
- Discworld, particularly from about Men at Arms onwards as Pratchett begins to explore how a city like Ankh-Morpork would actually work. However while the feel is often Low Fantasy the actual setting - with dwarfs, trolls, extra-dimensional elves and dragons, interactive deities, recurring threats to reality itself and numerous wizards and witches - is more High Fantasy. Much of the humour comes from meshing the two forms together (for example, in Sourcery the magic is very much High Fantasy, but the magicians are as Low Fantasy as they come) and much of the plot and conflict come from the juxtaposition of the idealism of High Fantasy against the cynicism of Low Fantasy.
- The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie is arguably Low Fantasy at its rawest.
- The Dying Earth stories by writer Jack Vance (and the Tabletop RPG based on the books): an After the End setting, where many societies have returned to a feudal and agrarian state or disintegrated completely, magic has all but replaced science, and Life is cheap. Characters include the selfish rogue and conman Cugel the Clever who has to reluctantly undergo quests for a wizard he tried to rob; Liane the Wayfarer, who happily commits casual murder and comes to a bad end at the hands of a collector with an unusual fetish for eyes; and the magician Rhialto the Marvellous, who constantly quarrels with his companions. It's safe to say that 99% of characters encountered are amoral, selfish, callous, narcissistic, sociopathic and thoroughly unpleasant Anti Heroes, or simply insane. The only character who is even remotely sympathetic is Mazirian the Magician, and even he can be ruthless when it suits him.
- The Gentleman Bastard series by Scott Lynch: the main characters are a gang of sophisticated con men, who tend to run around cities rife with organized crime. The magical ability of the world is actually pretty high, but it's all in the hands of a wizards' guild that appears rarely and has it in for the protagonists.
- The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake could be seen as an extreme case of this even to the point where it's open to debate whether it actually counts as a fantasy series or not. While it does take place in a rather fantastical setting (i.e. an impossibly large and ambiguously sentient castle) and is doused with a good dose of fantasy imagery (e.g. a giant dead tree suspended many hundreds of feet from the ground on which a set of twins frequently have tea), it contains no instances of magic, dragons, talking animals or any other such elements found in even the lowest of fantasy novels. Also, the nonexistence of major conflict throughout most of the novels sets it apart from other fantasy stories. The third books really brings up doubts about the books' fantasy merit. Still, this doesn't repel book stores from insisting that these books be placed in the fantasy section. Actually, I'm not sure where else they would go. The related novella "Boy in Darkness," however, is a slightly more traditional fantasy story, but most of the magic and shape shifting elements present may've just been more metaphor than anything.
- Most of the fantasy novels of Barbara Hambly.
- Most of the fantasy of Joel Rosenberg.
- Robin Hobb's Farseer series is classic Low Fantasy.
- Notable because the events described are very much high fantasy, but the story focuses on characters who barely ever see the significance of their actions, and the plot is very much grounded in their day to day experiences.
- The Paladin by C. J. Cherryh is an example of the "no visible magic" variety of Low Fantasy.
- Although a series about talking cats may sound like High Fantasy, Warrior Cats has some very distinct Low Fantasy qualities, with its dark tone, Gray and Grey Morality, increasingly dysfunctional characters, and minimal involvement of supernatural forces.
- Alan Campbell's Deepgate Codex trilogy combines many Low Fantasy elements with a steampunk setting.
- Ronja the Robber's Daughter is a great example of a Low Fantasy children's book.
- K.J Parker's The Scavenger Trilogy is good example of a low fantasy. The series sticks to mundane settings and has a dark tone. It provides a troubling take on heroism. Supernatural elements are present but low-key. The wars are inglorious, both in the field and their aims.
- The Indigo series fits on most counts: It's After the End. Sentient nonhuman beings are rare. Morality is mainly grey and gray. Clan feuds are more likely than actual wars (although one kingdom does get captured by an Evil Overlord who turns out not to be evil after all). And magic isn't particularly reliable or predictable, and is rarely powerful. However, the future of the human race is on the shoulders of our eponymous heroine and her "dog." Or something.
- James K. Burk's High Rage (and its as yet unpublished sequel Taking Hope): intrigue, war, politics, swordfighting and some interesting magic, but no dragons or world-shattering conflicts.
- The Stone Dance of the Chameleon takes place in a world with no magic at all, but has all the worldbuilding hallmarks of a fantasy series.
- Tales of the Otori: A series in which magic is rare (and controlled by a secretive network of supernatural spies and assassins), magic-users are generally feared and mistrusted, all but one of the main antagonists are non-magical, political intrigue and military strategy play as big a part in the plot as the supernatural elements, and the protagonist is a former religious pacifist turned vengeance seeker after the massacre of his village.
- The Redwall novels are another example of low fantasy, where the villains often go to war for petty reasons, magic is almost nothing more than prophecy and ascended parlor tricks, the scope is limited to Mossflower woods (or if they do go afar, wherever that place happens to be; our heroes are not going out to save the world as you'd expect in High Fantasy), and where in the earlier books, Anyone Can Die. What breaks that mold is the Funny Animal cast, the Black and White Morality, and the fact the Brian Jacques himself ostensibly writes these books for kids.
- Gunfighter's Ride is about a Pony Express rider and his horse dealing with magical menaces.
- Last Dragon has very little magic and the dragons are, as might be inferred from the title, extinct. The tone of the novel is rather harsh too.
- The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio is a simple travel tale with little magic involved(mostly dreams and visions which have minor bearing on the plot). The setting is rather like Medieval Central Asia and if you look up place names you will sometimes find them actually corresponding to place names in medieval times.
- The Old Norse Saga of Grettir the Strong (from c. 1320 AD) fits the definition rather well. Its main plot is the title hero's struggle to survive as an outlaw, but it also features black magic and fights with undeads and trolls.
- Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis certainly skews in this direction. Somewhat surprising from the author of The Chronicles of Narnia.
- While The Lord of the Rings proper is, as noted above, well within the bounds of High Fantasy, much of the history of the Third Age (as elaborated in the appendixes and Tolkien's notes and letters) would fit a Low Fantasy setting. What magic there is in Middle-Earth is slowly disappearing as the elves give way to the kingdoms of men and The Powers That Be grow more detached from the affairs of the mortal world. Those supernatural agents that do still act, such as Sauron and the Wizards, tend to play the long game and work behind the scenes through their mortal allies. Human rulers spend more time bickering with one another, the elves, and the dwarves than they do warding off the great forces of evil that are sometimes literally just over the mountains.
- Glen Cook's The Black Company series is Low Fantasy with a High Fantasy backdrop. The titular Black Company is a mercenary company employed in a High Fantasy-type war of Evil Empire versus Heroic Rebels. However, they aren't working for the Heroic Rebels. Definite gray morality; the "Evil" Empire is more Lawful Neutral, while the "Heroic" Rebels are rather less heroic on closer examination. The main characters are all loyal to each other and the band, but are interested in survival, not saving the world. And as to magic users being rather freakishly evil, there's the Dominator...
- Warhammer Swings from Low to High Fantasy, and everything in between. In particular, many areas around The Empire or the Border Princes are typically Low Fantasy for the most part. An article in White Dwarf magazine even gave tips on how players can structure their armies to be Low Fantasy.
- Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay on the other hand defaults and mostly stays there. Although you can encounter very potent supernatural elements, it usually means you're in way over your head.
- Iron Kingdoms (at least in their RPG incarnation) take a pretty good shot at this one. Even in the tabletop battle game, wars between nations are usually concerned with either land-grabbing or religious differences (the kind with fire), but anything involving the undead Cryx faction usually veers off into ludicrous world-threatening territory.
- Ironclaw emphasizes interpersonal conflict, politics, and characters who actually have a place and role in society other than "adventurer". The relative paucity of "monsters" (Guilt Free Slaughter Victims) in a Funny Animal-populated setting gets a Lampshade Hanging in one supplement:
Frater Perphredo: Where are the monsters? My friend, we're all monsters.
- That said it's not Dark fantasy, most of the factions have a sympathetic side and magic is treated similarly to High fantasy, aside from Unholy magic which is unquestionably evil (though White Magic isn't necessarily good), and the setting is reaching a renaissance.
- d20 Modern: The "Shadow Chasers" setting
- Bunnies & Burrows: A game about intelligent rabbits trying to survive in a modern setting. Magic does not exist, but there are mild psychic powers (rare) and herbs can be combined into medicine. Your average monsters include humans, dogs, and owls.
- Maelstrom is set like this. The magic only exists as the power of God or as part of a mystical, mistrusted force. (There IS a character class of Mage.) Otherwise it is just normal Tudor England. You could even remove the magic with no major changes.
- While not gritty or cynical in the slightest (just the opposite, really), the Atelier series of games tend to have many of the other marks of Low Fantasy. In the earlier (and Japan-exclusive) games especially, the setting is dominated by humans, there is very little blatant magic (most "magical effects" are at least manufactured by the alchemist heroes of the games, often with recipes that have at least a little grounding in actual science), and the setting of the games only encompasses a single country or principality (on purpose, as the protagonist is working in a time limit and typically is running a business anyway, and doesn't have time to go casually Walking the Earth). The Atelier Iris sub-series, which did make it to America, has received some criticism for moving away from most or all of these elements; Mana Khemia and Atelier games on the DS, Liese and Annie, have brought the Low Fantasy elements back to the forefront to at least some degree, with Atelier Rorona deliberately going back to it full-force.
- Darklands sits comfortably between high and low, although its roots are firmly planted in Low Fantasy due to taking place in 15th century Central Europe, during the last years of the Holy Roman Empire. You spend a great deal of time simply making enough money to survive, and spend a lot of time visiting very mundane cities and villages, negotiating with local lords (most of whom don't have the time to talk to you anyway), studying at universities and cathedrals, and tackling robber knights and brigands. Magic comes only in the form of alchemical concoctions (recipes for which are supposedly, but not really, based on the works of real-world alchemists and philosophers), which take a long time and precious (real-world) ingredients. The supernatural elements, however, are pretty strong, with many mythical creatures from European lore lurking in the countryside, and an over-arching plot involving the summoning of demons from hell. Also, Christian saints apparently have great powers to bestow upon their followers.
- Thief fits this trope to a tee and even adds a very gritty Film Noir aesthetic coupled with medievalish Clock Punk and Steam Punk into the overall mix...
- Sunset Over Imdahl hits seven items out of nine on the checklist, and barely avoids the last two—it's a pointless war to keep a crumbling empire together, and magic is barely present, let alone good or evil.
- Bungie's Myth series is arguably an example. While its setting does have wizards of incalcuable power and legions of undead soldiers in a campaign to exterminate the living, the focus of the series tends to be on rank-and-file soldiers struggling to get by, fighting a seemingly hopeless war which none of them expect to survive, and just observing the world falling apart around them. There is little in the way of heroics, just a collective resolve not to go quietly into the night.
- Dwarf Fortress may have humanoid species besides humans (with the spotlight, naturally, on the dwarves, though all of the races are assholes in their own way), but it's quite low as fantasy goes. Technological advances range between the bronze and medieval ages (though, with a little creativity, the dwarves can go well beyond), there's no magic (and the magic immediately in development, necromancy and immortality, is only controlled by the few who learned of divine secrets), and the most common threats to your colonies are rather mundane issues such as the local wildlife, the scarcity of natural resources, and invasions from the malevolent goblins (or, perish the thought, running out of booze). Dragons and megabeasts may exist, but they are few and far between. With that said, the game is relatively easy to modify, allowing code-savvy players to add their own mythical terrors and magic if they wish.
- Gungnir, which is gritty and set to a Black and Gray Morality racial conflict. The world has some magic, but anything flashy is bound to be a forbidden art; there are Sprites, but they tend to stay away from people, and the resident angel's morality and objectives are a bit questionable. It helps that this game is part of the unabashedly Dark Fantasy Dept Heaven series.
- Skyrim is an interesting example on account of its two main quests. The first is very much high fantasy with an ancient, indisputably evil force returning and a chosen hero with a unique superpower standing up to fight it. The other main thread, the Civil War, has much more in common with low fantasy as two morally ambiguous and mostly human factions oppress, backstab and manipulate pretty much everyone in the land. The game's sidequests also reflect this, ranging from helping talking dogs and ancient gods on the one hand to a grisly slog to track down a serial killer on the other.
- Daggerfall is an earlier example within the same series. The player's first main quest is to find a powerful magical artifact that will activate an ancient superweapon. The player's other main task is finding the murderer of King Lysandus which involves wading into cutthroat political intrigue between the factions of the Iliac Bay region. Basically one plot involves the usual magical MacGuffin while the other is Game of Thrones.
- Dragon Age is mostly low fantasy, though the sequel (which uses the politics of a single city as a microcosm for the setting at large) more so than Origins.
- Pigskin takes place in a "Seventh Century A.D." where Vikings battle barbarian hordes on the English countryside for no determinable reason or purpose. Historical accuracy is definitely not the point.
- Mount & Blade takes place in the Constructed World of Calradia, and other than the total lack of magic and the supernatural it fits the mold quite well. You take on the role of a wandering hero seeking to make a name for himself in a land of warring kingdoms controlled by Feudal Overlords who are out to expand their holdings and gain personal glory.
- Last Scenario straddles the line between this and high-fantasy. On one hand, there's a race of elf-like people (though they don't have the longevity that are typically associated with elves,) and in the past everyone had to contend with demons though this turns out to be propaganda. On the other hand, much of the game is spent contending with a messy war involving three different nations and lots of political intrigue and scheming.
- A Scotsman In Egypt is mostly a Historical Fiction/Alternate History story, but it also contains a few low-key fantasy elements, mostly consisting of the visions various characters experience, coupled with the one witch who uncannily recites a conversation from decades ago, mostly spoken by dead men half a continent away.