For quite a while now, there has been constant discussion regarding the difference between High Fantasy and Epic Fantasy. Most have concluded that the two are interchangeable, and that there’s not much difference between the two. High Fantasy is not a term that a lot of fantasy authors use these days to describe what they write. Most subgenre terms used today are Epic Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Grim-Dark, YA Fantasy, or just plain Fantasy. High Fantasy has kind of fallen out of term, and has likely evolved into the term Epic Fantasy, which is why the two terms are considered to be interchangeable.
I’m not completely sold on the two terms being the same. I agree that High Fantasy is a work of fiction set in a secondary world filled with a riot of fantasy races—like elves, dwarves, dragons, gnomes, and so on. The setting is mostly based on the medieval period, populated with a character or more bound on a task or adventure. Examples are: The Hobbit, Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels.
Epic Fantasy takes the High Fantasy elements and ramps up the magnitude of the story. The stakes are greater; the land/world is in peril; the conflict shakes all who dwell in the world of the story. J.R.R. Tolkien took his High Fantasy world of Middle-earth (introduced in The Hobbit) and composed it masterfully into a long epic: The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings is Epic Fantasy, and really the first of its kind in modern fiction, setting the mold for High/Epic Fantasy up to today. Just as Leo Tolstoy’s novel, War and Peace, took historical fiction to an epic scale, Epic Fantasy is that transformation of High Fantasy into epic proportions; usually a long story, stretched out over multiple volumes and building a host of characters within an ongoing conflict.
Epic Fantasy does not have to keep the exact identity of what High Fantasy is. It still dwells in a secondary world; however, one is not bound to only use the medieval setting, nor use the many different fantasy races often found in High Fantasy. Works like the Wheel of Time series and the first Shannara trilogy are epic fantasies that followed in the same vein as the Lord of the Rings. But Epic Fantasy does not have to stay in that fashion.
Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy is Epic Fantasy and has the medieval setting, but does not have “sorcery” or “magic” so to speak, but abilities (powers). And there are no fantastical creatures, at least not like we’re used to seeing, as all the different kinds of beings in the story are of humans. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is epic, and, though it has dragons in it, and even giants, you will not find very many High Fantasy components within the story, as they are toned down around a host of characters in a dark medieval setting, but still very much fantasy in many ways.
Thanks to the likes of the new Flintlock Fantasy, works like Brent Weeks Lightbringer series, Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage trilogy, and Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series, Epic Fantasy does not have to dwell in a secondary world based only on a medieval setting.
So, to sum it up, High Fantasy can be Epic Fantasy, but it is not always. And Epic Fantasy does not necessarily have to have all the elements that make up High Fantasy. But, these two terms are closely related—not interchangeable—but near-identical siblings.
The Secondary World
Inspirations of Fantasy