Basically, the Dark Lord, thought defeated millennia past, has returned to his Dark Tower in the Dark Land, gathering around him evil hordes. The free lands have only one hope, a small band of lost heirs, princes, and simple village folk gathered together by a mysterious wandering wizard. However, it's not essential to stick so closely to the model.
The core elements of High Fantasy are:
- Setting - A world other than ours. It may have a nominal connection with present day Earth, such as being our remote past or future, but this plays no role in the plot. Mythopoeia is often put into play to define the very metaphysics of the world. Nevertheless it often resembles medieval Europe, and is often peopled by People of Hair Color.
- Scale - Epic. Power politics, wars, the death of nations, gods walking the earth, and the real threat of The End of the World as We Know It. This is what distinguishes High Fantasy from Heroic Fantasy.
- Great evil - An enemy which is near enough Evil incarnate or fundamentally abhorrent
- Methods - Victory is not achieved through force of arms, the main feature distinguishing High Fantasy from Heroic Fantasy. If Aragorn had killed Sauron in hand-to-hand combat, that would have been Heroic Fantasy. In short, a Supporting Leader or the Reluctant Hero will be offered up instead of the rough-hewn barbarian of, say, Conan or Beowulf.
Other common elements include:
- Artifacts of Doom
- Cool Horse
- Cool Sword
- Emerging From the Shadows
- Functional Magic
- Lost heirs to kings
- Medieval Stasis
- The Quest
The boundary between High Fantasy and Low Fantasy is probably impossible to pin down, but the Deverry and Deryni series are near the borderline, and may straddle it. In both, the protagonists are involved in high-level power politics, with the fate of their nation in the balance, but Deverry has superhuman evils which the Deryni series lacks. Another borderline series would be the violent, low-magic A Song of Ice and Fire, which is on an epic scale, in a pseudo-medieval setting, with the looming menace of the Others, but lacks a Dark Lord (so far). The Discworld novels as a whole are another problematic case; they are generally considered Low Fantasy, but several of them tick all the boxes on the core elements noted above and epic-level plots (like Thief of Time) happen just as frequently as street-level ones (like The Truth).
Novels which are unambiguously Low Fantasy include Eisenstein's Sorcerer's Son, about a family quarrel among wizards devoid of wider implications, Barbara Hambly's Stranger At The Wedding, where the threat is confined to a single merchant family, and Maskerade, whose villain, a normal human, has no greater ambition than to run an opera house. Not to be confused with Demythtification, which is a myth or legend reimagined as Historical Fiction.
The sci-fi version of High Fantasy is Space Opera, but not vice versa. The quintessential Space Opera doesn't necessarily include a Dark Lord equivalent, but if a Space Opera does, as with Star Wars or Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep, it is High Fantasy in space.
Heroic or High Fantasy of Chinese cultural origin is known as Wuxia.
- Bone, though with a sense of humor throughout.
- The Belgariad - takes every single trope in the genre, laughs at them, then builds around ten books (and two epics) with them.
- Chronicles of the Kencyrath fits most of the elements, though it's very tightly focused on the heroine and her immediate friends and family despite the world-shaking events going on, and at least as far as supernatural forces are concerned it's more Black and Grey Morality than Black and White Morality.
- The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant
- The Dark Is Rising series by Susan Cooper is set in our world, in a setting nominally similar to that of the later Harry Potter series, but tied into a distant, mythological and Celtic past, and otherwise fits the trope to a tee. The hero's uncle is even suggested to be Merlin.
- The Dark Tower by Stephen King borders the line between High Fantasy and Urban Fantasy in a Western setting.
- Deltora Quest
- Laurence Yep's Dragon Series, which has an eastern dragon as the protagonist, trying to restore her former home.
- Dragonlance Chronicles and Legends
- The Duel of Sorcery Trilogy fits on some details, but is more Low Fantasy in other respects.
- Foundation by Isaac Asimov has some elements of high fantasy, like Star Wars. Also C. J. Cherryh's Morgaine, Anne McCaffrey's Pern and Catherine Asaro's Skolian Empire. Some Sci Fi may also feature a VR high fantasy world e.g. Ender's Game, The Diamond Age.
- Greenwater and the world setting for Zodiacs by Luke "Thrythlind" Green are aimed at this.
- The Inheritance Cycle
- The Lord of the Rings - Inspired a slew of imitators and created the genre as we know it.
- The Malazan Book of the Fallen
- Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn
- The Mirror of Her Dreams
- Mistborn , and anything written by Brandon Sanderson.
- Old Kingdom is somewhat unusual, as its premise revolves around necromancy and the undead.
- The Prydain Chronicles are High Fantasy for children.
- The Riftwar Cycle
- The Seventh Tower
- A Song of Ice and Fire began on the Low Fantasy side of the line, but enough elements of High Fantasy have crept in to leave it comfortably straddling the border.
- The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson is beginning to look a LOT like this, and that's with just a single book published. As a matter of fact, many of his works operate on this scale, such as Mistborn.
- Sword of Truth possesses all the core elements, although the author would rather not have his work lumped into the fantasy section, thank you very much.
- Watership Down
- The Wayfarer Redemption
- The Wheel of Time
- The Witcher
- A Wizard in Rhyme
- Bran Hambric, which has the feeling of Urban Fantasy in a fictional world.
- Elven Quest parodies the High Fantasy setting. The Chosen One (a dog in our world but a human in his) must band together with an Elf, Warrior Princess and Dwarf to find the mystical Sword of Asnagar and defeat the cunning and oddly genre-savvy Lord Darkness.
- Final Fantasy IV, VI and XII.
- Fire Emblem is this mixed in with Low Fantasy elements (e.g the worlds are mostly populated by humans, most of the battles are fought between humans though Dragons may be involved somehow), several characters that can you recruit may even be Punch Clock Heroes, and the series seems to lean towards the cynical side on the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism, though some of the games can also lean towards the idealistic side as well). Plus, it must be noted that the Jugdral Series is very dark in tone.
- Kingdom Hearts is divided into many small worlds, mostly imaginary, or based on Disney films.
- The Legend of Zelda mixes this with Heroic Fantasy (although it's been getting more Steampunk as of late).
- Oracle of Tao is a RPG Maker game with heavy fantasy elements. Oddly enough, it has some modern objects, like cellphones and ATMs, but it is assumed they run on magic.
- Overlord takes all the tropes of this genre and runs away with them.
- The first game subverts pretty much everything that gets in its grubby little paws. The Heroes aren't particularly heroic, the Minions don't exactly project an intimidating facade and, depending on the player's decisions, the Evil Overlord...well, isn't.
- The second game even more so. Whatever trope it manages to play straight, it does so for parody's sake.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender: An epic that involves the fate of the world, a young boy and his Ragtag Bunch of Misfits who are Walking the Earth, politics that change the course of the world, gods (called spirits but act as deities) that interact with the protagonists and, as a refreshing twist, takes place in a mythical world insipired by Eastern culture rather than Western. It would go in Wuxia save for the fact that it holds very little in common with the genre.
- Codename: Kids Next Door: A rare Urban Fantasy version but fits nonetheless.
- The Pirates of Dark Water
- The first two episodes of My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic: A long time ago, the land of Equestria was ruled by two godlike sisters who controlled the cycle of day and night. But the younger sister, responsible for the night, became jealous and resentful and turned into the evil Nightmare Moon, refusing to lower the moon to make way for the day. The elder sister was forced to banish her into the moon, where she has remained ever since. But a thousand years later, When the Planets Align, she escapes and threatens to shroud the land in eternal darkness once more. Now it's up to a group of cute but surprisingly Badass ponies to travel trough The Lost Woods to find the Elements of Harmony, the only thing that can stop Nightmare Moon.