As someone who’s been mostly interested in a certain kind of fantasy fiction, I’ve been having some struggle with the distinction between Sword & Sorcery for quite some time. These pasts days, I’ve had some good discussions with other people about it, but instead of getting some clarity, things got only more confusing.
When I categorize fantasy fiction for myself, the main categories I am thinking in are High Fantasy, Low Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, and Heroic Fantasy. Simple categories that seem perfectly clear to me. But as it turns out on a closer inspection, not to everyone else.
Low Fantasy seems to be by far the biggest problem child. Part of it is because what it really means is “Not-High Fantasy”. Assuming Lord of the Rings is the archetype of High Fantasy, Low Fantasy could be two different things: By far the most common use of the term describes a setting that is an alternative present day Earth (though “present” in this case means at the time of writing), while High Fantasy is a completely different reality that at the most may be set in the “Mythic Past” of our world. However, there is also another use of the term, that seems to have become common enough to cause some serious problems. Alternatively, Low Fantasy could mean a work of fantasy fiction that less glamorous, more gritty, and with a lower prevalance of magic. Which can overlap with the other definition, but also be two completely different things. This second use of the term seems to have become so common that the term Low Fantasy has become pretty much useless. (Though I have doubt if it ever really was that good to begin with.)
But now I did some research on the term of Heroic Fantasy these last days, and I ran into another problem. My idea of the term Epic Fantasy, has always been a type of works that revolve around large scale events, like the end of the world or a global invasion of demons, and tell the story from the perspective of the key figures in these events. In contrast, Heroic Fantasy is all about specific characters and their personal stories. They might rise to positions of power and take important roles in larger conflicts, but the story is still about their personal experiences and not so much about how the details of the conflict or how it might turn out in the end. Again, this is a perfectly serviceable and easy to grasp distinction. But then, I ran into a couple of comments in a number of different places, that stated Lord of the Rings to be a prime example of Heroic Fantasy. And that seemed very odd to me. After all, it has all the important traits of Epic Fantasy, which makes it the oposite of Heroic Fantasy. At first I thought someone just got it wrong, but soon I found more and more cases of it, which use the term Heroic Fantasy as something else than the opposite of Epic Fantasy.
There’s also the term Dark Fantasy, that has been thrown around in recent years, which I think is even more pointless. And now I really think that this whole categorization scheme has lost any usefulness it may once have had. Categories are not bad and they are very helpful and important ways to talk about certain styles and group similar work together. But categories only work if everyone uses at least roughly the same definitions, which in the case of fantasy genres, seem to be entirely arbitrary. So I think that at least for myself, I won’t be using these terms anymore. When talking about these sub-genres, instead of throwing around a fancy sounding term, I’ll have to go back to using a whole sentence to tell people what kind of fantasy fiction I am talking about.