I stumbled upon a term low fantasy the other day when searching for something else. I felt instantly offended for all those whose writing might be labelled as ‘low’ and so had to take a closer look. Apparently, low fantasy books aren’t considered a lesser form of fantasy – though its opposite turned out to be ‘high’ fantasy. It's simply a distinction made between two types of fantasy worlds. Low fantasy operates on the rules of our reality with the added element of fantasy in it whereas high fantasy is usually set in a completely different world with no connection to ours.
My first question was how does it differ from urban fantasy? After all, according to Wikipedia where I’m taking all this, low fantasy involves "nonrational happenings that are without causality or rationality because they occur in the rational world where such things are not supposed to occur." But what really caught my attention and caused me to write this blog post, was that the first book listed as being low fantasy was The Borrowers by Mary Norton, one of my favourite books as a child.
|The Borrowers by Mary Norton. Cover image from Wikipedia|
I got the book as a Christmas present when I was nine. No, it wasn’t in the fifties when the book first came out; it was in the early eighties and a new edition had just come out in my country. For those who haven’t read the books, The Borrowers features a family of three, the Clocks: father Pod, mother Homily and their fourteen-year-old daughter Arriety. They are tiny people living under the floorboards of a human house and everything they have they have ‘borrowed’ from humans. But while they live side by side with humans, it’s vital that humans do not learn about them. The books, five in all, are mainly about the consequences of that rule being broken.
I don’t think it occurred to the nine-year-old me that I was reading fantasy, high or low. I was still deeply immersed in the world of fairy-tales; local folk stories as well as Grimm stories and Disney versions of them. However, I have a vivid recollection of finding the book as completely different from what I had read before. It was exactly the mixture of reality and fantastical that got to me. After all, though many of Grimm’s fairy-tales happen in the real world, they are set in some historical past, ‘once upon time’, and thus distanced from my everyday life. While I understood that little people living under the floorboards of a human dwelling wasn’t very likely, the elements of reality made me regard it as at least somewhat possible. It provided endless fuel for my imagination too; the cleverness of the Clocks when transforming what humans had thrown away into furniture and utensils.
Looking back, the low fantasy aspect of The Borrowers is rather clear. The books contain no magic, gods or fantastical creatures, only little people co-existing with humans. Its importance to me isn’t in definitions though. It’s the book that led me to the fantasy literature, both high and low. Not in any conscious or coherent manner – I read everything my local library had to offer regardless of the genre. It made me seek the feeling of awe, the sense of wonder fantasy worlds gave me. And still do, thirty years later.
There is a lot more to low fantasy than the sweet world of The Borrowers. Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series is listed as low fantasy, as are rather curiously high fantasy books by Joe Abercrombie and George R. R. Martin; they “deemphasize some typical ‘high fantasy’ elements such as magic and non-human races in favour of a more gritty portrayal of human conflict.” So, low fantasy isn’t simply an extension of children’s fairy-tales towards more grown-up literature. They’re highly imaginative portrayals of our own reality.
And this brings me back to urban fantasy. They, too, are versions of our reality. The only thing that seems to separate it from low fantasy is that it’s “defined by place”. It has to have an urban setting, a city. However, unlike low fantasy, it doesn’t have to have a contemporary setting; they can just as well happen in the past or future. But I don't think there are urban fantasy books written for nine-year-olds to introduce them to the wonderful world of fantasy. So, low fantasy definitely has a purpose. It most certainly has had a place in my literary history. How about yours?
I leave you with a trailer for the Studio Ghibli anime Arietty that is based on the Borrowers. Enjoy.