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SPOTLIGHT: Felicity Pulman on High v Low Fantasy

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Today on the blog, guest Felicity Pulman ponders the difference between High and Low Fantasy 

One of my favourite books as a child was Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. I remember that delicious thrill when you just knew that those children wouldn’t get back to the doorway of the tree in time, and that a new (and horrid) land would swing in and then they’d be trapped.  And I sometimes think I’ve been rewriting versions of these books ever since.

True confessions (and with apologies to Kate!)  

Beginning with The Hobbit and LOTR, I’ve never been able to ‘get’ high fantasy: those magical lands with magical creatures and magical characters with impossible names just never captured my imagination quite like those fantasies that are grounded in reality – and here I’m talking timeslip scenarios – or what one might call ‘low’ fantasy.  

These are the sorts of stories I love to read, whether the jump is to an Otherworld (think Guy Gavriel Kay’s marvellous Fionavar Tapestry trilogy or Philip Pullman’s wonderful Dark Materials trilogy) or a jump back into the past. Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book is one of my all-time favourites, going back to the time of plague in the middle ages, but I have also enjoyed her timeslips back to World War II (Blackout and All Clear.) And of course I love timeslip movies too – like The Lake House and Sliding Doors.

The perceived wisdom is to ‘write what you know’.  I prefer to write the sorts of stories I love to read.  And so I, too, have gone back in time with my novels for children and YA, such as Ghost Boy and, of course, A Ring Through Time, and also the Shalott trilogy which taps into Arthurian legend through a timeslip to Camelot in the middle ages.  My latest novel (for adults) is I, Morgana – this time exploring one of the most maligned and enigmatic of Arthurian characters, and with a timeslip to the future (to be published in June by Momentum.)

High or low fantasy? I think both subgenres are of equal value in that they both tend to follow Joseph Campbell’s ‘hero’s journey’ scenario whereby a central character is led to or forced to accept a quest of some sort and has to venture forth into the unknown, undergoing trials, meeting challenges and setbacks, and also reaching a new level of self-awareness along a circular journey that leads home, usually in triumph with ‘the boon’.

And isn’t this, really, what every good story is about?  In my opinion, it is the author’s challenge to create a character, or set of characters, that readers will care about, and who will take them on a vicarious journey of discovery of the world outside, but also on a journey within, where they find out who they really are, along with all their strengths and their weaknesses; and they experience that trial by fire by which we are all tested in our lives and which, hopefully, will give us the courage to become our best selves, either as characters within a story or – and perhaps more important – as characters in our own life story.

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