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High Fantasy: Getting into The Hobbit

Fantasy buffs have been waiting a long time for this, and now... we have to wait a year longer.  If you don't know what I'm talking about, allow me to enlighten you:

This first full trailer for Peter Jackson's much-anticipated take on J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit  was launched this Wednesday (if you haven't seen it yet, click on the poster), and has already garnered over 5 million total views on YouTube.  (Admittedly, some of those might be from excited fans watching it over and over again, but still....)  The film itself, a prequel to his award-winning adaptation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, doesn't actually come out until December 14, 2012, but fandom is already champing at the bit. Not bad for a book published in 1937, eh? 

Love it or hate it, The Hobbit is credited with inspiring the most popular type of fantasy written today: high fantasy, also called epic fantasy.  Though not the first (George MacDonald's' Phantastes, published in 1858, is usually given that distinction), it was the work that popularized high fantasy for adults.  Readers were already familiar with sword-and-sorcery tales like Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian series (begun five years before), but this was something new.  Conan was the stuff of the pulps-- gritty, exciting, fast-paced high adventure.  In sword-and-sorcery or "heroic" fantasy, tough, battle-hardened warriors journey in search of treasure, fame, or personal glory (morality is usually something of a grey area).  The stakes are life-or-death, and it's all about one individual or one small band.  If the main character ever retired, the series would be over. 

Not so with high fantasies like The Hobbit or Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter.  They often take their inspiration from classical literature or medieval myths (hence the medieval feel of many fantasy settings)-- Troy, the Arthurian tales, the Mabinogion cycle, the Arabian Nights, or-- as in the case of Tolkien-- the Norse and Germanic sagas.  The settings are wholly fantastic, populated with magical races and creatures, and not set in the "real world" at all (or if they are, it's in a place apart and only accessible to the mundane world by magical means).  Heroes are filled with lofty purpose, and Good does battle against blackest Evil.   Compared to the more personal risks of sword-and-sorcery fantasies, high fantasy raises the stakes considerably: no longer is the story tied to the fate of a few individuals, but to the fate of a kingdom, an empire, a race... an entire world.

The main characters differ, also.  They're often not trained warriors but inexperienced youths (or innocent hobbits!), whose inner strength is more important than the firmness of their sword arms.  (This isn't to say there's no fighting or adventure, but the focus is less on derring-do and more on character growth and the long-term effects of their actions.)  The villains are an important and memorable element, overwhelmingly powerful and very hard to defeat ("Okay, we need to cut the magic ring off of his finger and throw it into the biggest volcano in the world...").  Mentors, allies, and sometimes entire armies will assist the heroes in their quests, and the storylines can go on for generations.  (Fair warning to the impatient: epic fantasies are rarely told in the space of 250 pages or so, and their authors do sometimes die before finishing-- witness Robert Jordan.)

Oh, and if you're curious: yes, there is such a thing as "low" fantasy, too.  The "low" part of the name has nothing to do with its quality (or humor), but refers to the relatively low level of fantasy elements in the story.  Low fantasy is typically set in the real world (or at least in a reality-based world), with a few magical elements included.  Most urban fantasy today would be considered low fantasy.

If you're looking for something to tide you over for the year (or just for the winter break), why not try one of the high fantasies below?  Almost all of them begin a series; I've listed the first book here and put the series title in parentheses.  You'll note that I've included a few children's titles in here as well-- even if you're an adult, these are not to be missed.  If you'd like a few companions for your literary journey there and back again, the library's speculative fiction book club, In Other Worlds, is reading The Hobbit for our January selection.  We'll be meeting on January 18 (that's the third Wednesday of the month) at 7 pm to discuss the book.  You're welcome to join us!

Shadow and Betrayal (The Long Price quartet) by Daniel Abraham (Fantasy Abraham)
The Book of Three (Chronicles of Prydain) by Lloyd Alexander (J Alexander)
The Sword of Shannara Trilogy (Shannara) by Terry Brooks (Fantasy Brooks)
The Curse of Chalion (Curse of Chalion) by Lois McMaster Bujold (Fantasy Bujold)
Banewreaker (The Sundering) by Jacqueline Carey (Fantasy Carey)
Over Sea, Under Stone (The Dark Is Rising) by Susan Cooper (J Cooper)
The Ill-Made Mute
(Bitterbynde trilogy) by Cecilia Dart-Thornton (Fantasy Dart-Thornton)
The Wayfarer Redemption: Book 1, BattleAxe (Wayfarer Redemption) by Sara Douglass (Fiction Douglass)
Acacia (Acacia) by David Anthony Durham (Fantasy Durham)
The Belgariad, v.1 (Belgariad) by David Eddings (Fiction Eddings)
The King's Dragon (Crown of Stars) by Kate Elliott (Fantasy Elliott)
A Darkness Forged in Fire (Iron Elves) by Chris Evans (Fantasy Evans)
Medalon (Hythrun Chronicles) by Jennifer Fallon (Fantasy Fallon)
The Sum of All Men (Runelords) by David Farland (Fantasy Farland)
Shadow of a Dark Queen (Riftwar Saga: Serpentwar) by Raymond E. Feist (Fantasy Feist)
Sorcery Rising (Fool's Gold) by Jude Fisher (Fantasy Fisher)
Wizard's First Rule (Sword of Truth) by Terry Goodkind (Fantasy Goodkind)
The Kingless Land (Band of Four) by Ed Greenwood (Fantasy Greenwood)
Rhapsody: Child of Blood (Symphony of Ages) by Elizabeth Haydon (Fantasy Haydon)
Dark of the Gods (The God Stalker Chronicles) by P.C. Hodgell (Fantasy Hodgell)
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Inheritance trilogy) by N. K. Jemisin (Fantasy Jemisin)
Blackdog by K. V. Johansen (Express Fantasy Johansen)
The Eye of the World
(Wheel of Time) by Robert Jordan (Pbk-Fantasy Jordan)
The Briar King (Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone) by Greg Keyes (Fantasy Keyes)
The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower) by Stephen King (Fantasy King)
A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea) by Ursula K. LeGuin (Pbk-Reading List LeGuin)
A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire) by George R R Martin (Fantasy Martin)
The River Kings' Road (Ithelas) by Liane Merciel (Fantasy Merciel)
Magic of Recluce (Recluce) by L.E. Modesitt (Fantasy Modesitt)
Eragon (Inheritance) by Christopher Paolini (YA Paolini)
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Harry Potter) by J. K. Rowling (J Rowling)
The One Kingdom (Swan's War trilogy) by Sean Russell (Fantasy Russell)
Mistborn: The Final Empire (Mistborn) by Brandon Sanderson (Fantasy Sanderson)
Midwinter (Midwinter) by Matthew Sturges (Fantasy Sturges)
The Hobbit: or, There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien (Fantasy Tolkien)
The Complete Lyonesse (Lyonesse) by Jack Vance (Fantasy Vance)
The Element of Fire (Ile-Rien) by Martha Wells (Fantasy Wells)
Shadowmarch (Shadowmarch) by Tad Williams (Fantasy Williams)
The Knight (Wizard Knight) by Gene Wolfe (Fantasy Wolfe)
The Cycle of Fire (Cycle of Fire) by Janny Wurts (Fantasy Wurts)
The First Chronicles of Amber (Amber) by Roger Zelazny (Fantasy Zelazny)
A Sorcerer's Treason (Isvalta) by Sarah Zettel (Fantasy Zettel)

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bibliography question

Will you make a list of Low Fantasy to compliment this one? I sincerely hope so!