What is Heroic Fantasy?

Heroes (and anti-heroes) make up the pages of Heroic Fantasy. It is defining quality of the subgenre set in worlds where magic and monsters exist, modern technology may or may not exist, and where heroes usually save the day.

The classic example of this is the Sword & Sorcery hero "Conan the Barbarian", but therein lies some interesting arguments because some people argue that Conan is actually an anti-hero because he doesn't exactly fit the description of a flawless hero.

Yes, Conan is strong, usually honourable, but he is also a thief, a pirate, a mercenary and a freebooter.

The defining characteristic of Heroic Fantasy therefore is the central hero (or heroes) as part of the plot.

The Sword & Sorcery subgenre however does differ somewhat in definition, because a Sword & Sorcery book doesn't necessarily need to have a hero. It could have a villain as the main character. Sword & Sorcery really just needs a swashbuckling-type protagonist, who could be a hero, anti-hero or villain, and various obstacles to be overcome - one of which is usually magic or dark magic.

Heroic Fantasy differs because it doesn't need the magic element. It could have monsters instead, or perhaps horror elements, but no magic. Magic isn't a necessity for it to be Heroic Fantasy. It does however require a Hero or Heroes (or Anti-Hero[es]). That part is at least mandatory.

Heroic Fantasy, as implied, also means that good needs to triumph over evil... Unlike dark fantasy where evil sometimes wins. Sometimes, not always.


A good example of this is the Michael Moorcock series of Elric of Melnibone books (Stormbringer, etc) in which Elric often tries to do good, but the intelligent sword Stormbringer is doing evil during the process and often winning in the long run.

Thus that particular series is a good example of Sword & Sorcery and Dark Fantasy, and Elric himself is an anti-hero, so it technically also qualifies as Heroic Fantasy even though the sword is usually winning in the long run of things.

Bram Stoker's Dracula technically falls into the category of Heroic Fantasy. The heroes win. Dracula loses. It is a Dark Fantasy / Heroic Fantasy story.

Multiple Subgenres often peacefully co-exist. Hence why Sword & Sorcery books are often also Heroic Fantasy.

Eg. High Fantasy just means that there is a lot of magic, monsters, etc in the story. Harry Potter for example is definitely High Fantasy. But it is also Heroic Fantasy, Urban Fantasy and Contemporary Fantasy. Some of the books even qualify to be Dark Fantasy due to the theme of evil winning in that book and/or an abundance of undead / dark fantasy themes.

Heroic Fantasy often focuses on characters who come from humble beginnings. The farmhand who becomes the Dread Pirate Roberts and saves a princess from being married to an evil prince. The moisture farm boy who goes off to fight the evil empire and becomes a Jedi Knight. The swordsmith's apprentice who ends up going on a high seas adventure fighting undead pirates.

Yep, The Princess Bride, Star Wars, and the Pirates of the Caribbean are all technically Heroic Fantasy.

Shrek? Heroic Fantasy. Definitely an anti-hero.

Many heroes from fairy tales, fables and myths are also playing a role in Heroic Fantasy stories. Jack and the Beanstalk.

Sometimes the hero will be of royal stock but not know it. Or perhaps they are simply really short and are farmers. Or gardeners.

Bilbo? Frodo? Samwise? Yep, the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings are also Heroic Fantasy (in addition to being Epic Fantasy).

Basically if it has a hero in the story and it is a fantasy story (due to magic, monsters, etc) then it is Heroic Fantasy.

The film "Avatar" is arguably a Heroic Fantasy because of the "magic" abilities of the trees and animals of that world. So are Smurfs. He-Man. Hercules. Xena. Avatar: The Last Airbender.

The term "Heroic Fantasy" was coined by author/editor L. Sprague de Camp. Below is his definition of the hallmarks of the subgenre.

"Heroic fantasy" is the name I have given to a subgenre of fantasy, otherwise called the "sword-and-sorcery" story. It is a story of action and adventure laid in a more or less imaginary world, where magic works and where modern science and technology have not yet been discovered. The setting may (as in the Conan stories) be this Earth as it is conceived to have been long ago, or as it will be in the remote future, or it may be another planet or another dimension.

Such a story combines the color and dash of the historical costume romance with the atavistic supernatural thrills of the weird, occult, or ghost story. When well done, it provides the purest fun of fiction of any kind. It is escape fiction wherein one escapes clear out of the real world into one where all men are strong, all women beautiful, all life adventurous, and all problems simple, and nobody even mentions the income tax or the dropout problem or socialized medicine.

— L. Sprague de Camp, introduction to the 1967 Ace edition of Conan (Robert E. Howard), p. 13.


Yes, that is another important aspect of Heroic Fantasy. Escapism is wonderful. We live in a world which is entirely too realistic sometimes and it is really nice to escape to a world where heroes usually save the day.

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