As far as I can tell, there are three main areas of contemporary fantasy that are so separated from each other that it’s pointless to try to lump them together.
- Epic/high fantasy.
- Urban fantasy.
- Everything else.
Tropes and fans can and do cross over, but trying to figure out what’s going on seems to require some categorization. Grimdark is another question entirely, because it has both fantasy and science fiction under its umbrella. Portal fantasy fits comfortably under epic, at least as far as I can tell.
So when I talk about epic fantasy, I mean fantasy set in a secondary world, not Earth as we know it (although it may turn out to have been Earth all along), to which the term “grimdark” may or may not apply.
The first plot I’ve picked out:
- There’s something that the main character must do.
- In order to do this thing, the character must always go forward, never back.
- Behind the character, everything is destroyed, ruined, and cut off.
- It’s often only at the last moment that the character is able to move forward, before being destroyed.
- If the character does manage to go back, it’s a really bad idea–traitors, traps, destruction, abomination.
- In the end, the character reaches the final destination and does the thing; they may or may not sacrifice their life in order to do so.
This is The Lord of the Rings. It’s some of the Narnia books (The Last Battle especially). Exhaustion, PTSD, grief. The Last Unicorn. It’s not like the horror movie It Follows, where no matter where you go, the thing is following you. It’s just not that personal. This is more about war. Strangely, Star Wars, which uses a ton of fantasy tropes, or rather tropes that were strongly adopted by the fantasy genre, doesn’t do this. The characters in Star Wars are often going back to places they’ve been, or not going the places they were supposed to go.