Dark fantasy vs. epic fantasy

Woman gothic dark fantasy
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

When The Dark Crystal’s spin-off series came out, someone described the initial movie as “dark fantasy.” I’d seen this term on Ralan.com (a great site for those who want to submit short stories to spec fic markets) but hadn’t thought much of it. It’s like horror with fantasy elements, right? I’d think and move on to the more mainstream subgenres.

But I love The Dark Crystal. I loved it as a kid and got irritated when the grown-ups around me talked during any portion of it. I love it so much now that I got a copy and have, whenever I get the chance,  played it for my kids who now tell me they were freaked out by the Skeksies and other creatures and that my love of that movie convinced them that their mom definitely loved dark things.

But to me, that movie is anything but dark.

However, now that I’m aware of my darkish tendencies, I’ve decided to look deeper into this subject.

The verdict? No one really seems to have a firm grip on what it is. But even though it seems to be a personal judgment call, there also seem to be some basic principles. Maybe.

(Please be aware that some of what’s written below is based on what I found and some of it is based on my own analysis.)

1. Dark fantasy is dark. As in, it has a dark atmosphere. Brooding protagonists. Evil all around. Maybe evil within. One person on the SFFWorld forum put The Dark Elf trilogy in that category and another put Moorcock’s Elric in there, too. Given that definition, Tanith Lee’s The Lords of Darkness would also count as dark fantasy, as would The Black Jewels series by Anne Bishop. I would also put George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire in that as well.

Epic fantasy and heroic fantasy, on the other hand, tends to be lighter in tone.

2. Dark fantasy has a quest, just not, perhaps, an external one. For example, The Lords of Darkness starts out with a love story between a young man and the Lord of Darkness himself, and it appears, on the surface, that the quest is external. But over the course of the many stories, all of which read like short stories or novellas but are all tied together into one overarching plot, it become clear that the Lord of Darkness is the main protagonist and that’s he’s trying to find a way to keep humanity and their worship of him alive.

The Last Unicorn, which I’m starting to think is dark fantasy, starts out as an external quest (to find the other unicorns) but turns into a deeper quest of what it means to be ageless and magical and what it means to be mortal and not-so-magical and how to reconcile the two when both seem at odds and yet both can be strong.

Epic fantasy, on the other hand, has a clear quest that’s external to the main character. The evil guy must be defeated by doing x which will lead to y result. There may be introspection, but it isn’t necessary to the story itself and may, at times, get in the way. (Wonderful as it is, and I really do love it, how much introspection does Aragorn or Frodo go through in Tolkien’s series?)

3. There isn’t necessarily a happy ending. I take issue with this somewhat. Horror is, at the core, a morality tale. Have sex instead of watching the kid, and you might get slaughtered by a monster or end up in some kind of supernatural hell, damned forever. Think you’re innocent? Oh, no, not really. Horror tends to show people as they “really” are and, at the same time, make the innocents prove that they really are better than most of humanity. As a result, there are definite tragedies in the horror genre. (I still haven’t gotten over the ending of The Shining, which really broke my heart.)

But the dark fantasy I’ve read and enjoyed, like The Dark Elf trilogy, does have a happy ending. It may not be the ending you thought was coming. It may not be the kind where all the good people get everything they ever wanted (that includes staying alive). But it’s satisfying and leaves me happy with where the characters are.

In that sense, I would say dark fantasy has a realistic element to it, even in a fantastical setting.

And, by the way, this doesn’t mean there needs to be a lot of profanity or sex. Realism means not everything turns out the way you thought it would. Not everything broken in the course of the story gets fixed.

Contrast this to epic or heroic fantasy, where good always vanquishes evil and there’s a sense that the world has been set to rights. Lord of the Rings is a great example of that, though I’ll admit Frodo’s end makes my point debatable.

4. Dark fantasy either subverts or at least questions what’s good and what’s evil. In The Dark Elf trilogy, it’s very clear to Drizzt what’s good and what’s evil and nothing really varies from that. However, The Lords of Darkness most certainly plays with notions of good and evil, and Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels series has people worshiping The Darkness which isn’t actually dark in the typical sense. As mentioned in my review of the first book, Daughter of the Blood, it’s more like a primal beginning. Those who reject the Darkness are the ones who are horrifying in their evil. And, as a side note, Anne Bishops’ book Sebastian, has as one of its primary settings The Den of Iniquity, which turns out to be different than what it initially appears.

Epic fantasy, however, tends to make it clear from the beginning what’s good and what’s evil. The Sword of Shannara is a good example of that, as is The Eye of the World. And, of course, Lord of the Rings. A person can be tempted by evil, but the evil guy is clearly evil and someone to be defeated.

This would put The Dark Crystal more into the dark fantasy subgenre, since the Skeksies, evil as they are, are actually the evil side of another set of creatures, split off as part of their battle amongst themselves. Once they’re joined with the good Mystics, they become whole. And the lesson is that we carry dark and light within us. We cannot truly be split.

5. Dark fantasy doesn’t hold back when it comes to pain. Here’s where I definitely agree with putting The Dark Crystal in the dark fantasy camp. Dark fantasy has pain galore within its pages. Like, horrifying, I don’t know if I can watch this, make have nightmares pain. The use of the dark crystal to drain life, the casual way living creatures are eaten while still alive, the slavery of the podlings, the genocide, the abandonment of a child, and the death of one of the main characters, all of it was pain.

Pan’s Labyrinth was the same. Truly horrifying stuff and the pain so many characters go through made the ending only somewhat worth it. I really wish there had been a stronger joy to that ending because holy crap was there a lot of agony in that movie.

I think I’ve covered most of it. I’ve linked a few sites below if you want to take a closer look, but really, this is a subgenre that’s not clearly defined.

However, in looking at it, I can see that yes, it is a genre I’ve already loved. I just didn’t have a name for it until now.

What about you? Do you think I’m right or wrong? And do you love this subgenre, too? Let me know in the comments!

More About Dark Fantasy:

TV Tropes: Dark Fantasy

Discussion on Reddit of Dark Fantasy and Other Subgenres

Wikipedia: Dark Fantasy

14 Dark Fantasy Books to Read and Explore on Long, Cold Nights




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