Epic Fantasy vs. High Fantasy
High fantasy, epic fantasy, same thing. The terms are used interchangeably to mean knights, castles, wars, and worlds that generally and invariably resemble Medieval Europe. They’re not as synonymous as is commonly believed, though they can frequently overlap.
The “epic” in “epic fantasy” comes from the Latin epicus, which comes from the Ancient Greet adjective epikos, meaning “word, story, poem.” It’s the same capital-E-epic you see in “Epic poetry” like the Epic of Gilgamest, the Illiad and the Odyssey, Beowulf, and so on. Whole books have been written on the narrative and formatic structure of epic poetry, but know this: epic poems are usually 1) long narrative poems about serious or traditional subjects that are 2) written in an “elevated style.” But what’s epic fantasy? The biggest difference between epic fantasy and high fantasy is scope.
Epic fantasies are monstrous, complex beasts of creations. The worldbuilding is comprehensive and large scale, spanning entire continents, sometimes worlds, the cast of characters is long intricate, and POV often switches between these characters because it’s almost impossible to write an epic fantasy without having concurrent storylines, and stakes are usually high for the whole world, not just the named characters (world destruction, etc.). Epic fantasies can span centuries, cover entire worlds, have maps, languages, appendixes, whole trilogies…you get it. Epic fantasies are, well, epic.
High fantasy is easier to understand but harder to define. High fantasy is exactly what you think it is. It takes place in a secondary world, and while there’s no rule that it has to be Medieval, it usually is. High fantasy = secondary world + other recognizable characteristics. These characteristics are too numerous to name, but when you hear about them, you think fantasy. Magic, dragons, orcs, evil wizards, elves, etc.
Some of the most popular fantasy is both high fantasy and epic fantasy. Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, for example, are obviously both. But not all high fantasy is epic fantasy, and not all epic fantasy is high fantasy. You can have small-scale high fantasy: it takes place in a secondary world, there are dragons, castles, magic, all those other things, but the stakes are small-scale and localized, there’s only one point of view hero, the story can be told in under 100k words. You can also have epic fantasy that isn’t high fantasy. This is less common, but it usually means breaking out of the “Medieval Europe” box and exploring large-scale conflicts in worlds that don’t bear all the traditional trappings of high fantasy.