In the world of writing and reading there are genres and sub-genres. Some (though possibly not all) of those genres are: romance, literary, horror, fantasy, science fiction, thriller, mystery, mainstream, slipstream (or cross-genre),western (though mostly defunct these days) and a host of others. There are many sub-genres and some people will debate that they are genres in their own right. It gets confusing and there is a grey line between some.
For the world of fantasy, some of the sub-genres are: dark fantasy, magic realism, mythological, sword & sorcery, high or medieval fantasy, heroic fantasy, epic fantasy, urban fantasy, etc. Your mileage may vary. First fantasy is a story written in a world or time that is not now or historical. However, it also has a fantastical element, something that is more than the world we know. It could be magical creatures (vampires, fairies, hobbits, unicorns) or it could be a form of magic or a system/organism that works differently. Angels, people who can disappear at will, who move faster than normal, who must eat rocks, who can transform themselves or others, sentient planets, mystical vessel, curses and blessing, gods, carnivorous trees, firebreathers, aquatic being, winged creatures, etc. All these are fantasy. But fantasy can also be a bit less than this. It can be the world of today but there are ghosts and that’s it. I’ll briefly define the sub-genres.
- Dark Fantasy–this could really be any of the above elements but with a darker mien than the regular tropes. In other words it has a horrific or tragic element. Now many of the fantasy novels being published could also be labeled dark fantasy, and really dark fantasy is the new label for horror. Horror fell out of favor with mainstream publishers years ago and it was better to label something fantasy or thriller. So dark fantasy will deal with the shadow side of the world and its characters far more. Beings might be abused and die and inevitably there will be dark forces that can prevail. Lord of the Rings could be dark fantasy but is usually just labeled fantasy. It falls in a number of categories. The Princess Bride would be fantasy or humorous fantasy if you need to define it more.
- Magic Realism–often this is Latin American writing, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s works, but many other people write it as well. It is surreal and very much in the modern world that you and I live in. There may be no sense of wonder because the one aberrant thing is either hidden to most people or possibly known by everyone but taken as commonplace and their part of the world. It could be a woman having a conversation with an angel or one that I read, about a boy born a centaur who goes through his life trying to have a surgery to correct this condition. Magic realism will have a heavy focus on the human condition.
- Mythological–this may take place in the historic past, the present or the future. It could involve gods or other mythological beings. It could be based on a creation or destruction myth. Basically all those ancient tales of gods are the first fantasy, except that the people of the time believe them and they were the religion. But the story of Gilgamesh and other adventure tales were pretty much your first fantasy stories.
- Sword & Sorcery–pretty self-explanatory. Usually set in pre-industrial times or on other worlds, often medieval but could be Renaissance, Hun, Pictish or a hundred other times and place. S&S involved magic and fighters, and yes Lord of the Rings is sword and sorcery as well.
- High or Medieval Fantasy–these will involve grand adventures and epic scale battles or fighting the forces of good and evil. High fantasy isn’t always medieval but it is often enough, Katherine Kurtz’s books are an example of medieval fantasy. It’s your basic feudal systems, rulers, battles and perhaps a few wizards and dragons thrown in though what these creatures or their abilities will truly be will differ. Yes, Lord of the Rings fits in here too.
- Heroic & Epic Fantasy–I’m lumping these two together though they could be defined as slightly different, where the first could be about a solitary hero and the second would possibly cover years and countries and a group. But that’s not necessarily true. These two will have heroes, those who sacrifice themselves or their way of life for a greater good, who will battle against great odds and their actions will change much of the world as they know while changing themselves as well. Again Lord of the Rings is also heroic and epic. Robert Jordan and Terry Brooks write this style of fantasy.
- Urban Fantasy–takes place in our modern world or one similar but could have bike riding elves, troll waitresses, fairies selling drugs or whatever. The example I gave is kind of cliché now but it all depends on the story and how it’s written. It can also involve someone who sees creatures feeding on the souls of others, or a particular breed of magical being living in Hawaii. But mostly urban fantasy is…urban.
These definitions are by no means complete or absolute. Others will interpret the sub-genres of fantasy differently. Some will count alternate histories and steampunk under fantasy and it may well have fantastical elements as well as historical and scientific. Hence why we have grey boundaries to the genres. I worked in a bookstore for years specializing in the speculative genre and I still couldn’t keep them straight.