This is an exceptionally difficult term to define – and even more so to define without pejorative implications. GF is almost always High Fantasy, Heroic Fantasy or Sword and Sorcery, and its main distinguishing characteristic is that, on being confronted by an unread GF book, one recognizes it; one has been here before, and the territory into which the book takes one is familiar – it is Fantasyland. The characters, too, are likely to be familiar: Hidden Monarchs, Ugly Ducklings, Dwarfs, Elves, Dragons ... In short, GF is not at heart fantasy at all, but a comforting revisitation of cosy venues, creating an effect that is almost anti-fantasy. An allied point is that GFs cater in large part for unimaginative readers who, through the reading of a GF, can feel themselves to be, as it were, vicariously imaginative. This goes exactly counter to the purpose of the full fantasy, which is to release or even to catapult the reader into new areas of the imagination.
All this might seem to suggest that GF is universally imitative dross, but this is not the case: while much is indeed formulaic stuff emitted by publishers to fulfil their monthly quotas and bought by readers who seek reassuring works with which they can in effect hold a phatic discourse (or just while away a long train journey) – here there be no tygers – various authors have used the mode knowledgeably to produce works that are of undoubted interest.
The hallmark of GF is that it is set in a Secondary World (in the broadest sense of the term). In less imaginative works this is just a granted – a Fantasyland derivative of J R R Tolkien's Middle-Earth. But it can more interestingly be an Alternate Reality or Alternate World, accessible from this one via some kind of Portal or shift in Perception. Alternatively, it can be in the distant past (> Prehistoric Fantasy); in an outstandingly interesting piece of GF Julian May creates in her Saga of the Exiles series a prehistoric Fantasyland that is accessible only through the use of a future technology, that future being not recognizably our own. The future itself is a useful place to put one's secondary world, providing a locale where, typically, Magic works or misunderstood science is so sophisticated that it doubles for magic; an example is John Christopher's Prince in Waiting trilogy. Millennia further into the future, the secondary world may be another planet – which is the province of Science Fantasy – or it may be our own, but now vastly changed (> Dying Earth). Other possible locales include Arthurian Britain, Lands of Fable, Gameworlds and the interior of the Hollow Earth.
The constraints of GF can bring out the best in some authors. Tad Williams, in his Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, mixes traditional themes, many drawn from Folktales, to create a story that, while set in a Fantasyland, is able nevertheless to present a philosophical argument. The early novels of Colin Greenland – notably Other Voices (1988) – used the conventions of GF and Fantasyland to make ironic points about our mundane existence. Terry Pratchett's Discworld series plunders GF and its conventions for purposes of Parody and often something more: Small Gods (1992), for example, is a blistering Satire on Religion. Richard Monaco's Parsival, or A Knight's Tale (1977) exuberantly exploits the Arthurian Fantasyland to produce a vicious Revisionist Fantasy.
The depressing truth, however, is that GF is by and large poor and that a very great deal of it is published – to the detriment of full fantasy, which is often presented in an indistinguishable format. Quite how much commercial damage publishers are doing to the fantasy genre as a whole through this short-termism is hard to establish – and likely will be for some years – but there is considerable anecdotal evidence to suggest the wound is deep. [JG]