One of the most popular forms of fantasy fiction takes its basic formula from ancient epic storytelling, which combined legend and history to produce a tale that educates, entertains and enthralls. Epic Fantasy is inherently tied into the quest to solve a a world-affecting problem (a dark lord, an evil wizard, a magical device that's going to destroy everything, a world-ending/shaking event that must be somehow avoided).
Where would such a story be without a quest? Pretty much stuck in one place with no device to explore the fantasy world. This is why a journey to find or do some crucial thing is de rigueur in this sub-genre.
Many refer to high and epic fantasy as one in the same, but we feel that there is in fact a bit of a distinction between "High Fantasy" and "Epic Fantasy" though they can and are used interchangeably by some (so be aware of this).
Perhaps the best example of High Fantasy we could give would be Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind which is through and through high fantasy (the focus is on the change in the protagonist as he moves through the world) while the quintessential epic fantasy work would be Tolkien or Jordan's Wheel of Time.
*focus is on the scale of the conflict
*a large cast of characters
*magic a key part of plot/story/character abilities
*often takes place in medieval times
*features a good vs evil story (usually, but can be shades of gray in modern epic fantasy)
*relies on many sub plots help advance the story
*books are very long (120k + words)
*more about the setting NOT the scale
*more about the choices the characters make and the changes on the characters than the events of world
*can take place in medieval or modern time periods
*situations presented sometimes as shades of gray not just black and white
*characters can choose what's right
*characters might be morally ambiguous
Epic fantasy is more about the scale of the conflict and the affects on the greater world at large while High Fantasy is more about the setting (the time period, the way the world works, the way the characters interact with a focus on the more persona change within the character/s rather than the global conflict at large)
Epic Fantasy is long-winded and ancient and epic and a pretty big part of the larger Fantasy genre...so just watch Shrek, which parodies most of the sub-genre's tropes (also fairy tale tropes, but that's for another time).
Epic Fantasy has undergone changes since it was made popular (by Tolkien, though Epic Fantasy could be traced back even further to some of ancient epics like Beowulf and The Gilgamesh). Today's modern epic fantasy is a bit of a different beast than it was 50 years ago. The focus is more on complex characters that are morally ambiguous and situations that cannot exactly be cast as entirely black and white. The villains, even, have undergone a change. No longer are they inanimate objects of evil, but often very human, very complex characters with real motivations to their supposed evil. The bottom line: epic fantasy has gotten more complex and realistic.
Epic Fantasy books are without a doubt the most popular kind of fantasy you’ll find on the bookstore shelves today. This was made so because of Tolkien's work which has always been popular (made even more popular by Jackson's movies). Other authors such as Brooks and Jordan further helped cement the success and overarching popularity of the epic fantasy genre. The genre has only gone more mainstream with Martin's works finding huge critical and commercial success as HBO's TV series.
High. Most epic fantasy tales reek with magic. The heroes or hero posses key magical abilities allowing them to challenge the villain who also likely posses access to immense magical powers (which allow him/her to threaten the world at large on a global or epic scale)
Moderate. Epic fantasy tends to lack diversity and focus on some (now) common conceits in the genre. The village farm-boy, the dark lord villain, a band of heroes, a grandfatherly wizard figure / mentor to the hero, the noble princess who joins the band in secret, etc.
Moderate to High. Many characters means that most must be fairly one-dimensional. But the hero is a forceful and dynamic figure who powers through the most frightful obstacles (with a little help from his friends). However, this depends on the series written and WHEN it was written. Modern epic fantasy tends to emphasis characterization while classic epic fantasy tended to feature simplistic two dimensional characters and focus more on the conflict than the character.
Taken as a whole, the plot is all about attainment of the quest goal. But the number of characters and their attendant subplots can make this seem busier than it really is.
High. Violence is a part of the action of Quest stories.
High Fantasy. High and Epic tales of the Fantasy genre almost always include quest. Many use High and Epic fantasy interchangeably, though there are some differences between the two. One can include the other.
Quest Fantasy. Epic Fantasy almost always features some quest goal.
Coming of Age Fantasy. Many epic fantasy tales (but not always) might feature the coming of age tale of a young man. Wheel of Time for example, A Game of Thrones, A Sword of Shannara, etc.
Sword and Sorcery. Crossing Sword and Sorcery with Epic Fantasy makes for an action-packed quest.
Heroic Fantasy. The hero or heroes, of Heroic Fantasy often embark on a quest.
Mythic Fantasy and Legend Retelling Fantasy. Mythology, folklore, and legends are filled with quests. In these tales the quest is as much a plot device as it is a symbol.
By Robert Jordan. One of the most definitive versions of classic epic fantasy -- especially the Fat Fantasy version of it.
By Terry Goodkind. The first book in the Sword of Truth series introduces a classic Epic Fantasy story with an unlikely hero fighting against evil.
By J.R.R Tolkien. The founding of modern epic fantasy.
By David Eddings. "old skool" epic fantasy
By Terry Brooks. A remake of Lord of the Rings.
By Stephen R. Donaldson. Epic Fantasy that's also very High Fantasy. Features an antihero hero.
By Joe Abercrombie. Modern take on epic fantasy.
By Tad Williams. Epic fantasy with attention to characters and details.
By Steven Erikson. A MASSIVE epic fantasy with a massive cast of characters. One of the most popular epic fantasy series out there and quite a bit different than the standard epic fantasy fare.