Now, I do have something very specific in mind when it comes to high fantasy, and have a list of my own. I don’t claim it to be definitive, essential, or exhaustive, but here ’tis, in no particular order. I don’t include what I call “sword and sorcery” or science fiction, and my list also includes books, television, and movies.
The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings. I’d include both the books and the Peter Jackson films. The changes between the books and the films honestly don’t bother me one whit; both are terrific and stirring in their own ways, and both work for what they are.
A Game of Thrones. I haven’t read the books yet, so I can’t rightfully include them in my list. But these are certainly epic in scope, and deal with themes of fighting evil (even if in some cases that evil is relative).
Dragonlance. Say what you will about the impact of Dragonlance on the development of D&D, the books themselves were quite decent (especially the early ones), and the quest to defeat evil was certainly epic. I found the characters very compelling, and the setting was certainly well detailed.
The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Not your typical high fantasy epic thanks to the nature of the anti-hero Thomas Covenant, but this series of books influenced my own gaming and writing for years, and still does.
The Mists of Avalon. This might well be the first book that self-consciously tried to conform to the tropes of heroic fantasy, but it’s still good for all of that.
Excalibur. This film version of the Arthur legend can drag at times, especially in the final third, but man does it have gravitas. And a score by Richard Wagner for crying out loud.
Hawk the Slayer. Yes, it’s schlocky, but the overarching theme of vengeance and the fight between good and evil place it firmly in the high fantasy category for me.
Conan the Barbarian. I place the original film in the epic fantasy category, but I wouldn’t include either the stories or the other films. Complaints of the REH purists aside, there is something utterly magnificent in the cinematography, the score, and the primal theme.
Elric. This is a toughy, as there are so many elements of Elric that could legitimately be said to be firmly within the realm of swords and sorcery. The theme here is not so much good vs. evil as it is man vs. destiny, which in its own way is just as powerful a motivation as the most pure-hearted paladin could bear.
The Winter of the World. This little-known series of books deals with a prehistoric civilization that sortakinda retells the Norse myths, but against the backdrop of an impending ice age. Really worth checking out.
The Dark Crystal. Yes, the film by Jim Henson. When you realize the film isn’t about the trials and travails of the Gelflings at all, but is really about the restoration of the UrSkeks, it takes on a whole new flavor.
Clash of the Titans. It doesn’t get more high fantasy than this. Dashing hero out to save the princess from the evil prince cursed by the Gods.
Lacunae: In preparing this list I discovered just how many foundational works of high fantasy I have never read. Shanarra, The Belgarion, The Wheel of Time, the Riftwar Saga, the Chronicles of the Necromancer, etc. Time to stock up for some summer reading, methinks.