Whither Wander You? The Long History Of Urban Fantasy


Vision 9

Whither Wander You?

The Long History Of Urban Fantasy


Lazette Gifford

Copyright © 2002, Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved

Puck --  How now, Spirit!  Whither wander you?

Fairy -- Over hill, over dale

Thorough bush, thorough brier

Over park, over pale

Thorough flood, thorough fire

I do wander everywhere...

A Midsummer-Night's Dream


William Shakespeare was far from the first writer to bring fairies and other magical beings into the contemporary world of his time.  In A Midsummer-Night's Dream, the world of magic has touched the world of men, and for this night all manner of mayhem occurs.  But when Shakespeare wrote this wonderful play, he drew on long known tales and tropes that his audience understood.

Fantasy, as a genre, deals most often with magic.  Most such tales take place in imagined kingdoms on worlds that never existed.  However, in the tales of urban fantasy the magic exists either in the world as we know it, or can be reached from our world. 

In the first type of urban fantasy, elves cross over to the mundane world of our earth, as in the Serrated Edge series, co-written by Mercedes Lackey and several others, including Holly Lisle. They live in a world that is otherwise indistinguishable from ours.  In other books they have always been part of the world, which has evolved to contain both magic and mundane.  The Harry Potter Books fall into that category.  Those might be considered alternate history fantasies.

The key point is that magic is part of our world as we know it.   It may have subtly warped our world and taken us a slight step away from reality, or it may be that we could walk through the cities in those books and never realize the difference.  

In the second type of tale we can reach the world of magic through some door or rift between the mundane and the magical realms.  A good example of these is both The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland books.

Examining the new sub-genre in this light shows that it  has been a part of storytelling since the beginning.   Nearly every emerging culture has dealt with stories where the magical world impinged on the real. Celtic tales are rife with fey folk, from the pookas in the streams to the banshees riding the winds.  Native American tribes often have tales that link the real world with the spirit world. While not urban fantasy when it is part of the religious beliefs of a people, this does point out that tales of links between what we perceive as reality and magic are not limited to fiction.

People living in medieval times and before were more apt to accept the tales as true.  They lived in a world less understood than our own, and what couldn't be explained in rational terms was often given a supernatural cause.  The fey, fairies and hobgoblins lived in the dark woods, and the tales of human encounters filled the nights before books, let alone electronic entertainment, took over the role of the storyteller.   Only gradually did those creatures take on Christian form as angels and demons.

According to Carolly Erickson, in his book The Medieval Vision: Essays in History and Perception (ISBN 0-19-501964-4), they did not view the world in quite the same way that we do:

... the medieval world view was holistic.  But this abstruse term eclipses the most striking characteristic of the medieval perception -- the extraordinary perceptual significance attributed to the visionary imagination.

This view was not limited to uneducated peasants.  The real and the magical impinged on one another at all levels.  Mythical creatures adorned the carefully illuminated pages of religious books, while the edges of maps the oceans were filled with such dire warnings as "Here abide monsters."

However, at least in Western culture, tales of magic gradually become folklore rather than accepted fact.  The story of Thomas the Rhymer is an excellent example of Medieval Urban Fantasy.  Walking through the countryside, Thomas meets a beautiful woman and begs her for a kiss.  For this she condemns him to seven years in the fairylands and away he goes with her.   In a linked tale, Tam Lin, a young woman wins him back. 

Despite the imaginary tales of people like Shakespeare, the enlightened ages of the Renaissance and Age of Exploration fashioned their own urban fantasy myths that still crept into common belief.  We find them in such tales as the ones that sent Ponce De Leon off in search of the Fountain of Youth.  The Quest for El Dorado may also be likened to an urban fantasy tale, with the belief in a city of gold, where people lived a life far removed from the world of normalcy.

For Western Civilization, it was not educational enlightenment that finally banished urban fantasy to fiction books, but rather the ruthlessness of the Industrial Age.  Magic no longer had a place in the real world. Shangri-La disappeared underneath a stack of satellite-generated maps.  Elves, fairies, pixies and even the troll beneath the bridge departed unnoticed from the real world to take their places in the pages of books.

With that change also came the new and burgeoning genre of horror, as recognized separately from the myths of earlier ages.  Horror that uses the supernatural as a base can be considered a form of urban fantasy, since the dark creatures of these stories stalk the streets of a world usually otherwise indistinguishable from those of the book's time.

And now this form has mutated yet again, and the vampires that had been solely regulated to the role of monsters are now sometimes being transformed into heroes for Dark Fantasy.  No longer confined to evil roles, they have stepped out of the shadows and helped create a new type of urban fantasy tale.

When writing urban fantasy, don't limit it to the contemporary world.  Consider the possibilities of elves with australopithecines, and vampires in the Old West -- which is a growing market in ebooks, by the way.  Consider it historical urban fantasy, and let your imagination run away with you.

Like all writing, urban fantasy is neither new nor static:  It is really the fresh ideas that we bring to storytelling that makes all the difference.