The Ancient Origins of Urban Fantasy
I wonder how many readers of Urban Fantasy fiction, or any fantasy literature, know how ancient its origins are?
In a previous post I suggested the genre began in the 1980s – nurtured by the writer and editor Terri Windling and inspired by Celtic folklore. While Windling’s contribution to the mythic arts movement and the contemporary fantasy field is considerable, her work is only a recent expression of an older and broader tradition of fantastical storytelling. The tradition I’m referring to goes back beyond the works of Ursula Le Guin, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, and Angela Carter. It goes back even beyond J.R.R. Tolkien, Lord Dunsany, Abraham Merritt, William Morris, and George Macdonald.
The structures of occidental fantasy stories – and the heroes, warriors, monsters, wizards, and fairies which populate them – come from Greek epics dating back as early as 1200 BC. Anglo-Saxon influences, co-opted into modern literature by Tolkien, began around 600 AD with the epic poem, Beowulf. The Romantics didn’t introduce Celtic fairy lore into literature until the 19th century.
Western literature began in Ancient Greece, and Classical writing deals in the fantastical. Its matter draws on the mythological traditions.
Before rational philosophy and the embryonic science of Aristotle, Democritus, and Hippocrates, the boundaries between the real and the unreal, the tangible and the imaginary, were fluid. Mythological thinking, a visceral and poetic response to the struggles of existence, was the only intellectual currency.
The mythopoeia of Classical writers and modern fantasy authors alike is part of a single, continuous tradition of storytelling. Contemporary fantasy literature is nothing less than modern mythography.
Mythology Became Literature in Classical Times
How far transformation of mythology into literature challenged the religious beliefs of the ancients is hard to gauge, but the rise of rational philosophy and proto-scientific methods followed afterward. While faith may have faltered, the psycho-emotional functionality of myth carried forward into mythopoeic literature. The same psychological potency exists in contemporary fantasy even though few people still believe in wizards, ghosts, fairies, and demons.
Myth has matured into literature, and philosophy into science. But the human need to define ‘self’ in relation to ‘the other,’ and the quest for significance in the face of a universe as absurd as it is beautiful, hasn’t changed.
Fantasy is Modern Mythology
The collective cultural and social functions of myth may not survive in modern times, but myth as a personal journey into the symbolic realms of the psyche is alive and well. It still answers the need to dig into the deep archaeology of the soul; still entices us to leave everyday reality behind and ride into the dark forest, or fly beyond the horizon, or open the forbidden gate, questing for the Holy Grail of meaning. It’s just that these days, we call it fantasy.
In the Medieval and Renaissance periods, with notable exceptions in the Arthurian Cycle, heroic figures were romanticized as symbolic emblems of all virtue. They were flawless doers-of-good-deeds. The protagonists of contemporary Urban Fantasy have more in common with the earlier Homeric figures, both human and divine, who struggled not only against Fate, but wrestled with their personal flaws and failings to achieve heroism.
While the heroes of Medieval Romance and modern High Fantasy alike inhabit imaginary worlds, the protagonists of Urban Fantasy and Classical literature all work out their fates in more-or-less real geographies. Gaiman’s London Underground and the Ithaca of Homer’s Ulysses are both elaborated versions of real-world places. Camelot, the Forest of Brocéliande, and the Lost City of Lyonnesse never existed at all.
The worlds of Urban Fantasy share the intimate fusion of the mundane and the supernatural, a hallmark of the world of The Odyssey and Apuleius, in which supernatural entities co-exist and interact with humans.
The Supernatural Element is Essential
Most of the heroines of recent Urban Fantasies are not always heroic because they have well-developed personal qualities, but because they have an intimate relationship with the supernatural. Many of them were never human at all. If we think of the Iliad, the hero Achilles was himself a demigod and in the Odyssey, Poseidon describes Odysseus as being ‘godlike.’ No mere mortal. But while their nature may be supernatural, the struggles of Achilles and Odysseus are more akin to those of mortal human beings.
In the same way, while a contemporary heroine may be a vampire, werewolf, a fairy, or born of dragons, her conflicts and ambitions are more akin to those of her human contemporaries than her supernatural ancestors. Her supernatural powers do not grant her easy or automatic success in the human realm. As with the heroic figures of Classical literature, so Urban Fantasy furnishes us with heroines whose powers we can envy and admire and with whose human flaws and emotions we can empathize.
Flawed Protagonists Struggling Against Fate
Another aspect of the contemporary genre which seems to owe its origins to the Classics is the theme of inner struggle and transformation. The concept of change through conflict lies at the heart of all literature. But in Urban Fantasy stories, as in the heroic tales of ancient times, it is especially overt. Corporeal transformations, as exemplified in werewolf, werebear, selkie, and dragon-born protagonists, are powerful symbolic tropes in contemporary works.
But the transformation is always meaningful. It signifies something deeper about the relationship of the self with the other, of the uniqueness or difference experienced by the protagonists, of the ambiguity in the borderlands between the natural and supernatural, the human and the monstrous. Deeper again, physical transformation is often an outward manifestation of an inner, spiritual quest.
Both the literature of classical times and the contemporary literature of Urban Fantasy, while steeped in mythology, dreamlike imagination, and supernaturalism, have at their heart very human themes.
Consider Virgil’s Aeneid. In one aspect Aeneas’s quest to found the city of Rome as decreed by the gods, is a typical story of Homeric heroism. But Aeneas is no invincible superhero. He achieves his destiny through a series of defeats and victories, knowing dispossession and losing loved ones. He comments on the brutality and wastefulness of war. Virgil’s hero is not the same man at the end of the poem as he was at the start. He undergoes personal change because of the conflict he experiences.
The most popular and enduring works of Urban Fantasy may not involve epic geographical quests or founding new cities, but they explore similar themes of personal change.
In Lucius Apuleius’s Golden Ass we have arguably the earliest fantasy novel ever written. The story is told by a first person, unreliable narrator. That has become an almost universal device in contemporary Urban Fantasy. Tempted by a witch, Lucius transforms into a donkey and undergoes many extraordinary and sometimes funny supernatural adventures until the grace of the goddess Isis transforms him back into a man. It remains one of my favorite books and reads as easily as any modern work. A fantasy tale rich in folly, it also examines human transformation and redemption.
Shape-shifters and Transformation
Our modern heroines are often, as we have already noted, shape-shifters. The experience of shifting from human to nonhuman form as a subjective reality is at the heart of much Urban Fantasy literature. It places great emphasis on the personal meaning that the ability to shape-shift holds for the protagonist and detailed descriptions of how the change feels for her. I can’t help but think of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the beautiful descriptions of transformation into trees or birds or even fire, are extraordinary for their introspection.
I would hesitate to suggest that most writers of contemporary Urban Fantasy know of the antiquity of the tradition within which they work, or the literary lineage from which they have sprung. But some must be cognizant of the link between the contemporary literature and the Classics. Whether undertaken consciously or unconsciously, the commonalities between the two are testimony to the endurance and universality of this storytelling tradition.
I don’t doubt that as I return to the Classics and find them as rewarding and fresh as ever, so might Ovid, Homer, and certainly Apuleius, have enjoyed reading the best contemporary Urban Fantasy. They would have understood it and recognized its tropes as their own.
If you’ve enjoyed this post or if you haven’t, I would love to hear your insights, experiences, thoughts, critiques, or reflections in the comments.
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