The Origins of Urban Fantasy in the Literature of Classical Antiquity

Fantasy Adventures Originate in Ancient Mythology

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

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.

Contemporary urban fantasy literature is 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.

The Classics and modern UF often use real places

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.

Both myth and fantasy are forms of cultural transmission

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.

Place is very important in the literature

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.

Heroic deeds

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.

Protagonists in both bodies of literature are often flawed

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.

Transformation is a key image in both UF and the Classics

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.

Contemporary UF doesn't have to be set in a city

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.

The Golden Ass was the first fantasy novel ever written

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.

Gods and Goddesses played significant roles in early literature, but they were also flawed

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.

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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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What is Urban Fantasy? Monsters, Transgression, and Kicking Ass

Best Urban Fantasy Books

It All Started in the 1980s

What is Urban Fantasy? While fantastical stories set in urban environments appear in 19th century literature (think of Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula in London or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) and even as far back as antiquity (consider the adventures recounted in Apuleius’s Golden Ass), the genre which we recognize today as ‘urban fantasy’ emerged in the 1980s. It’s no exaggeration to say urban fantasy has altered the perception and meaning of the monstrous and the supernatural in contemporary culture.

While it’s true that Mary Shelley’s monster, despite his inherent corruption, is a more pathetic figure than anything else, and that certain folkloric traditions cast the creatures called ‘shifters’ – werewolves, werebears, selkies – as sympathetic characters, the monster-as-hero or heroine has its origins in the transgressive literature of urban fantasy.

Frankenstein and Dracula

A Game-Changing Genre

Some quarters of the established publishing industry and academia found it hard to take urban fantasy seriously (until they realized how much money they could make from it). But it has proved its widespread and enduring popular appeal, as its tropes and story lines have translated themselves beyond the written word, and found commercial success in multimedia gaming, television, film, and graphic novels. The genre may no longer be promoted, but it has a dedicated and voracious following.

Most of us recognize that urban fantasy has been a game changer. Like the underground, shape-shifting protagonists which populate its streets and sewers, as a genre it defies a single, absolute definition. On the surface, the question, “What is Urban Fantasy?” may seem simple. But it is actually rather complex. Urban fantasy as nothing more than ‘fantasy set in an urban environment’ unravels once you read widely in the genre. And the genre is wide indeed, ranging from works by mainstream authors such as Neil Gaiman, to obscure, independently published authors with dedicated cult followings.

Urban Fantasy Reads

This problem of definition is clear once you look for the genre in libraries, high street bookstores, and even online. No two curators quite agree on where these works should be shelved.  A sub-genre known as ‘paranormal romance’ may have a section to itself, but you will find the same books cropping up in romance, historical fiction, fantasy, horror and science-fiction sections of the store. Urban fantasy even pops up in crime. Awkward as this may be for librarians and booksellers, it’s in keeping with the rule-breaking, boundary defying, transgressive nature of the literature itself.

What is Urban Fantasy?

A Shape-shifting Paradox

The nature of urban fantasy makes it hard to be specific and delimit its primary parameters or circumscribe its conventions in a simple statement of fact. Any understanding of the urban fantasy genre must embrace alternative perspectives, diverse interpretations, and multifaceted mapping of its literary and cultural evolution.

I’d like to point out that while the indistinct boundaries and shifting topography of the urban fantasy landscape are stumbling blocks to curators and other authorities, it’s this quality of transgression, its refusal to be pigeonholed, itemized, and labelled, which fuels the engines driving its continued popular appeal, and so commercial success.

I don’t want to engage in a quest to arrive at an absolute and final definition of what urban fantasy is. But I do want to examine how we recognize it when we see it.

Urban Fantasy Books

The term was first used in the 1980s. The key identifying feature of those early works was introducing magical or folkloric elements into a fictionalized modern, often urban, setting. In the early days the protagonist was almost always human and encountered magical beings as part of an excursion into a hidden underworld or forbidden Otherworld scenario. The magical beings were not vampires, werewolves and gargoyles, but rather elves, fairies, witches and wizards.

Borderlands, edited by Terri Windling

The pioneers of urban fantasy in the 1980s such as Terri Windling (The Wood Wife), Charles deLint, Emma Bull, Mercedes Lackey, and Francesca Lia Block (Dangerous Angels & The Elementals), draw on traditional Celtic folklore, rather than 19th century Gothic tales, for inspiration. Terri Windling, as editor and writer, was and is an influential figure in the history of the genre.

Life on the Border - Terri WindlingJack the Giant Killer - Charles deLintEmma Bull Bone Dance

The Influence of Celtic Myth and Gothic Romance

But it wasn’t just a shared love of Celtic myth and folklore which characterized the work of these early urban fantasy authors. There were thematic commonalities, too. The hybridization of fantasy elements with modern urban settings served as a backdrop against which to explore, and question, the accepted boundaries between fact and fantasy, individual and society, self and other. All these early works show a common concern with issues relating to identity and the social order. In the ancient fairy mythologies, the Otherworld is a place of ever-shifting appearances and moral ambiguity. It’s perhaps no surprise that this literature should have emerged during a time of radical social and ideological change in the Western world.

While the fairy tale influence on urban fantasy is still alive and well, there’s a new trend in which the protagonists themselves are transformed into vampires, werewolves, and other supernatural beings. The plots of these more recent incarnations of the urban fantasy genre further blur the boundaries by hybridizing fantasy, historical, crime fiction, steampunk, and science-fiction elements.

More loosely, the term urban fantasy also applies to ‘weird fiction’ as exemplified by authors such as Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, and perhaps Tim Powers.

Urban fantasy by China Mieville

Fusion or Confusion?

At first glance it may be difficult to marry these two together. Some consider them to be distinct genres, having emerged with separate but convergent lines of evolution. On the one hand you have the “traditional” urban fantasy inspired by European myth and fairy tales, in which the protagonist is human and the story revolves around the relationship between the self and the other; and then you have “contemporary” urban fantasy in which the protagonist is herself a magical being – vampire, werewolf, witch, dragon, or fairy – and has to use her powers to solve a crime or mystery. In contemporary urban fantasy, the first person point of view delivers unreliable narrators who themselves may be on the wrong side of the law.

Popular Urban Fantasy Books

But it’s likely that those writing contemporary urban fantasy were avid readers of traditional urban fantasy. That’s my case. And as a reader, I can see what binds these two strands together in a single thread despite their differences. They’re both hybrid forms, using the incursion of fantastical elements into a contemporary environment to explore, question, and challenge traditional boundaries of identity, morality, social roles, beliefs, and responsibilities.

Themes of Ethics and Identity

In traditional urban fantasy, ethics and identity become ambiguous as the human protagonist confronts the fluctuating, ephemeral world of fairy. Contemporary urban fantasy challenges traditional notions of good and evil, self and other, normality and monstrosity, with increasingly humanized monsters, and the choices protagonists must make have no clear moral context. The urban fantasy of the 1980s expressed the values of the mythic arts movement and carried forward an ancient tradition to a modern readership. But contemporary urban fantasy has turned tradition on its head and created something altogether new. Compare the 19th century vision of the vampire as all-that-is-evil flinching from the sign of the cross, and the modern sympathetic vampire heroes of the Twilight saga.

Twilight Saga

Rise of the Kick-Ass Heroine

By the 1990s contemporary urban fantasy had taken a firm hold and also offered something new to the genre.  Two exemplary contributions to the new trend were the Anita Blake novels by Laurel K. Hamilton and Joss Whedon’s TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In their worlds it’s possible for vampires to become ‘good’ by abstaining from giving in to their base desires. Buffy can engage in a romantic and sexual relationship with Angel because he’s rediscovered his soul and refrains from feeding on human blood. Likewise, Anita has misgivings about her attraction to vampires. In both cases we see the beginnings of a new convention: a ‘kick ass’ heroine wearing third wave feminist identity tags, and reversing the traditional victim role of ‘the girl’ in the horror story. What is urban fantasy without her?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

One feminist reading of these new protagonists and their ambivalent relationship to the monsters they encounter suggests they experience a natural affinity with the ‘monstrous other’ because they’re themselves side-lined and dehumanized in a patriarchal culture.

We’re All Monsters Now

In the 2000s the female protagonist telling her own story in the first person point of view is the dominant trend. Two further important shifts have occurred in this new millenium. The early heroines were humans fighting monsters, even if they were attracted to the monstrous other with which they found themselves in conflict. The most recent heroines are themselves supernatural or monstrous. Anita Blake, the protagonist of the long-running series, is infected with the lycanthropy virus and possessed by a sexually voracious demonic entity.  Sooki Stackhouse, Charlene Harris’s heroine in The Southern Vampire Mysteries, discovers she’s of fairy lineage. Over the last five years urban fantasy in which the female protagonist has never been human at all has proliferated.

Southern Vampire Mysteries Urban Fantasy

The other important shift has taken place in the worlds inhabited by our protagonists. In traditional urban fantasy and early contemporary urban fantasy, supernatural and magical beings encountered by the protagonists lived their lives in secret, parallel, underground worlds hidden within or alongside the modern world. Magical beings were outsiders. They lived in the margins, or as Windling might say, the ‘Borderlands.’

It’s common these days to find fictionalized contemporary worlds in which magical beings of any and every description live alongside one another, and more or less integrated into human society. These are worlds in which the supernatural and magical have become as commonplace as the human and the technological. The challenges these heroines face are more personal, more nuanced, and more ethically complex than those of the hero-who-does-good paradigms of the past.

New urban Fantasy

It’s perhaps no surprise that the ever-shifting parameters of culture, law, and behavior experienced in these vast supernatural multi-cultures reflect the anxieties and challenges of our globalized world. They require us to confront and challenge our assumptions about who belongs and does not belong, and who is authorized to condone or condemn any system of values or beliefs.

So what is Urban Fantasy?

The term represents a constellation of differently nuanced works which have evolved from the early 1980s, and continue to evolve into the present day. The juxtaposition of the fantastical and the magical with the urban and the commonplace is a key characteristic of the genre. It’s also identifiable by its transgressive nature, holding up a mirror to the social and cultural anxieties of the times, while questioning accepted boundaries between self and other, right and wrong, good and bad, the normal and the monstrous. It’s this transgressive, destabilizing thematic construct which unites the disparate manifestations of urban fantasy which we’ve seen so far.

If these are concerns which we’re likely to continue to confront over the next century or so, it’s reasonable to assume the urban fantasy genre, however it may adapt and evolve in response to social and cultural changes, is here to stay.

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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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Dragon Moon. Lia Stone - Demon Hunter.Dragon Moon, episode one of my Lia Stone – Demon Hunter series, is here: Amazon UK   Amazon US  Amazon CA  Amazon AU  Amazon DE  Amazon FR

If you have any questions or comments, I’ll be more than happy to help if I can, or just connect and share experiences, thoughts, feelings and ideas.

Leave a comment and share this post on your social media if you’ve found this interesting. That is absolutely the loveliest way to say thank you to a blogger!

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Image credits: all book cover images are copyright of their respective owners and are used here in full compliance with the Fair Use Agreement of international copyright law (2016). All other images belong to Austin Hackney or are in the Public Domain and licensed by the Creative Commons.

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