I thought I’d try something a little different with this post. Instead of looking at a specific fantasy theme, author or book, I wanted to take a look at three books, each written in a very different era but all nevertheless having a great deal in common. Robert Holdstock’s World Fantasy Award-winning Lavondyss can be read as a stand-alone novel as well as forming part of the Mythago sequence. A product of the drab, materialistic eighties, much of Lavondyss is set in a much earlier, but still recognisable age – rural England in the forties and fifties. With much of the action centering on deep woods and wild, hidden places it almost seeks to re-establish a disappearing link between the modern era and a more innocent age that has virtually been lost beyond the possibility of recall. Jan Siegel’s Prospero’s Children appeared a decade later, at the end of the nineties, and in common with much of the fantasy fiction from that time it brims over with epic, apocalyptic themes, perhaps reflecting the uncertainty surrounding the rapidly approaching end of the millennium. The setting, however, is solidly small scale: a house in the wilds of Yorkshire that straddles more than one world. This house becomes the focus in a struggle between the ancient forces of good and evil and a young witch girl’s coming of age. Freda Warrington’s Elfland is a 21st century novel, filled with modern characters with current concerns, yet whose lives are touched by the irresistible lure of the twilight realm of Faerie. Somehow, despite the fact that a gap of over twenty years separates Lavondyss from Elfland, both novels – together with Prospero’s Children – can be seem as forming part of the same tradition. Located on the elusive boundary between mythic fiction and urban fantasy, Holdstock, Siegel and Warrington’s work also represents the very best in a peculiarly British approach to fantasy. Let’s take a closer look at their books.
The Trickster is an unpredictable and irrepressible figure found in stories all over the world. A paradox, the Trickster can be both heroic and villainous, funny yet dark, and wily but vain. Sometimes called the Lord of Misrule, the Trickster is a crosser of boundaries, a violator of rules and an agent of change. The Trickster can be male or female, human or animal, mortal or god – Coyote, Anansi, Brer Rabbit, Pan, Hanuman, and Loki are all characters who demonstrate that such figures are staples of mythology. The Trickster lives in between realities, bound by his own code of ethics but indifferent to outside laws. He riddles, tricks and slips through cracks. He feels compelled to subvert the old order to craft new possibilities – after all, for every rule, there is someone who cannot abide it. Many may despise the Trickster, for he is an outlaw to some, but others desire him, for he still possesses a rebel charm and the romance of the damned. However, as the old tales show, you underestimate this seemingly loveable rogue at your peril. The Lord of Misrule can be dark and deadly to encounter and even the most gentle brush with him is likely to leave your life turned upside down. Alan Garner once memorably described the Trickster in the following terms ‘the advocate of uncertainty… a boundary for chaos… the shadow that shapes the light’. This provides as good a definition as any of the elusive, enigmatic anti-hero that is a recurring motif in almost every nation’s myths, legends and fairy tales.
Exactly what is it that allows the fairy tale, a story archetype that by all rights should have disappeared with powdered wigs and petticoats, to survive, and even thrive, in the new millenium? Perhaps it’s because they concern important lessons – warnings, morals, aspects of the unknowable, ancient folk wisdom – or maybe it’s just for their pure entertainment value. Whatever the reason, fairy tales, in one form or another, are still enjoyed today. Whether it’s classics collected by the Brothers Grimm, Andrew Lang and Charles Perrault, or new tales, such as Charles de Lint’s Newford stories or Neil Gaiman’s tales of American Gods; fairy tales, stories of fantasy, myth and legend, are still creating wonder and magic for people around the world. Perhaps this is why they survive, because no matter when or where a fairy tale is first told, they embody universal images and truths that, over the centuries, have passed beyond time or place, and become one with the vast tapestry of human consciousness. But naturally, as times change, the stories people tell also change. Cities give rise to their own types of stories – the urban legends that make the rounds from time to time, stories that utilize elements of the old ways, but with a metropolitan spin on them that just didn’t exist until the modern city was created.
Charles de Lint’s urban fantasies, including Moonheart, Greenmantle and Yarrow, have earned him a devoted following and critical acclaim as a master of contemporary mythic fiction. At the heart of his work is the ongoing Newford series. Familiar to De Lint’s readers as the setting of the novels Memory and Dream, Someplace to be Flying and The Onion Girl, among others, Newford is the quintessential North American city, tough and streetwise on the surface and rich with hidden magic for those who can see. The fictional city of Newford could be any contemporary North American city… except that magic lurks in its music, in its art and in the shadows of its grittiest streets, where mythical beings walk in disguise. Newford is populated by a regular cast of characters not too different from you or I, each looking for a bit of magic to shape their lives and transform their fates. There is Jilly Coppercorn, painting wonders in the rough city streets; Geordie Riddell, playing the fiddle while he dreams of ghosts; Angel gathering the waifs, strays, poor and lost to her homeless shelter; Holly Rue and her antique book store complete with hobs and brownies and a dozen others. Their lives intertwine with the fey beings with whom they share Newford – gemmins who live in abandoned cars, mermaids who swim in the grey harbour waters; desert spirits who crowd the night; crow girls; wolf men; vengeful ghosts and many more. I challenge anyone who has read any of the Newford books or short stories not to fall under De Lint’s unique spell.
Terri Windling is an author and editor whom I hold in the very highest regard for her contribution to the fantasy field. Although she is a writer of some note (having won the Mythopoeic Award for her haunting novel The Wood Wife), she is also the editor of over thirty anthologies of speculative fiction and in this role she has done more than almost anyone else to keep the genre of the fantasy short story alive. In her capacity as a writer, she was one of the founders of the urban fantasy genre alongside her great friend Charles De Lint in the 1980s and, as an editor, was a major contributer to the late 20th century resurgence in interest in mythic fiction and fairy tales, often with another of her good friends Ellen Datlow. She has been justly rewarded for her work as an anthologist, winning an impressive haul of 9 World Fantasy Awards and the Bram Stoker Award. Beyond awards though, what distinguishes Windling’s anthologies, in particular the now semi-legendary Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, was the fact that they reached out beyond the boundaries of genre fantasy to a mainstream audience by virtue of the variety and sheer quality of the short stories which they included. Now sadly defunct, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, which Windling left before the end of its run (resulting, in my view, in a marked drop in the quality of stories which the anthology featured) was a showcase for urban fantasy, gothic punk, magic realism, surrealism, postmodernism, poetry and other forms of magical literature. It is a testament to the quality of this and the other anthologies in which Windling was involved that the writers featured therein went on to have massively successful careers, including Jane Yolen, Charles De Lint, Neil Gaiman, James P Blaylock, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Poppy Z Brite, Kristine Kathryn Rusch and a multitude of others.