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.
Our modern impression of a fairy tale comes from stories set down hundreds of years ago. We still associate fairy tales with archaic settings, but that’s just because we’ve been brought up with those impressions. Faerie is timeless and spaceless, a funhouse mirror of our mortal world. The classic fairy tales deal in kings and courts because that’s the world those storytellers knew. During the Dark and Middle Ages, families often lived by themselves, or clustered together in small villages for protection. In today’s society, the world has become urbanized, with its own attendant joys and terrors. As our world has changed, so has the nature of Faerie – it’s still rooted in the old world, true, but it’s not frozen in time. At first glance, this world of ours doesn’t seem like a fairy tale setting. I mean, we have SUV’s, genetic engineering, laptops, cellphones, tablet computers and… well, you get the picture. But fairy tales can take place anywhere: in a park, in an office building, on a ranch in North Dakota – you don’t need to be standing in front of Sleeping Beauty’s castle to experience the otherworld.
Though fairy tales traditionally take place in rural groves and ancient kingdoms, their power has been passed down in urban legends, those odd my-brother-saids of the media age. The folklore of the modern era is partly in those rumours, legends and drunk confessions that begin with ‘You didn’t hear me say this but…’. You can find them in local histories, children’s tales, or bars near closing time; in half-heard rumours or tabloid newsclips; in family secrets or crime-scene blotters; in newspaper morgues and library archives. You might hear them on the lips of friends or in the ramblings of that madman in the corner. They’re everywhere when you pay attention – each place has its very own home-brewed mythology. These tales might not always be accurate, but they are there. Stranger still, some stories seem to come true because so many people believe in them before they happen – rains of frogs, man-eating trees, holes in time, and so forth. It’s almost as if Nature herself spawns sequels to urban law with these self-fulfilling prophecies – if you think it can happen, maybe it should happen… and then, of course, it does happen!
The power of fairy tales has also been passed down to the present day in the ever-growing genre of urban fantasy, which describes any work that is set primarily in a city – past, present or future – and contains aspects of fantasy. The genre was popularized in the seventies and eighties by writers like Charles de Lint, James P Blaylock, Terri Windling and John Crowley, who gave urban fantasy (also sometimes called mythic fiction) its distinctive quality of falling somewhere between classical fantasy literature and mainstream fiction with a magical realist twist. Typically, most urban fantasy novels shied away from Tolkienesque high fantasy or Conan-style heroic fantasy, instead giving greater precedence to humour, romance and the magic of the everyday. For this reason urban fantasy novels tend to appeal to a different, though not necessarily wider, audience than other fantasy sub-genres. They are also distinctive for more often than not featuring female protagonists and existing on the thin dividing line between horror and fantasy. More recent examples of urban fantasy novels which demonstrate this changing focus are the Anita Blake stories of Laurell K Hamilton, Kelley Armstrong’s The Darkest Powers series, C Murphy’s Urban Shaman, and the novels of Holly Black. In my view, however, if you’re just starting out with this genre the best introduction to it are the classics which, for my money, have never been surpassed: James P Blaylock’s Land of Dreams, John Crowley’s Little, Big, Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, Terri Windling’s The Wood Wife and, of course, the book that started it all for me, Charles de Lint’s Moonheart. The influence of the old tales is everywhere if you know where to look for it.