Urban Faerie

23 Feb

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.

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11 Responses to “Urban Faerie”

  1. lapiskamay February 23, 2012 at 8:01 am #

    why do faeries have to be so lovely and enchanting. there’s really something about them that fascinates men even thought they were told as legends. and yet in many civilization they are cherished. Even in the Philippines we call them ‘Diwata’ protecting the realm of the forest.

  2. Tharcion February 23, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

    Fairies and fairy tales, two very different things.

    So, I write urban fantasy. I’ve actually written a short story where an incubus tells his half-human daughter a “demon fairy tale.” It’s Red Riding Hood by another name, and twisted by the fact that Tef (Red) is a succubus. Beyond that, however, I’m not sure I buy linking urband fantasy with fairy tales. Perhaps the horror element; when it comes down to it, a lot of fairy tales are horror stories. Old school ones. There’s a nasty person, and they do something nasty, and eventually they get what’s coming to them. That’s the basic premise of a horror story (until we get into the bleak school of horror where the good guy doesn’t get to walk away at the end).

    You’re right about the female protagonist. I started out with a male protagonist and ended up rewriting him. It didn’t feel right. But I don’t think I can see a particular connection between urban fantasy and fairy tales. No more than fantasy in general and fairy tales anyway.

    But if we’re talking urban fantasy, go read Kim Harrison’s Hollows books. There is actually something a little bit fairy tale about them. Not a lot, but some. Plus, they’re good.

  3. D. D. Syrdal February 23, 2012 at 4:07 pm #

    I think I agree, at least in part, with Tharcion, that urban fantasy is not really the same thing as the old fairy tales. Most of it seems to be straight up erotica (Anita Blake and imitators), there’s no grand moral of the story. Fairy tales and myths in general came about to pass along some great truth or wisdom about life and how to act. That god-awful show “Lost Girl” is a case in point. I guess the wicked succubus is the new thing. It’s an easy excuse for lots of sex.

  4. ashsilverlock February 23, 2012 at 4:54 pm #

    I’d just like to pick up on the point about urban fantasy corresponding to fairy tales, because I think it’s a really interesting one. Certainly I personally feel that the very best urban fantasy by the writers who first built the genre definitely echoes the truths of the old tales and on some level is a whole new form of folklore, in some way reflecting the evolution of the fairy tale from the earliest days. I would, however, draw a very clear distinction between quality writers like De Lint, Windling, Helprin, Crowley etc and many of the newer breed of urban fantasists, who are just using fantasy and fairy tale ‘types’ to spice up what are essentially thrillers, romances, mysteries or any one of a number of other genres in disguise. That isn’t necessarily such a bad thing of course, but I feel that urban fantasy can be so much MORE!

  5. Allison February 25, 2012 at 10:17 pm #

    What distinguishes urban faerie tales from regular fantasy? Are there urban faerie tales for young people? I do like Gaiman, but mostly haven’t cared for the adult ones due to their sexual and violent undertones.

    • ashsilverlock February 25, 2012 at 10:35 pm #

      It’s mainly the modern-day, city setting coupled with magical/fantastical elements. A couple of good young adult urban fantasy authors are Holly Black and Tanith Lee (Mercedes Lackey is also a safe bet).

      • Allison March 2, 2014 at 2:17 am #

        Long time after your post, but I finally read Holly Black this past year. She writes gripping tales. Thanks for the recommendation!

        I still have to check out Tanith Lee. What books by Mercedes Lackey would you recommend? She’s written tons!

      • ashsilverlock March 2, 2014 at 8:25 am #

        Books by Mercedes Lackey to recommend – that’s an easy one: the ‘Bedlam’s Bard’ series! The stories of Eric Banyon, a modern-day bard in New York City, are some of the best urban fantasy tales you’ll ever read. A must for fans of De Lint and Gaiman etc.

  6. darkrosemelody February 27, 2012 at 7:39 pm #

    I apologise for this not being relevant to this post but I am unsure how to leave a general message. Feel free to delete this!

    I just wanted to say thank you for your interest in my new blog and also to apologise that the link was broken. I have amended it now and it should work! I won’t put it here because I don’t want to appear to be spamming you.

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