Enchantment permeates Celtic mythology, shrouding the tales in a haunting, dreamlike quality. The all-pervasive otherworld lies behind much of the mystery and magic, penetrating the forests and lakes, and crafting charmed rings and weapons such as King Arthur’s sword Excalibur. There are in fact many otherworlds of Celtic myth: invisible realms of gods and spirits, fairies, elves and misshapen giants, some of them sparkling heavens while others are brooding hells. The veil between the visible and invisible worlds is gossamer-thin and easily torn, allowing seers, bards and some privileged heroes to pass in and out on spirit-flights or journeys of the soul. Common gateways to the otherworld are by water and across narrow bridges, beneath mounds or wells which hide glittering subterranean paradises or dark purgatories. Above all, it is on the eve of Samhain, October 31, that all the gates to the otherworld open and spirits emerge from beneath the hollow hills.
1920s Oxford: home to C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien and, in Paul Kearney’s novel The Wolf in the Attic, Anna Francis, a young Greek girl looking to escape the grim reality of her new life. The night they cross paths, none suspect the fantastic world at work all around them. Anna lives in a tall old house with her father and her doll Penelope. She is a refugee, a piece of flotsam washed up in England by the tides of the Great War and the chaos that trailed in its wake. Once upon a time, she had a mother and a brother, and they all lived together in the most beautiful city in the world, by the shores of Homer’s wine-dark sea. But that is all gone now, and only to her doll does she ever speak of it, because her father cannot bear to hear. She sits in the shadows of the tall house and watches the rain on the windows, creating worlds for herself to fill out the loneliness. The house becomes her own little kingdom, an island full of dreams and half forgotten memories. And then one winter day, she finds an interloper in the topmost, dustiest attic of the house. A boy named Luca with yellow eyes, who is as alone in the world as she is. That day, she’ll lose everything in her life, and find the only real friend she may ever know. Kearney’s is a great Oxford novel; and the wonderfully conjured period detail – Tolkien and Lewis in particular stand out – is given added resonance by the long and complex real-life friendship on which it is partly based.
This is the first of two linked posts about the sub-genre of urban fantasy, in which the tropes of pastoral or heroic fantasy are brought into a modern setting. Within the elements common to all urban fantasies – a city in which supernatural events occur, the presence of prominent characters who are artists or musicians or scholars, the redeployment of previous fantastic and folkloric topography in unfamiliar contexts – there are two fundamental strains of urban fantasy. In the first, a more or less recognisable city – New York or London, Minneapolis or Galveston, Newford or Bordertown – is revealed to be in contact with the realm of Faerie, or some magical realm, and the resultant narrative redeploys the tropes and characters of older fairy tales and folklore, forcing them into collisions with a contemporary urban milieu. This I have termed the ‘Light Fantastic’, as it tends to involve a strong element of wish-fulfilment. In the second, what I have termed the ‘Dark Fantastic’, a greater debt is owed to the gothic or horror genre – the distillation of mankind’s greatest fears and nightmares rather than hopes and dreams – but more on that next time.
Paul Kearney is an author who is perhaps best known today for his Monarchies of God series, a fairly standard epic of sword and sorcery that will be familiar to many readers of the genre. However, back at the start of the 1990’s he wrote a far more intriguing set of novels, each stand-alone but linked thematically – A Different Kingdom, Riding the Unicorn and The Way to Babylon. The most notable common thread in this ‘Different Kingdoms’ series was Kearney’s use of a hero from our world who journeys into a fantastical one. Despite strong reviews, these books had commercially disappointing sales, and Kearney was asked to consider a more traditional fantasy epic, hence the Monarchies of God was born. Although I can completely understand the decision of Kearney, his publishers and his agent from a commercial perspective, for me it is most unfortunate that the author was not allowed to pursue his original vision – after all his concept, known as the ‘portal quest’ theme in fantasy literature, has a venerable history.
Click to get the January 2015 issue of Bards and Sages Quarterly and read my short story The Inn at the Edge of the World.
A sad tale’s best for winter… or so they say. I thought I’d round off the year with a post about one of my favourite seasonal fantasy novels, and the one that I almost invariably read at this time of year, Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale. In case you wondered, yes, this is the same story that was adapted into a film starring Colin Farrell a couple of years ago but the movie really does have very little to do with this unforgettable book. Helprin’s novel has a variety of inspirations, not least among them William Shakespeare’s 1623 play of the same name. Mostly set in a kind of mythical New York City, the story covers so many characters and interwoven tales that a plot summary is nearly impossible. Although ostensibly set at the turn of the last century, in reality the setting of Winter’s Tale bears little resemblance to any time or place that our world has ever known. Magical horses, roguish heroes and enchantment abound in this, the perfect fantasy tale for the festive season.
Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my abiding interest in the primeval woodlands of the world and their mythological associations. There are few forests in legend or literature that are as replete with such connotations as Broceliande, a mythical wood reputedly located in France’s very own Celtic heartland, Brittany. Broceliande is a notable place of legend because of its uncertain location, unusual weather, and its ties with Arthurian Romance, in particular a magical fountain and the tomb of the legendary figure Merlin. Broceliande is first named as a legendary forest in literature in 1160, in the Roman de Rou, a verse chronicle written by Wace, a Norman poet. In modern times, Broceliande is most commonly considered to be Paimpont forest in Brittany, although most serious scholars think that Broceliande is a purely mythological place that never existed at all. However, the notion of Broceliande cannot be dismissed entirely – an ancient and immense forest did, after all, cover the entire centre of Brittany until the High Middle Ages. Certainly this mystical forest, whether real or imagined, has figured prominently in fiction from the time of Wace right up to the present day – most recently in Robert Holdstock’s mesmerizing fantasy novel, Merlin’s Wood.
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.