In Praise of Mythology in Urban Fantasy

Leo Elijah Cristea weighs in:

Fantasy, of the epic and high variety, doesn’t much lend itself to mythology. Writers can craft beautiful, engaging mythologies for their made up worlds—I’m looking at you, Grandpa Tolkien, and you too, Mr Rothfuss—but there’s a distinct lack of familiarity that is lost. It just becomes part of the story. It’s not really mythology. To the characters, yes, but not to the ever hungry reader.

That’s where urban fantasy becomes a beautiful, magical thing, offering something that other subgenres of fantasy couldn’t possibly hold a candle to. Instead of reading about Tehlu and his angels, and the way the world was craft by this god or that god, we get to read about trolls under bridges, the fae courts, fallen angels, werewolves, vampires, Norse gods, the Almighty—the list goes on.

We get to read about magic we know, understand and believe. On some deep level inside most readers, you never stop believing. It doesn’t matter what in, but when you’re alone in the dark and there’s a tree groaning under the weight of its branches, or a chill across the back of your neck, if you have imagination to spare, you believe in monsters. You believe in Things. That’s why urban fantasy is so inherently good when done well, and when it draws on a veritable landfill of material.

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The Evolution of Fantasy Fiction

Leo Elijah Cristea has traced the roots of fantasy fiction, the “Grandfathers of Fantasy” as he calls them, in a brilliant essay at Fantasy Faction. In a single post, he gathers up everything from mythology to faery tales to Poe and Lovecraft and Tolkien and Eddings, showing how they all relate to one another in a vast fantastical “tree of life.” One of my favorite sections:

The ancestor of fantasy is mythology; fantasy’s great-uncle, thrice-removed, is the art of faerie tale; but fantasy’s true grandparents are the fantasists who crafted dreams, speculative realities, and visions of distant worlds, whether by means of the gothic, the early fantastic, or uncanny commentary on the future. Fantasy’s grandparents are far, far older than Tolkien, Eddings, Brooks, or Martin.

Due to our unswervingly human need to label, there are more subgenres of fantasy than you could shake a whole forest of ancient oaken sticks at. Helpfully, our predecessors were quite happy to call anything that didn’t mimic whole reality, fantasy. They were right, too. Anything that doesn’t fit into the neat little frame, within which the finite possibilities of our world sit, is left out, branded fantasy. Of course (and this won’t be the first time I’ve flirted with the admission of stating that I believe in what should probably not be believed in) the small grey areas outside of this accepted, built and well-maintained frame  are what fuel a fantasist’s speculation—or at least, that’s how it used to be.

Imagine living and writing in the times of Mary Shelley, or Poe, or John Polidori and his Vampyre, imagine not having all the facts staring at you, and imagine not seeing the world broadcast at you on the news every day. Imagine the itch to write, to learn, to dream, to explore—to speculate.

This is where fantasy proper first appeared.

It’s well worth the time to read it all.