Urban fantasy is a young and vibrant genre of speculative fiction that brings the fantastical into a modern setting*. Elves play guitar in rock bands, goblins roam our cities’ underground tunnels, and the dead rise from the graves to torment—or seduce!—the living. Those who look down on this genre and dismiss it as mere escapism would be surprised to learn about its pedigree. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, as we shall see, urban fantasy is of noble descent!
Let’s embark on a journey through time to the discovery of the origins of urban fantasy.
*Read about the definition and the characteristics of urban fantasy in the previous post.
Origins of urban fantasy
The pioneer of present-day urban fantasy was Charles de Lint, a writer, poet, folklorist, artist, songwriter and performer (according to his official biography). His first novel Moonheart: A Romance was published in 1984, so we can consider this year as the starting point of our journey back in time.
Let’s jump in the seat of our time machine and pull the lever—back in time we go!
The most immediate forerunner of urban fantasy was horror fiction, in particular vampire novels, for example Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles (starting with Interview with the Vampire, 1976). In fact, it is difficult to tell where the vampire subgenre ends and urban fantasy starts. Horror fiction also brings mythological creatures into a modern setting, as urban fantasy does. The main difference is the mood of the stories; while horror fiction focuses on the terrifying and the macabre, urban fantasy is usually lighter in tone and puts more emphasis on world building.
The evolution of traditional fantasy in the 60s and the 70s also contributed to pave the road for urban fantasy. Some authors started to bring together science fiction and fantasy, technology and magic. The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny were remarkable in this regard. Nine Princes in Amber (1970) starts with Corwin, the protagonist, waking up from a coma in a hospital in New York. He has amnesia, but he soon discovers that he’s not from Earth. He’s a member of a superhuman royal family that rules over a world called Amber. He also discovers that our reality is just a “shadow” of Amber, and that there are infinite parallel worlds called “shadows” through which the princes of Amber can travel.
At that time, female protagonists made their appearance in fantasy books thanks to authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Anne McCaffrey. In general, women started to have a more active role in fantasy stories, and were no longer merely damsels in distress waiting to be rescued from some dungeon.
Romantic and Victorian periods
Now let’s move back in time to the Victorian period. There we find lots of books featuring magical objects or creatures such as ghosts, vampires or supernatural doubles. Some of those books became classics, for example Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly (1872), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898).
This interest in the supernatural wasn’t new. When we move further back in time, we discover that Romantic authors were also interested in the fantastical. The Magic Skin (1831) by Honoré de Balzac is a good example. One of my favorites is the novella Dead Woman in Love (1836) by Theophile Gautier. It tells the story of a gorgeous woman who was in fact a vampire and who fell in love with a priest. Can one find a better example of 19th-century paranormal romance?
Now we reach the 18th century; let’s stop our time machine and talk about the Gothic novel. This sort of terrifying stories grew in popularity in the 1780s to culminate in 1800 and progressively fall from grace toward the 1820s. (Read more about the Gothic novel, see also The Gothic: 250 Years of Success.) The Gothic novel was more than the forerunner of horror fiction—it set up the foundations for all genres we know collectively as “speculative fiction,” including fantasy. The Gothic novel has many similarities with urban fantasy: intrusion of the supernatural into everyday life, constant presence of tension and fear, and—importantly—female protagonists. The main difference is that Gothic stories were usually set in the medieval times while urban fantasy stories are set in the present or the near future.
Middle Ages and Antiquity
At this point, we have traveled some 250 years in the past. Can we say that our journey is over? Not quite! Let’s pull the lever again and venture even further. The wheel of time is spinning, taking us to the Middle Ages. Even there we find works that resemble urban fantasy.
Okay, not “urban” in the modern sense. Yet we find stories, poems, and ballads that tell us about magical creatures or objects interfering with people’s everyday lives. Arthurian legends are the most famous example. Do you think that Chrétien de Troyes genuinely believed in the existence of magic cups when he wrote Perceval, the Story of the Grail? Probably not, not more than Neil Gaiman believes in the existence of London Below (or does he?) For medieval authors, the Grail was a symbol, a metaphor, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t consider stories about Perceval as a medieval form of fantasy.
Our journey continues. When we go further back in time, it becomes more and more difficult to separate mythology from fantasy. The Romans, for example, took religion very seriously as it was part of their everyday life. For the Greeks, Hercules was not a fictional character, but a historical figure. People genuinely believed in sirens, ghosts, and faeries. This is where we find the true origins of fantasy, in the belief that, alongside the world as we know it, exists another reality, a magical realm where anything is possible.
What have we learned from our journey? We learned that, although urban fantasy is a young genre, its roots stretch back to the Middle Ages and Antiquity. It took inspiration from some of the greatest literary works in history: the Epic of Gilgamesh, Metamorphoses by Ovid, Beowulf, Perceval by Chrétien de Troyes, Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory, The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare, and other classics.
On a deeper level, we can say that urban fantasy is a genre that connects us to our distant past. By opening the doors of our cities to the magical and the fantastical, urban fantasy helps us to discover the cultures of our ancestors, makes them more understandable and appealing to modern readers.
In the next post we will talk about the genesis of urban fantasy and see how a handful of authors managed to create one of the most popular genres in history. Stay tuned!