As humans, we look for patterns everywhere. So, when we see a new story, draped in the shape of a well-known fairytale, the vibrant mix of the familiar with the new and strange can be irresistible to many of us as readers. There’s a reason that wrapping fairytales and folklore in urban fantasies has proven so popular.
In 1987, Charles de Lint published Jack, the Giant Killer, a retelling of a fairytale set in 1980s Ottawa. This novel, along with Terri Windling’s Borderlands, became part of the foundation of the urban fantasy subgenre. How was utilizing folktales in contemporary settings revolutionary in the 1970s and 80s? How have fairy and folk tales influenced urban fantasy since then? Join us as we explore the roots of one of the most influential subgenres of the early 21st century.
The titular panel at ChiCon8/WorldCon 80 was moderated by Alma Alexander and featured Adam Stemple, Sharon Sheffield, and C.L. Polk. The insightful discussion wandered a ways from the given description but stayed on topic.
Resonance and Liminal Spaces
Writers want places and stories that resonate with readers, that despite the fiction and fantasies of the tales, ring true to their experience of the human condition.
One way to get your stories to resonate with your readers is by using familiar tropes. Tropes are neither good nor bad, they simply describe familiar patterns in stories — and what’s more familiar than a fairytale? Urban fantasy starts with the familiar — the real world — and familiar tales help them add layers to that pre-existing resonance.
Fairytales often take place in liminal spaces — transitional spaces — be they the edge of a wood, the edge of puberty, or the edge betwixt life and death. For those who wish to mix it up, subverting tropes, and flipping the readers’ expectations can be a great tool — but is far more effective when starting with familiar tropes.
Mythology versus Fairytales
Mythology explains nature and fairytales contextualize that by setting the stories in the world and the culture that story is from. Our ‘urban fantasies’ are no different than Beauty and the Beast in 1740s France or The Little Mermaid in 1837 Denmark, or the tall tales of Paul Bunyon in the American frontier, we’re just putting the mark of our era on them.
A large difference is that mythology often includes gods and fairytales very rarely do.
One could argue that the Marvel cinematic universe is a massive, sprawling, epic fairytale — so long as you recognize that the Marvel gods are treated more as supernatural beings than true gods.
Tropes in Fairytales
Heroes and Heroines
The standard fairytale hero has a man (or a boy) set out on an adventure and find a community along the way to his great reward.
The standard fairytale heroine has a woman (or girl) put in a tenuous situation, where she loses her support network and makes it out thanks to both patience and outside assistance, finding a new place and/or community.
Some writers, hoping to flip the script, try to write strong women but end up writing what reads as a male perspective, only in skirts. (Not to mention how often a female main character is used as an excuse to give a book cover a sexy woman, rather than a woman showing her own strengths.)
“The Good Neighbors” as a nickname for the fae was always a polite fiction. The fae weren’t seen as good, their human neighbors just didn’t want to offend them. They’re often shown as not truly good or bad, simply with a different logic and set of values. Or, perhaps, we’re merely a dream of the fae…
For people, like children, who are still learning the rules of how the world works, some say that childhood is mainly a psychotropic experience.
Fairytales teach us that the world is beautiful and not safe.
How Important is Fear?
While much is said about the Disney-fication of stories, they weren’t the first to tone down fairytales, just the latest in a long line. Grimm’s original tales had to be toned down before they could sell them. While many of the stories got simplified to good versus evil, there are still ones with a hint of nature in them. If you get in their way, they’ll destroy you, but it’s nothing personal. After all, nice is different than good.
Fairytales can instill a fear of ‘the other’ — even if it’s you feeling different than you’re told you should. What could be more of a loss of control than becoming a werewolf? Travelers and the homeless could be monsters in disguise… or gods you’d be cursed to turn away.
Many fairytales require horror elements to work. And subversions of those expectations can be very effective.
To this day, there are places where the stories have more sway. Should you ask an Irish farmer or an Icelander if they believed in fairies, they’d likely laugh and tell you no. But if you suggested they build a road or plow through a natural circle of mushrooms or stones, there’s a good chance they’d rather go around it. You don’t quite believe but, just in case…
At their core, fairytales demonstrate a need for empathy and compassion.
- Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
- The Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews
- War for the Oaks by Emma Bull
- Wizard of the Pigeons by Megan Lindholm (Robin Hobb)
- Fool on the Hill by Matt Ruff
- Pan’s Labyrinth by Guillermo del Toro
- Moonheart by Charles de Lint
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
- Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams
In the end, the heroes and the fae and the monsters? They’re us. We invented these stories and they are a reflection of us.
Do you like fairytales and folklore in your urban fantasy — or other genres?
What are some of your favorites?