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Mythology in Urban Fantasy

Neon Dragon by Nigel QuarlessI’ve talked before about creating a mythology using fantasy, and I’ve delved a little into world mythology and folklore through various articles on dragons, demons, fae, and magic, but this time I want a different spin. Mythology is all about the past: legend, folklore and tales that were somehow brought into being by our ancestors and their experiences, beliefs and limited comprehension. Or, they were events that actually happened and have been embellished or changed through constant retelling to become more fantastical with each rendition. And, there’s the small, small belief and some—not all—mythology exists because it’s true. But we’re flirting with a very tricky line of thought here, that, while fun, isn’t held by many people at all. But then, everyone believes in something, so I’ll give you a dutiful wink and leave it there.

Mythology shapes a lot of things—it’s practically ingrained into us as we grow up. Depending on your locale, there will be things you simply know. Everyone knows about aspects of mythology that apply to them and their nationality or race. It’s part of growing up and learning to love stories. Fairy tales—the really good ones that Disney wouldn’t touch or hasn’t heard of—are one step away from folklore, and folklore is (arguably) sometimes diluted mythology.

It’s only natural that we have a fascination with anything mythological—and it’s only natural that writers will weave this stuff into their work. Everybody is fascinated with myth at some point in their lives, even if it’s only when they’re knee high to grasshoppers and leafing through books of fairy tales. But it’s even better when that fascination doesn’t dwindle with the onset of adulthood.

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.

Hounded by Kevin Hearne (cover)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.

My knowledge of the wider subject is somewhat limited, I’ll admit—in the interests of full disclosure—and whilst I haven’t read widely in the urban fantasy genre at large, I have read the Dresden Files and I’ve flirted with Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, and am a recent initiate of Probability Mage Alex Verus’ world (Benedict Jacka’s Fated). And, although it lends itself more to being called sci-fantasy, Kelly McCullough’s Webmage series deserves a shout out, too. That said, Jim Butcher’s series spans thirteen books already, and that’s nothing to sniff at when on the subject of reference material. Thirteen books loaded with good, juicy, and wholly magical mythology.

It’s easy to overlook the depth available when setting foot into the Dresden Files, entirely because the setup is a little too familiar: P.I in urban fantasy. It’s probably about as overdone as a baked potato in the oven for six hours.

Storm Front (cover)Ironically, the Dresden Files are about as surprisingly deep as you can get, being not only constantly thought-provoking but questioning. Everything from faith to magic to the human condition is examined in the Files. But that’s not what makes it utterly brilliant: its constant drawing upon myth, legend and folklore is.

Kevin Hearne’s Atticus O’Sullivan, a centuries-old druid from Ireland, brings with him a mass of Gaelic history, including brushes with Ireland’s gods and goddesses. It’s a tangible mythology because it’s ours. It’s something that is very accessible and moreish. Most mythology is. It’s a hint that even if it is no longer there, there was once magic upon and throughout our good green Earth. Maybe. Even if the link isn’t so obvious and is only hinted at, winked towards, or flirted with, sometimes it’s still there, like when Alex Verus deals with an exceptional seamstress, who also happens to be a giant spider called Arachne.

Norse Gods get a look-in, too, all the time. When we’re just talking about regular geek-made-trendy pop culture, we see Thor and Loki and Odin and Asgard in the Marvel superhero comic books and films, and it’s so exhilarating to see little glimpses of stuff we know plastered across a page or the big screen, just like it’s completely and utterly real. Harry Dresden knows a guy who has deep dealings with Norse gods and strong, superhuman lackeys; Atticus O’ Sullivan toddles off to Asgard; Webmage’s Ravirn spends his time falling foul of the Norse pantheon in MythOS.

Never mind the fact that the Files are chock-a-bloc with little folk faeries, and the sídhe. It’s everywhere. A little research reveals October Daye as a changeling. Ravirn’s a descendant of the Greek Fates. The head of the White Council that Dresden enjoys membership of is the Merlin—and the Merlin its founder. Mythology permeates some urban fantasy, enriching it. It makes it all the more identifiable. Never mind the fact that it’s set in the very world in which we live, just to make everything clearer and more crystalline in our imaginations. These books come to life because of the mythology woven between the pages.

One Salt Sea by Seanan McGuire (cover)Religion becomes approachable, too. It can be very tricky as a writer, to write a religion as big as Christianity/Catholicism into your work, without immediately alienating half your readers—who simply don’t dig that sort of thing—or making the remaining ones roll their eyes as they await the sermon(s). Jim Butcher treats religion so well it hurts. It’s all lumped in with the rest of the mythology upon which he draws, and it works that way. No sermons, no lectures. Just magic, myth, and tale. Butcher manages to write about the Almighty and his angels, about the fallen angels and just about everything that falls through the cracks, without preaching, or giving us a converted character. Harry and God are on strange terms; he acknowledges something about God, though even he isn’t sure what. It’s smooth, clean, messy and devilishly good story-telling and worldbuilding. The Dresden Files tote everything from the Summer and Winter Courts of the Fae, to three courts of vampires (Red, White and Black), and Knights of the Cross, blessed with holy weapons—all which should not really simultaneously exist in the same world view—and manages to make everything real, everything true, and to leave opinion and perception entirely in the hands of the reader. It’s pure magic.

You only get that sort of readerly experience from urban fantasy. Without—literally—a whole world of knowledge and mythology and legend and Stuff People Just Know to draw upon, it’s absolutely impossible to craft an experience that almost, just almost, could be anecdotal and not fiction. That’s where the magic really lies in urban fantasy.

This article was originally posted June 14, 2012.

Title image by thegryph.

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10 Comments

  1. Larik says:

    Great article.

  2. Walt says:

    Have you read The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper? It delves deeply (and, I think, beautifully) into British mythology. I think it would count as the period equivalent of urban fantasy- It was written in the late 60’s and the 70’s, and I believe it’s set around that time, though it doesn’t tend to mention much modern technology and could probably fit anywhere from the 1920s to the 1980s.

  3. Father Andrew Greeley gets overlooked in these discussions of urban fantasy and paranormal romance, but he does pull quite a bit of Celtic Catholic mythology into his detective and thriller-type stories. Angels and saints (as well as the Virgin Mary) can pop up in his tales without seeming out of place or leading to a huge sermon.

  4. I loved your article. I agree that many of us writers are inspired by the myth’s we’ve heard over lives. Even if we do not stick to them faithfully, they can inspire our stories. Urban Fantasy and paranormal romance are especially great genres to explore myths, but sometimes I see them work one way or another into all genres of fiction.

  5. Biblibio says:

    While it’s true that internal myths can often be uninteresting to the reader, I have great, great respect for an author who successfully creates his/her own mythology. For fantasy worlds that reside outside our own, quality mythology is an indicator of world-depth. In modern fantasy (or urban fantasy… however it’s called), use of mythology can feel clumsily dependent in the worst cases, and brilliantly original in the best (use of mythology in Gaiman’s Sandman, for example, or American Gods). Very interesting post!

  6. Great article. Don’t know too much about some of the works you talked about, but I do know Harry Dresden, having read all the books. And Butcher is able to carry out some things with his writing that seem to be missing from some of the other urban fantasy works I have read, including that annoying first person bragging voice that so many use. Dresden does not brag, he tells it like it is, including his shortcomings. I agree with the way he delves into fairy tales as well, who else would have the Billy Goats Gruff as hit men. However, modern urban fantasy was not the first medium to use our real myths. I give that honor to Robert E Howard and his Conan tales. Howard used a lot of our myths in the story, showing how something that happened in Conan’s world twelve thousand years ago metamorphosed into what we see today, coming through other mythologies. I always liked that about his work.

  7. […] Mythology in urban fantasy […]

  8. Simon Ellberger says:

    The article says Jim Butcher’s “The Dresden Files” spans thirteen books; actually, there are fifteen published novels, and two short story collections, and several short stories not yet collected together in a “Jim Butcher–exclusive” collection.

    It’s worth mentioning that there are epic historical fantasies that use “real-world” mythology, such as Snorri Kristjansson’s Viking-centered trilogy “The Valhalla Saga.”

    There are of course many more urban fantasy books and series, besides the ones mentioned in the article, that involve “real-world” mythology. Another poster already mentioned Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods”; this, and his “Anansi Boys,” are one such pair. More recently, there’s Susan Krinard’s “Midgard” trilogy (Norse mythology); Jordanna Max Brodsky’s “Olympus Bound” series (Greek mythology), starting with “The Immortals”; Mark L. Tompkins’ “The Last Days of Magic”; Caitlin Kittredge’s “Hellhound Chronicles”; Peter McLean’s “The Burned Man” series; the multi-authored “Gods and Monsters” shared-world series, the first of which was Chuck Wendig’s “Unclean Spirits”; Peter Roman’s “The Book of Cross” trilogy; M.H. Boroson’s “The Girl with Ghost Eyes” (Chinese mythology); etc.

  9. Great article! Not mentioned here yet in the discussion is the whole World of Darkness-Stuff which worked itself through nearly all the myths, The X Files which heavily relies on Folk Tales and Mythology and the Great Kult-RPG which will get a relaunch in December.

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