Friday, May 02, 2008

All Fantasy is Urban Fantasy (Charles Williams)

Okay, I don't really believe that all fantasy is urban fantasy. But I do believe that the genre we now call fantasy is about ordinary life, ordinary people, crossing over into "the other world," or about the other world (or its inhabitants) coming here. As Tolkien put it, "Fairy-Stories" are not about fairies, but about the land of Faerie, and our fascination with extraordinary worlds.

Most fairy tales start off as "an ordinary day when something strange happened," such as meeting a talking animal in the woods. That was back when woods, and animals, were part of everyday life for most people.

Now, in modern times, ordinary life for many people is urban, and so urban fantasy came into being. I gather that the term was first used in the 1980s, but one suspects that urban fantasy is probably as old as the urbs themselves, and certainly examples of it can be found throughout the late 19th and early 20th century.

One of my favorite writers of premodern urban fantasy is Charles Williams. He seems to be forgotten today, which is a shame, but during his lifetime he was extremely popular. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were friends of his -- in fact, he was a well-known writer while they were still bumbling about at Oxford.

The first book of his that I read was All Hallows' Eve. It may be the most popular, because it's the only one that I've ever seen in two different editions. After reading a friend's copy, I saw this and two other books by Williams in a bookstore and bought all three without even glancing at the two I didn't know. I was sure they would be good, and they are, but I also think I was lucky because I've read part of another that I didn't like as much.

These are the books of his that I know best:
  • All Hallows' Eve. This book was written during World War II, and set in London just after the end of the war. (Sadly, Williams died in 1945.) The two main characters are a young woman who discovers that she is a ghost, but still has some influence on the living world; and an ambitious man who has strange magic powers.
  • Many Dimensions. First published in 1931, this book is still topical in a way, because it deals with a conflict between the Muslim world and the West. Except in this case the treasured possession is not oil, but the Stone of Solomon. An unscrupulous Englishman steals it, and then finds out that not only can it grant practically any wish, but if you cut a piece off, the original stone gets no smaller, and the new piece has all the powers of the original. Meanwhile, the Muslims who had been guarding it (and not daring to use it) naturally want it back . . . but the English government is not inclined to let them have it. An English Chief Justice who takes his job title seriously also gets involved.
  • The Greater Trumps. This one might be my favorite. It's about the Tarot -- specifically, about a deck of Tarot cards which is supposed to be the very first Tarot, and therefore to have special powers. It's come into the possession of a man who knows nothing about the occult and doesn't want to know. But other people feel differently. (As you can see, the theme of these two novels is rather similar. But I tend to prefer the Tarot imagery.)
Aside from the magical elements, what makes these books fun to read is the sheer ordinariness of most of the characters. Like I was saying, that's what fantasy is all about, stirring magic into ordinary life. Some of us never get tired of it.

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