What are the great rural fantasy novels?

Illustration for article titled What are the great rural fantasy novels?

Enough of this Urban Fantasy malarkey, because I'm now interested in Rural Fantasy.

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I've written a Book Club feature for SFX Magazine, on Mythago Wood, by Robert Holdstock. I hope I've done Mythago Wood justice, and that I've served Robert, who sadly died not that long ago, as well as he deserves. I think I sufficiently explored the numerous themes within, pleasing the many fans of this novel, whilst also exciting any potential new readers. As an aside, before he passed away, I was lucky enough to have exchanged a few emails with him, and I browsed through these hoping to glean something for the article (unsuccessfully) but found the experience of reading the emails of someone no longer with us remarkably poignant. The digital age preserves everything.

I'll give no detail here on what I've written for the article, but if you've read and admired the book, why not pop along to the SFX forum page, and leave a comment, since I believe they use some of the forum comments to feature alongside the print edition.

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So then.

Where are the great Rural Fantasy novels?

I'd love to compile a list of Rural Fantasies – stories which depend upon and inherently involve the natural environment, rather than those which merely use it as a casual backdrop, scenery through which the characters stroll. And also, I'd be more interested in narratives that veer away from folk tales as such, because I can easily see how, for example, the Brothers Grimm have left their mark upon literature.

In the contemporary genre form, I guess Rural Fantasy novels are rarer by far than Urban Fantasy because city populations are obviously denser, therefore (a) there are more people to tell stories about, more human interactions to inspire thought, and (b) statistically, a lot more writers grow up with bricks and concrete around them, and their relation to that environment is more easy to explore – leaving nature a relatively wild and untamed part of the genre.

Or maybe that's all complete nonsense and it's simply down to Buffy.

Illustration for article titled What are the great rural fantasy novels?
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Discussions of genre origins often descend rapidly into argument, so I'm not interested in where one species peeled off from another, particularly considering the difficulty when throwing folk tales back into this particular mix. That said, I suppose modern Rural Fantasy could possibly be traced to the Romantic thinkers, with their rebellion against the scientific rationalisation of nature (and of urban encroachment) combining with the growth and development of the fantasy genre. Fantasists such as William Morris, who in so many aspects of his life embraced rural and environmental concerns, was perhaps a founding father. (It's also worth stating that he was one of the earliest environmental thinkers, period.)

Illustration for article titled What are the great rural fantasy novels?
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This sort of thing is much clearer in the writings of Lord Dunsany, and anyone who's read The King of Elfland's Daughter, or many of his short stories, can easily see how the natural world supplies the material from which he builds his prose. Even Tolkien had a love affair for the natural world, which is well-documented.

Of more contemporary writers, I can only really think of Robert Holdstock, but after that, I'm struggling to recall names and books. So, feel free to drop suggestions of Rural Fantasy novels or writers in the comments section, and fuel my next book spending spree.

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And it occurs to me that, at some point in the future, I really need to write a Rural Fantasy novel – even though most of my output has been about cities, I feel more comfortable with my head in greener places.

This post originally appeared on Mark Charan Newton's blog.

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DISCUSSION

lightninglouie
lightninglouie

"Urban Fantasy" is pretty meaningless as a genre. It seems to originate in the 1980s as a description for novels like de Lint's Yarrow, Bull's War For The Oaks, Lindholm's Wizard of the Pigeons, Carroll's Sleeping In Flame, and Beagle's Folk of the Air, all of which have nothing in common except that they have fantasy elements in a contemporary setting and are too plot oriented to pass as magical realism (which isn't really fantasy at all, though that's another argument altogether). (You could also add Crowley and Helprin to the mix, though as Grey_Area points out there's plenty of their books set in the country, especially the Aegypt cycle.) But the "urban fantasy" meme goes way back, farther than Beagle's "Lila The Werewolf," all the way back to the urban horror stories of Ellison ("Whimper of Whipped Dogs" + dozens of others) Leiber (see "Smoke Ghost" and "You're All Alone") and Bradbury (especially October Country). You could arguably keep going back through Lovecraft to Blackwood, Machen, Maupassant and Poe — the boundary between supernatural horror and contemporary fantasy is pretty thin, really just a matter of tone — and loop back around to cover King and Straub. Today "urban fantasy" is basically shorthand for suspense novels with supernatural characters in a modern city, usually depicted on the cover as lad mag cover models with bare midriffs and tramp stamps (no doubt magical tramp stamps). But that's just a marketing term; the term is absolutely nebulous, as is "rural fantasy".