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Urban Fantasy: A British/American Comparison, Thesis Paper Example

Pages: 7

Words: 1811

Thesis Paper

Introduction

It is inevitable that the ways in which distinct cultures view urban environments should be  distinctly manifested in the realm of urban fantasy (UF).  Cities are notoriously subject to  particular perceptions from the societies in which they exist, as they are largely unique creations of those societies, and not necessarily foundational elements of them.  They are, in essence, constructs of growth, and consequently serve as ideal templates in which the fantastic may be played out; as cultures typically hold conflicted feelings about their cities, UF is better poised to exploit them as stages upon which its unlikely or surreal scenarios may be more conflict-driven.

Two Western cultures in particular, that of the British and the American, illustrate how differently societies perceive their cities, and consequently how UF employs them.  Influences of postmodernism, arising in the 1970s, have certainly affected both perspectives.   Traditional ideas of urban centers as entertained by each culture for long centuries have forged strikingly diverse approaches to UF from the British and the Americans; British sensibilities were wary of city environments, as American writers evinced a more complicated relationship with them, originating from an exaltation often translated into a kind of perceived betrayal.  In time, postmodernism would blur the cultural lines.  Contrasting differences in the perceptions of the British and Americans, once translating to diverse approaches, have substantially paled in the genre of urban fantasy.

Traditional Contrasts in Perceptions

It is not necessary to examine UF, to gauge the manner in which the British have traditionally viewed their cities.   Even a cursory perusal of great British writers reveals a consistent sentiment, in that country settings are seen as most conducive to fulfillment and human achievement.  Shakespeare unvaryingly extols rural living and the beauty of the natural; if London provided him with an immeasurably valuable landscape, he nonetheless always reverts in his work to the glories of nature, even as he assiduously maintained his village existence (Fido 93).  Then, there is the legendary distaste of Charles Dickens for what he saw as the squalor of the city.  Dickens, particularly as he aged and was sensitive to the growing inequities and deprivations of London, referred to the metropolis as ‘a vile place’, and as a vast, ceaselessly avaricious entity that did little but drain the life of the people (Smith  78).

It could be argued that, for the British, the city was never an actually comfortable presence. On one level, it stood as emblematic of England’s greatness, yet it was not quite trusted, in a sense, because that very greatness relied on elements contrary to British ideas of the idyllic.  Then, there was the inescapable factor of the sinister arising from the famously labyrinthian terrain of London itself.  It was a cramped place, and something of an entity in itself, seemingly possessed of organic life.  This traditional British perception may be seen as powerfully persistent, and captured in UK writer Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, wherein a parallel, subterranean London exists beneath the actual city: “London grew into something huge and contradictory” (Gaiman  10).   It is not merely the sinister mystery of the city that serves Gaiman’s UF purposes, but its unaccountable dimensions, and this indicates a uniquely British perspective at least somewhat still in evidence today.   At the same time, Gaiman reflects a more modern view, in that the city has taken on dimensions beyond that once feared by Victorians.  More exactly, when a city essentially rises by itself to immense proportions, it becomes another world in itself.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, UF writer Neil Gaiman confesses to having been enormously influenced by Stoker’s Victorian, UF classic, Dracula (Klinger xvi).  Clearly, Stoker was a forerunner in UF, as the novel essentially began an ongoing association with vampires and urban centers, a match which may be said to be ideal.  In terms of London, Stoker relied on one aspect of the great city to further his interests: the extraordinary size of the population.  It is generally agreed by scholars that Dracula had one, predominant motive in coming to the city: prey.  In the vast city, a multitude of strangers would be his for the taking (Klinger  51).  What is more to the point is that, from Stoker through Gaiman, a distinctly British estimation of the city is present.  It is removed from the ordinary flow of life, existing simultaneously as a necessary result of greatness and a cavernous, intimidating, and frequently squalid place.  Most importantly, and even with the modern Gaiman, it is never quite a natural environment.

The British are not, of course, alone in initially viewing cities as unnatural entities: “There is…a long tradition that sees the city as the source of impiety, moral and social corruption and breakdown…and dangerous innovation” (Hamowy  65).  However, if any Western culture resisted this perception, it is the American.  In an interesting contrast to British urbanity, the city was for the American an extraordinary and correct culmination of achievement, evidence of ambition and talent, and a source for future glory.  If Americans profoundly valued their agrarian roots, they were nonetheless quick to leave them behind, which goes to the ethos of the American spirit as perceived by itself.   No single voice may be better turned to as representative of the American awe and pride in the city than that of poet Walt Whitman.  As the cities emerged and grew in the late 19th century, Whitman’s exaltation of them kept pace with the progress.  In line after line, the cites are glorious constructs of spires and masts, emitting a symphonic roar, and filled with open voices, hospitality, and “courageous and friendly young men” (Lees 103).  As opposed to British notions, the cities were “natural” evolutions of innate progress.

It is therefore all the more interesting to note how the American has plied UF.  There is a prevailing sense of betrayal within American urban fantasy, which is in keeping with disillusionment.  In novel after novel, the great and glorious cities of the U.S. are portrayed as unexpectedly murky and dangerous arenas, and the key component is that contrast of these qualities as shocking.  For example, the husband and wife team known as “Ilona Andrews” employs Atlanta as a ravaged and torn landscape, which points to it as having been violated of its former greatness.  In Magic Bites,  the city, a battleground for rival magical factions, is a repulsive place.  It is consistently described as “bleak”, “black”, and “grim”, and her presentation of the city’s Unicorn Lane, at thirty blocks long virtually a city in itself, is that of a nightmare landscape: “Rubble choked the streets and sewage flowed from the busted pipes in foul-smelling streams” (Andrews 110).  In American UF works such as this, there is a powerful sense that the city is not a cause of the unnatural developments, but a victim of them itself.

Again and again, in fact, language in American UF serves to underscore the city as character, or passive participant in a surreal struggle.  This is tellingly conveyed in Emma Bull’s 1987 work, War for the Oaks, set in Minneapolis.  Eddi McCandry, the heroine, is unassumingly drawn into a magical conflict in the city, as is the city itself.  They are both chiefly reactive presences, and to forces natural and otherwise. This is a city as vulnerable as any character:  “Spring had come to the city like a bomb” (Bull 91).  Bull’s urban landscape is no seductive and treacherous place, and it is also free of blame.  In this scenario, the city is something of an ally, and not a betraying entity.  Nonetheless, in either case, the American city in UF is not the dark and malignant force of the British metropolis, save when it has been corrupted into such.

Postmodernist Influence

In assessing the influence of postmodernism on the genre of UF, the inescapable dilemma of confronting postmodernism itself is presented.   More precisely, the term was and is hotly contested as an intrinsically self-subverted entity: “Postmodernism ultimately manages to install and reinforce as much as undermine and subvert the conventions…it appears to challenge” (Stierstorfer  34).  As regards UF, then, it may be averred that the genre’s adoption of postmodernism lies in a generalized abandoning of prior urban characterizations, and this may be seen in both American and British treatments.  For example, in Storm Front, Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden, a professional wizard in Chicago, is scolded by a faerie: “The whole city rushes left and right screaming about being late and honking horns! You people used to have it right, you know” (Butcher 250).  This is a whimsical allusion, to postmodernism in itself, in that it directly refers to older American ideals of civilization.

Something of this more relaxed perception of the city as actual protagonist is also evident in Mike Carey’s The Devil You Know, set in modern London.  Hero Felix Castor is a paranormal gun for hire, and one with a blasé attitude about his surroundings.  The city is for him advantageously laid out as a grid, and little more.  The Thames is a happy bonus:  “Ghosts can’t cross running water” (Carey 97).   In both these instances, then, it may be seen that postmodernism’s effect on UF is a distancing from archetypal associations and traditional perceptions of the urban, and in both cultures.  Postmodernism evinces one, irrefutable quality: it comes after modernism.  Years have passed, and for both cultures, and traditional perspectives on cities as actual presences have greatly muted.

Conclusion

It is only to be expected that British mistrust of cities, bred by long centuries of an idealizing of the rural, would render cities malign platforms for exercises in UF.  Similarly, the different sort of idealizing conducted by Americans, evinced by a pride and affection for the cities they created, was long reflected in UF in the form of those landscapes as being treacherous, and not in keeping with the esteem.   As time has passed and each culture has adapted to the vast shifts in living generated by an increasingly globalized world, both perceptions have been rendered obsolete, and postmodernism elicits from British and American UF a more cavalier, and less city-focused, approach.  Contrasting differences in the perceptions of the British and Americans, once translating to diverse approaches, have substantially paled in the genre of urban fantasy.

Works Cited

Andrews, I.  Magic Bites.  New York: Penguin, 2007. Print.

Bull, E.  War for the Oaks.  New York: Macmillan, 1987. Print.

Butcher, J.  Storm Front.  New York: Penguin, 2000.  Print.

Carey, M.  The Devil You Know.  New York: Hatchette Book Group, 2006. Print.

Fido, M.  Shakespeare. Maplewood: Hamlyn Publishing Group, 1978.  Print.

Gaiman, N.  Neverwhere: A Novel.  New York: HarperCollins, 2003.  Print.

Hamowy, R.  The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism.  Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2008. Print.

Klinger, L. S.  The New Annotated Dracula. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008. Print.

Lees, A.  Cities Perceived: Urban Society in European and American Thought, 1820-1940.  Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985.  Print.

Smith, G.  Dickens, Money, and Society.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.  Print.

Stierstorfer, K.  Beyond Postmodernism: Reassessments in Literature, Theory, and Culture. Berlin: Walter de Gruyer & Co., 2003.  Print.

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