Fairy Tales of London: British Urban Fantasy, 1840 to the Present

By | April 27, 2021

Guest post by Hadas Elber-Aviram

For over a century and a half, London has remained the foremost city of urban fantasy. No city in the history of Anglophone fantasy literature has approached its ubiquity. As John Clute points out, even New York is ‘a fairly distant second’.

This unrivalled predominance of London begs the question – why London, of all places? London has long since ceased to be the capital of Empire, nor is it any longer the largest nor most populated city in the world by a long measure. By the year 2000, it was no longer in the top ten largest cities. One may posit many answers to this question, some dependent on the particularities of the historical moment, others on the circumstances and temperament of the particular author. The following remarks constitute preliminary attempts to address this question but are by no means intended as a definitive answer.

London’s prominence in urban fantasy may derive from the city’s wealth of tall tales, legends, and myths, accumulated across a continuous two-thousand-year history. As Clute observed, ‘for fantasy writers, to evoke London is to conjure a set of icons and legends of unparalleled depth in time’. Tony Keen has pointed out that the very origin story of London, whereby it was founded by Brutus of Troy and redeveloped by King Lud, is wholly mythical. From Roman times to the present day, London’s myths, legends, and lore have reached staggering breadth and variety. These ever-accumulating strata have been mined time and again by London-based fantasy. To provide but a few examples, Miéville’s Kraken (2010) evokes the myths attributed to the London Stone in Canon Street, which allegedly dates back to Brutus of Troy, and is said to protect London from harm. Legend has it that the statues of Gog and Magog in Guildhall are giants defeated and chained by Brutus of Troy, a myth that Dickens gleefully exploited in ‘Introduction to the Giant Chronicles’ (1840). The apocryphal burial place of Queen Boudicea under a platform at King’s Cross Station surely influenced both Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform 13 (1994) and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (1997–2007).  

Another explanation for London’s long-standing dominance in urban fantasy literature may be found in the eclecticism of its cityscape. London developed organically throughout the centuries, moulding to the ad-hoc needs of its changing population and often repurposing buildings or constructing new ones cheek-by-jowl with those of ancient pedigree. Attempts to reorganize London’s chaotic jumble of architectural styles have failed time and again, and unlike New York or Chicago it has never yielded to the imposition of a grid-like schematic on its streets. Furthermore, while the Victorian crusade for urban improvement demolished a significant number of pre-Victorian London landmarks, London has still retained pockets of Georgian, Tudor, and even Roman architecture. As fantasy writer Sophia McDougall reflected in Vector’s special issue on London and Science Fiction (2012):

London is full of alternate realities: you can’t travel through it without brushing against them. In the once-Blitzed streets where 17th century livery halls abruptly give way to brutalist concrete, you can see a confluence of Londons conquered, complicit or blissfully untouched by the third Reich. London has time travel: the resurrected Globe; the temple of Mithras dragged up from under Walbrook Street to Temple Court; the anonymous remains of Tudors, Romans, and ancient Britons that the Thames sometimes recedes to show preserved in the mud.  

Miéville has remarked in a similar context: ‘this kind of chaotic aggregation … [is] going to translate into a sensation of the fantastic’. London thus provides its pedestrians with an experience akin to that of a science fiction novel, of travelling not simply across streets and squares, parks and markets, but across alternate realities and jarring timescapes.

In a more recent development that could account for London’s abiding prominence in urban fantasy literature, London-based fantasy has become increasingly self-referential. Fantastical reimaginings of London have generated such a wealth and breadth of fictions that the genre has become autotelic, producing an ever-increasing proliferation of writing thatrefers not so much to the real city as to earlier fantastical renditions of it. Gaiman has stated that Neverwhere ‘began with London. Not with the real London, not exactly, but with the version of London I read about in The Napoleon of Notting Hill’. Miéville has similarly asserted that ‘In terms of being influenced by London, I’m at least as influenced by the literary distillation of London as by the real physical city.’ This increase in intertextuality, together with the advent of digital maps and digital street views that reduce the need for constant first-hand experience of the city, may have contributed to an attenuation in the social valence of recent London-based fantasy literature. This attenuation will be discussed further in the fifth chapter of this study.  

Notwithstanding the above observation that London-based fantasy draws heavily on the longer history of London, this study argues that fantastical London literature began to coalesce in the 1840s, with the writings of Charles Dickens. As ever with such sweeping statements, this demands immediate qualification. Fantastical fictions set in London, in part if not entirely, were published before Dickens arrived on the literary scene. John William Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ (1816) and Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) are cases-in-point. William Blake, Percy Shelley, Leigh Hunt, and Charles Lamb all wrote about London in ways that could be construed as fantastical. But it is the contention of this study that Dickens was the pioneer of a new kind of prose fantasy that consciously placed London at the front and centre, that treated London as a character in its own right.

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Hadas Elber-Aviram is Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Notre Dame, London, UK and the author of Fairy Tales of London: British Urban Fantasy. 1840 to the Present.

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