discussions genre stuff

Rural Fantasy

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

I’ve written a Book Club feature for SFX Magazine, on Mythago Wood, by Robert Holdstock. It’s probably no surprise to long-time followers of this blog that I’ve chosen that book to write about. 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.

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.

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.)

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.

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.

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.

31 replies on “Rural Fantasy”

You beat me to it in suggesting that rural fantasy as a genre is probably linked to Romanticism. The Romantic Period fascinates me, and it’s easy to see how its core beliefs laid the groundwork for novels like Mythago Wood. During that period in the UK (which is what I know most about), antiquarians were just beginning to discover some important stuff about the Celtic and pre-Celtic peoples that lived here before the Romans. Before that point, everyone had pretty much assumed that our ancestors were all blood-sucking heathens, and that the Romans had come along and enlightened them. Suddenly, a whole bunch of stuff started turning up that suggested maybe this wasn’t the case—that maybe our ancestors were actually intelligent and creative peoples. This is linked in with Rousseau’s idea of the noble savage.

This is why you have a huge resurgence of interest in local myths during that period (which is where the Brothers Grimm come into it), and also why you have the start of a pagan revival then—as a result of Iolo Morganwg and his interest in the ancient druids. What’s interesting, is that this treatment of myths and the landscape (which the Romantics were also big on) is part of the strange brand of nationalism that swept through a lot of countries alongside the Romantic movement. It was less the xenophobic kind of nationalism that we hear so much about these days, and more drawn from a connection to the land of your birth, it’s history and it’s myths.

I see modern rural fantasies as a direct development of this one. If nothing else, Mythago Wood certainly has that same texture and richness of emotion and language that you’d expect in a Romantic (or post-Romantic) text, doesn’t it?

I can’t do so much to help you with other books written in a similar vein, although I have a friend that reads a lot of things like this. I know for a fact that he’s a big fan of an old book called ‘Megan of the Dark Isle’ that’s in a similar vein. It’s written by, I think, a Mrs Arnold. Although it’s pretty obscure and I’m not sure how easily you could get hold of a copy. He’s also suggested Susan Cooper’s ‘The Grey King’ as possibly falling into the same category. I’ll let you know if he turns up anything else.

Either way, it’s all something that’s pretty close to my heart. I look forwards to reading that potential rural fantasy novel of yours!

Flannery O’Connor, Mark, Flannery O’Connor, especially her A Good Man is Hard to Find. Quite a few fantasy elements worked in with a distinctly Southern rural setting. In fact, Southern Gothic novels in general might sate your desire to some extent.

Rural fantasy is the mainstay of fantasy literature. Though I think it necessary to define this further into a sub-genre within the sub-genre, namely “pastoral fantasy.” Here it not simply the rural nature of the landscape we must cross but the backwards looking viewpoint with its romanticism and nostalgia held for a more agricultural, picturesque, and idealized past.

The work of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Kenneth Grahame, and others who form the backbone of rural fantasy are all keen pastoralists in their stories; something that is well argued in Michael Moorcock’s famous article “Epic Pooh.” We can see this thread going back further, to one of the greatest of all fantasy novels or novels full stop, Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.” Here the pastoral/rommantic focus of the traditional fantasy story is giving a savage kicking under the hoofs of Rocinante (among of course many other conceits) as that famous knight and his long suffering squire move from the page and into history.

While elements of the wild still exist in their worlds, it is with the realm of the plowed field, the mannered hedgerow, and the humble crofter’s dwelling within the protective circle of the forest clearing, that such authors and their characters are mostly concerned. The Wild Wood of the Wind in the Willows is a dangerous uncomfortable place for the most part, and rightly shunned. Even great weavers of fantasy as Ursula Le Guin rarely have their characters inhabiting a complete and pristine wilderness. Tolkien’s most wild of all his wildernesses, Fanghorn forrest, has its shepherds – the ents, bringing this touch of the pastoralist to the deepness night that lies under the branches. His mountains are home to the cities of orcs and dwarves and the most fearsome tracks of his other ancient woodlands have picnicking elves and homely cottages with blue smoke rising from their white chimneys and ponies grazing on the clover. All this I think, blurs the edges of a real and threatening potential wilderness into something this is more comfortable and manageable.

This makes sense as the agricultural landscape is where, along with the tiny pinpricks of cities scattered like urbane thorns among the hayricks, life as Hardy might see it to misquote him, “proceeds on narrow premisses, and results in inferences wildly imaginative.” It is also driven I believe by our deepest fears of the true wild, especially among Europeans of the primordial forest which partly as a result has not actually existed since prehistoric times in most places. Where small shadows of it remained, even in the middle ages and up to the turn of the century, these spots outside the reach of the plow and the axe were regarded with due suspicion and fear: cool shaded bowers that might give way to wolves, bears, bandits, and witches and the true wildness of the primitive. Not to mention a true fantasy novel of the wild, the most common dialogue would be silence and the biggest threat starvation or simple exposure. Hardly the stuff of epic tales, unless you’re Jack London.

I think the real struggle now is to build a rural fantasy that does not simply become another pastoral romp through the corn, and along with the very practical reasons Mr. Newton provides in his introduction, this is why a great deal of current fantasy has set its sights on colonizing our urban landscape instead. In it lies in part a rejection of the sometimes twee late-Victorian obsession with a mannered and plowed wilderness that never ever truly existed populated by similarly inaccurate happy villeins and chivalrous knights.

I’ve always thought that stories set among real wilds should be sufficiently terrifying, especially if the cultures with whom the tale is concerned are ones historically accurate to those of our own past.

My own first novel is set claustrophobically in a distinctly urban area, but the sequel is intended to take the action to a much wider, freer, and indeed, wild sphere.

That is not to say that writers can not still do the rural tradition proud, but they must gang warily there if an author is not to travel down a road already rutted to the point of unoriginality. You’re only ever a trundling manure cart away from sliding off the road into pastiche and parody. It is however, an area that remains fecund with possibility, even as our own rural areas seem to be slowly but almost surely disappearing forever.


CTD – thanks, how does the novel make use of the country elements, out of interest?

Allegra – what a great, lengthy reply, with some fascinating observations. Yes, I suspect MW does, to an extent, borrow from the romantics, though this is much less so as the series progresses, I would think. And thanks for the suggestions – I shall explore.

Larry – you love your Southern Gothic writers don’t you? Perhaps I should check it out.

Thanks, Lawrence – that sounds very interesting too.

Eric – I mentioned in the post the importance of distinguishing between what is merely back-drop and what is inherently about nature, else yes, we do get into that messy Urban Fantasy zone, and things like Wind in the Willows – yes, that’s exclusively about nature, or rather, it depends upon the natural world to work. That’s exactly what I mean.

“I’ve always thought that stories set among real wilds should be sufficiently terrifying, especially if the cultures with whom the tale is concerned are ones historically accurate to those of our own past.” – Absolutely correct.

I’ve just thought of another novel, perhaps, to some extent: William Hope Hodgson’s “House on the Borderland”, which, when not in bizarre abstract otherworldly realms, almost depends upon the house’s isolation in the wilderness to layer on the fear and vulnerability.

(After this post, maybe I’ll do a recommended list with all the suggestions thrown in.)

The children’s books by Alan Garner were good examples of rural fantasy too. There were some other children’s authors around the same time who took the village/countryside as a setting for the weird and wonderful as well but i can’t remember the title/autor (there was one in the countryside that involved caves and “old Nick” and a dwarf). I was less than 8 when i read/heard them.

Neil Gaiman and Bill Willingham dabble in the rural but are usually more focused on the urban side.

It’s more another genre but all of those anthropomophic books like “redwall” and “duncton wood”, “Rats of Nimh” are also very rural.

Paul Kearney is best-known now for his (very good) post-Gemmell military fantasies, but one of his early books is A DIFFERENT KINGDOM, about a young Irish boy who finds a gateway to another, more dangerous world in the neighbouring woods. It’s reminiscent of MYTHAGO WOOD without ever being derivative of it, and is simply superbly written.

Well worth hunting down, and it would be great to see it back in print someday.

@Mark A good question really, I guess most of the settings are wilderness, which have to be patrolled to keep them safe. The Lakewalkers in the story have a “groundsense” that is a sort of psychic power which sets them apart from regular humans. There is tension between the two, and also problems caused by humans expanding into countryside and becoming too spread out to protect by aforesaid Lakewalkers. Probably more romantic fantasy than rural, but most of the activity occurs in the wild. Sounds a bit lame in retrospect, so I will propose it as quasi-rural!

Of course I love much of the literature of my native region: O’Connor, Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren – some excellent stuff there (although the Warren doesn’t contain anything I’d associate with fantasy, to be honest). After all, the grotesque is but a kissin’ cousin to the Weird, no? 😉

I’ve found Morris’s fantasies to move seamlessly between town & wilderness, but I think that’s partly because (like Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions) his protagonists tend to be more at home in the wilderness and treat towns as rather wild themselves. Both of them were explicitly based on mediaeval romances, though, and that was well before the Romantics found themselves accustomed to town life and mythologized the countryside so much more.

My feeling is that the essence of (British, at least) rural fantasy literature is the tension between the managed landscape and the mythopoeic Wild Wood, and the similarities of the peoples of each. Weirdstone, The Dark Is Rising, The Wind in the Willows…

Regarding other rural fantasies – I’d recommend Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane, and Hope Mirrlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist. Horwood’s Duncton Wood, if you do beast-tales. Chesterton’s The Flying Inn. There’s also a very rich seam of novels based on Child Ballads. Guy Gavriel Kay’s work is always intimately intertwined with landscape, and Tigana in particular is an exploration of the relationship between people and land.

If you want to risk going beyond primary sources, Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy.

Agree with Guy Gavriel Kay — I was going to suggest his Ysabel as a recent exemplar of rural landscape in fantasy.

Le Guin does it sometimes — The Beginning Place, perhaps, or Tehanu.

I recently read Val/Orson by Marly Youmans — it might qualify.

Nina Kiriki Hoffman’s Silent Strength of Stones might be another example, although it’s been a decade since I read it.

I want to say John Crowley, too, because while his stories often bounce between the rural and the urban, he evokes the bright haze of the rural landscape so well — the Faraway Hills of his Aegypt sequence, for example. And while a prototypical category fantasy is the farmboy leaving to become a king in the city, characters in Crowley’s novels often move from the city to the rural.

I said this on twitter, but I’m going to say it here as well: Alan Garner. If you’re not a fan of children’s books (though The Owl Service is magnificent) try Thursbitch – strange and flawed and utterly fascinating.

The other title that comes to mind, oddly enough, is Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan. Large portions of it are set in London, but I think the rural sections and nature itself are vital to the book and constitute most of the best parts.

I think Sam Kelly is spot on about British rural fantasy. And I’m reminded that I really need to read Lud in the Mist.

A few books come to mind.

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart, really the whole Arthurian series, but this first book in particular. The cave and its isolation, the hermetic existence of Merlin are all integral parts of the story.

The Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix. There are cities in the books too, but the most memorable part of it is the remote wall that divides a world like ours from the magical one where most of the story takes place.

It’s a bit of a stretch, but I also thought of The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub. It’s not a rural countryside setting, but more of a suburban road-trip fantasy (another subgenre?). The book works pretty hard to stay away from major urban areas.

I also thought of the Sharing Knife books by Lois McMaster Bujold, which have already been mentioned. They reminded me a bit of the Stewart books, many a memorable scene set in the countryside.

Great topic.

I’ve always been fond of Robin Hobb’s Farseer series. I wouldn’t say they were strictly about the natural world, but it’s definitely a strong flavour. The Wit magic appeals to me as an earthy, natural sort of magic; the main character, Fitz, has a love of nature and solitude; and plants and herblore feature quite heavily. And a recurring theme is about man living with nature, not dominating it.

Are people more cynical about strongly rural fantasy? Could people accuse it of having a slight ‘hippy-ish’ vibe that maybe urban fantasy avoids?

I think it’s my love of nature that draws me to fantasy to be honest. I may be a cynical, rational ecology student most of the time, but god I love that magical feeling of walking through a quiet old wood – and some of the best fantasy manages to capture that eerie feeling of ‘other’, of something old and unknowable.

And I think you’re right about the romantics. It’s said Keats couldn’t see an oak tree without seeing a dryad. I expect many fantasy authors are similarly afflicted!

Rachel – spot on about walking through a quiet old wood.

Alan Garner for me too, although it’s been a while.

And probably outside the scope, but for a direct link to the natural world there’s always Swamp Thing.

Thanks for the suggestions, everyone.

I think it’s fine for the city to play a role in rural fantasy – often the contrast can prove quite striking.

And yes, drawing magic etc., from the natural elements can be very much considered part of the tradition. There seems to be more than I thought out there, which is interesting.

D’oh, Lud-in-the-Mist! Of course.

Keep ’em coming in (and preferably with a line or two for those who might not know the book), and I’ll follow up later with The Big List o’ Rural Fantasy.

How about Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant? Most of the action takes place outside of cities, and the characters’ relationship with the natural world is a focal point of the story. When cities and towns do appear, the manner in which they work with, or destroy, the natural environment around them is critical to our judgement of the respective nations and characters.

I think Blaylock’s _The_Elfin_Ship_ might have some of what you’re looking for. It’s not necessarily about the rural landscape, but the main character lives in a quiet, rural setting and is dragged into a perilous journey. The book is written in a very whimsical style and has a laid-back pacing, which brought it to mind in this context.

The dichotomy of civilization and forest has always been a major part of American fiction since the days of Hawthorne and JF Cooper. The forest was considered dark and dangerous with a potential for evil things lurking.

In recent years with the advent of the environmental movement, the forest and nature are more likely to be the good victims who seek revenge against greedy humans.

As to rural fantasy, Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels are set in rural Georgia with rare forays into bigger cities.

There’s also a recent subgenre addition to the urban fantasy–the suburban fantasy. Think Buffy or a paranormal creature as soccer mom.

I read MYTHAGO WOOD every year. It’s one of my favourite books.

At the risk of seeming self-serving, my Books of the Change probably might fit into this category. But it’s an Australian rural setting, so no forests, rivers, etc. Would that work, or is that a different category again?

Hi Sean – feel free to self-serve. I think it’s all, ultimately, the same – it is the natural world that’s at the heart of the matter, so I don’t think we can get picky over it needing certain environmental features.

[…] The above really has changed, I think. If you take N.K. Jemisin’s A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Mark Charan Newton’s Nights of Villjamur and Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora, they can all be classed as epic fantasy, but they all take place mainly in a city. The rising popularity if the urban fantasy sub-genre seems to stretch its influences to other parts of fantasy too. Mark Charan Newton even pleaded for more Rural Fantasy on his blog! […]

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