Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Is Harry Potter Urban Fantasy?

In a comment on this post, Johan Larson asked:

Speaking of urban fantasy, there was a brief thread on rec.arts.sf.written recently on whether the Harry Potter series should be considered urban fantasy. What's your take on this?

Now, I could have answered with another comment, but I figured I'd move it up here, in case anyone else cares.

I've agreed, mostly, with the rasfw consensus, which is why I haven't posted there: the Harry Potter books don't show any of the usual accouterments of urban fantasy (in either its original, Charles de Lint/Emma Bull form, or the modern, Hamilton/Harris/Harrison/Buffy version), so I don't think it makes much sense to think of them that way.

But let's take them one at a time:

1) The original definition of urban fantasy was, to dumb it down, "Rock 'n Roll Elves" -- traditional mythological creatures (usually Celtic, though occasionally of Greek or other continental folkloric origin) in the modern world, interacting with modern people. Those modern people also usually were on the fringes of society -- runaway kids, itinerant musicians, and the like. There's still plenty of books like that out there -- I recently read Holly Black's "faerie" novels, which are very much in that vein -- but it's been eclipsed by the massive popularity of the newer type.

The Harry Potter books could superficially fit into this category -- they have some very traditional folklorish tropes, and Harry starts off as outcast and downtrodden as anybody -- but they're not about the intersection of the magical with the everyday, as that kind of urban fantasy usually is. Harry Potter is a Fans Are Slans story, a Lost Prince story, yet another retelling of the King Arthur story. There's nothing ordinary about Harry: that's the point.

2) The modern type of urban fantasy -- which I prefer to call "vampire shagging," though that's probably derogatory and not always accurate -- is more focused: almost always about vampires and/or werewolves in the modern world. Where de Lintian urban fantasy looks back to Andrew Lang, the Grimms, and a thousand other folklorists, the vampire shaggers look back to '30s horror movies, and, occasionally, to Bram Stoker. (Fairies and other folkloric folks do pop up in vampire shaggers, but they're just one more magical thing, not the point of the exercise.) Type 2 Urban Fantasy relies on the appropriation of horror tropes for mystery or romance plots, so calling them fantasy can be seen as a little odd. (Though they do solidly fit in fantasy; fantasy is a large and capacious genre, willing to go along with a lot of things.)

Harry's world has werewolves and vampires in it, but they're set dressing; they exist because the Potter books operate on the assumption that every magical thing really exists (and the better-known a magical thing is, the more it exists and the more important it is). But vampires aren't (to borrow a feminist comics term) Sexy Sexy Danger in Harry Potter, which is definitely their purpose in the vampire shagger novel. Also, the vampire shagger is primarily a woman's domain -- the main characters are overwhelmingly young women -- and that's not the case with the more traditional, male-dominated world of Harry Potter.

So I don't see Harry fitting into either version of "urban fantasy" -- his stories start from different premises and go to different places. I'm sure there's some current urban fantasy that's responding to Harry Potter (and that there will be more, as the younger generation of readers grows up and starts writing their own fantasy novels), and that sub-genres will continue to merge, coalesce, and re-form. But, for now, they look like different things from here.


Molly Moloney said...

I agree with you on HP not being urban fantasy-- though I can certainly see how it may fit (the letter though not the spirit of) certain defensible definitions of urban fantasy.

I was just curious about one aspect of your "vampire shagging" subgroup. Where do Laurell ("Queen of the Vampire Shaggers" Hamilton's Meredith Gentry books fit in? While it's obviously magick-shagging and little else, I would have to disagree with your statement that "(Fairies and other folkloric folks do pop up in vampire shaggers, but they're just one more magical thing, not the point of the exercise.) "

Andrew Wheeler said...

Molly: You're right; I was ignoring Hamilton's elf-shaggers, since they don't fit my sweeping pronouncements. I think that series otherwise fits my description of Type 2 Urban Fantasy, and the fairies in it can be seen as vampire analogs (tall, slim, devastatingly sexy, ancient, comprising a secret society unknown to humans) -- so maybe that's an attempt to subsume that kind of fairy into the new urban fantasy paradigm.

Anonymous said...

I agree that HP is not urban fantasy, but what is your opinion of Pullman’s His Dark Material trilogy. Of course, these books are set in other worlds so that probably disqualifies them as urban fantasy, but what moniker would you give them?

Andrew Wheeler said...

Replying to the anonymous commenter immediately above (in hopes said person comes back to this old post), or to anyone else lurking:

I have to admit that I haven't yet read the "His Dark Materials" books yet (they're on the shelf, with much else), so I won't be too dogmatic about them. As I understand it, they're partially secondary world (though of the variety that's definitely a version of and reaction to our own world) and partly allegorical. That doesn't really fit into either of the main "urban fantasy" boxes.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Andrew for the response. I suppose you would consider HDM generic fantasy. Do read it before the movie later this year.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Stan: I wouldn't say "generic," actually -- it's clearly not epic or high fantasy, which is what that sounds closest to. Pullman's trilogy looks pretty idiosyncratic to me, and not easily pigeonholed. From all reports, it's more Miltonian than anything else.

Anonymous said...

Your right about the HDM trilogy not being easily classified. Neither will my four book series I'm currently writing.I'm putting a contemporary fantasy label on the series.

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