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Here be no dragons – fantasy stories in a non-fantasy world

We’ve been away for a few days and one of my holiday reads was David Garnett’s Lady Into Fox (appropriately enough, as we stayed at an eighteenth-century hunting lodge by the name of Fox Hall). Written in the 1920s, Lady Into Fox is about a man whose wife transforms into a fox shortly after their wedding. They are devotedly in love and determined that this strange change does not matter. He dismisses the servants and shoots the over-excited dogs. She wears clothes, bathes fastidiously and continues to eat her favourite well-bred breakfast of ham and eggs. But her feral nature grows stronger. She forgets to walk on her hind legs and starts to chase ducks – and his struggles to keep her civilised grow more desperate.

Mention fantasy and most of us assume a story set in a world of mythical beings, dragons, elves, unicorns, vampires, magic-doers and medieval technology. But the fable, fantasy’s discreet cousin, is another breed entirely.

In Lady Into Fox, the world and its trappings are normal. There is a hint that the lady’s transformation may be a long-buried family trait; her maiden name is Fox and she has russet hair. That’s the only attempt at explanation; this happening is what it is. Nothing similar befalls anyone else, either. It seems the act of marriage has put this lady in a peculiar state of animal rebellion.

It reminds me (very obliquely) of Dean Spanley, the film based on Lord Dunsany’s novella, in which a clergyman may be the reincarnation of a spaniel. The mood is somewhat lighter and in Dean Spanley, the fabulous happening may be all in the minds of the characters. However, the author is teasing the audience to believe too. There’s a whiff of sorcery when a swami gives a lecture on the transmigration of souls. The Dean remarks that cats don’t like him. He has a weakness for Tokay, which gives him licence for almost hallucinatory flights of fancy as a young, gambolling spaniel. And finally we go along with the fantasy – because of what it will mean to the characters.

Fantasy doesn’t have to take place in a fantasy world.

Thanks for the pic, liz_com1981

While I unpack and catch up on emails chaos, tell me – do you have any favourite unusual fantasy or fable-type stories? Share in the comments!


26 thoughts on “Here be no dragons – fantasy stories in a non-fantasy world

  1. My novel, Body of Water, is set between London and the Orkney Islands and one Amazon reviewer said “A compelling story which drew me into an out of the ordinary but thoroughly believable paranormal world so subtly I hardly noticed the transition” so I couldn’t have been happier. I much prefer modern fantasy to high fantasy and I also believe that it’s more accessible for people unfamiliar to the genre.

    My favourite modern fantasy is Sookie Stackhouse series. For me, it’s a well-tuned collision of the modern and the mythical.

  2. Now I must run right out and find a copy of Lady Into Fox! I love those 1920s novels of unearthly variations upon what we think we understand as reality.

    You know, in the 1980s authors like John Crowley and Louise Erdrich were writing fantasy novels set in realistic life, and it was so baffling to the genre-ites of the industry that they coined a new term for it: magical realism. Erdrich, in particular, was writing from the traditions of her Native American elders, who had always told stories of the natural world exhibiting what we European descendants would consider ‘fantasy’ traits—except to the Native Americans it wasn’t fantasy.

    The novel I took to my first agent in the early 1990s was a mix of fantasy and realism, but my agent didn’t know what genre it was, and at that time I didn’t know about magical realism. “Can’t it just be a novel?” I said. “They want genre,” she told me.

    About five years later ‘fantasial’ fiction became wildly popular, a whole new subgenre.

    As Flannery O’Connor said, “You can do anything in fiction you can get away with.”

    1. Thought you might like Lady Into Fox, my dear! I wondered whether to include magical realism in the post – those wonderful people like Marquez and Allende. I felt Lady Into Fox was slightly different – it didn’t seem like the world allowed magical realism, but this one unfortunate thing had happened. Still, we could quibble terms all day and the story’s the thing!

      ‘Can’t it be just a novel’? I know that lament all too well – although with indie publishing let’s hope that more people like Flan are in charge.

      1. Of course! The South Americans! Marquez and Allende have done such beautiful things with magical realism.

        Is Lady Into Fox Kafkaesque, perhaps? Dorian Gray-ish? Fairytale? 🙂

          1. Kafka’s the one who wrote “Metamorphosis” about the guy who wakes up one morning to find he’s a giant cockroach.

            Very deadpan!

  3. Great point Roz! I agree with Stuart that modern fantasy is accessible to more readers than high fantasy. This is probably why Harry Potter did so well – she started with a slow infusion until she had captive audience that she could take anywhere (and she did!) I enjoy both types of fantasy, although I admit its been a while since I read any “pure” traditional fantasy. In my mind, the trick is to meld the two worlds seamlessly. It sounds like Stuart nailed, based on that review he got. I hope to do the same! : )

  4. I think it was Peter Haining who, having compiled an anthology of ghost stories, pointed out that they lose most of their power to shock when published under the title “ghost stories”. Genre on the whole is the cul-de-sac in which originality dies, which is why you will never find the most imaginative fantasy or the most disturbing horror in the sections of the bookstore with those labels.

  5. Lady Into Fox sounds brilliant! Its the type of thing I’ve been looking for. I love my traditional fantasy just as much as anybody else, but I don’t always want it set in far away kingdoms and crammed with elves and magic and vindictive dragons.
    Fantasy, for more is about the fantastic or usual and you can get that down the road in the form of the little old lady who talks to her cats. She may just be crazy, she may have been a cat in a past life, finding some of her own friends… who knows!

  6. Many years ago I read a short story about a man who crashed his car into a tree. The story was about his awareness merging into the tree’s awareness as he died. I wish I could remember the title or the author or where I found the story, but alas, the book was borrowed from a friend and the memory cobwebs are so thick they are like cotton candy. In any case, the story was fantastical in the sense you describe.

    You are giving me hope for my own WIP. I’m calling it Fantasy Adventure, but the traditional term is probably Low Fantasy. The story world is an alternate Earth with a swords and sorcery spin, but I avoided using the classic Tolkienesque races and creatures. In fact, my most recent blog post is a “Creature Feature” about arbolenx, a sentient, tree-dwelling feline that evolved in my imagination from the elvish characteristics of “lives in trees and has pointed ears.” I guess you could say that traditional fantasy is my inspiration, not my template.

    I’m hoping that building a swords and sorcery story around familiar ideas and visuals will indeed make it more “accessible” and interesting to people who are tired of reading epic adventures where the fate of the universe is at stake. I know I’ve grown bored with that. I need to write stories that are more character-based.

  7. Lady into Fox sounds fascinating. I prefer (for both reading and writing) fantasy set in an otherwise realistic world or a fantasy world bordering with or lurking just under the surface of our own world. This particular plot reminds me of world wide legends about women turning into animals, like selkies in Celtic countries. I half remember reading an Asian folktale about a bride who was really a fox in disguise. I’ll see if I can track that down. Has anyone else heard this tale?

    1. Funny you should mention selkies. Another of my favourite stories is Neil Jordan’s film Ondine, about a trawlerman who fishes a girl out of the sea. His daughter swears she is a selkie, and indeed it does seem that with her arrival comes good luck. Wonderful tale.
      In the edition I read of Lady Into Fox, Neil Jordan had written the introduction.

  8. Your post reminded me of the theatre of the absurd–Ionesco’s Rhinoceros specifically. One of my favorite of that style is Madwoman of Chaillot by Giraudoux. I Iove that play and read it whenever I can. No creature characters, though. I also remember reading Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” The first time I was in my twenties and I thought it was quirky and funny. When I re-read it in my forties (by then a parent), I found it hopelessly sad. Funny how different readings will yield different results
    For happy animal fantasy with real characters, there’s the movie To Dance with the White Dog.

    1. Deb, that’s so interesting how your experience of Kafka changed. I always think it’s a pity we have to do our degree courses so young. When I was studying English, straight out of school, I wasn’t equipped to understand most of what I was reading.
      Some great suggestions there.

      1. I agree. “Metamorphosis” is quite sad. But Kafka himself had, I think, an enormous sense of black humor. I recently read The Castle, and although it’s a lot to wade through the overall effect is extraordinarily complex, hilarious, and deeply profound: a tongue-in-cheek portrait of the lunacies of bureaucracy.

        1. Ms. Mixon, did you know that according to Max Brod, Kafka’s dear friend and literary executor, Kafka laughed himself silly when reading sections of his own literature to his friends?

  9. LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE is one I really love. Although I think it falls more in the magical realism category, there are lots of fantasy type things that happen that are never really explained.

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