Though we consider things in much starker genre divides now, there is nothing so universal as a fantasy story. Fantasy’s roots are in folklore: the timeless myths, legends, fairy tales, and tall tales that have shaped culture and been passed down through centuries of literature. There would be no sweeping epic fantasies—no Tolkien—without first the enduring folk tales that suggest the magic and the mythic can exist in our own world.
Though modern fantasy and the earliest folklore diverge greatly in their structure, they share common elements. They ask us to confront truths about ourselves, both triumphant and ugly, by pitting us against outside and unusual forces, and by removing us from the complacency of the known world. That legacy lives on, most noticeably in works of fantasy that incorporate heavy elements of folklore. Here are a few examples that span cultures.
The Devourers, by Indra Das
Das’s recently released debut is at once intoxicating, grotesque, and gorgeously wrought. After an encounter with an alluringly enigmatic stranger, a modern professor in Kolkata, India, becomes engulfed in a tale that traverses centuries. With the blunt boast that he’s half-werewolf (or shape-shifter, djinn, demon, or whichever term a culture prefers), the stranger imparts two distinct stories from the 17th century: that of three shape-shifters, and of a defiant, enterprising young woman. Beyond its ethereal plot, the novel spends much of its attention on the nature of stories and the murky borders between the real and the fantastic, and between right and wrong.
Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman
Few labor so effectively in the fields of myth and legend as Gaiman, whose American Gods plunked a party pack of deities into the modern American landscape, and who will soon delve further into Norse mythology with a “non-fiction novel.” Anansi Boys shines, however, because Gaiman devotes his full attention to a single source: the titular West African trickster god. When “Mr. Nancy” dies in an appropriately mischievous incident at a karaoke bar, his son, Fat Charlie, begins to unravel his father’s true divine identity—and meets his long-lost brother Spider, who inherited dear old dad’s powers and naughty streak.
The Emperor of the Eight Islands, by Lian Hearn
Trafficking in Japanese mythology and heavily influenced by medieval narratives from that country, the pseudonymous Lian Hearn’s four-part Tale of Shikanoko series follows on the heels of her feudal-focused Tales of the Otori cycle. The first installment introduced us to an intricate web of circumstances, all centered on Kazamaru, the orphaned son of a vassal lord who’s forced out of his home and familial seat by a vengeful uncle. Kazamaru escapes from his uncle’s clutches into the dubious security of a sorcerer’s lair, where he engages in a bizarre ritual, receives a mystical mask, and becomes Shikanoko, “the deer’s child.” His adventures lead him to the home of lords and emperors, and are propelled by sorcery, power, and betrayal. (What’s even better: the second book, Autumn Princess, Dragon Child, was released in June, and the third and fourth are coming in August and September.)
The Iron Druid Chronicles, by Kevin Hearne
Representing urban fantasy’s contributions to the continued relevance of folklore, Hearne’s nine-book series (the eighth of which was published earlier this year) follows wise-cracking, Arizona-based Atticus O’Sullivan, the last of the Druids, who has worked his way through confrontations with a who’s who of mythological figures (Arizona is apparently some sort of supernatural retirement home). He’s smacked down with an irate Celtic god, tussled with an irksome coven of witches, become unfortunately entangled with Thor, and been on the wrong side of goddesses Artemis and Diana’s ire, just to name a few of the famous faces he’s come across.
Deathless, by Catherynne M. Valente
If Valente had written the phonebook, we’d all still have landlines. In her published works, she has crisscrossed SFF subgenres and, in most cases, mixed them together in a narrative gumbo that maximizes the impact of each. She brings her lyrical, ethereal touch to the menacing, bride-abducting Russian folktale figure Koschei the Deathless. Deathless brings the villain of centuries’ worth of stories into post-revolution Russia, where he finds love and demise at the fiery hands of young Marya Morevna, whose demeanor is perfectly shaped by and suited to her time, in a new Russia still clinging to the old.