Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

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The presence of a city does not necessarily make a text an Urban Fantasy, where settings tend to be circumambient and where the surrounding city generally exists in the real world. Almost any kind of fantasy may include cities, and in almost any context: they may be seen only from a distance, or they may constitute the primary setting of the tale; they may be come to or left, built or destroyed, forgotten or remembered, demolished or yet to come.

At the same time, not every urban conglomeration mentioned in a Contemporary Fantasy or in a tale set within a Land of Fable or Ruritania warrants being called a city – certainly not as the term is used in this encyclopedia. To be so designated, a place must itself be an ingredient in the Cauldron of Story; it must, in other words, embody a set of Stories – stories which must somehow contain an element of the fantastic. Indeed, it might be argued that a true city could almost be defined as a Cauldron of Story, a melting pot where different kinds of world meet (>>> Instauration Fantasy). Moreover, the Cauldron must be known, the kinds of stories it contains must have been told and Twice-Told; mundane cities whose potential stories have not been conspicuously embodied in texts by more than one writer – an example would be the Ottawa created by Charles de Lint – may hover at the edge of availability, but have not yet been used sufficiently to be recognized as Icons. Cities which are recognizable as homes of story include Baghdad, Byzantium, Cairo, Jerusalem, London, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Paris, Prague, Rome, Samarkand, San Francisco and Venice. When visited by characters, they open like caverns into storied outcomes, and they often contain Portals; when inhabited, they surround the actions of characters caught in an urban fantasy.

Fantasy cities may be found almost anywhere in Secondary Worlds, in similar Otherworld contexts and within Lands of Fable. (Supernatural Fiction – which is often set in real cities – comes close to being assimilated into fantasy whenever it takes as its setting a City of the Dead.) These cities are, of course, inherently creations of fiction. They do not – in the obvious sense that Paris or Los Angeles do – contain a mix of the real and the imagined; they may therefore be presented as either chaotic or totally planned (> Utopia). The cities of pure fantasy might almost seem to subvert our restrictive definition of the term "city", but in fact they do not: if the creator of the fantasy city did not regard it as of iconic importance and theatrical implication, with twice-told stories inherent in its fabric, then almost certainly – outside the ersatz secondary worlds of Genre Fantasy – the city would not be there at all, unless as a mere way station on the route traversed across the Map.

Cities in fantasy may be of almost any size, from extended Edifices to the megalopolis which encompasses the world. They may exist at any point in time (> Time Abyss) in relation to the main story, in the deep past or Far Future, or be visible only when their time or place and our Reality's intersect; or they may exist in the fantasy only as a fantasy. They may be at the actual or symbolic centre of the world or, more frequently, of a lost world (> Lost Races); or they may guard the marches of the known Land. They may serve primarily as the headquarters of an empire or a Dark Lord; or as a capitol; or as a Last Redoubt. They may give space to the living and the dead; they may no longer be inhabited. They may be surrounded by a permeable (or impermeable) Threshold; when this is the case, they are likely to contain or to embody a Portal. They may be unapproachable; or they may be impossible to escape. They may serve as a Polder or a prison from which the protagonist must escape in order to accomplish or continue the Quest. As in the real world, a city in fantasy tends to be a place where the action converges. A silent city is a sign of death, hardly ever of repose.

Cities abound in fantasy, and no extensive list is necessary. Notable examples include: the capitals of various authors' Atlantis; Brian W Aldiss's Malacia; L Frank Baum's Emerald City; the eponymous setting of the Liavek Shared-World anthology sequence ed Emma Bull and Will Shetterly; Opar, which appears in various Tarzan books by Edgar Rice Burroughs; the 55 cities featured in Italo Calvino's Le città invisibili (1972); the unnamed city in Underworld (1992) by Peter Conrad (1948-    ); the eponymous City of the Iron Fish (1994) by Simon Ings (1965-    ); Paradys, in Tanith Lee's Books of Paradys; Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar; the ruined city of Shalba beneath the pre-deluge Secret Lake in Hugh Lofting's Dr Dolittle sequence; Kadath and Thran, in H P Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1955), and Innsmouth in his "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" (1939); Terry Pratchett's Ankh-Morpork, capital of the Discworld; the underground Suicide City in Robert Louis Stevenson's New Arabian Nights (coll 1882); the eponymous city of death in The City of Dreadful Night (1874) by James Thomson (1834-1882); Minas Tirith in J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955); and Nessus in Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983). [JC]


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.