This blog is the sixth installment of examining the changing meaning of story tropes in urban fantasy.
The polar relationship between good and evil exists in some embodiment in all cultures. For Western cultures, that symbology takes the form of angels and demons. It also shows up in the traditional fantasy world as the Seelie and Unseelie fae. No matter what you call them, these groups of opposites represent the light and darkness, evil or holiness, and even blessed and cursed.
Although these story tropes have extremely different backgrounds and abilities, they feature a number of similarities as well. In both ancient and modern literature, each type often has less than positive relationships with humans. Both are more powerful than humans are by using their magical (or miraculous) powers. They also have specific ranks of authority within their own hierarchy. In addition, the polarity comes out as physical attributes as well. Angels look ethereally beautiful while demons appear distorted and ugly. The similar characteristics apply to the Seelie and Unseelie members, also often referred to as Light and Dark fae. These long-living creatures are either beautiful nature-oriented creatures or animals of mud and blood.
Modern Use and Interpretation
In urban fantasy, these characters emerge from the shadows to become major factors in the plots. In some stories such as Laurell Hamilton’s Merry Gentry books or Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series, the Fairy Courts exist as part of the world but maintain their separateness from humanity. Their culture differs and often works at odds with human sensibilities. In the Merry Gentry tales, the courts stay separate from urban America and feature with royalty-sanctioned duels and political intrigue. Yet the main character and her fae entourage interact with human society.
In Patricia Briggs’ world, the fae live on reservations for their own protection from a potentially hostile human world. However, the protection goes both ways since humans wandering into the reservations are often in danger from the more violent or powerful fairies as well. These are not kind pixies or gentle females wearing gossamer fabrics. Brigg’s otherworld characters often evolved from powerful and bloody pasts.
In the same literary vein, angels and demons now take a more direct hand in the affairs of man or in some stories, have declared war on them. Religion often provides the motive for strife but God no longer pays attention. TV has spawned several shows that take on this theme, including the later seasons of Supernatural and some movies such as Legion. Of course, a number of lighter movies still come out about angels helping people, including Michael. I don’t mention any books here because, although I’ve seen them on the shelf in the bookstores, I’ve not read them. If you know of some good titles, please send them my way.
In both of these story tropes, laws and a hierarchy of society rigidly define the character archetypes. Angels have layers of power while a monarchy governs the Fae. In that sense, they are extremely similar to historical societies of the Middle Ages or dynasties that man has created in the past.
Interpreting the Modern Polar Relationship
The changing nature of angels and demons/good and bad fae represents several factors. First, they morphed from structured and law-oriented to a more free society and chaotic nature. Physics tells us that the nature of everything moves from order to chaos. One could even say these character archetypes symbolize the capriciousness of nature since we are now dealing with more violent storms, emerging disease, and loss of biological diversity. The fae particularly represent nature. In those terms, man’s destruction of the environment is the evolution into chaos.
This idea is particularly true when you consider many of the angel-oriented material features storylines about the coming apocalypse or surviving after civilization ends. Normally steeped deeply in religious dogma, the angel-related symbols are changing. They no longer represent simply untouchable holiness and all things good. In addition, demons might actually provide positive acts once in a while. In many stories, these characters blur the lines of morality. Sometimes the ends justify the means or heaven’s members have lost its leader and therefore are avenging themselves on humans.
How much are we as readers going along with this change because moral standards are cloudy? How often do we cheer on the anti-hero who appears to do bad things for a greater good? Could it be that a portion of society has simply fallen away from blind faith as ascribed by older orthodox religious doctrine? For many, unquestioning belief in our grandparents’ religion is not enough to deal with all the issues of today’s world. This change in our society comes out in the television, movies, and books of the time.
Some urban fantasy writers also show the fairy courts without the extreme polarization. Evil happens for its own reasons in the Seelie court, which ultimately is not better or worse than the Unseelie, only different. This is certainly true in the Merry Gentry stories and the Dresden tales.
In addition, the fae often represent the illusion of beauty. Not just a sense of great bodies and lovely faces but that high perfection only achievable through Photoshop trickery. However, often the beauty is a lie for the unbridled power or corruption that simmers internally. In modern tales, such as Jim Butcher’s Dresden books, these creatures use the illusion in order to trap others to their will. Many of the authors also focus on how alien the fae are as compared to humans. This difference in thought and culture often leads to strife between people and other-worlders. The same kind of thinking shows up between Westerners and Eastern thought or even, for example, Christians and Muslims.
Writing about These Archetypes
In a sense, writing about these polar pairings can be either easier or harder for most authors. On one hand, fairy lore comes with a long history and set characters, making it harder to meld a story that fits that universe. Others take a character out of established lore and expand on it, adding original history and motivation factors. Thus, the archetype presents an opportunity to add to the ongoing characteristics of these beings.
Yet some writers ignore this and make their own world and rules, which is easier on the creation level. Terry Pratchett did not feature fairies in his multiple works of Disc World except in Lords and Ladies, which included powerful and (from a human perspective) evil elves. Since his unique universe was already well established, he did not worry about any past mythos for his new creatures. The example still holds since Pratchett’s world pokes a satirical finger at our own society.
The same is true terms of angels and demons. If a person searches deep enough, particularly in religious texts, they can find angelic hierarchies, history, and myths. How much the writer wants to bring these out is the question. Certainly sticking with set religious ideas works for most end-of-days scenarios.
In conclusion, the opposite aspect of theses societies is what makes them great fodder for fiction writing. As the author, you can decide how to form the rules of their existence or break them completely to create a chaotic environment. However, make sure you don’t violate the rules of your world once you’ve set them up. After all, no one really likes a deus ex machina ending.
As ever, happy writing!