Charles de Lint: Some thoughts on his fiction

2DBE34BA-14B9-4D15-9F54-BEA725DB4EE3I’m not sure which of Charles de Lint’s books I read first, or that it matters — probably not. What matters is that I’ve been reading his fiction for quite a while now, and with one or two exceptions, I’ve enjoyed it. He’s what I call a “good” writer: a born storyteller, his prose has grown strong enough to keep me reading (usually), even though I don’t always agree with how he’s saying what he’s saying, his characters and settings are real enough to touch, and his presentations of his themes are, more often than not, persuasive.

He’s been called “the master of the modern urban folktale.” Not really. He doesn’t tell folktales, he writes fictions. There’s a difference, and while I’ll agree that he is now occupying a sort of boundary area in his stories, they’re still not “folktales.” He certainly is carrying a lot of folklore in his head, that much is obvious, but he’s writing what he calls “mythic fiction” and what most of the rest of us call “urban fantasy.” The distinction is one of tone, character, vision. His fictions are often didactic, as are folktales, but he is not reinforcing the status quo, by any means, while folktales, among their other purposes, provide a reinforcement of what their societies are about — what a social scientist would call cultural ideals.

De Lint is an idealist and a romantic, two traits that seem to go together automatically. His first published story, The Oak King’s Daughter, establishes that firmly, and is something of a keynote for the books in what I think of as his “early period,” although it’s not a “period” at all — stories in this group tend to pop up throughout his career: the Cerin Songweaver cycle, Into the Green, others in which he uses what I tend to call a “standard” heroic fantasy setting: quasi-medieval with necessary anachronisms, in de Lint’s case with a strong substrate of mystery.

He is not, however, a writer of heroic fantasy, the stories collected in A Handful of Coppers notwithstanding — very few buckles get swashed in nearly thirty years of de Lint’s fiction (although I suppose in a way one could consider the short novel Jack the Giant Killer something of a romp a la Dumas — by way of Harold Lloyd, perhaps). His heroes are quieter people, more introspective, the great battles of an everyday sort, confronting and mastering individual and very personal demons. “Transformation” is a key idea: change is part of growth, growth is essential to life, and for that there is a price. That theme runs throughout de Lint’s work, a central concern. We can see it in The Oak King’s Daughter, and more strongly drawn in later works, most notably, perhaps, Moonheart.

He writes talky stories. Mostly he’s such a good storyteller that I don’t mind. He’s exploring ideas, searching for congruities, looking for syntheses. Then again, he can get preachy — I did say “idealist.” Of course, he has an agenda — any writer we’re going to pay attention to does. By and large, he’s looking at some of the ways our society has failed its members, particularly as the work comes closer to the present, both in publication date and in context. Given that de Lint’s focus is on people, it’s probably closer to say “the ways we’ve failed each other,” but in addition to being an idealist and a romantic, he’s an optimist — we can make it better. I come back to his work because he loses patience as much as I do when we — humanity, each and every one of us in all our tattered glory — stop caring, or even worse, stop noticing. It’s a wake-up call.

A correspondent recently railed on about his belaboring the idea of the “noble red man.” He does — the mythic structures of Native cultures are a framework for his moral imperatives. He’s unique, I think, or was until very recently, in combining the strands of Celtic and Native North American lore. What my correspondent didn’t realize is that “the noble red man” has his counterpart in the noble white man. It’s obvious that de Lint does understand and value the roots of Western culture, whatever its contemporary excesses may be. He uses the Native traditions of North America as his contrast, but there is always the sense of searching for a synthesis. De Lint looks for parallels, counterparts. Think about Moonheart: there is a realm in which origins become one Origin, paths become one Way, lessons become one Teaching. We just have to find it.

Perhaps the most distinct portrayal of this is in Svaha, an unusual book in de Lint’s oeuvre, but an important one, I think. It’s de Lint’s science fiction story, a creeping dystopia in a devastated landscape, and brings to the fore the idea of aboriginal peoples as the preservers and teachers, which is something that is intrinsic to most aboriginal cultures: stewardship of Creation as the moral stricture. It’s instructive that when Gahzee begins to repopulate the empty enclave, it is with both Natives and refugees from the Megaplex and its “civilization”: both have something of value to offer.

In Greenmantle, de Lint seems to reach the core of his archetypes. Although the framework for Mally, Tommy, and the stag (as well as the those who hunt him) is Old World, the resonance is universal. Mally is not a European spirit, in particular, but something that bears as much resemblance to Pukwudji as to Puck, and Tommy’s plaintive music could come equally from a cedar flute or from panpipes.

The “contemporary” part of de Lint’s mythmaking is more elusive, and again Greenmantle is instructive: rather than an ancient evil such as the Willow in The Oak King’s Daughter or Malek’ha in Moonheart, we have the mob as something pervasive, remorseless, and completely self-absorbed, powerful with no restraint on the use of that power — pretty much a definition of evil in any fantasy that avoids cartoons. Oddly enough, the Wild Hunt is completely inverted in this novel, appearing as the hooded, silent figures who pursue the stag: rather than conveying unrestrained wildness, they seek to destroy it.

Jack of Kinrowan, which includes the shorter novels Jack the Giant Killer and Drinking Down the Moon, brings those images a step closer to our own contemporary mythology: the Wild Hunt appears as a group of bikers, still faceless, still silent, and still menacing, but a completely modern image.

The Newford stories bring it all together. The synthesis is complete, and de Lint has moved his mythic structures completely into the contemporary world. It’s no longer just a matter, as it was in earlier books, of setting stories in a modern city with place names and traffic and government functionaries as window dressing. The archetypes, which had been more or less locked in their own histories, have taken on modern dress as well, and any character may suddenly move into another realm (although not all live that way). The Crow Girls, Lucius Portsmouth, the Kelledys (our old friends Cerin Songweaver and Meran, the Oak King’s daughter), might have their provenance in one mythology or another, but they reach beyond that into the depths of our collective spirit. De Lint has joined the likes of Neil Gaiman (even to setting “Da Slockit Light” in an “undercity”), Jane Lindskold, and Tanya Huff in cutting loose these demiurges from their origins and finding them places in our world. With the creation of such as the gemmin and the oil fairies and their like, de Lint then takes it one step farther — it’s a sort of population genetics of Faerie, adaptive radiation through the Looking Glass.

De Lint has more recently moved the focus of his stories to the American Southwest, but shows the same facility for incorporating the local folklore into books such as Medicine Road and Forests of the Heart, not only without damaging the original, but bringing it to life in a new context. (You can read an excerpt from the latter here.) I mentioned “transformation” as a key concept in de Lint’s writing. That concept finds perhaps its most complete explication in his newest book (as of this writing), The Wind in His Heart. This one marks a milestone in de Lint’s career: I used the term “masterpiece” in my review, and thinking about it again, it still fits: it’s really a complete synthesis of all the elements of his fiction, assembled in a kind of narrative that is hard to pull off, which he does beautifully.

I think de Lint started out with a gift and has, over the course of his career, matured into a rare kind of mastery in which vision and craft have become inseparable. And running through all these stories is de Lint’s focus on the personal — they’re all intimate stories, even the novels. It’s the sheer humanity of de Lint’s fiction that makes it so appealing, so easy to come back to again and again.

There’s more, of course. With any artist of substance, there’s always more to talk about, more to discover. In fact, I was thinking it would really have been easier to write a book — there was so much I had to leave out. But I think I’ll leave you that discovery for your own.

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.