As discursive anomalies go, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files rank very high on the lists of strange things that go bump in the night. It begins with the very premise: Harry Dresden, professional wizard. Working in modern day Chicago, our protagonist deals with all manners of small-scale everyday matters, such as finding lost objects, and the occasional detective sleuthing involved in locating missing persons. And – at times, however reluctantly – convincing his prospective clients to take matters to the local police before hiring his services. Being a professional wizard, it would seem, also entails a professional ethos of not mixing the natural with the supernatural when it can be avoided.
Mixing natural and supernatural elements is, however, what the Dresden Files are all about. Paradoxically, readers enter into the series knowing more about the supernatural elements than then the natural. There is no need to expound at length on the nature of werewolves, vampires or demons – these things are so utterly established as doxa that any attempt to explain their general attributes and inherent nature would seem a waste of verbiage. Readers know that werewolves are creatures that shapeshift between human and wolf form, that vampires feed off of humans, and that a proper summoning circle is required when communing with beings from the nether realms. Elaboration would insult your intelligence.
Enter the natural components. As the series progress, our protagonist finds himself at several places that are traditionally not associated with the supernatural. A porn studio, a horror film convention, a very lively eBay auction – when the story finally arrives at the scene of the crimes, these scenes are far stranger than the supernatural elements already introduced. Where werewolves are a known quantity, convention culture is something completely different. Juxtaposing the two creates a discursive anomaly par excellence.
This is not to say that Butcher’s version of werewolves et cetera are completely stereotypical. He does, by narrative necessity, provide some specifics as to how his version of these supernatural beings are constituted. As there is no one singular werewolf mythos (mutatis mutandis), some manner of exclusion is necessary. Butcher has to, in order to contain the narrative within a set of readable rules, exclude several possible versions of werewolves. Of all the possible variants of werewolves that popular culture gives us, one must be chosen. All other variants, while still present in popular culture and in readers’ minds, must be nudged aside.
This overabundance of knowledge about the supernatural contrasts sharply with the scattered and sometimes lacking knowledge about the natural. More often than not, the villains turn out to be motivated by very mundane and very ordinary things, amplified by the presence of supernatural elements. Yet when it comes to understanding these mundane motives, referring to doxa becomes less straightforward. Werewolves will follow the well-known rules of werewolf lore, but complex interpersonal dynamics will follow less known rules. Everyone knows werewolves; not everyone knows the signs of drug abuse.
It is often said that fantasy allows for discussing social issues without having to confront them head on. By approaching them indirectly, through the form of fictional settings with improbable elements, readers can come to an understanding of such issues by means of immersion. The dynamics of the fictional world necessitates certain things, and these dynamics often happen to be relatable to non-fictional environments. The understanding sneaks in through the literary back door, as it were.
Yet, it is tempting to not engage with this subtext, and remain on the level of narrative immersion. To not only not confront societal issues indirectly, but to keep on not confronting them at all throughout one’s reading. There are, after all, more than enough books to fulfill the stereotype of the fantasy escapist, and remain a surface level reader throughout. One werewolf at a time.
Butcher introduces a whole menagerie of supernatural creatures during the course of the series – vampires, werewolves, fairies, demons, ghosts, zombies, angels, even implied aliens. But these are seldom the main focus of his stories. Granted, they are main components and a major narrative driving force, but ultimately they are not what the series is about. There is more to the story than that.
As you read these books – or, as enthusiasts are wont to do, reread them – take note of where you have three or four different sources for the supernatural elements, and can scarcely conjure up a singular one for the natural. You will have an interesting read ahead of you.