May is peak cottagecore vibes for me: the nascent blooms, the birdsong, the feel of sun on your skin. It’s all very life-affirming after the cold dregs of winter. Cottagecore, like spring, is pleasant. Pretty. Unchallenging. And above all, a fantasy. So what better time of year than May to dip into some cozy fantasy?
I was first made aware of this niche genre by a friend of mine, a fellow cozy enjoyer, my Stardew Valley compatriot. While discussing our current reads, she turned to me and said, “Okay, don’t judge me, but…” and then described Legends and Lattes to me, essentially a story about an orc running a coffee shop. Far from judging, I thought it sounded lovely. I looked it up and had a chuckle at the novel’s subtitle: “A Novel of High Fantasy and Low Stakes”. Because that’s cozy fantasy in a nutshell. The fantasy doesn’t necessarily need to be high, but the stakes must be low. Sometimes you want to just chill with some elves without it becoming a whole thing.
Typically, the markings of high fantasy involve (per Masterclass) “a setting very unlike Earth”, “world threatening forces”, and “fantastic creatures, historic or unusual technologies, magical elements, and other unearthly elements”. We’re talking Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, The Fifth Season territory: maybe based somewhat on the real world (Tolkien and Martin based their continents on Earth’s recognizable geography), but populated with fantastical creatures and shaped by a need to vanquish a world-shattering foe (or foes). Cozy fantasy, on the other hand, can feature the trappings of high fantasy (creatures, magic, etc.) without the hassle of saving the world. Everyone’s definitions of what counts as “cozy” seems to differ slightly, but I like the way Book Riot puts it: “Cozy is an emotive modifier like horror or thriller, where the category informs readers what emotional effect the book builds.” It’s a rejection of the cynical, grimdark facets of some modern fantasy (like the Game of Thrones HBO series) which can sometimes seem dark for dark’s sake. This is fantasy, people! We don’t always have to base it on some pseudo-medieval brutality!
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It’s well into December, the air is icy, and the treetops are dusted white. Have you got chestnuts roasting on an open fire yet? This may be the only time of year that actually suits quarantine: cozying up with a good book and a hot cup of cocoa (well, except for all the holiday parties we’re missing out on—but let’s not talk about that). 2020 has been a year of many things, most of them truly awful, but one positive trend that has emerged from the rubble is something called cottagecore. If you’ve ever dreamed of giving it all up and running away to the woods, or of having your own thriving vegetable garden, or of days spent baking bread and tending to plants, then you’ve been dreaming of the cottagecore ideal!
So what exactly is this “cottagecore” all the kids are going on about? The New York Times describes it as “an aspirational form of nostalgia that praises the benefits of living a slow life in which nothing much happens at all.” It’s basically like living inside the Animal Crossing or Stardew Valley games; perfect, fictional worlds in which your only responsibilities are tending to crops, raising animals, making friends, and decorating your house. Your cottage will most likely be in an open field, or in the woods, or perhaps by a small village where you can pop into some locally owned shops. It is, essentially, the antithesis of our hectic, technology-based, urban lives.
Of course, like all things, cottagecore is not even close to being a new concept—what’s old is new, and what’s new is old. The term itself is new, a thoroughly modern invention combining the obvious “cottage” with the suffix “–core”, denoting a genre (derived from “hardcore”, which in the past 30 years has given itself to endless genres: softcore, mumblecore, normcore, the list goes on). But the concept of eschewing modernity and returning to nature is older than dirt. Back in the day, the general term was “the pastoral”, which mostly applied to literature that idolized country life. Romanticism (with a capital R) was a prevailing artistic trend in the 19th century, and was “suffused with reverence for the natural world”. In William Wordsworth’s famous “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”, the poet describes the peace he feels when thinking back on a field of daffodils blowing in the breeze.
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