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Fantasy As Mythology

Let’s take a leaf from Tolkien’s book and consider the fantasy genre as a collection of mythologies representing a variety of fictional worlds. How do writers create these worlds and how are these mythologies forged?

The Priestess by capprottiFirstly, what is mythology? Modern interpretations of mythology could lead readers – falsely so – to believe mythology is exclusive only to the ancient civilisations of the world, due to the popularity – both academically and culturally – of retelling Greek and Roman myths, many of which have become popular movies. A standard dictionary describes mythology as simply being: “a body of myths, as that of a particular people or that relating to a particular person.” When taken into account that a myth is simply a story which tells of particular legendary events, we can see how the notion that particularly excellent, deep and well-crafted fantasy novels/worlds can be likened (at least for our purposes here) to a mythology. And if we’re likening fantasy to mythology, we need to talk about Tolkien, entirely because he called his work a mythology himself.

Middle-Earth has become a household name and buying a book of Quenya lessons has become commonplace. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings is a cultural phenomenon and has moved from the cult realms of fantasy and science fiction, into popular culture, following Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the trilogy. Furthermore, Tolkien’s work was thoroughly drafted and well thought out. However, in modern epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings is outdated and overly-lengthy since although it incorporates many “necessities” of medieval romance – the literary father of epic fantasy – it lacks deep character development and realistic details which the modern market craves, and his successors provided.

There is no question that Tolkien’s world is tangible, people would not speak Quenya as fluently as they speak English if it were not, and people would not marry in Elvish wedding dresses or exchange vows with the One Ring as a token. However, identification with character is difficult when compared with more modern fiction, due to the heavy use of experimental archetypes—especially in regards to Legolas and Gimli—with little personality or purpose besides a representation of their people and realm: a token elf and a token dwarf. Additionally, The Lord of the Rings was arguably the first of its kind in many ways (but not all) and as such should be treated as an experimental work which is bound to be infinitely flawed whilst being infinitely visionary.

Disturber of the Peace by BenWootten

There is much speculation over why Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings and subsequent histories (only subsequent in publication date, not writing). It is widely agreed that since Tolkien took the “further crucial step of identifying [Middle-Earth] as our own green and solid Earth”, it was Tolkien’s intension from the offset to create a mythology for England. Furthermore, Tolkien himself “in letters and in his Foreword to the work, avoids the word ‘novel’ … markedly preferring ‘story’ or … revealingly ‘history’.[1] Other suggestions remark that “Middle-Earth … is our Earth as it was long ago. Moreover [the hobbits] are still here”,[2] showing that even in its early stages, pre-publication and certainly pre-Hollywood, it was never a simple fantasy “novel”.

Accepting that Middle-Earth is Earth is not difficult; the Shire represents Tolkien’s beloved Oxfordshire and Mordor is the industrialised London which he despised to the core. However the acceptance of Elves and Dwarves is somewhat less digestible (for some); something that would have alienated some readers who were unfamiliar with Norse mythology – where Dwarves were richly involved – and with various worldwide mythologies wherein Elves, or shining ones, are regularly mentioned, specifically, but not exclusively in Saxon folklore. Here they are gifted a revered bloodline. This challenges the stereotypical image of Elves as relatives of the Fey folk of Welsh, Celtic and Irish myth—or, upon closer inspection, rather that they physically resemble the aos sí (or aes sidhe/sidhe) of Gaelic mythology.

It’s easy to see how Tolkien’s work falls under the banner of mythology, however, so do other fantasy novels, even ones that never strived to be anything more than what they are: stories. Ultimately Tolkien was an academic, a scholar. He did not write because he had a story to tell, moreover, by his own admission, to forge a body of myths for England, bereft of its own rich mythology.

Death of the Balrog by AndeadBut Tolkien is a good start to explore what makes a world tangible enough to then become deep-seeded into the reader’s brain, so deeply that reference and acceptable to and of that world becomes normal. Some worlds are so richly crafted, so alike to mythologies themselves, that they are parts of our culture. Think of Martin’s work, Rothfuss’s, and Jordan’s.

Obviously, if we’re likening epic fantasy to mythology, the world is the most important aspect that needs to be perfected initially. It is the foundation upon which everything else stands. A mythology needs roots in real life with “familiar skies by night, familiar shrubs and trees, birds and beasts on earth by day, men and manlike creatures with societies not too different from our own”.[3] Familiar, but not too familiar. Sounds very much like a fantasy staple, to me. See, the mythology-fantasy link is actually quite valid, given the right circumstances. Of course, in more modern settings, and with the increasingly popularity of “new weird”, this isn’t always the cut-and-dry presentation of fantasy settings.

It is something Eddings has done, particularly in the Belgariad and Malloreon where he identifies that “some of the similarities between people of this world and our imaginary one should be fairly obvious … the Sendars correspond to rural Englishmen, the Arends to Norman French …” and he goes on to link the majority of his peoples with real world counterparts. However, he notes that “the Drasnians and Rivans [among others]… are story elements and don’t need to derive from this world”. He’s right; not everything must correspond—‘strange, but not too strange’. Without new races and ideas we completely forfeit the “strange” component so necessary in creating a damn good fantasy world.

Once the iron is cast in the pot and the world forged; what next?

Eddings is expansive and clear as to what his views are: He lists the following ten ingredients as necessities for a good medieval romance. Now, right now, we need to clarify something: this is as generic a list—and as subjective a list—as what you like to wear, the colours you’d paint your house, the things you like for breakfast. It also happens that for quite some time in the fantasy genre, it was generally accurate. People liked this list, made friends with it, used it, introduced it to their friends, and invited it to New Year’s. Now, we’re less stringent; maybe we’re rebels against our grandfathers, but hey, times change. Still, if we approach the list lacking all the semi-haughtiness instilled by the notion that because it’s “new” and “fresh” and “modern”, today’s brand of fantasy is better somehow, we’ll do alright with this list. Pick and choose a few elements from it, too. Even Eddings didn’t use all of them, all of the time. Think of this list as a course, a menu; a little buffet of choices ready for the plucking; “cafeteria tropes”—only take what you like. Gherkins on mine, please.

1. Religion

Warrior In Winter by StonemaidenArtFirst on his list is Religion. Presenting a single-god world is tricky unless you want to write about all the baggage that comes with monotheistic cultures. Just take a look at our own religions and I think you’ll catch my drift. Eddings agreed, believing “pagans write better stories … when a writer is having fun it shows and Pagans have more fun than Christians.”[4]

Maybe that’s true. Maybe it used to be true. Or, maybe it’s just his opinion and we can glide on by.

2. The Quest

The second requirement is the obligatory Quest, which as Eddings jokes, is necessary unless you wish your protagonist to remain at home growing turnips. Plus, I’ve read precious few stories where absolutely no—or very little—travelling is involved. Generally, people go somewhere.

3.The Magical Item, Etc…

Next is the Magical Item, followed by 4. the Hero, 5. the Wizard and 6. the Heroine. Along comes 7. the Villain, 8. the Fellowship, 9. the supplemental Female Cast to counterbalance the (supposed) all-male Fellowship, and finally 10. the World itself.

The list raises many questions about philosophy, sexism, the definition of good and evil, alongside the immortal question of ‘what makes a world, a world’. It also hurts the eyes and shows its age: this list has not aged well, really. It’s all tattered and wrinkled at the edges, and full of things that really and truly aren’t necessary in SFF anymore. Honestly, it’s just plain old out of date. In fact, if you followed this list to the letter, your story probably wouldn’t survive your own editing process. It’s a bad list.

But.

Think about it, write this list down, go through your favourite fantasy novels and tick away: these things are still there. Younger, fresher, newer writers happened across this list, stumbled into the mess hall and started picking at the buffet. Perhaps that’s why modern fantasy is all the more accessible and interesting; it no longer follows a rigid framework that, whilst it used to have all the good intentions of a mentor, guiding a plot, if adhered to now, would inhibit it. The list as an entity is dated; the components aren’t.

White Wizard by Justin SweetThe majority of the Big Ten are still pretty kosher—the Quest, the Hero, the Heroine and the people. Plus, we can’t have anything happen without a world in which to set it. It could get incredibly abstract if we tried. We can oust the wizard immediately, if we like. Many writers do. Others have fun, change the stereotype and give us mages, sorcerers and other less musty incarnations. When we say “wizard”, tell me a gentleman in a blue robe with emblazoned with stars, donning a pointy Medieval princess hat (I call ‘em like I see ‘em) doesn’t come to mind. (That, or Harry Potter, but we’re thinking pre-90s here.) This isn’t the case any longer. Practitioners of magic have become just as varied as our Hero.

Next we can stick the Magical Item in the bin. The most outdated dish at the buffet, the Magical Item is old, fusty and hardly as attractive as it used to be. We’re done with rings and swords and worn old tomes around which the plot revolves. Mostly. Like the Italian verb structure; there will always be exceptions (and exceptions to the exceptions).

We can’t really throw the Hero away, but, we can change him, give him a shave and a bath (or not, if that’s how you roll) and forge him anew—in fact, you could change his gender. Technically, this reverses the items on the list: the Hero fills the place of the Heroine (aka Love Interest), and vice versa. Personally I’m an old sop, and I think romance is important—I don’t care what kind (I’m a guy, I’m not fussy, I don’t want chocolates and flowers unless you really must)—but it adds authenticity to the characters. People like people. If eternally jaded characters such as Mark Lawrence’s Jorg can exhibit, shall we say, “emotions towards another that could bring about intimacy of a kind” (wow, pretentious, do I get a cookie?), then less heartless characters certainly can. It’s important, whichever perspective it’s presented from, whichever way around the Hero and Heroine appear on the list. Of course, if we’re feeling groovy, Heroine and Heroine, or Hero and Hero. We’re a progressive world.

We might not need Fellowships in name, any longer, but as it’s a fancy word for a group of people, we clearly can’t get rid of it. If every fantasy hero(ine) were an embodiment of the Lone Ranger, things would be trite very quickly. People are good, friends are good, even people you hate but have to travel with/stick around with are good. Population! What good is an empty world, a one-(wo)man cast?

Eowyn and the Lord of the Nazgul by Donato GiancolaThe same can be said for a Villain. We need him, or her, or them, or it. Somebody has to do something bad, right? Ultimately, there must be some source of conflict, whatever kind and from whatever source. Without conflict, there’s no story to be told, and we might as well all grow turnips to pass the time.

However, we really don’t need the Female Cast any longer—ideally they’re already there in the Fellowship part. See how much simpler our equal and progressive world makes things? It’s like getting a Two-For-One on ice cream or something equally yummy. We get to skip a step like you get to pass Go in Monopoly when a Chance Card tells you to. It’s a good thing.

So the Big Ten—World, Magic(al Item), Hero, Heroine, Fellowship, Quest, Villain, Wizard, Female Cast and Religion—are really just a bunch of obvious, individual elements that are like chemicals you can mix in a test tube before setting under Bunsen burner. Some go well together; some will melt your tube; some are weird, wonderful and are so wrong they’re right; and others are either so inherently abhorrent when mixed that the noxious plume you’ll create when you drip, drip, drop them together with your pipette will get you removed from the building—if it’s still standing.

Fantasy Feast from Shrek by Nathan FowkesOn the other hand, some go together like peas and carrots, chocolate and orange, coffee and whipped cream. So right you couldn’t possibly think of separating them. Generally speaking, think of them as ingredients, stoppered away in a varying selection of glass phials and bottles, sealed away in airtight tubs. Use them sparingly, carefully and never think “the more the merrier” and grab handfuls of each. The result will be a thousand times worse than only mixing a few that object to one another, and instead of blowing up the lab, you’ll blow up the world—your own lovingly crafted world.

Take things from this list in the perfect quantity for your world, your story, your mythology, and what you’ll create will be what it was supposed to be: just right. Adhere to the list, stray from the list, make up new things and pencil them in, just like annotating a recipe book if you think the recipe has too much salt. What works for one world will destroy and cheapen another, and what makes one world sing, will bog another down in endless amounts of “meh”, the “it’s alright” factor. Something hateful is better than something to which people will be indifferent. As with many things, when creating a strong and rich mythology, the devil’s in the detail and the formula must be just so in order to get it right.

– – –

[1] Brian Rosebury, “Imagining Middle-Earth”, Tolkien; a cultural phenomenon, Palgrave Macmillan (Hampsire:2003)
[2] Paul Kocher, “Middle-Earth: An Imaginary World?” Master of Middle-Earth, the achievement of J.R.R Tolkien, Thames and Hudson, (Cambridge :1972)
[3] Paul Kocher, “Middle-Earth: An Imaginary World?” Master of Middle-Earth, the achievement of J.R.R Tolkien, Thames and Hudson, (Cambridge :1972)
[4] David Eddings, “Introduction” The Rivan Codex, Voyager (London:1999)

Title image by Donato Giancola.

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar DAMM says:

    A fantastic read. Thanks a lot for this. Nicely done.

  2. An interesting article, but I think it sort of wanders away from the topic. Mythology is a step up from a cult and a step down from a religion. Fantasy stories do not become mythologies because of their genuine hand-crafted pseudo-realism, but because they tell the same types of stories that serve the same purposes that the mythologies do. While it is true that many mythologies have quests, they are not requirements, unless the word ‘quest’ is so broadly defined as to be useless. Often the purpose of the quest is simply to replace the familiar trappings of the quester’s world with unfamiliar ones, so that he can find the deeper meaning beneath both. It is the meaning and the finding of it that matters, not the quest. Quest is plot, mythology is theme.
    Plenty of epic fantasy stories fail to be mythologies in any way, focused as they usually are on the plot. Not even as important a quality as character development will do that. Mythology, like any religion, is not about one man’s truth but about universal truths. LOTR is a mythology not because of its questy plot but because of the deeper meaning that Tolkien is displaying by means of the quest. Who are the heroes and why? Who are the bad guys and why? The Silmarillion makes this cosmology overt.

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