The Rediscovery of Myth
“There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jewelled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned”
In other words: without myths the world would be rather dull and empty. That is roughly JRR Tolkien’s message in his poem Mythopoeia, of which these lines are taken. ‘Mythopoeia’− it might not ring a bell, but you are probably more familiar with it than you think. I, at least, was surprised how many mythopoeic features I had already come across in my life without realising it.
Mythopoeia, as you may have guessed, is a Greek word. A quick visit to online dictionary Mirriam-Webster teaches it literally means ‘myth-making’. Despite its ancient Mediterranean appearance, mythopoeia is also something very much alive today. Perhaps the literal sense is not very concrete, but it gives an indication of its comprehensiveness. Mythopoeia has many sides. Once you know it exists, you will see it more and more often − on different levels. And that is exactly what makes mythopoeia so interesting. A notable aspect of mythopoeia is its reference to a genre in literature. Hidden among epic fantasy and speculative fiction you can find mythopoeic books. They involve archetypes, traditional mythological themes, and most importantly: fictional mythology (http://www.goodreads.com/list/show/3158.Mythopoeic_Fantasy_Books).
However, nearly all fantasy and science-fiction novels contain a fictional world, or an alternative universe. These are made-up worlds that involve made-up history, culture, and religion, all of which are irrevocably linked with myth. So what distinguishes mythopoeic fiction from ‘normal’ fantasy?
“While many literary works carry mythic themes, only a few approach the dense self-referentiality and purpose of mythopoeia” (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Mythopoeia). This narrows the definition of mythopoeia somewhat, but it remains difficult to draw the line.
For example, the protagonist of the Belgariad series, by David Edding, has to fight an evil god. A divine antagonist implies a mythic theme, surely, but is this ‘dense’ enough to make the series mythopoeia? Or take Joanne Harris’s novel Runemarks − an interesting take on the Edda¹. What makes it difficult to label it ‘mythopoeia’ is the fact that the tales created are not entirely new. Inspired by Norse, Germanic and Icelandic mythology, Harris uses and adapts existing material and conventions: “I took the characters I liked best from the Norse pantheon and wrote my own versions of their stories”. (http://www.runemarks.co.uk/runemarks.html). While reading the Discworld series, by Terry Pratchett, you will encounter familiar gods as well. However, this is probably more mythopoeic (as far as you can measure ‘mythopoeicness’) than Runemarks: beside the fact that numerous religions are combined and twisted, parodied and mocked, Pratchett also introduces completely new gods in an already crowded pantheon.
You might think these distinctions are a little arbitrary. Luckily mythopoeia has its own Mythopoeic Society, which provides us with the following − more formal − approach:
We define this [mythopoeic literature] as literature
that creates a new and transformative mythology, or
incorporates and transforms existing mythological
material. Transformation is the key — mere static
reference to mythological elements, invented or pre-
existing, is not enough. The mythological elements
must be of sufficient importance in the work to
influence the spiritual, moral, and/or creative lives
of the characters, and must reflect and support the
author’s underlying themes. (http://www.mythsoc.org)
Though it remains a bit of a sliding scale, this definition helps to explain why Ursula le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan counts as a strong example of mythopoeic fiction. Myth plays a pivotal role in the life of the main character Tenar. Taken away from her family at an early age to become high priestess of the ‘Godking’, almost every aspect of her personality is changed dramatically. Everything, from her name to the people she lives with, is determined by religion. This novel shows what it takes Tenar to change her view towards the world ─ a view thoroughly influenced by the cult she is part of.
Not only does the Mythopoeic Society provide definitions, it also explains how mythopoeia has developed over the years. As mentioned, the lines of the poem above, “myth-woven and elf- patterned”, are the words of Tolkien, writer of mythopoeic works you are definitely familiar with; Lord of the Rings, and more relevantly, The Silmarillion. As he wrote the latter in an attempt to give England its own mythology, it is perhaps the most classic British example of mythopoeia. Still, Tolkien is not the only one of interest for the Mythopoeic Society. Together with some colleagues of Oxford University, many of whom also wrote mythopoeic literature, Tolkien founded the group ‘The Inklings’. During the 1930’s and 1940’s, the members of the Inklings gathered to talk, criticise and discuss their own works. However, the writers denied the group as being a ‘club’ or ‘society’: they had no rules or official agendas. The formality of their meetings also varied: both college rooms at Oxford and a pub, The Eagle and the Child, served as locations. Apart from Tolkien, C.S Lewis and Charles Williams were prime members. Though never officially noted as Inklings, W.H. Auden and T.S Elliot were associated with them as well (http://www.mythsoc.org/inklings/). It would be a wrong conclusion to say that mythopoeia arises out of demand of today’s growingly atheist society to a sense of ‘spirituality’: most of the Inkling authors were Christians. Apparently, despite their religion, the Inklings felt the need to devote time to mythology, to discuss pagan subjects, and to invent pseudo-religious stories. Indeed, even the notion of ‘today’ is wrong: although Tolkien invented the word and wrote the poem, mythopoeia already existed before that: the 19th century writer George Macdonald is seen as the father of the genre. Maybe it should not come as a surprise that in the age of Romanticism, with its notorious escapism and interest in exotic tales, mythopoeia thrived. Read some poems by Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, or Blake, and you are bound to find mythopoeic features. It does not stop with prose and poetry: even Wagner’s classical music contains mythopoeia. Skip two centuries and you will recognise mythopoeic traces in a totally different environment − films such as Star Wars and games like Final Fantasy.
Despite its popularity on many levels, mythopoeia is also source of debate. The poem ‘Mythopoeia’ was written precisely because of a discussion on this topic, to defend the creating of myth. It was Tolkien’s reaction against the opinion of his friend C.S. Lewis, who thought myths were merely lies (http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Mythopoeia). Moreover, Lewis was not the only critic. According to folklorist Alan Dundee, mythopoeia is too artificial to meet the standards of real myth. Others argue that you cannot compare mythopoeia with ‘naturally’ evolved tales (http://mythopoeia.askdefine.com).
This reminds me of the comparison of folk epics to literary ones: Homer assembled the products of generations of storytelling in his Iliad and Odyssey, whereas Virgil composed an epic on his own in The Aeneid. The latter lacks the accumulation of tradition, just as mythopoeia lacks a layer of beliefs that supports ‘true’ mythology. I would not say, however, that it lessens the quality of mythopoeia as a genre in fiction − as long as you separate it from conventional mythology. It depends on the writer whether the created mythology evokes negative artificiality or provides extra substance to a non-existing world.
There seem to be many different notions of what mythopoeia is and how broadly defined it should be. Unfortunately, this is too short a space to give sufficient attention to, and a convenient analysis of, mythopoeia. However, I hope this article shows the concept applies to more than you would think at first sight: from videogames to epic fantasy and from music to romantic poetry. For all their differences, many sources agree on one point: mythopoeia adds some seasoning to a fictional world that might otherwise be, to say it in the words of Tolkien, a bit ‘void’.
If you have become curious about mythopoeic fiction, I would definitely recommend − next to the other examples mentioned in this text − Graceling, a gripping novel by Kirstin Cashore and winner of a Mythopoeic Award.
By Maj Hansen
1. Edda: primary source of Germanic, Icelandic and Norse mythology. Comes in two variants: Poetic Edda and his younger brother, Prose Edda. (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/178885/Edda) In this case, both probably served as inspiration.