Yesterday, in my list of ten great books that moved me, I made mention of the term “Mythopoeia” – a term which is no doubt unfamiliar to many readers and potential readers. Professor Tolkien coined the term, at least in the sense of mythopoeia representing a distinct literary genre. As a genre, it is defined as an artificial or constructed mythology. In theory, then, many – if not most – works of fantasy are works of mythopoeia. But truly, Mythopoeia really means something more than just a fantasy story with an invented mythological backstory. A mythopoetic work is the mythology itself, related and told on its own terms. It is a work that explores mythological and anthropological themes, one that reexamines comparative mythology, digests it, and re-crystallizes it into something that is at once familiar and distinct, that hearkens back to a shared history before memory and that comments on the human condition.
Besides all that, Mythopoeia is also the title of a poem written by Tolkien: one that defends the making of invented mythologies (and by extension the writing of fantasy stories) against a friend who found them distasteful because they were all “lies”. The poem must have had an impact, because that friend went on to write his own fantasy stories – stories that are nearly as beloved today as Tolkien’s work.
Today’s writing quotes are selections from that poem:
The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artefact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.
I will not treat your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker’s art.
I bow not yet before the Iron Crown,
nor cast my own small golden sceptre down.
~J. R. R. Tolkien