Writing Quotes: Mythopoeia

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

Happy writing

6 thoughts on “Writing Quotes: Mythopoeia

  1. I’ve been mulling over the defense of genre, or at the very least trying to think of why I enjoy it. It does tend to get a short shaft, and I regret to say I’m sometimes embarrassed when I try to explain my novel-in-progress to friends who do not read fantasy or science fiction.

    Mythopoeia is perhaps the default in most fantasy stories, as part of rigorous, world building, setup and creation. I’m trying to think of where it is not the case, but I can’t think of any examples offhand.

    • For myself, I don’t often try to explain why I like speculative fiction (or fantasy, specifically). I think the gist of Tolkien’s message in this poem, though, gets at the heart of it: something about fantasy is more true than objective reality, and it appeals on that deeper level. In fantasy, we see the pattern of mythical archetypes, and we apply these patterns to ourselves, and we learn something about our own human condition therein. I guess I think fantasy is universal.

      On another level, though, I kind of feel like the argument is done and over, no matter that fantasy is often treated with short shrift. Quoting from my About page:

      The way I see it, though, that’s okay, because I’d be pretty surprised if you hadn’t seen a movie like “The Lord of the Rings” or one of the “Harry Potter”s, or maybe “Spider-Man” or “The Dark Knight” or even the recent “Twilight: New Moon” movie, even if you hadn’t read any of the books, comics, or graphic novels on which these box-office smashers were based. It’s a world of nerds we live in, today, and I’m one of the good guys.

      A friend who saw this post on my facebook commented about a college advisor who warned her that fantasy fiction isn’t “real writing”, whatever he may have meant by that. She politely asked him about Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis, and Dracula, and Frankenstein. (That was her list, but it’s pretty incomplete – you could make a much more extensive and similar list along the same themes.) What did the prof say to that? Well of course, those are classics. Which wholly misses the point. My friend idly wondered whether it was necessary for something to be hated in its day to be considered a classic later, and wondered whether something like Harry Potter or Twilight might one day be classics.

      But, of course, all of those works that my friend listed – whether by Tolkien, Lewis, Shelley, or Stoker – were spectacular successes in their day. What made them classics, I replied, was their enduring popularity. That said… if someone doesn’t get my passion for fantasy or science fiction, I’m really more confused about how they missed the rise of speculative fiction in our culture.

      As for Mythopoeia, considering how rarely the term is used even by fantasy enthusiasts, I’ve come to regard it as a separate genre altogether, in a sense. In other words, I don’t see the fantasy novel itself as a Mythopoetic work, standing alone. Instead, I see the mythopoetic work as sum total of all the worldbuilding that ultimately produced the fantasy novel. In Tolkien’s case, for instance, The Lord of the Rings is not a mythopoetic work. But when you add in The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, The Book of Lost Tales, The History of Middle Earth, and the various bits and pieces of the elvish languages that have been published, and you have yourself some of the finest examples of mythopoeia ever written!

  2. Pingback: Myth: Fantasy Genre Isn’t Real Writing… « The Undiscovered Author

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  4. Pingback: The Maker’s Art, Part 1: Defining Mythopoeia in the Context of Fantasy and Speculative Fiction « The Undiscovered Author

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