The Maker’s Art, Part 3: Creating Mythopoeia and Anthropological Artifacts

Last week I waded into long discussion in which I tried to draw a clear line between what constitutes a work of “Mythopoeia” and what is only “Fantasy” – acknowledging along the way that Mythopoetic works can be something other than Fantasy.  My position is perhaps an arguable one, but I’m comfortable delineating Mythopoeia as separate from other forms of Speculative Fiction, and even defining it as separate from the physical “artifacts” that represent it.  Mythopoeia is an idea, something that lives in the hearts and minds of both creators and producers of artistic works.  But it is an idea that we engage by interfacing with those anthropological artifacts: be they written works such as novels, poems, epics, webpages and blog posts, or be they visual works of art, sculptures, paintings, and photographs, or be they motion pictures or music, or be they works in an interactive medium like video games, table-top games, or board games, or be they some sort of new and evolving oral history. There are a variety of mechanisms by which mythopoetic works can be expressed in physical form.  But I’m primarily interested in the written form and those that can benefit from the techniques of the written form. 

By now, you must be wondering… so what?  What does it matter?  Why did I set out to try to define Mythopoeia in the first place?  And, having done so, to what use could this definition be put?

Last time, I mentioned my contention that few writers today are consciously attempting to write something that might be called Mythopoeia.  And part of the reason is that writing Mythopoeia is hard.  It requires thinking at a whole different level, layered on top of the thinking that goes into writing a novel.  I could say the entire essay has been a long way of saying it was partly this realization that forced me to conclude that I wasn’t ready to write “Project SOA #1” yet.  Because as I’ve spent years developing background detail, filling several notebooks with thoughts and ideas on historical and mythological complications, I’ve discovered how truly difficult it is to organize a coherent, complete, and engaging mythology, and how challenging it is to weave that into the primary narrative.  Because as an idea takes hold, if you think about it for a while, you realize the idea has implications – huge implications – that must necessarily change the plot and direction of the novel itself.  This is but one of the challenges I faced with making “Project SOA” work (another being a serious grappling with clichés, tropes, and genre conventions, and better understanding them and when and whether to use them, or if not to use them, how to adjust my plot and characters to compensate).

But the whole point of coming to a better understanding of what is or is not Mythopoeia has been to better equip me with the tools to write novels that rest on the bedrock of a solid mythopoem.  Why would I want to do that?  On one level, because it’s intellectually interesting to me.  I find intrinsic value in the creation of a coherent mythological narrative.  But there’s a baser reasoning, too. 

Consider all the most popular works of fiction in the last hundred years.  I’ve talked before about the “triumph of fantasy and speculative fiction” in the larger popular culture.  But at another level, the best works of fantasy and speculative fiction – those with the most enduring fandoms and the most engaged fans – are often among those with strongest mythopoetic frameworks.  This isn’t universally true (for instance, I mentioned Harry Potter last week, and how I don’t find it to be strongly mythopoetic in nature), nor is the reverse necessarily true either: if you have strong mythopoetic underpinnings to your work you won’t necessarily write a best-seller.  But the more strongly a work is predicated on a complex and coherent mythopoetic framework, the more easily engaged its audience.

If you accept this outcome as desirable (or even better, if you find the idea of writing mythopoeia intellectually interesting and stimulating), then you may wonder: how do I do this? Continue reading

The Maker’s Art, Part 2: Refining a Definition of Mythopoeia Through a Sample Exegesis of the Fantasy Corpus

In the previous post I began a discussion of a topic I’ve long wanted to address here on this blog: the concept of Mythopoeia as a distinct genre within the sphere of Speculative Fiction.  However, I ended the first part of my discussion with what appears to be a fatal contradiction.  I defined Mythpoeia as a work of constructed or artificial mythology, but then acceded that most works of modern Fantasy Fiction (and indeed many works of other subgenres of Speculative Fiction) are predicated on invented mythologies.¹  Still, I contend that there is a line of separation between a true work of Mythopoeia and a work of modern Fantasy Fiction.

Just what, then, is that line of separation?  Consider this: I would assert that Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”, in fact, is not a work of Mythopoeia.  It is, rather, an artifact of Tolkien’s Mythopoem.  It is a physical manifestation, in book form, that attests to the existence of the underlying mythopoetic work.  In other words, a novel, or a novel series, is not Mythopoeia.  But a novel – frequently, but not always, a novel of Epic or High Fantasy – is typically the the primary mechanism by which the reading and media-consuming public will discover and interact with the Mythpoetic work. 

It is my contention, therefore, that while many works of modern fantasy and science fiction include mythological motifs and invented backstories and mythologies, few writers and creators are creating Mythopoeia by design.  Most of the imaginary mythologies and backstories exist solely in support of the fantasy novel to which they are attached, with little or no intrinsic value of their own, and with little of interest to explore outside the framework of the novel.

Take the Harry Potter novels, for instance. Continue reading

The Maker’s Art, Part 1: Defining Mythopoeia in the Context of Fantasy and Speculative Fiction

I’ve hinted in the past (digging into the deep history of my blog) that I’d eventually get around to elucidating my views on the genre of “Mythopoeia”, and why I consider it distinct and separate from “Epic Fantasy“.

Let me get this out of the way upfront: this is going to be a long post.  (There’s a fair probability that I may have to split it into several posts.)  So you’ve got to be rather interested in the fantasy genre or in mythology for any of what follows to be of interest to you.

As another caveat: if anything I say here comes off as denigrating or derogatory to other genres of fiction, I assure you this is a misreading of the intent of what I write.  I strive here only to draw nuance and distinction, not to make claims of quality.  I have a particular organizational hierarchy in my head, but that hierarchy isn’t meant to be suggestive of quality or value, per se.  Hopefully that will become clear in the course of this essay.

I’d like to start off my discussion by laying out a lexicon of Mythopoeia.  As I mentioned on one of my early posts on the subject, the term “mythopoeia” is likely unfamiliar to a large number of potential visitors to this site.  The word itself, insofar as I can deduce, can largely be attributed to J. R. R. Tolkien with regard to its use referring to a literary genre: it is the title of a lovely poem written by Tolkien that serves as a defense of the genre (or, more broadly, as a defense of the Fantasy fiction genre).  (As an aside, Wikipedia has an interesting analysis of the poem on its page about the poem itself.)

Mythopoeia, as used throughout this essay, is a noun, referring to the genre much the way I might refer to “fantasy”.  Mythopoeic and mythopoetic are synonymous adjectives.  A work of mythopoeia could be described as mythopoetic.  A mythopoem is a noun, and means a work of mythopoeia.  It does not mean a poem (in the rhyme-and-verse sense, at least) that is about mythology, although a poem about mythology might be a mythopoem.  (In other words, “mythopoem” is a higher-order category of work that can include some poems about mythology, but also includes works that are not poems.)  A mythopoet, noun, is the creator of mythopoeia.

All of these, then, are contingent on understanding what mythopoeia is – and to a lesser extent what it is not. Continue reading

Castles in our Midst

So, recently I made mention of the castle in my neighborhood, which I and Dear Wife and Shasta the dog sometimes walk by on our perambulations.

And now I can show you.  I just wanted to share.

My local neighborhood "Castle"

My local neighborhood "Castle"

 

You can see from this why it might be called, around these parts, the “Sand Castle”.  If you look closely on the tower, or the other parts beyond the crenelated wall and courtyard, you can see the rough texture of the strange sandstone or sandstone-like material used.  Basically, the texture doesn’t look quite right for a “true” castle.   But you’ve got to give whoever built this kudos for having the guts to make their home into a castle!

Ouch… Just Deserts

It sounds like disgraced memoirist James Frey’s author mill may have had its days numbered.  The reviews for the first film adaptation of his mill’s first work are coming in awful.  Which is not surprising considering the book wasn’t particularly well-reviewed.

Is it wrong of me, as a writer, to hope Frey’s exploitative business plan goes up in flames?

If this movie tanks (which, with reviews this bad, there’s a substantially non-zero chance of happening) then there’s a chance that Frey just might have to close up shop.

That said, the American movie-going public has never been one to put much credence into the reviews of critics; even I find I can’t generally trust critical opinions.  Still, I find that life, and my time, are too short to waste consuming fiction that’s not enjoyable.  I suspect as I age I’ll grow ever more discerning in what I choose to spend time reading and watching…

So I won’t be reading this book nor seeing this movie; not just because I disapprove of James Frey or his business plan, but more broadly because I don’t have time to waste on it when there is so much else that I am excited about reading and watching.

Missed One

As I was doing a quick bit of “research” on my personal writing history – to make sure I got some of the details right on my right on my recent posts of the same topic – I made a discovery in my notebook.  When I wrote up my entry about my various novel and story projects, I’d missed a potential “back-burner” item for a novel concept I came up with following some of my personal set-backs.  I’ve amended the “Note on Novel Nomenclature” entry with the missing project, called “Book of C”.

“Book of C”, like most of the other back-burner projects, currently exists only as an entry of approximately 500 to 1000 words or so in my notebook.  That’s the same state that you’ll find “Book of J” in.  “Book of M” differentiates itself by having about a half-dozen such entries at this point (which is barely anything at all compared to more than a hundred entries in my journal about “Project SOA”).

I describe “Book of C” as a genre mash-up, in a sense.  Part of the idea behind it is to combine tropes and conventions from multiple genres.  Unlike “Book of M” and “Book of J”, which are conceptually stand-alones (at least for now), “Book of C” is conceptually the first in a trilogy.  It centers on three  characters who are brought together in unlikely circumstances in spite of their “differences”, and find they must rely on each other if they’re to escape the powers that hunt them.  In all honesty, though, I’ve not fleshed this one out significantly, even as compared to “Book of J” (which had the benefit of having most of its major plot points laid out for me in a dream).

Still, the initial idea seemed fun, so I’ll definitely be giving it thought in the future to see if I can put some meat on its bones, someday.

From the Dark Days to the Light at the End of the Tunnel Part 2

The years prior to when I started this blog, were filled with a series of personal disasters that served as major set-backs in my writing.  But as painful as they were to bear, they were the catalyst for some serious self-examination about the quality and direction of my work.  It’s the sort of honest self-assessment that I would advise every writer aspiring to publication to go through – though I generally don’t advise having to go through misfortune to reach that point.

This is the part where I wanted to have some easy-to-refer-t0-titles for my various writing projects, as I relate the story of my own re-examination of my writing.  From the time of the car break-in up until the point at which I started revising “PFTETD”, my baseline assumption was that I would continue to work on “Project SOA#1”.  My notebook was populated not exclusively but predominately by ideas and thoughts relating to “Project SOA #1”.  There were, to be fair, a handful of entries about potential short story ideas or novel seeds.  But I was most interested in in pursuing my long-time novel project and finally finishing that book that I’ve been writing since forever.

But somewhere between there and here, my thoughts have slowly changed.  Continue reading

Let the Legopocalypse Begin

There’s a mini-Legoland coming to my town.

I am beside myself with squee.

That is all.

Continue reading

From the Dark Days to the Light at the End of the Tunnel Part 1

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while… it’s been sitting in the back of my head for several weeks.  It was actually this post I had in mind when I posted about the titles to my novel projects a couple weeks ago: I knew I was going to write a post updating my “novel history” series of posts from just over a year ago… and I was going to need more convenient names for my novel projects to keep the post straight.

The “Novel History” posts were a series of three posts I did in January/February last year (here, here, and here) that effectively told the story of how I first conceived of “Project SOA #1”, i.e. the novel that I’ve been writing since forever.  If you’re interested in the general history of that novel (and/or interested into some clues as to what that novel is, or was, about – in those older incarnations – I think those posts are an entertainingly written personal history that divulges all of that). 

But I wanted to write a little more about my “dark days” – the days when I did very little writing at all, and the personal disasters that precipitated that productivity decline – and my eventual arrival at a better place.

I mentioned the personal disasters in the third of those three “novel history” links.  What happened was this: five years ago, in the summer of 2006, I had already decided to make my exit from the smallish town where I then lived.  In those days I was also more active than I now am at Church (I’m still active, but I was single and not in school back then, so my free time was significantly greater than it is now), and I was one of the heads of the committee that planned events and activities for the young single adult members of my church.  The big conference of the summer of 2006 was to be my “last hurrah” as I was soon to retire from the business of organizing such activities.  We expected between fifty and a hundred-and-fifty young people from across our rural region to descend on our hub-of-a-small-town for fun, activities, mingling, and, of course, dancing.  Of course, we couldn’t charge much to attend our conference if we wanted to generate a large attendance, so we had to cut cost corners wherever we could.  One big cost target: the music. Continue reading

Tidbits of Inspiration: Vive la Resistance!

I’ve held back my thoughts.  This is a writing blog.  It’s not the right place, I reasoned, to say something about this.

But today, I must say, I am inspired.  What the Egyptian people have done, using massive, peaceful protests, is nothing short of inspiring.  They’ve changed the course of history.

Sometimes, the sorts of stories we tell in epic fantasies – stories of young heroes fighting against all odds to topple villainous autocratic dark lords – are thought of as escapist fare.  It’s unrealistic.  But what we’ve been seeing unfold in Egypt, and the results they’ve achieved, are a reminder that young heroes really can topple autocratic dark lords.  It’s not a fantasy after all.

And that inspires me.  It inspires me to keep telling these tales.  Because there is something important revealed about the human character and the human condition in these epic stories.  And the Egyptians have reaffirmed vital truth.

So here’s hoping this story has the same happy ending it would have if I were writing it: with the birth of a new, free, democratic nation.  Good luck!