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.

At first blush, one might be tempted to dismiss the word “mythopoeia” as a redundant and overwrought academic term that refers to a genre of fiction for which we already have a serviceable name: that of Fantasy fiction – or, perhaps, more specifically that of Epic Fantasy.  On second blush, you might suspect it was instead an overwrought academic-sounding term referring to the works specifically of members of the Inklings, the writing and literary group of which Tolkien was one prominent member (along with C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and many others), as the term is most often applied specifically to this group of writers (especially by the Mythopoeic Society, which gives out the annual Mythopoeic Awards).  In either case, you would be forgiven for thinking so.  Indeed, the latter society, the Mythopoeic Society, seems to refer to the scholarship of Mythopoeia as the study of the Inklings and their work, whereas their Mythopoeic Award has as its object fantasy fiction in general.

 But I am going to draw a subtle but important distinction.  In doing so, I must acknowledge that there is a strong connection between Mythopoeia and the genres of Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy, and “Door Fantasy”¹, especially.  But in drawing my distinction, it is proper that I also note that some works of Mythopoeia can also be classified by yet other genre labels, such as Science Fiction.  Fantasy, as a genre, does not have a total monopoly on Mythopoeia.  Nor is any work of Fantasy, by default, a work of Mythopoeia.

I’ll begin building my understanding of what Mythopoeia is by introducing the simplified definition of “invented or artificial mythology”.  By this contrivance, Mythopoeia is to mythology what “Conlanging” is to language.  But that simplified definition trivializes the true extent of what constitutes Mythopoeia. 

Let me share a few examples.  The most famous work of Mythopoeia would probably be Tolkien’s own “The Lord of the Rings”.  C. S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” are sometimes called Mythopoeia.  The works of H.P. Lovecraft in the “Cthulhu Mythos” can be considered Mythopoeia.  Stephen King’s oevre, as exemplified by his “Dark Tower” series, are Mythopoeia.  Frank Herbert’s “Dune” novels are Mythopoeia.  The entire “Star Wars” canon and extended canon constitute a work of Mythopoeia.  Ditto “Star Trek”.  Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series is another example.  There is some evidence that Brandon Sanderson is attempting something mythopoetic in a vein similar to that of Stephen King.

The common thread, here, is the use of a mythological framework in which these stories are told.  Each of these has a long, complex backstory that covers hundreds or even thousands of years.  In each of these, we see and feel the impact of those backstories woven throughout the entire fabric of the stories.  Frequently we actually get opportunities to see the events and characters that form the milieu of the story’s mythology interact directly in the fictional narrative. 

And yet, I appear now to have backed myself into a corner.  I’ve defined Mythopoeia as a work of constructed, artificial mythology.  Don’t all modern works of fantasy involve elaborate constructed mythologies as the backdrop to their tales?  How then cannot all fantasy stories be considered Mythopoeia?  Indeed, if I cannot articulate a clearly defined difference between what constitutes Mythopoeia and what constitutes Fantasy – what could separate a work in the latter category from a work in the former – then my argument has failed.

As alluded to earlier, however, the post has gone on quite long enough… and so next time I’ll continue refining this definition of the genre by considering, comparing and contrasting a few well-regarded works of fantasy.

Continue to Part 2…


¹The term “Door Fantasy” is not one of my own invention, but Google has failed to help me find the source where I originally saw the term used – don’t try googling “Door Fantasy” right now, as Google thinks it means something else entirely – and refers to a genre of fantasy, which may have significant overlap with other genres, that employ the motif of the main character going from a contemporary world into an alternate, fantastical reality, often by means of traversing a “magic door” that serves as a portal between world.  The genre includes such works as “The Chronicles of Narnia” as well as the “Harry Potter” series as well as a host of other such tales where some magical mechanism separates the real, contemporary world from the fantasy world.  Other examples that come to mind are Magic Kingdom For Sale: Sold and Alice in Wonderland, and still other examples could be suggested.  Although the examples that most come to mind, to me, are generally of the YA and children’s lit variety, I don’t think the genre inherently is YA in nature.

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

    • “Portal Fantasy” is good; perhaps, I think, a better term than “Door Fantasy”. Another option would be “Magic Door Fantasy”. But, yes… there seems to be too much noise on those terms to pull up anything meaningful. Hopefully the rest doesn’t disappoint…

  1. It is rare that a blog attempts to enlighten as well as entertain. In this case, I learned quite a bit about mythopoeia and the subtleties you introduce. I’m curious, though, as a fellow fantasy writer, what conclusions you will draw from these distinctions and how this may potentially aid the aspiring author.

    • I hope to offer some suggestions on how to approach the concept of mythopoeia in writing with a few tools, tricks, and suggestions at the end of this series. But first I want to dig a little deeper into what I mean by “mythopoeia”.

  2. Fascinating! I love stories with a strong, rich mythology. Dune is probably my all-time favorite series ever. I love the Dark Tower series too. Recently I read Garth Nix’s Lireal and am now reading Sabriel. That series seems to have a complex mythology too as well as a little bit of “door fantasy.”

    • I agree. A strong mythology makes a story stronger, in my opinion. Confession-wise: I’ve never actually read Dune (or any Stephen King); I’ve only been familiarized with its plot and mythology by means of the various film adaptations (both the movie and the Sci-Fi/SyFy channel miniseries)… Ditto Stephen King (of which I’m most fond of “The Stand” mini-series). I am a failure… 😦 Someday I’ll get around to reading some things by King, and also Dune.

      • *Gasp* You’ve never read Dune!!! Says it’s not true!!! Ahhhhhh!
        Okay, I admit it, I haven’t actualy read LOTR either *blushes in shame*. It is on my to-do list. 🙂 Dune is a fantastic read though…all of the original Frank Herbert books.

      • It’s on my list. And, I’ll be honest, I don’t recommend LOTR for everyone. Tolkien writes in a high style that’s more reminiscent of ancient epics than of modern fiction, and it’s sometimes difficult to read because of that. But as the prototype for modern fantasy – it’s well worth the time to get through it, if that’s your field of interest!

  3. Interesting, I think I see how Dune, Star Wars, LoTR, Narnia, etc. fall into mythopeia. But outside of Narnia’s door fantasy, Alice in Wonderlands doesn’t strike me the same way as the other examples.

    I’m beginning to wonder if mythopeia could be an orthogonal aspect to “genre”. I.e. a story could be mythopeic regardless of it’s genre.

    • Sorry for the confusion: Alice was meant to be an example of a “Door Fantasy”, but not an example of Mythopoeia. That’s why I mentioned it separately in the footnote. I think you’re right, in a way… in that perhaps Mythopoeia isn’t precisely a genre as it is… a separate form of creation that can be integrated into virtually any genre of literature. Keen observation.

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  5. I’m looking forward to hearing how you distinguish mythopoeia and epic fantasy. I’ve never been able to draw a satisfactory distinction between the two myself – even though I suspect my personal WIP to be an attempt at mythopoeia.

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  8. A good introduction to the subject.

    “Portal fantasy” is certainly not YA in nature. It is far older than the “YA” distinction and one might even make a claim that it is the original form of modern fantasy. I’m currently reading George MacDonald’s Phantastes which is a portal fantasy and one of the earliest modern fantasy novels. I’m pretty sure that many of the early novels of modern fantasy would also fall into that category.

    I don’t really think Harry Potter should though. Harry Potter is not leaving one world and entering another. It’s the same world and there is interaction between the “muggle world” and the “wizarding world”. An argument of semantics, perhaps, but important I think.

    • See, I really think Harry Potter quite firmly belongs in this subgenre, and here’s why: a genre isn’t about whether some technical and specific thing happens in a story. It’s about the tropes that are used: and HP uses a lot of the tropes of a portal fantasy. Harry Potter is raised in a world that is entirely ignorant of the existence of a separate, magical world. And the magical world is separate because normal-world people (i.e. “muggles”) can’t just enter the magical world of their own volition. (There are a few muggles who know about the magical world, but they are very few, and only so when they are connected to someone who does enter this magical world.) In order to reach the magical world, Harry has to actual go through a magical portal (or two different such portals, actually): the gateway to Diagon Alley and the portal to Platform 9 3/4. As a result of entering this alternate world, Harry is forced to play a role in accomplishing some great feat to save the portal world (this is a common trope of portal fantasies). And at the end of each tale, Harry returns to his normal, mundane life, until the next opportunity to travel to the magical world. That’s the portal fantasy arc in a nutshell. That the two worlds theoreticaly occupy the same planet, or that there is some interaction between them doesn’t disqualify this as a portal fantasy. There’s plenty of interaction, for instance, between Earth & Narnia – the Pevensie kids aren’t the only ones to cross over to Narnia, and characters and creatures from Narnia also cross over into Earth at least once. And there’s more than one way to get from Earth to Narnia and back. Anyway, that’s my opinion, but based on the idea of what makes a genre, HP falls pretty squarely in the Portal Fantasy genre.

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