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.
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.