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. I love them quite a lot – but I hesitate to call them Mythopoeia, though they perhaps teeter on the very edge. Certainly there is an interesting backstory surrounding the founding of Hogwarts and the four houses, or the invention of Quidditch, or the relationship between Hogwarts and other schools, or the foundation of the Ministry of Magic. But there are enormous gaps in the mythology – and these are gaps for which the evidence suggests that Rowling does not intend to fill, and for which there is no evidence that she ever considered the implications of those gaps in her story’s mythology. If some of these gaps were fully considered and addressed, they would have huge implications for the plot of the Harry Potter books.
For example, for those interested: England is generally portrayed as though it is the center of the magical world, housing the “Ministry of Magic” that polices the separation of the magical and “muggle” worlds. This is naturally understandable as Harry Potter was written with a primarily anglo-centric audience in mind. But we are also shown that rival magical schools exist besides Hogwarts outside of England. Are these rival schools similarly subject to the Ministry in England? Or do they answer to institutions similar to the ministry in their own countries? The Ministry in England is shown to be an apparatus of the British government. Wouldn’t that then suggest that all wizards everywhere are British subjects or otherwise subject to British hegemony, regardless of actual nationality, unless there were similar governing institutions? And if analogs of the Ministry exist in other countries, then how is the rule maintained that separates wizard and muggle worlds across a multiplicity of nations? Does Voldemort have sympathizers overthrowing these analogous institutions across the world? Or is he only concerned with what happens in England? What happens to the rules dividing the magical and the mundane in a country like America, which would naturally have drawn wizards from a wide variety of wizardly traditions across the globe in the same way that it has drawn muggle immigrants from across the world?
Considering these questions and many other unanswered questions – and answering them – would vastly change the world of Harry Potter, and dramatically alter the scope of the work. There is an enormous amount of history and mythology that is entirely absent from the published works. And considering the full implications of this invented mythology – and more fully exploring it – is the line the separates great works of Fantasy or Speculative Fiction from something that could be called Mythopoeia.
Now, this is a difficult line to tread. From the outside, it’s impossible to say with any certainty that Rowling didn’t grapple with these same questions, and come up with complex and detailed answers to her own satisfaction – but that she failed to even hint at them in her actual works because she didn’t consider them relevant to her plot. It is, on my part, mere speculation that in fact she did not have such consideration. But even taking, for a moment, my assertion as factual: this is not a knock on or a dig against, or in any way a disparagement of Rowling’s work. A fine and inspiring work of Fantasy, itself, is a thing of beauty to be admired, regardless of whether it contains a more complete mythology or not.
Which gets me back to “Lord of the Rings”. “Lord of the Rings” itself contains many tantalizing hints at a greater and deeper mythology. But it also leaves a lot of unanswered questions. But whereas those thoughts and ideas engaged by the reader upon encountering Harry Potter go largely unanswered, the same questions that occur upon encountering “Lord of the Rings” are more fully explored in Tolkien’s oeuvre – starting first with The Hobbit, but subsequently followed with The Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales, and The Children of Húrin, and a host of other published materials and notes left by J. R. R. Tolkien and edited by his son Christopher. There is a world to explore, here, and it is fully self-contained. We get enough of it within the novels as directly impacts the plot, but so much of the rest is only hinted at – but we know that behind those hints are volumes of work because much of that work has been published.
It is not necessary for the underlying mythology to be published in its own volume for a work to be Mythopoetic in nature. But it is important that the underlying mythology exist, first of all. It should be coherent and accessible. And inasmuch as that mythology exists in a form in accord with its own nature, the mythopoetic work gains in stature.
And this is what I mean when I say that few writers today have truly endeavored to create a work of Mythopoeia. Few grapple with their invented mythologies on its own terms. Few fully explore the depth and implications of their mythology. Few follow it to its natural conclusion.
That’s because this isn’t an easy art. This is hard stuff to write. Because it isn’t just back-story. An invented mythology needs an invented people. Okay, yeah, and fantasy writers deal with that difficulty all the time. But real people rarely exist in isolation. Which means a realistically portrayed history of an invented people will have them interacting with other invented peoples, which means other invented mythologies. And there are a lot of details to creating this history. You need timelines and sequences of events. You need personalities to become your mythic figures. You need conflicts and plots. In fact… in creating a fully developed underlying mythology, you in fact double, if not triple or more, the work of creating a novel, because you have to do all the same work. And then as you compose the actual novel, you have to weave this stuff through the actual narrative in a satisfying way.
In the end, I am not really defining Mythopoeia as a genre in which you can write a novel. A novel is a physical form, but a myth is something metaphysical that exists in the minds of people. A novel, a book, an artistic depiction, a motion picture: these things are anthropological artifacts. And a mythology, a true mythology – one that resonates with people and lives in their hearts and minds – will have artifacts. From the perspective of a writer – an artist working within a written medium – a novel is very likely the most prominent artifact attesting to the existence of a Mythopoem. But it need not be the only one.
There are other types of written works that might be such artifacts. I mentioned The Silmarillion, earlier. This is one such example. The Silmarillion isn’t a novel in the traditional sense. It doesn’t follow the traditional structures of a novel. Rather, it relates a series of distinct stories that together form a mythological narrative. And looking to our real-world history, and real-world mythologies, we have still other examples of written artifacts: We have mythological epics such as The Odyssey, The Iliad, Gilgamesh, or Beowulf. We have the various Icelandic epics (both the Poetic and the Prose Edda), and the Nibelungenlied, and the Medieval Romances such as “Le Morte d’Arthur” or the “Song of Roland” or “Tristan and Isolde”. And eventually we come to the works of Fantasy’s immediate precursors, such as Lord Dunsany and his The Gods of Pegana, a book of invented myths that is the spiritual precursor to The Silmarillion. In modern works of Fantasy and Speculative Fiction, we sometimes get encyclopedias about the worlds and histories of our favorite stories. And we sometimes hear about the extensive world-building that writers have done and the notes they have documenting their world-building. All of these are examples of the potential artifacts of Mythopoeia.
So… now I have a framework for what Mythopoeia is, and to some extent what it is not. But why would someone want to do this and, assuming they do, how? Next, I’ll explore how to approach the creation of Mythopoeia, and how to incorporate it into your writing.
¹ Allow me to note that the terms “artificial mythology”, “constructed mythology” and “invented mythology” as used throughout these essays are meant to be synonymous. I’m not making any subtle distinctions between what is artificial, constructed, or invented.