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?
In answer, I’ll start by saying that I’ve come to understand that there are broadly two types of writers, neither superior to the other: there are the “seat-of-your-pantsers”, otherwise known as “discovery writers” who sit down and write by the seat of their pants and discover in the course of writing who their characters are and what the conflicts and plot are; and there are planners who meticulously map out every detail to their satisfaction before sitting down to write. It’s a continuum, really; I haven’t perfectly pinned myself down, but I fall closer to the “planner” end of the range.
I mention this by way of suggesting this: to the degree that you want to include mythopoetic themes in your work, you’ll find that easier as you take time to plan your novel first. If you’re anticipating a multi-volume story, this goes doubly. This is largely a question of the seriousness of your intent to write mythopoeia versus your intent only to write fantasy or science fiction. In one respect, my attempt to delineate Mythopoeia from Fantasy was not entirely correct. The speculative fiction genres are inherently strongly mythical in nature, and to some degree they are generally mythopoetic. In my example of Harry Potter, for instance, though I spotted large holes in the underlying mythology of Rowling’s wizarding world, there were nonetheless many mythopoetic themes running throughout.
But at this stage, if Rowling became aware of the holes and gaps in her mythology, she’d find it very difficult to go back and fill in those holes without disturbing the “established canon” of the Harry Potter world. This is the difficulty you want to avoid if you want to create a more a work that is more strongly mythopoetic in nature: because to the degree that you do engage fans with your work, they will explore the boundaries of your created world. And if those boundaries don’t line up, they’ll find out about it.
So, step 1 is: prepare to spend a lot of time planning out your background and mythology and doing careful world-building. This isn’t a creative act that every writer will find interesting. And this isn’t to suggest it is impossible to interweave mythopoetic themes into your work if you are a discovery writer – but if you are writing a multi-volume work, this can prove to be an added challenge, because it becomes increasingly difficult to change or explain what you’ve written (and especially what you’ve published) when you realize that some bit of mythology you’ve created means something radically different for your world than what you’ve written. Regardless of which type of writer you are, be cognizant of this potential pitfall.
The second bit of advice is this: analyze the most strongly Mythopoetic works for clues. One thing you will find is this: the best Mythopoems weave a heavy dose of natural, real-world mythology into their constructed tales. Whether the influence is acknowledged or not, you will find echoes of Norse mythology in Tolkien’s work, strains of the Eddas, and reflections of the Nibelungenlied. The world is rich with mythologies waiting to be explored in fantasy fiction. If you want your mythopoeia to resonate, you’ll tap into that illustrious tradition. Some seem to believe that Western European mythology is all-tapped-out these days. I disagree, but as writers today we would be remiss to neglect the many other mythologies waiting to be discovered. And be mindful of opportunities for synthesis, and for bringing together ideas and themes from the traditions of multiple natural mythologies. But be careful how you do so.
Next, take time to think about the implications of the ideas you’re exploring. If the story of your says that the gods did a certain thing when they created the world, what does that mean about the magic system you’ve selected? Are the two incompatible? If an ancient hero performed some great act that has resonated through the ages, how would your current hero be influenced by those stories? If that ancient hero is the founder of what has become a modern, oppressive empire, wouldn’t that hero become the villain in the myths of the peoples who have been crushed by the empire? Ask questions about what the ideas you’re exploring mean. Sometimes, you won’t find a ready answer. Sometimes, you’ll find the answer forces you to reexamine your pre-existing assumptions about your characters or plot. But that’s okay: if you’re planning the book, not yet writing it, then nothing is set in stone until it’s published.
Next, turn back to real-world, natural mythology and consider how myths develop, grow, and change over time. There are implications in this process for your own myth-building. The accepted wisdom of your protagonist’s day and age need not equate with the underlying truth of your world. You may find that difference between the reality and the myth is important. Challenge your characters’ assumptions and beliefs. You’ll find doing so is rife with dramatic potential.
You’ll also want to put some thought into the form and artifacts of your mythopoem. How will your audience engage with the mythopoeia? Will it be primarily through the novel or story? Or through some other mechanism? I recall one novel series, for instance, that was heavily footnoted as though the novel had first passed through the hands of a scholar in the world of the book. Other books that I’ve read are littered with quotes in the chapter headings from important written works from the world’s history and mythology. Others have published encyclopedias of the world’s history, or collections of the world’s myths and stories. Some publish material online. They may write poems, or songs, or selected passages from epic works. Still others have published nothing extraneous at all, with no more information about the world available except what is directly accessible through the primary narrative. Each of these has the potential to subtly alter your audience’s perceptions of the presentation of your world’s myths. And different readers will react differently to the different mechanisms. For some, footnotes will add a sense of verisimilitude. For others, it breaks the fourth wall and yanks them out of the story. The same could be said of each of the other routes.
A lot of the work of Mythopoeia overlaps with world-building, and there are a good many resources on good world-building on the internet. (I don’t have time, presently, to offer a comprehensive set of links now, but I’ll try to come back around and do that at a later date.) But the Mythopoet’s overriding concern is this: mythology is about more than just gods, creation stories, ancient heroes, the origins of magic, powerful artifacts and terrible monsters. Mythology is about a people, about self-identification, about coming to grips with who we are in the context of our history ancient and modern. It’s about trying to make sense of ourselves and the world around us. Your characters need myth. And you need myth. Keep that in mind as you try to pursue “The Maker’s Art”.
Now, it’s your turn. What thoughts would you like to share about creating your own mythology? What tips can you share about the process of writing myths? Have you thought about how you want to present that mythology to your audience, and if so, how? What are your favorite examples of mythopoeia in fiction?