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