The Tragedy of Multi-Volume Epics

Read an interesting article this week on “the perils and pleasures of long-running fantasy series” by Zack Handlen.  The article seems to conclude, ultimately, that all very long, multi-volume epics are by design doomed to disappoint – and yet we love them anyway.  It’s a difficult conclusion to reach.

Zack Handlen appears believes this happens because readers become attached to the characters in these stories – a true enough proposition.  I know I’ve become strongly attached to characters in long-running series.  The readers, Zack argues, are involved in an intimate “relationship” with the series that is ultimately “one sided”.  With each successive volume, the epic fantasy author raises the stakes – and reader expectations – for the final volume, making his job increasingly difficult.  Part of the problem, the article suggests, is that the once a book is published, it’s “set in stone”.  The author can’t go back and tweak it, revise it, and refashion it.  As the story changes in the telling, the details at the beginning of the series may no longer mesh with the reality that comes at the end.  The series accumulates so many threads, some are left loose and other resolved unsatisfactorily for at least some readers.

However, I’m not sure I agree with the general thesis that all long-running epic fantasies necessarily lead to disappointment.  Continue reading

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? Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Tidbits of Inspiration: Vive la Resistance!

I’ve held back my thoughts.  This is a writing blog.  It’s not the right place, I reasoned, to say something about this.

But today, I must say, I am inspired.  What the Egyptian people have done, using massive, peaceful protests, is nothing short of inspiring.  They’ve changed the course of history.

Sometimes, the sorts of stories we tell in epic fantasies – stories of young heroes fighting against all odds to topple villainous autocratic dark lords – are thought of as escapist fare.  It’s unrealistic.  But what we’ve been seeing unfold in Egypt, and the results they’ve achieved, are a reminder that young heroes really can topple autocratic dark lords.  It’s not a fantasy after all.

And that inspires me.  It inspires me to keep telling these tales.  Because there is something important revealed about the human character and the human condition in these epic stories.  And the Egyptians have reaffirmed vital truth.

So here’s hoping this story has the same happy ending it would have if I were writing it: with the birth of a new, free, democratic nation.  Good luck!

Friday Flash: Where It All Began

Someday I’ll write a sci-fi or something else like that in response to T.S. Bazelli’s weekly writing prompt.  I thought it would be this week, if I wrote anything, but that’s not what happened.  Instead, as is often the case, fantasy happened.  The challenge this week was to focus on setting:

The Challenge: Write a story (1000 words or less) that is set in a place you have never been. This place can be real or imagined. The theme: “home”

I sort of cheated, though.  I used a place I really had been to (the Dun Beag fort outside Dingle, Ireland) as the source of inspiration for the setting of this tale, even if the place itself is “imagined”.  (Also, of course, it’s just over 1,000 words, but I do that almost every time, so that’s not new.  This one’s 1,306 words long.)  And so, let’s take it back to:

Where It All Began

By: Stephen A. Watkins, Jr.

Sea foam sprayed up as waves crashed against the cliffs of Dun Chuain, where Aran was born.  At the very edge of the cliff, as though a stray wind might rip it from the cliffside and send it plunging into the churning waters a hundred feet below, rose the House of Dun Chuain.  It was a small wooden manse – long oak planks, steeply-pitched roof, and a watchtower – growing out of a mortared stone foundation some seven feet in height.  The current House was built seventy-five years ago, and the gray wood showed its age, but the House of Dun Chuain had been inhabited for several centuries.  Around the cliffside manor were the remains of the old village – stone huts and walls built without mortar, stacked with exacting care, by Aran’s ancestors. Continue reading

Review: Wheel of Time Books 1 thru 12

So, over the holiday weekend, I finally finished The Gathering Storm, the twelfth book in the “Wheel of Time” series by Robert Jordan.  I’d mentioned some time ago that when I finish this book, I’d do a review of the series up to this point.  My reasoning for doing a review of the series, and not of just this book, is that by this point fans of the series are likely to know whether or not they want to read the next book, whereas people who’ve never read these books are more likely to want to start from the beginning.  So, a review is of little worth to the former (especially some ten months after the book’s release) and the latter will be more interested to know if the series as a whole is worth investing in.  So, here’s my review: the good, the bad, and the ugly of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.

(I will try to keep this review spoiler-light, as it is intended for those who’ve never read the books, but I can’t promise I won’t mistakenly slip one in here or there.) Continue reading