Tidbits of Inspiration: The Birth of Religion

Gobekli Tepe

Gobekli Tepe

National Geographic is, as ever, fascinating.  In this latest article, I found a piece that resonates strongly with me and with my writing.

I’m at an early stage of my writing “career”, such as it is, so I can’t really say there are any strong or recurrent themes on which I have frequently touched in the body of my work.  That said, I do feel like there is a pattern to it.  One strongly recurrent theme is the relationship between mythology and religion.  And religion is important to me, on a personal level as well. 

And so, this article was entirely fascinating to me, and is the subject of today’s Tidbits of Inspiration.  The article is about the excavation of an archeological site in Turkey called Göbleki Tepe (which I actually know how to pronounce by virtue of my visit to Istanbul).  What’s astonishing about the site: it appears to be a religious mecca – a massive temple complex – that dates back to the early Neolithic period and 7,000 years before the building of Stone Henge – a period when organized religion, according to old theories, had not yet developed.  The site suggests a profoundly different development of human civilization than anthropologists and archeologists had long thought: one in which organized religious worship was central to the development of human society from the hunter-gatherer period into the stable, agriculture-focused communities that gave rise to the long arc of human recorded history. Continue reading

Planning for Pantsers

Two weeks ago, as I wrapped up my series of posts on writing Mythopoeia, I mentioned that it would be useful, if you want to produce a work of mythopoeia as the bedrock of your speculative fiction novel, to employ a “planning” method for writing.  Whereas, of course, this can be difficult for someone who’s a “pantser” – someone who writes by the seat of their pants, otherwise known as a discovery writer.

I’m mostly a planner, myself, but betimes I am also occassionaly a pantser.  Meaning, I think writing style is more of a continuum than a binary either/or proposition.  There are times when one methodology is preferrable over the other, I think, but neither is inherently better or worse in general.  I, for instance, will tend to “pants” it when working on shorter-length fiction.  But for those who hover closer to the pantser side of the Force more often than not, treading into the world of planning can seem… shall we say… daunting at times? 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: The Lost Tribes

You may have seen in the news lately that photos were released of an indigenous Amazonian tribe that has remained uncontacted by modern civilization.

There’s something inspiring, in a way, about the idea of these pre-industrial civilizations hidden from the eyes of modern society, lost in the jungles and remote islands of the world.  There’s a grand tale, an epic to be sure, woven in that mysterious history.

What would it be like to be the first of these lost tribes to come in contact with a greater world that is both magical and barbaric – so advanced and yet, from your cultural perspective, so backwards and so fallen.  This is the stuff of deep mythology and epic tales.  This is basic Hero’s Journey stuff, the thread of which flows through so much of our story-telling.

A Taste of Fantasy

I’m not sure how often I’ll be able to participate in these Author Aerobics exercises being posted by T. S. Bazelli on her blog, but I decided to participate this week, at least.  (I say I’m not sure because the situation on the home-front may evolve such that I might need to take a short break from regular daily blog updates, for a little while, to focus my attention on things there or for school.)

Anyway, this week’s challenge was a dialogue punctuation excercise, asking us to utilize a number of different dialogue tags and punctuation.  Which means, of course, that the story would largely involve a lot of talking.  Oh, and we were asked to touch on the theme of “spring” (with the sly suggestion at the end that this could mean “the season” or “the coil”… or something else, entirely).  I decided to pass on another shot at a steampunk (it’s too soon), as much as I enjoyed the last one, and go straight for a little mythology-inspired fantasy that actually arose from pondering both the word “Niflheim” and the antecedent of spring: winter.

So, a couple notes: yes the dialog is a little archaic and stilted.  It reflects the mood I was in after reading a few wikipedia entries on norse mythology.  I also struggled with adding “The End”, because this doesn’t really feel like the end of a story, but the end of a chapter.  I contemplated using the phrase “The End?” with a question mark, but decided that was a little silly looking.  I contemplated not putting “The End” at the end.  Ultimately, though, I’ve no idea if I’ll ever return to the world described in this short tale, so for now “The End” is appropriate.

I call this 1,004-word taste of fantasy (woohoo, almost in the word-limit!):

From the Farthest North

By: Stephen Watkins

“No,” he said.  “The law is the law.  I will not allow it to be broken, not even by you.”  Ingurd turned away from his impetuous son to gaze out at the thick banks of snow visible in the pale moonlight.

Hulfur Ingurdson would not be deterred.  “Do you want our village to die, father!  Our food will not last.  The spring has abandoned us, and we will all perish unless we do something!”

Ingurd turned on his son, a fire in his eye.  “Do not lecture me, boy!  Our laws have kept us safe for generations.  You cannot conceive of what is out there, of what I’ve—“

“Peace, Ingurd,” Snorri interrupted, holding his hand up in a gesture of conciliation.  “Allow me to speak to the boy, to explain again our law, so that he can understand.  The winter,” he said, turning his attention to Hulfur, “has always come.  And it has always ended.  And with the coming of the winter, there have always been the Niflurmur, who feed on men’s souls.  You have thought that they were legends, but there was a time when their attacks on Holdur Thyul were relentless. 

“That was before we built the wall.  And that was before the Law of Winter.  None can go outside the walls, as long as Winter’s claw grips the land.  Any who goes out is Lost, for we cannot risk the touch of the Worms of Nifhel here in Holdur Thyul.  When the spring thaw melts the mantel of winter, then we are safe, for the Niflurmur always retreat to Niflhimor with the retreat of winter.”

“But what if the winter will not retreat?” Hulfur pressed.  “It has been six turns of the moon since Deepwinter’s Night.  The spring is past due by at least two turns.  This winter…” He cast his glance over the wall toward the heavy drifts of snow, ghostly in the pallid light.  A raven settled at the peak of the wooden palisade and squawked once.  “This winter will not end…”

Ingurd turned again from his son, scowling, and shooed the raven away.  Snorri frowned momentarily before answering Hulfur.  “The winter always ends, Hulfur.  The spring always comes.  It has been thus ever since our people came out of Mitlhimor to this northern land.  The spring comes, and then we will plant.”

Hulfur sighed.  Snorri was a skaald.  He was the keeper of the history and the laws of Holdur Thyul.  These were things he would know.  He glanced at Ingurd, who kept stoic watch over the winter-gripped forest beyond the palisade walls of Holdur Thyul.

“You would be wise to listen to the boy.” 

Ingurd started at the sudden voice.  He gazed over the heavy drifts, from which the voice had sounded.  “Who… who dares—“

A figure stepped from the shadows of the woods, covered in a long dark cloak and a wide-brimmed hat.  Ingurd swore a curse.  “By the din of Vyolnir!”  He turned to sound the alarm.

The stranger raised his hand in a gesture of peace, striding toward the walls.  “Hold your alarm, I am no Worm of Nifhel.”

Ingurd growled. “Hold yourself, stranger.  Whether you be Niflurmur or no, I cannot tell, but you’ll not cross the gates of Holdur Thyul this night.”

The stranger smiled, and his hand disappeared into his cloak.  “I will wait here, then, in the shadows of your walls, until my message is heard.”

“What message is worth hearing in the cold of winter?”

“You fool, Ingurd Baldurson.  You cower behind your wall as the reach of Nifhel grows longer and tighter over Mitlhimor.  Do you think your walls can hold back the ravages of winter?  Do you think that you can hide from Nifhel’s gaze here, at the very steps to Nifhel’s Gate?  The boy is right.  The time for bold action has come.”

Ingurd eyed the stranger, wondering how the man knew his name.  “Who are you, stranger, that you come here and speak so, that you walk about in the depths of winter as though you have no fear of Nifhel?”

The raven settled on the stranger’s left shoulder as he produced a deep chuckle.  “A fool only has no fear of Nifhel’s might, but a fool also who goes about in winter unequipped to deal with Nifhel’s minions.”   The raven on his shoulder squawked again.  “I am called Gylfar, and I will deliver my message.

“Know this, Ingurd Baldurson, and Snorri Sturlungson, and all you of Holdur Thyul: the Twilight is at hand, and the Ashur move again in the Middle Realms.  The Bane of Turun stirs in the deep, and the Fell Fang is abroad, wreaking death and havoc.  You, Snorri, know that these are the signs of the Twilight. 

“But the Lords of the Ashur, the Ragna, will not let the long night fall without sending their might against Lukur and his consort, Nifhel.  The call has gone forth to gather the armies of men against that dark day.  Vyolnir, the Hammer of Turun, has been raised in the city of Fallsgard.  There, the princes of all of Mitlhimor wait for the sound of the horn, and for the Nine to come down from the Farthest North.”

“The Nine from the Farthest North?” Snorri interrupted.  “All these things are spoken of in the Elder Songs.  But surely you don’t mean—“

“Holdur Thyul,” Gylfar nodded, “is the Farthest North.  The last village of men before the Gates of Nifhel.”  He pulled his hand from the depths of his cloak.  The raven took flight, cawing loudly, as he held up a small, shining object.  “Behold the Eye of Othar!”

Hulfur gazed in awe as the stranger was engulfed in an intense light that made the night as day.  An Ashling!  One who had been touched by the Ashur, and carried their power.  Hulfur turned to his father, who looked humbled by this display. 

The stranger spoke again.  “Eight you must send forth, lead by Hulfur Ingurdson.  I will be the Ninth.”

The End.