On Incorporating Mythology into Fantasy, or How to Write Mythical Fantasy in 752 Easy Steps
By Robert B. Marks
Copyright 1997 Robert B. Marks, all rights reserved.
Originally Published in Story and Myth, May 1997.
In a lecture to the University of St. Andrews in 1939, a professor of Middle English stated that "Fantasy has also an essential drawback: it is difficult to achieve." The professor was named John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, and he would later be known for writing The Lord of the Rings. His words ring true even today.
Mythical fantasy is one of the faster growing genres today. It was first popularized by Tolkien in the 1950s, and today includes successful writers such as Robert Jordan, Dennis L. McKiernan, Tad Williams, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Terry Goodkind, with more writers trying to join all the time. The problem is how to write mythical fantasy; it is deceptively difficult.
We are going to examine how mythical fantasy incorporates the mythology into the fiction, and why it is vital that this occurs (besides the obvious answer of "it wouldn't be mythical fantasy otherwise"). The first problem is to define what mythical fantasy is in the first place.
In his lecture On Fairy Stories, Tolkien defines fantasy as being "with images of things that are not only 'not actually present', but which are indeed not to be found in our primary world at all, or are generally believed not to be found there." This is the realm of the imagination, but the definition does not merely include mythical fantasy as fantasy, but all creative fiction, as "things" can also refer to events. For example, Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October involves events which are not actually real; there certainly is not a Captain Ramius, and all the events around him must occur in the imagination. The characters are interacting in a world which is similar to our own, but also very different in vital ways. Hence, it is a form of fantasy.
The type of fantasy to which we refer is separate from this. Certainly, we find Clancy's novels exciting, but there is a lack of wonder about Clancy's world. While his characters achieve remarkable things, they do so in a world which is entirely explained. In books such as Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, there is a natural wonder about the world where the events are taking place. This wonder can be ascribed to magic, either directly or indirectly, and it is a necessity for successful mythical fantasy.
Proper mythical fantasy must have two elements: mythology and reality. It also has a responsibility to the reader, which is to restore the wonder of the scientifically explained world to the reader's mind. It is here where the mythology comes in. On the other hand, this charge cannot be achieved unless the work of fiction is believable, and hence there is the requirement of the mythology.
I will deal with the issue of reality first. It is the inclusion of reality that makes the suspension of disbelief possible. Any truly successful work must have it, as Tolkien acknowledges in his lecture. All published fantasy worlds have basic laws of physics which are inviolate: if one drops a rock, the rock always falls down, unless acted upon by an outside force. When these laws are not present, the work of fantasy has drifted entirely to the imagination, and the reader finds it to be unbelievable. Characters must also act realistically, for the same reason; the reader will put down a book where a complete dunce suddenly discovers Newton's laws of gravity.
In a completely realistic world, however, there is no wonder. One of the appeals of mythic fantasy is that the magical wonder that science has taken out of the world has been restored, and it is a responsibility to any fantasy writer to restore this wonder to the reader. It is here that mythology comes in.
Mythology is a remarkable type of literature, with stories often thousands of years old. These stories have some distinguishing features: first, there are heroes that have either semi-divine origins or accomplish impossible things. An ordinary man cannot kill Grendel, yet Beowulf kills him with his bare hands; on the same hand, Bran is able to find the mythical island of Manannan which is hidden from mortal eyes in Irish mythology.
Second, there is an element of magic that infuses the entire tale, either directly or indirectly. This magic can take the form of divine interference, such as in the Volsunga Saga, or it can be indirectly infused into the world, such as the Dragon in Beowulf. It can be in the form of a spell or creature.
The effect of using mythology is to bring wonder back into the world in which the author is writing. In his introduction to Voyage of the Fox Rider, Dennis L. McKiernan wrote of the mythical creatures such as Elves and Faeries that "the world is a sadder place without them." This is undeniably true. The work of the fantasy author lies in restoring these creatures to their proper place in the imagination of the reader, and thus restoring the natural wonder of the world.
One might say that the mythology is not always used, but I would disagree with that. To take a case in point, Robert Jordan. Jordan writes books which seemingly have original concepts, yet the magic itself is mythical. Magic lies at the root of mythology, it is what makes mythology special. Any fantasy novel that uses magic for storytelling, which it must by nature do, is therefore using mythology.
The difficulty is how to do it. The mythology used must be recognizable, and yet wondrous and new at the same time. The trick for the author is to incorporate a mythological aspect that the reader will be able to identify with along with the reality that is required to give the work credence. Without a proper blend of the mythology and reality, the work fails as mythic fantasy. The trick to success lies in placing the mythology down first, and then limiting it with the reality of the created world.
I will now offer Terry Goodkind as an example. At the time of the writing of this article, there is a debate occurring on the SF internet newsgroup over whether Goodkind's books are good fantasy. The debate is divided into the two obvious camps; that he is a good writer of fantasy, and that he does not write good fantasy. Goodkind is writing proper mythic fantasy, however. There is the required element of reality, and there is also a mythical backdrop. The problem which lies with Goodkind's writings, which is easily attributed to the fact that he is a new writer and merely needs to gain more experience, is that the mix is at times inconsistent, but is also unfamiliar. The reader sees the mythical aspects of Goodkind's world, but cannot identify with them. Many ideas, such as the Mord-Sith, are entirely new to most readers, and alien. While this is good to a slight degree, as it aids in restoring the wonder of the world, the mythology must be at least partially familiar.
It is the familiarity which is a major issue. The reader requires a mythology which is both familiar but also new in some way. It is because of this that one cannot simply transplant a mythology into one's writings, one must adapt them. Even Tolkien adapted the Nordic sagas he used for Lord of the Rings; his goal was to tell a new story, not retell an old myth. It is in the adaptation where the author must excel to make the mythical fantasy work.
Adaptation can be tricky, as one must retain the familiarity. Therefore, there must be enough of the original saga or myth to recognizable. If one is looking to the Irish mythologies of the Tuatha de Danaan (Elves), one must retain the key aspects of that mythology. The Elves cannot suddenly have a complete change in ideology and form, as if one has done this, s/he has warped the mythology beyond recognition, and thus failed. Small alterations in the myths themselves or alterations in the context of the myths are very effective for adaptation. I will give some examples below:
In Dennis L. McKiernan's book, Voyage of the Fox Rider, at the end of the book an island filled with mages was destroyed by a massive tidal wave caused by black magic. This is an obvious adaptation of the Atlantis myth from Plato, but the context and small details have been changed. The island is still one of great knowledge, yet the destruction of the island is caused to aid an evil God in the War of the Ban. Also, the inhabitants of the island have been changed to Pysks, Magicians and other fey folk called "Hidden Ones", rather than Atlanteans, and there is the possibility that many of the Magicians escape. The mythology is familiar to the reader, but also altered so that it is partially original.
In my own book, Demon's Vengeance, I used as part of the background the war between the Sidhe (Elves) and the Formorians in Irish mythology. I changed several aspects of the war, however. Where the war was fought over territory in Irish myth, the war in my book is a war of annihilation. The mythology is still recognizable, but I have changed it in such a way that there is a new hard edge to it. Tolkien also used this mythology, but in his work (Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion) the war is fought between Morgoth and the Elves over three jewels, called the Silmarils.
Once this background is laid down, the author's task lies in telling the story. The background itself will affect the story, adding a harder or softer edge at times, and will also bring the world to life. This incorporation of mythology and reality can be a daunting task, and one where a great deal of research is required (I am still collecting books on mythology for my writings). In the end, however, it is a rewarding one, for both the reader and the author, as the mythology allows the sense of wonder of the world to be restored, if only for a brief moment.
Tom Clancy: The Hunt for Red October
Terry Goodkind: Wizard's First Rule
Lady Gregory: Lady Gregory's Complete Irish Mythology
Dennis L. McKiernan: Voyage of the Fox Rider
J.R.R. Tolkien: The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays
The Lord of the Rings
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