In Praise of Mythopoeic Fantasy

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Mythopoeia. It’s a lovely sounding word, isn’t it? Assuming I’m saying it right. It comes from Greek, and I’ve never been all that strong at pronunciations from Greek sources. It has a lovely meaning too – myth making. An activity very suited to fantasy.

Unsurprisingly, a good deal of how we view the word comes from a certain professor of philology. The word existed in English before that, but it was Tolkien who used the word for a poem title – a poem, I might add, that he wrote in response to an argument with CS Lewis, because if you’re not using poetry as a vital tool in your philosophical arguments then what are you doing with your life?

The argument was about the worth of myths, with Tolkien very much in favour, both of myths in general and of creating our own myths. And so am I.

To me, a myth isn’t just some story of old. It is a story with a sacred element, one in which we behold the actions of the gods and those they touch, and in doing so see the actions we should take. It is an expression and transmission of our values. However, there is an issue there, as myths have a certain fixed quality to them, and society’s values don’t. You can tinker with them, retell them, add this interpretation or that interpretation… and you can make your own.

It’s what Tolkien did. He perceived a paucity in what we know of the Anglo-Saxons and their myths, so he set out to make a myth that would fill something of that hole. It’s what Robert Jordan did too, creating a myth drawing from many lands to fit a land filled with people from many lands. And many others too. Their values are being passed down at least as surely as those in the Iliad or the Eddas or the Epic of Gilgamesh.

That said, I ain’t here today to talk about how we should project our values. You do you. I mention this all to give a firm background to where I see mythopoeic fantasy as coming from, but what I really want to talk about is how it makes fantastic stories.

Because it really does. One of the great joys that fantasy literature can offer is that sense of being immersed in something different and in ways more vital than our everyday lives – or a Tolkien put it:

“Yes! `wish-fulfilment dreams’ we spin to cheat
our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!”

How much more immersive and different does it get than a story that feels like myth, a world with its own mythology? All stories strive towards this act of creation at least a little, and all fantasy a little more, but it is the mythopoeic fantasies that embrace it fully. Those are the ones that provide worlds we can visit and visit again, that are bigger than their characters and bigger than their creators.

And in doing so they provide a sense of enchantment. I would submit that myths are used to transmit values not just because they’re a lot more fun than a lecture, but because they come with a level of enchantment. Because we are considering otherworldly things, we become a little otherworldly and we believe things we otherwise might not. People sometimes refer to this as suspension of disbelief, but I like how Tolkien referred to it – secondary belief. That everything here is how it happened in that world, known like we know the cooker provides heat and the kitchen table is a good place to eat dinner at. For Tolkien, suspension of disbelief was what happened when secondary belief failed, a conscious choice that isn’t as powerful as instinctive agreement.

Perhaps that is one of the advantages of mythopoeic fantasy. The closer a writer aims for a deeply realistic take on how certain things are done, the more readers expect it to match how they know things are done, and the easier it becomes to break secondary belief. But we all know that myth is a bit different, both in how it happens and what we’re told. Stories with a mythic quality can dispense with the complicated action and reaction, and go straight to the emotional truths they evoke.

Of course, that’s not what everyone wants all of the time, and for some people it’s not what they want any of the time. Think of GRR Martin’s comment about not knowing Aragorn’s tax policy. I imagine there are few fantasy fans who at some point haven’t enjoyed the stories that implicitly agree with the worth of that comment.

But there are probably fewer who haven’t enjoyed the stories that think it’s quite immaterial . There’s The Lord of the Rings, for one thing. Star Wars also makes perfect sense as an act of mythopoeia, as does Harry Potter. Stories with broad, immersive worlds, and deep emotional truths, and a casual shrug for the idea they need to be anything more because they are myth. To paraphrase Grant Morrison, a myth doesn’t need to answer how Superman flies or who pumps the Batmobile’s tires. A myth simply needs to offer enchantment and emotional truths. It’s a lot easier to do when you’re not trying to do other things at the same time.

That is the value of mythopoeia. It seems to me that its virtues aren’t as appreciated today as they have been in other times, at least not in fantasy (those behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe might say something different). The strain has not disappeared, but it doesn’t seem one of the major ones. There’s a lot of people seeking to retell myths rather than make them. A lot of people searching for Aragorn’s economic policy. A lot of people taking the ‘what ifs’ of sociological sci-fi and using them with fantasy, or using the aesthetic to write stories very deeply rooted in tomorrow’s world. And it’s making a lot of readers very happy.

But times will change, as they do, and the myth-makers will have their day again, for we seem as drawn to myths as we are to change. And I for one can’t wait.

In the meantime, here’s five writers of mythopoeic fantasy to check out…

Jo Walton – Walton is well known for her riffs on mythology, from Arthuriana to the Gods of Greece. No author has been stuck on my “I’m going to read them” list longer, but there’s no need to delay just because I am.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Another author I should read but haven’t yet, Moreno-Garcia is constantly hopping from period to period and genre to genre, but many of her historical fantasies have that air of created mythology and she was a runner up for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award in 2021 with Mexican Gothic.

Tanith Lee – Lee is best known for Tales From The Flat Earth, a series of created mythology with many nods to the Middle East, a series that exemplifies some of the creative possibilities available in the Mythopoeic field.

Alan Garner – Best known as a children’s author, Garner’s created mythology for Alderley Edge in Cheshire reads just as well for an adult.

Patricia McKillip – Nobody has won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award more, or been nominated more often, which should be no surprise to anyone who has read her poetic narratives. Her works hum with the feeling of yesteryear, and there is a Le Guin-esque power to her arcs. Perhaps the Queen of mythopoeic fantasy today, and it’s a crying shame she’s not better known.

9 thoughts on “In Praise of Mythopoeic Fantasy

  1. Funny you mention Jo Walton, as while reading this I kept thinking about my current read/book I’ll finish after work later today, her “The philosopher kings” (the second after “The just city”). It definitely makes you think and question and even make a few proposals.
    On a completely different tone but that I think also fits in this description, it’s Robert Jackson Bennet’s latest series (the one that started with “Foundryside”), in this case focused on slavery, ownership and creation, in a very different way to how these things are portrayed usually… but maybe not really, it’s not very ‘poetic’.

    Can we include Susanna Clarke’s “Piranesi” in this group? That definitely felt a lot like poetry…

    Liked by 1 person

      1. That will teach me to forget my thoughts halfway through writing my reply **roll eyes**
        I was reading yours, then thought of Piranesi, then read more and realised it didn’t fit, then I wrote my reply and suddenly there it was again – stupid brain!

        (and happy anniversary to you two :))

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I hadn’t ever heard of this word, so it’s very interesting to get to know more. I love how informative your posts are and I always learn something 😊😊

    Liked by 1 person

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