– From “Mythopoeia” by J. R. R. Tolkien
He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jeweled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother’s womb whence all have birth.
The heart of Man is not compound of lies,
but draws some wisdom from the only Wise,
and still recalls him. Though now long estranged,
Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned,
his world-dominion by creative act:
not his to worship the great Artifact,
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons, ’twas our right
(used or misused). The right has not decayed.
We make still by the law in which we’re made.
Mythopoeia, according to Wikipedia, is “a narrative genre in modern literature and film where a fictional mythology is created by the writer of prose or other fiction … The authors in this genre integrate traditional mythological themes and archetypes into fiction.”
When I first heard the term, I was confounded. Which is it, I wondered, the creation of a myth or the integration of traditional myth into a new story?
Maybe it’s both in combination. And yet, there seem to be two distinct methods of imagining and creating speculative fiction. One takes an existent myth or fairy tale and makes it anew. The other, through an amalgamation of experiences and persons and settings, creates (or “sub-creates”) a new myth.
In this series, Andrew eschews the use of dragons (except for the sea variety) and elves, dwarfs and ogres. Instead his story revolves around Fangs and toothy cows, cloven and ridgerunners. The saga does not take place in Middle Earth but in Glipwood, a place at the edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness and in the Green Hollows, the last holdout against Gnag the Nameless who has learned the secrets of stones and songs.
Andrew is not alone in creating a new place and populating it with new myths. Sharon Hinck did something quite similar in her Sword of Lyric series (the first volume, The Restorer is re-releasing with Marcher Lord Press this fall). While anchoring the story in this world, Sharon takes her protagonist through a portal to a new place — not Narnia or Stephen Donaldson’s The Land, but a world of complex political alliances and conflicts, where Rhusicans and the People of the Verses intermingle, where a Restorer is hoped for but not expected.
Karen Hancock (Legends of the Guardian-King series) is another author who created her own world, complete with political intrigue, religious prejudices and practices, history, and never-before-encountered monsters.
Certainly there are others. But beside these speculative writers are others who borrow from existent myth, or at least borrow mythological creatures. Donita Paul comes to mind with her Dragon and Turtle picture books and her DragonKeeper Chronicles and Dragons of Chiril series, as does Bryan Davis (Dragons In Our Midst and Oracles Of Fire). Both obviously feature a well-known mythological creature, but both turn the “known” on its head. Bryan does so with the equally well-known legend of King Arthur.
Scott Appleton, in his Sword of the Dragon series (AMG Publishers), is another example of an author making use of existing mythical creatures while putting an entirely new spin on them.
Both J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis utilized existing myths in their epic fantasies. Lewis, however, employed the “creation by amalgamation” method in his space trilogy.
So my question — is one method better than the other?
For readers, is one more enjoyable? more interesting? fresher? less predictable?
And for writers, is one harder to write? more restrictive? more imaginative?
As you might suppose, I have my own way of working and my own reading preferences, but first I want to hear about yours. Do you like fairy tales retold? vampire myths turned upside down? mermaids rewritten? Or would you prefer to encounter a new world with beings you’ve never conceived of before?