This is the second of several weekly posts in which I’m going to lay out what I see as some of the building blocks of great fantasy. It’s not gospel, but I hope it’ll help you take a look at your work and find ways to improve it. You can start the series here.
Out of history, or perhaps parallel to it, grows myth. Defining what qualifies as myth can be a little tricky, but for my purposes, I mean stories that get passed down from generation to generation, regardless of truth, origin, or religious connotation. The story of Odin creating the world out of the bones of Ymir is myth. So are the labors of Hercules. So is the life of Jesus. So is the story of John Henry versus the steam drill, and so is the story my wife and I tell about how we met.
Like history, myths pervade our lives. Often, as in the case of Odin creating the world out of Ymir’s bones, they grow up to explain a mystery. Other times, as in the case of Hercules, myths are created to couch moral lessons in an exciting story. Myths may be created around a person or event to serve a specific purpose (read a bit about the Gospel of John to see this in action in Christianity). Myths can also serve to promote particular values (John Henry) or to create narratives that cast certain people, institutions, or ideas in a particular light (the story my wife and I tell falls into this category).
Myths aren’t necessarily true or untrue. Often they’re true in spirit, at least to their teller, but they can’t be proved or disproved factually. When my wife and I tell the story of how we met, everything we tell really happened, but when we take those real events and create a narrative out of them, we’re building a myth—one that will probably outlast us. When I tell the story of how my grandmother and grandfather met, I’m retelling the story they told to me as it makes sense to me, further filtered to fit the needs of the moment and molded into a form that I think will make sense to my listener; I’m very far from reciting history. A culture’s larger myths follow that same trajectory, even if they begin as a historical narrative and even if they’re written down.
So, like history, myths will be ever-present in the lives of the characters in your fantasy story. There will be cultural myths, like Tolkien’s tales of Numenor. There will be local myths, like the one Gandalf refers to about Bullroarer Took in The Hobbit. And there will be personal myths, like those Frodo creates in his own mind around Bilbo and his travels. Myths matter, in fantasy as in real life, because they color how we see people, ideas, and institutions. We also sometimes make decisions based upon them if we have nothing better to go on (consider Frodo deciding whether to kill Gollum).
If, during revision, you run into a problem of character motivation—Why does Frodo spare Gollum’s life? It doesn’t make sense!—creating a myth (usually personal) that matters deeply enough to that character to guide their actions can be an effective retrofit.
Because myths of one kind or another will be important to your characters (even if only because they, rationalists that they are in your story, define themselves in opposition to myths), you need to be able to create a reasonably coherent myth. You need to have a basic idea of what situations inspire myths, how people use them (e.g. what prompts people to create them, recall them, or take action based upon on them), and what sorts of general structures they follow, both in their “canonical” versions and in the versions (often lengthened or shortened considerably) that people create when they retell them.
You can learn some of this by studying myth from a structuralist, academic perspective—reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces and its ilk—but I suggest, in the tradition of academic study itself, sticking with the original source material wherever you can. Pick one myth, like Odin creating the world out of the bones of Ymir. Read about it in the Elder Edda. Then read about it in D’Aulaire’s Book of Norse Myths. Then read about it in The Gospel of Loki. Then ask your friend who really loves Norse mythology about it. You’ll learn a lot about how myths twist and change between retellings, depending on the mind and purpose of the teller, and that will teach you how to use myth in a believable fashion in your world.
Regardless of how you come by your knowledge, you need to be able to use myth to write great fantasy. Myths are important in any narrative—even literary fiction set in contemporary New York City has myths, though they rarely involve gods and magic. But myths are particularly important in fantasy because many (not all, but many) readers come to the genre for them. They love looking at the world through the lens of ancient myths, with their tales of gods, heroes, giants, magic, and heroism. And to hook them, you need to be able to show them your world through that lens.
Catch the next post in the series here.