Saturday, May 8, 2010

Myth and Fantasy Literature (I)

By Victoria Goddard

Fiction, as an old auctor told us long ago, is telling truth under the guise of fable.  We might take myth as being a certain kind of fiction -- tales about gods and goddesses and assorted other numinous and magical creatures in certain plots that resonate strongly with us.  This is a rather watered-down description, I admit, for the love that (almost) conquered death in Orpheus and Eurydice, Isis and Osiris, and Inanna and Dumuzi, let alone for the host of other stories that have rollicked their way down the ages because they seem to have more significance than the surface might suggest they should, but it does certainly speak to a certain something in fantasy literature.   

Although I could not go so far as to say that the presence of myth is one of the defining features of fantasy literature -- apart from anything else, that would probably lose me most of Tamora Pierce and Steven Brust, not to mention The Princess Bride, which is, shall I say, inconceivable -- nevertheless, a certain mythic quality is a notable feature of most of the fantasy literature I like best and that I think is the core of the genre.  Let me explain further.

There are, as I see it, two main ways in which myth, taken very broadly, makes its presence known. One is the use of existing (and usually very ancient) myths by more contemporary authors.  As an example, I might suggest Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis’ retelling of the myth of Eros (or Cupid) and Psyche.  The other is the creation of new myth, the most famous example of which is, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien.  Under the writerly (and mythic) conception that names have power, I shall suggest that we call the former the mythophiloi and the latter the mythopoeoi, from the Greek for the lovers and the makers of myth. 

Of course, since writers are creative artists, these are rarely ever separate.  Indeed, fantasy authors being what they are, we often find that the author has carefully invented a sometimes-vast mythology within his narrative universe that he can then make use of as said myths existed as a common property, like the “real” myths of our own universe.  Tolkien is, again, a major instance of this, but so too is James Branch Cabell, who made internal cross-referencing into something of an art form.  His series (if we can so call the concatenation of novels, short stories, poems, essays, and notes that make up the chronicle of Dom Manuel of Poictesme) is about the development of a myth over time, from a ‘historical’ life that itself draws on many a myth and legend from our own world to the ramifications for modern descendants of the legend at its heart.  We do not need to stay in the earlier reaches of modern fantasy, either, to see this.

Victoria Goddard has lived in more of Canada than most people even know exist.  She has lived from the East Coast to the prairies, from the High Arctic to lake country, from villages at the end of the road to Canada’s largest city.  Although in the midst of a five-year doctorate in medieval literature, she has managed to avoid breaking her record of not living for more than three years consecutively in any one house by haring off to Europe periodically to learn languages and look at medieval manuscripts.  A keen reader, particularly of fantasy (from all periods and places), she also writes (as-yet-unpublished) novels, mostly on the subject of the lives that lie behind the fairy stories, trying to combine pithy details of not-so-ordinary days with sometimes all-too-matter-of-fact magic. 

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