Saturday, May 8, 2010

Myth and Fantasy Literature (III): The Mythopoeoi

By Victoria Goddard

And then there are mythopoeoi, the makers of myths.  These, too, most belovers, of course: to write good myths means to be in touch with the deep springs of story.  With mythopoeia we come close to the heart of all creative writing, fantastic and not, to the difference between poetry and prose that has nothing to do with form and everything to do with matter.  The great myths are the bones and the souls of stories, in that paradox of literature whereby the governing idea is also the structure of the text.  The hero’s journey of epic in all its forms, from The Lord of the Rings to Star Wars to The Horse and His Boy; the raising of the humble to greatness, in every version of the Cinderella story, and there are many of them; and perhaps the oldest story of all, of love found and lost and regained.  Take those away, and what do you have?  Probably not even non-fiction, for they are the heart of all human stories, even if the characters are not.

I am not trying to argue for some reductionist concept of fantasy, mythic or not.  The glory of all art is in the particular, in the special manifestations of the universal.  Yes, Till We Have Faces, The Golden Ass of Apuleius, and Canova’s statue of “Cupid and Psyche” (insofar as a sculpture may be said to have ‘plot’; this one certainly tells a story) all have the same plot, but they do not, for all that, tell the same story. That is the point.  Prince Amatus, in One For The Morning Glory, is not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be, though he is delightfully similar, a variation on a familiar tune. 

And that is really what myths in fantasy come down to, I think: they are part of the very old game (Virgil played it with Homer, and wealmost wonder if the author of Genesis played it with the writer of Gilgamesh) of turning old things new, and new things old. The retelling of a myth makes it reborn like the phoenix from the ashes of burnt-out clichés; the making of a new myth makes us wonder where we heard it before.  We can pinpoint the occasional moment of the birth of a new one, with a Charles Perrault (who gave the world “Puss in Boots,” “Cinderella,” and “Sleeping Beauty,” amongst others) or a Saint Augustine (if the conversion in the garden is not the stuff of fairytales, what is?  That it was factual does not detract from, only add to, its inherent truth), but even then we wonder if that story is not far older than its earliest incarnation.  Long ago, and far away, in the Dreamtime, in the land at the back of the North Wind, in the Isles of the Blessed, in the Summer Country, in the space between spaces, there lived a . . . story.  And also a storyteller.

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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