The Importance of the Impossible
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“The Epic Side of Myth”

Posted by A.E. Marling in Fantasy: Modern Myth

Asking Erin Hoffman “if fantasy was a form of modern myth” is like throwing a match in a wizard’s wagon of fireworks. She is the Gryphoness and the author of the Sword of Fire and Sea (Pyr), and I should have known her answer would be no less epic.

So, fantasy and myth. They basically come from each other. If you look at the “origins” of modern western fantasy as a genre—Alice in Wonderland, Tolkien, CS Lewis—it’s all mythically rooted. Whenever we have a new branch of fantasy—take urban for instance—they reach into myth (consider Charles De Lint throwing elves into cities). This is not limited to western fantasy. Much, perhaps even most, of Chinese fantasy is based off of a single mythic root, the ” four great classical novels of Chinese literature“, much going back to Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms in the 14th century. In the west we have a sort of ur-myth captured in the Hero’s Journey, and on the feminine side (arguably) by Inanna’s descent into the underworld — possibly you can argue this is neither “west” nor “east” given how old it is.

I think at a certain point you have to start defining “myth”. Most of us picture Greek gods at the word “myth”, which could mean either ancient legend or extinct religion depending on how you look at it. But I think both point back to storytelling, and the oral traditions of lore that amount to these major taproot stories that serve(d) to explain existence to humanity throughout its many ages. Myths have the characteristics of being epic (being beyond reality, breaking physical rules as we exist in them) and being relevant (having to do with our fundamental questions of existence, survival). The epic side of myth breaks us into this symbolic thinking state that is more in tune with our dream selves, and the relevant side reaches deep into our subconscious, which is (I think) constantly contemplating these greater questions. Freud, Jung, and Becker spent a lot of time contemplating how these fundamental questions resulted in our behavioral spectrum. So myth goes very, very deep just by virtue of what it is.

Fantasy continues what myth does almost without realizing it, I think. Obviously some authors realize it, but many don’t. Tolkien *insisted* that he was not writing parable, that he was “just” creating a world for its own sake, not for any moralistic reason (a stance that led to the schism between him and CS Lewis). But I’d argue that whether we intend it or not, because we are being epic in our symbolism, and because stories require relevance to connect with readers (though different readers will have different penetration levels of relevance—basically how subtle and unsubtle they want their fiction), we naturally gravitate toward creating myth. We’re using the same brushes, so we’re going to wind up getting to some of the same places, whether we intend it or not. (And even Tolkien would have admitted, I think, that he was playing around in all kinds of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon mythology.)

Erin Hoffman

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  • Æ Marling says:

    Tolkien did wish to avoid parable, in the sense he did not want to tie Sauron too directly to any one dictator. I would argue those giant eagles swooping in at the end of every battle to save the day are fairly suggestive of the USA arriving late in the World Wars, but that’s neither here nor there. He did bemoan the fact that, in his professional opinion, British culture lacked good myths, and he wrote in part to overcome this deficiency.

    I am beginning to think that epic fantasy gains some of its power through distance. By placing the reader in a strange land, it removes references to the historical and modern and better allows the reader to (at least subconsciously) focus on universal themes, of Defeating your Dragon, as Joseph Cambell would say.

    I was intrigued to learn that the fifth great Chinese classic, the The Plum in the Golden Vase, was banned for its pornographic content. And the Mesopotamian goddess Inanna has her vestments of power stripped off in her descent to the underworld, until she arrives naked, as we all must at death’s door. (Except form me because I hope to smuggle in a top hat.)

    Thank you, Erin Hoffman, for sharing your thoughts. Now, savage readers, feel free to chime in your own musings on fantasy, and if you have an idea for another aspect of fantasy altogether, do contact me by email.



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