On Writing Fantasy: Adding a Mythic Quality to Your Writing

February 7, 2009 at 2:20 am | Posted in Articles | 6 Comments

Why do some Fantasy works like Lord of the Rings stay with us for years while others fade away and disappear? The books and stories that stay with us have a mythic quality to them. Writers draw from myth for inspiration and to create works that become timeless for readers. Each reading of such a work provides the reader with new insights about humanity or ourselves. Mythic themes give Fantasy a unique quality of wisdom that persists in the mind and become part of an individual for life. If you write Fantasy, trying to include such a quality in your work is helpful. To do this isn’t easy and takes some effort on the part of a writer. To incorporate myths into their works, Fantasy writers need an understanding of the relationship of myth to Fantasy, knowledge of mythology and to use their life experiences in their writing.

First, writers of Fantasy need an understanding of the relationship of myth to Fantasy. Myths from many different cultures teach us about the human experience. They provide ways for people to work through problems, help with life changes and try to explain what we don’t understand. The relationship of the Fantasy genre to myth is that it performs the same function as myths in our present day. With this understanding, writers add a greater depth to their work and possibly create new myths. “In this way, the body of modern fantasy-and this true of fantasy by men as well-comes to resemble a mythology: that is, a compilation of narratives that expresses a society’s conception of itself, its individual members, and their place in the universe.” (Attebery, 89) This powerful relationship establishes strong, timeless works of incredible resonance. These works can stay relevant to different times and people; put simply, they last for generations. Once this understanding is accomplished, writers need to acquire knowledge about mythology.

Having a working knowledge about mythology is necessary for Fantasy writers. Without it, books and stories become lifeless forms of entertainment, losing their sense of wonder after one reading. A Fantasy writer needs to spend some time learning about mythology. An awareness of mythic themes and symbols creates more vivid works because: “Take myth away, and the magic in a Fantasy book is nothing more than special effects, or Le Guin’s phallic staff of wish-fulfillment. The myth is the magic, moving us through the dark, through the fire, flaying flesh from bone. By following myth to its end, the hero of the tale, and the reader, and the writer, all participate in the final rebirth–putting us back on the road to the east with tobacco seeds in our pocket.” (Windling, 26)
Acquiring knowledge of myths is easy but time consuming. There are many good sources; reading books on mythology, researching the Internet and reading Fantasy works that incorporate myth very well can provide writers with considerable knowledge. (A list of mythology and books can be found at the end of this article.) Along with knowledge of mythology, writers should use their life experience.

People’s hopes, dreams, life changes, education and everything that makes them who they are is a part of life experience. Writers should use their life experience in their works because most Fantasy literature is rooted there:
“What we do need is to remember that Fantasy (even more than other kinds of fiction) is a rites-of-passage literature–whether its themes are based on collective battles or on private, individual ones. The best Fantasy is rooted not only in myth but in life experience–while the worst draws experience secondhand from film, television and other books.” (Windling, 24)
It’s hard to avoid the influences from other media. A writer must consciously avoid this trap, but let it blend with their own life experience and imagination to produce powerful works. This is an obligation to readers. Fail this obligation and readers are left with poor, lifeless stories. “As fantasist, we must look to the quests, ordeals, and trials that form (as Susan Cooper says) the shape of our own imagination and all its unconscious preoccupations. Through myth, symbol, and metaphor, the true fantasist transforms the personal into the universal–creating stories that not only entertain but provide the mythic tools we need to face the ordeals, the monsters, the wolves, of our modern age.” (Windling, 24)
This is not too much to ask of the Fantasy writer.

Without the presence of a mythic element in Fantasy, books and stories are sometimes little more than empty, flashy entertainment. Writers can create powerful works by understanding the relationship of myth to Fantasy; having a knowledge of mythology and epic cycles; and putting life experience into their works. Blending realistic characters, mythic themes and fantastic settings using the three things mentioned previously could give Fantasy readers timeless works to last through the ages.

Works Cited:

Attebery, Brian .Strategies of Fantasy., Bloomington and Idianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Windling, Terri. “Unriddling the World:Rites-of-Passage Myths and Fantasy Tales.” Realms of Fantasy Volume 6 #2 (December 1999): 21-2

Books on Mythology:

The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell

The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Golden Bough by James Frazer

Man and His Symbols by Carl Jung

Mythology by Edith Hamilton

Mythology Sites on the Internet:

http://legends.dm.net Covers Fantasy and Arthurian Legend

http://pubpages.unh.edu/~cbsiren/myth.html Link page to many mythology pages.

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6 Comments »

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  1. I completely agree with you that having a working knowledge of mythology is helpful to becoming a better fantasy writer. I guess I really hadn’t thought about it much until I read your article, but it makes a lot of sense. I do enjoy mythology but haven’t spent a lot of time studying. I prefer Norse Mythology. Do any of the books you mention above cover Norse mythology?

    Which is your favorite to study?

    • Thank you Steven for you comment. I’m glad you liked the article. I like Norse mythology too, but my favorite is Celtic. Still, it’s better to study all kinds of mythology to see how different cultures view the world. Yes, the Edith Hamilton book has some Norse mythology as well as Bullfinch’s Mythology. A site you might want to explore is at: http://www.mythfolklore.net/3043mythfolklore/ You don’t have to take the class to explore the lessons. I’ll check for some other sources for you if you like.

  2. Thanks for the link, I’ll check it out. I haven’t studied Celtic mythology. What about it appeals to you the most?

    • It’s hard to say what appeals to me about it. I like the stories of wild heroes and strange magics. Part of it is because of my love of Arthurian mythology and books. The story of King Arthur is big in the Fantasy genre.

  3. I hadn’t quite pinpointed it before, but now that you mention it, most of the really great fantasy tales are those that rely heavily on myth (and most of the really great fantasy writers are those who knew their mythology well). I’ve always had some interest in mythology, but after reading this, maybe I’ll put more effort into studying it a bit more.

    I’ve also been told that great fantasy relies heavily on great world-building, as well…that a great fantasy story has a detailed world to back it. I’m curious: do you think this is the case, and if so, do you think that also ties into the need for mythological elements?

    • Hello,

      Yes, mythology is a strong underpinning of good fantasy books. They speak to something deep in our psyche. One of my favorite fantasy authors that uses mythology is Robert Holdstock.

      Worldbuilding is important to a fantasy novel. It makes the secondary world more real to a reader and draws them in. If you have any further questions please ask.


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