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Collected thoughts on post-Medieval mythology

January 6, 2009

What follows is a pair of post of mine on a discussion forum, in a discussion relating to a person who had asked, "What makes great fantasy?", to which I had replied that great fantasy (in terms of popularity) tend to draw its themes and archetypes from mythology (as opposed to drawing them from tolkien, who already drew them from mythology).

First Post

But, and it’s the important thing to reminder, fairy tales and Norse mythology are a tiny fraction of all the mythology and mytho-history. A tiny fraction geographically, because they cover only a small corner of Northern Europe, but temporally too – Norse mythology covers a few century of European history, and is antique by now. Legend didn’t stop being written when the Vikings settled down. It didn’t stop being written when the Renaissance began, and it’s still being written today – large parts of World War II and even the Sixties (MLK, the Kennedies, the Beatles…) have passed into mythical history by now.

And there is a lot of mythology there – all the legends, all the national myths, all the epic stories that have grown out of the European settlement of the New World, for a start. You will find books that tell those tales, but what you won’t find is people taking those legends, and writing fantasy from them (aside from maybe the Old West, for example in the Dark Tower).

(second post (in answer to "it’s a different kind of mythology")

Not really, no.

Oh, certainly, it’s not the sort of mythology you would find in books about pantheons of gods, and mythical creatures. But fantasy fiction, great fantasy fiction, has never been about that sort of mythology either.

The sort of mythology fantasy fiction draws from is the Beowulf. It’s the Matter of Britain (Arthur and his knights) and the Matter of France (Charlemagne and his), both of which were combination of literary creation and what people then believed to be history (and the Holy Grail was definitely one of those later, literary additions). It’s Beowulf (whose tomb some people still look for), and the Illiad and the Odyssey, and the Volsunga/Nibelungensaga/Nibelungenlied.

Most of them were, if not strictly believed to be history, at least believed to be tales based on historical figures, Arthur included. Even now, we’re not sure they weren’t.

And that sort of mythology, were a historical figure and their deeds is taken, and turned into an even greater legend, a larger-than-life figure, we still get that. Of course, it’s no longer bards and storytellers scribing away who build these legends; these days, the job falls more to people over in a certain part of Los Angeles, but it still amounts to the same: creating mythology. Today, in 2009, the Alamo is a part of American mythology, and just as much mythology, and just as ripe for fantasy

Certainly, dragons hurling fireballs and wizards like Gandalf are rather uncommon in North American mythology, which is far more Christian and far less Pagan than European mythology, and you won’t find any in the above story (with the notable exception of certain Weird West settings. Undead Abraham Lincoln, what more could you ask for?)

But North America has its fantastic litterature and its fantastic figures. Old Scratch features all over stories, tales and legends, sometime tempting people to perdition, sometime being bested by human cunning. Figures and concepts borrowed from Native mythology – Manitous and Wendigos – are not altogether unheard of. Angels show up here and there. Even some traces of European paganism make brief apparitions, with at least a few legends of the fair folk existing this side of the ocean. Magic is used, sometime for good, more often for selfishness, almost always at the peril of the user, who is dealing with dangerous forces. Vehicles are made to fly at the peril of one’s soul. And of course, withcraft straddle the line between fantastic and history thanks to a certain hysteria at Salem.

With all of these, there is a wealth of material from which to create a fantastic universe, and heroic tales. It’s something that, by and large, has yet to be done

In reply to "What about urban legends?"

True enough on the urban legends. Although given what many urban legends are like, you have to be careful to avoid some of the other genres out there.

In reply to  "I don’t think JFK and MLK and the Fab Four count."

In and of themselves, no. But what they embody is part of the myth of sixties America. That is, the tale people tell themselves (true or not) about modern America. JFK’s relation with Marilyn, the brinkmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and that one day in Dallas are etched in the collective subconscious of contemporary man just as brightly as the best known of the old myths. "I had a dream" is as surely part of the basic mythology (ie, the themes and stories that deep down resonate with us all) of modern America as the house divided against itself or stand together/hang separately. And, unlike recent events, that we can’t begin to put in perspective, possibly anything after the cold war, certainly anything past Y2K, these things are old enough to have become history, and larger than history.

And the Fab Four…honestly, I would say that everything that touches the Peace and Love culture of the sixties has taken a mythological (larger than life) nature by now, but perhaps that’s just in Quebec.

Further, not posted elsewhere, thoughts

I would add to this that this is something a lot of people do. Encyclopedia Mythica seems to believe nothing mythological has come in the America since the Aztecs and Incans were christianized, and nothing came out of Europe after the Norse. Wiki dismisses American mythology as "folklore of the United States".

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