I know, I know. It’s not “cool” nowadays to be unequivocally enthusiastic in one’s admiration for anyone or anything. But I can’t help it. I am a total Tolkien fangirl and I unabashedly love everything he wrote. And I’m not just talking about his absolutely brilliant stories. Tolkien was, of course, a tremendous scholar not just of language but of literature.
Tolkien coined a few new terms related to storytelling. The term “sub-creation” refers to the creation of a secondary world with its own rules and laws. The term “eucatrastrophe” is, in Tolkien’s words, “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears” (from On Fairy Stories). Tolkien felt this mechanism was the “highest function” of fairy stories. I had read and been familiar with these two terms before. But I finally came upon a third yesterday.
Mythopoeia. Literally, myth-making.
Tolkien used the term to describe what he did, crafting a mythology that draws from and uses the essential elements and truths found in real world mythologies and legends. It is meant to illuminate those fundamentals of our real world mythologies by exploring them in a created setting, a secondary world. The word has now come to be used to describe the genre of writers who attempt this feat.
And I, who have been wandering lost and confused amidst the modern fantasy genre, repulsed by much that I see, and wondering if this modern fantasy is truly what I am writing and if it is truly what I want to write, have seen the light of day. The answer is no, I am not a modern fantasy writer. Tolkien described what I want to do. My goal is mythopoeic sub-creation. I am writing mythopoeia, not fantasy.
Thank you, Tolkien, for having just the right words.
I found and read Tolkien’s poem called Mythopoeia and, as usual, was amazed by Tolkien’s genius with words. Tolkien was apparently responding to C.S. Lewis who felt that myths were lies and therefore useless even though “breathed through silver”. Tolkien’s return argument is indisputably elegant and lovely. Here’s an excerpt from the poem, which I found online here:
Blessed are the legend-makers with their rhyme
of things not found within recorded time.
It is not they that have forgot the Night,
or bid us flee to organized delight,
in lotus-isles of economic bliss
forswearing souls to gain a Circe-kiss
(and counterfeit at that, machine-produced,
bogus seduction of the twice-seduced).
Such isles they saw afar, and ones more fair,
and those that hear them yet may yet beware.
They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
and yet they would not in despair retreat,
but oft to victory have tuned the lyre
and kindled hearts with legendary fire,
illuminating Now and dark Hath-been
with light of suns as yet by no man seen.
I would that I might with the minstrels sing
and stir the unseen with a throbbing string.
I would be with the mariners of the deep
that cut their slender planks on mountains steep
and voyage upon a vague and wandering quest,
for some have passed beyond the fabled West.
I would with the beleaguered fools be told,
that keep an inner fastness where their gold,
impure and scanty, yet they loyally bring
to mint in image blurred of distant king,
or in fantastic banners weave the sheen
heraldic emblems of a lord unseen.
“Blessed are the legend makers”! Yes, sign me up for that! I think there is something fundamentally missing from much modern fantasy and I think it’s tied to the loss of the genre’s roots as myth and fairy tale and legend. I’ll talk more about that in another post, but for now I am heartened and enthusiastic about digging back into those roots myself. And perhaps one day being an influence for bringing the genre back to its vibrant traditions. I love myth and fairy tale and legend and I think most fantasy readers do as well. I think there is a thirst for more offerings that draw from that tradition and that take on the task of mythopoeic sub-creation. I don’t know if I’m up to the challenge, but I’m going to do my best.