By Colin Stricklin
Mythopoeia is a tricky beast. It’s also a lot of hard work. For the would-be fantasist, creating an entire cosmology for the sole purpose of underpinning an adventure story is perhaps too hard. In practice, it’s much easier to throw in a few nods towards existing mythology (e.g. Percy Jackson or the Legends of Orkney series), and simply allow an existing framework of alluded legends and half-remembered tales to do the heavy lifting. This is the difference between fantasy worlds and mythopoeia. And in terms of creative technique, that is a big difference.
If we’re going to split this literary hair, it’s important that we get our terms straight. Mythopoeia is a distinctly modern concept, pioneered by J.R.R. Tolkien. The word itself is a neologism drawn from the Greek words “mythos,” myth, and “poïesis,” which translates loosely as “creation," specifically artistic forms of making such as painting, composing, or writing. So when we talk about “mythopoeia,” we are talking about a peculiarly artificial form of myth-making, often drawn from a single maker, and distinct from natural myth-making in an anthropological sense.
Tolkien’s own fantasy world of Middle Earth—he would have called it a secondary world--was derived by this method. The familiar Lord of the Rings books were the end result of a long process begun in the trenches of the Somme, drawn from notes that would eventually become the elvish phone directory that is The Silmarillion. For the uninitiated, this pre-history of Middle Earth is a patchwork of legends and fragments, and it reads like Bulfinch's Mythology. It also constitutes the foundation of Tolkien’s legendarium.
So what does this have to do with writing technique? I’ll give you an example. If you’ve read The Lord of the Rings, you know that it’s full of references to legendary people and events far removed from the scope of the plot, their full histories and identities only hinted at by the text. One of these, a fragmentary poem titled The Fall of Gil-galad, appears out of the mouth of Samwise Gamgee: "Gil-galad was an Elven-king. Of him the harpers sadly sing: the last whose realm was fair and free between the Mountains and the Sea." It is apparent in the text that this bit of rhyme is a piece of a longer poem. Aragorn mentions how this is only Bilbo’s translation rendered in the Common Tongue, and nevermind the fact that Tolkien’s notes tell of Gil-galad’s youth, when he was spirited away to the Havens of the Falas when Morgoth broke the Siege of Angband at the time of the Dagor Bragollach. Or Gil-galad’s sojourn upon the Isle of Balara at the Mouths of the Sirion; or how he gained the Kingship of the Noldor after the fall of Gondolin. This pre-history was written, but only glimpsed through the few lines actually present in the text. When Samwise speaks his few short stanzas, the reader gets the sense of depth because there is depth. A mass of carefully constructed mythology underlies and informs the scene, providing the reader with a sensation of untold tunnels and vast halls stretching through the subbasements of the secondary world. That trick took Tolkien a lifetime, which is why you won’t see too many contemporary fantasists mirroring the move.
That’s mythopoeia then. The contrast lies in the more typical fantasy worlds of later writers. Such worlds may evoke geography, histories, or a coherent set of natural laws as a means of engendering believability. Where a mythopoeic creation stems from artificial myth, fantasy worlds draw credibility from internal consistency; from logical arrangement rather than detailed pre-history. J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world is one of these. There may be anecdotes within the Harry Potter books of a fuller history—dark age witches burned at stake or artifacts left over from 10th century figures like Godric Gryffindor or Rowena Ravenclaw—but these were almost certainly invented in the service of the story at hand. The wizarding world did not rise naturally from deeds in ages long past. Rather, these deeds were appended in pseudo-mythopoeic fashion to add the illusion of depth, a trompe l'oeil painting to Tolkien’s fully realized sculpture.
Unlike Middle Earth, the wizarding world hangs its believability on a smorgasbord of extant mythologies rather than creating its own. Rowling brought in a little Latin for her magic words, a few mythological creatures (e.g. the Greek Cerberus, English boggarts, the Slavic vila) and otherwise clothed the classic boarding school novel (product of the real world if ever there was one) in fantastic trappings. Here’s the important thing though: it worked. Tolkien’s feat was a mad, beautiful eccentricity, a herculean effort of creation, and nearly impossible for a working writer to emulate.
These two techniques, represented here by these two most famous authors, constitute different orders of creative work. Mythopoeia seeks to create its own referents and symbols; fantasy worlds hang their verisimilitude upon a relationship to the real world. While one technique is not necessarily better than the other, the distinction becomes important when you start to look at them in depth.
For example, when Harry Potter is taught in the classroom, the familiar subject of race often serves as a focal point. And insofar as Rowling’s secondary world is predicated on our own, the points of comparison are likewise familiar. Search for any teaching guide online and you’ll come across discussion questions like, “How does the wizarding world’s attitude towards ‘mudbloods’ compare with real prejudices people have?” or “How does the caste system between wizards and magical creatures mirror our own society?” Being built upon the bones of the real world, these are entirely valid question. The villainous Malfoy family are sneering English aristocrats. The mistreated house elf Dobby is a literal servant. It takes no great leap of logic to see a below/above stairs relationship at play, or Rowling's own social activism reflected in Hermione's "Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare." In a 2000 interview with CBCNewsWorld, Rowling went so far as to call that section of Gobet of Fire "fairly autobiographical."
Tolkien, by contrast, was famous for his dislike of allegory. In his foreword to The Fellowship of the Rings he said so in as many words:
I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history—true or feigned—with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
That difference—allegory and applicability—is notoriously difficult to pin down. But if we look at the technique of mythopoeia and its practice of creating ‘feigned history,’ we get a clearer picture of the distinction.
Race is very much present in Tolkien's works, reflected in the literal races of elves and men, dwarves and halflings. In a letter Tolkien described his Orcs as "...squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types." In a BBC interview, he said of the dwarves, “The dwarves of course are quite obviously - wouldn't you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic.” Dwarves, of course, are a wandering people bereft of a homeland and famous for their lust for gold; the potential for an anti-semitic reading is obvious. However, this is precisely where we begin to see the shortcomings of an allegorical reading. Orcs, after all, are not men. Neither are dwarves. Tolkien himself denounced Hitler and the race-doctrine of Nazism, and even drafted a response to his German publishers saying, "If I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people."
Where such allusions to the real world may seem as on-the-nose as any of Rowling’s, they are couched within a very different secondary world. Tolkien's fantasy races bear their own nuance thanks to their mythological underpinning, a framework removed by an all-important step from our singular context of planet Earth. While our social issues may be applicable to Middle Earth, they are by no means "what Tolkien was really talking about." Rather, mythopoeia represents a conversation between the real world and the secondary world, a dialogue between reality and subcreation. The author may invite a degree of familiarity which can aid in the suspension of disbelief, but he soon sweeps away the real, revealing something that is alien, but no less true.
Take the example of Legolas and Gimli. What are we to make of the unlikely friendship between an elf and a dwarf? We might point towards the historical distrust between their races, the growing understanding of and respect for one another's cultures, and at last their comradeship throughout the War of the Ring as a rough parallel to the Allies' experiences in the world wars. Their friendship is presented as commendable, if somewhat unusual, and reads like an argument for diversity. And while it may be that, it is not only that. We can begin to approach the question from our own world, but we cannot answer it in full without accessing the internal history of Middle Earth itself.
The turning point in the characters' relationship comes in Lothlorien, when the elven Lady Galadriel asks Gimli what gift a dwarf would ask of the elves. He replies, "There is nothing, Lady Galadriel... Nothing, unless it might be - unless it is permitted to ask, nay, to name a single strand of your hair, which surpasses the gold of the earth." It is an odd request, and not just to the onlooking elves. It is clear from context that this is a momentous occasion between the races, but without knowledge to the broader mythology of Middle Earth we cannot access its full significance. In Tolkien's Silmarillon, we learn a bit of the elf lord Fëanor. It was he who created the Silmarils, three perfect jewels which contained the light and essence of the world trees from the youth of the world. In Unfinished Tales, we learn that it was the beauty of Galadrie's golden hair which first inspired Fëanor:
...For its gold was touched by some memory of the starlike silver of her mother; and the Eldar said that the light of the Two Trees, Laurelin and Telperion, had been snared in her tresses. Many thought that this saying first gave to Fëanor the thought of imprisoning and blending the light of the Trees that later took shape in his hands as the Silmarils. For Fëanor beheld the hair of Galadriel with wonder and delight. He begged three times for a tress, but Galadriel would not give him even one hair. These two kinsfolk, the greatest of the Eldar of Valinor, were unfriends for ever.
In effect, the greatest elf lord of history once begged the same boon, and was denied a single strand. Yet to Gimli, in token of friendship, she gave three. That is the reason why that is such a moving scene. As readers we may approach the moment from our own experience of warring nations and racial tensions, but its depth is derived through mythopoeic resonance.
If my distinction between world building and mythopoeic creation is too fine, and if Rowling’s subcreation is part of a continuum with Tolkien’s, then the question becomes one of degree rather than type. The border between the applicable and the allegorical may be hazy, but the techniques of subcreation, serving as foundation to story or as decorative flourish at the end, have a definite effect upon its placement. In short, there is no way to separate a secondary world from the real. While a talented fantasist contrives to hide the fact, such settings do not spring fully formed from the aether. They are constructed by human beings who live on Earth. They are consumed by other human beings. Shades of the real are there. The trick lies in interpreting these elements responsibly. Pointing towards the applicable and assuming a one-to-one message is fundamentally lazy. If you want to claim an allegory, you’ve got to make an argument. It must be rooted within a secondary world’s foundations, either in the underlying mythopoeia or (more likely) in an variation on the primary world. Anything less is a failure of imagination.