Yesterday I found myself sucked into a fascinating documentary on the author J.R.R. Tolkien. In it, a mention was made of a word coined by the author to describe his vision of the world he was, at the time, creating: Mythopoeia. Now, I am a notorious dictionary verifier. Give me a fascinating new word and I’m all over it like saran wrap on chicken salad. So, as soon as the documentary had run its course, I ran to my laptop and immediately typed in the mysterious new word. Not surprisingly, the best information was found on Wikipedia, which gives the following definition:
“Mythopoeia is a narrative genre in modern literature and film where a fictional mythology is created by the writer of prose or other fiction. This meaning of the word mythopoeia follows its use by J. R. R. Tolkien in the 1930s. The authors in this genre integrate traditional mythological themes and archetypes into fiction.
Mythopoeia is also the act of making (creating) mythologies. Notable mythopoeic authors include Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, William Blake, H. P. Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany, Mervyn Peake and George MacDonald. While many literary works carry mythic themes, only a few approach the dense self-referentiality and purpose of mythopoeia. It is invented mythology that, rather than arising out of centuries of oral tradition, are penned over a short period of time by a single author or small group of collaborators.
As distinguished from fantasy worlds or fictional universes aimed at the evocation of detailed worlds with well-ordered histories, geographies, and laws of nature, mythopoeia aims at imitating and including real-world mythology, specifically created to bring mythology to modern readers, and/or to add credibility and literary depth to fictional worlds in fantasy or science fiction books and movies.
Mythopoeia are almost invariably created entirely by an individual, like the world of Middle-earth.”
Suddenly, I’m more than fascinated. I’m intrigued. Why? Because this definition of a word which, apparently, has been around for decades sums up my own writing process clearly and succinctly. I’ve been working on a series of stories set in a “mythical” place known as Otherwhen, for about ten years now. What started out as an idea to create a round-robin platform for myself and other writers on my now defunct adult literary website, Blue Food, slowly became my own private opus.
The main character, Tristan Desmond, is introduced as a macho and somewhat arrogant male demon slayer in a modern world turned nightmarish reality, in which gods, demons and mythological creatures come crashing into our contemporary world through an event known only as “the Shift.” Desmond’s own life is turned inside out when he is cruelly dispatched by one of his demonic nemesis and fused into the body of his gorgon girlfriend, Scylla.
That story--the first installment of what has become, to me, the Otherwhen saga--recently found itself placed within my very first published anthology, Dimensions of Desire. My editor at Renaissance Books, the acclaimed author M. Christian, has expressed an interest in seeing more. No problem. I’ve got more.
The adventures of Tristan Desmond, as she adjusts to her new life as a mythic creature who gives meaning to the term “stony glare,” have become my favorite form of escape. When I feel like writing, but don’t have any deadline demons drooling into my lap, I return to Otherwhen. Over time, other characters have entered the picture, some briefly, some with more longevity. Her “boyfriend” Ulric is, I am not ashamed to admit, a dyed-in-the-wool Tolkien elf. His “godfather” is the prankish Robin Goodfellow, or Puck, from Shakespearean lore. Her main nemesis is the demonic Lord of Lies himself, Belial.
Among the many other characters she comes into contact with, either as friend or foe, are the Greek god Ares, the Native American folklore figure Coyote, the Arthurian figure Morgan LeFey and many others. Then there are the divergences. The stories that don’t center around Tristan. These just seem to pop up out of nowhere when I find myself fascinated by a particular character or phenomenon, but don’t really have any way to include Tristan in the mix. During these times, she bows out and the story is allowed to run its course, within the framework already created for Otherwhen. It’s proved to be an invaluable exercise in creative writing, because it is something that I can fall into naturally and at a moment’s notice. With the kind of schedule I tend to keep, that can be a god send.
When asked by the very few people who have been given access to this world what I would call it, I’ve always referred to it as “speculative fiction,” because the term “fantasy” just didn’t feel right. These characters, after all, don’t exist in a purely fantasy world. There are no swords, or messianic wizards. No sweeping battlefields between armies of light and darkness. These characters exist in a divergent version of our own world, in which something cataclysmic and unknown has occurred to twist the fabric of reality and refocus it. The general rules of physics still apply, for the most part. Hardships and addictions still infect the fabric of society and the people who live there still have to muddle through as best they can. Magic, where it does exist, has changed to fit the new environment and can be completely unpredictable.
I never really knew that there was a word to describe this sort of writing. I knew that there were other authors who wrote this way, including my favorite living author, Neil Gaiman. There are examples abounding. I just didn’t know there was a name for it. And now that I know, I find myself following links to mysterious websites devoted to the concept of Mythopoeia and its many incarnations. I’ve even discovered something called the Mythopoeic Society, which has its meetings all over the world, but NEXT year, will be meeting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, just 3 ½ hours away from where I new reside. Hmmm…
It seems I have a LOT more research ahead of me. I’m not sure how far down the rabbit hole I’ll go, but I’ve got my spelunking gear on and am letting curiosity be my guide. Who knows what I’ll find or even if it will amount to anything of interest. I’ve never been one to embrace regimented “societies” or cultish organizations of any kind, so I doubt I’ll delve too deeply in that direction, but the concept still intrigues me and I’d like to know more. That could take a while.
In the meantime, I now have a name for the type of writing I have always enjoyed most. And, it looks like my Mythopoeic scribblings may soon find a place in the published world, as I have decided to take M up on his suggestion. I have made it my New Year’s Resolution to gather together the various threads within the Otherwhen saga and weave them together into a coherent whole. My plan, at the moment, is to document that journey here. We’ll see how that goes. Right now, I’m high on the adrenaline of an exciting new project. As any writer will tell you, however, the reality of the process can be anything but constantly rewarding. I’ve started tell-all projects like this before and not gotten very far.
Ah, but that’s what resolutions are for. Even mythopoeic ones…