Mythopoesis: History

[mythopoesis: the making of myths or fantasy]

History lies in the documentsHuman beings are born in time, live in time and, in time die. The whole of our lives is spent with the flow of time, and so it is only natural that we tend to think of the history of things in a straight chronological and sequential order. Yet, when it comes to the matter of mythopoesis, if we remain locked in such habits of thought, we shall become lost. The history of a fantasy world rarely comes to its author in a chronological fashion: that is, the author rarely begins at the beginning and goes on to the end. He usually begins, like Tolkien’s Niggle, with a single leaf, and in going on, finds that there are branches, other leaves, trunk and roots to be accounted for.

When considering the matter of the “internal history” of fantasy worlds, one finds that there are three types of worlds. The first is the Single Story World, where the fantasy world was created for the particular story being told. The history that the reader learns is included because it is significant to the story being told. Of course, the author may take more than one volume to tell his story, but it is one story. The second type of world is the Multi-Story World, which was originally conceived by the author as holding more than one story. Many of these worlds, it is true, are created for the purpose of a string of stories about one particular character, like Conan, but it is also the type of world Tolkien made. The third type is the World Revisited. This is a fantasy world which was originally a Single Story world, but which, because of readers’ demands or affection for it on the part of the author, the author re-enters with a new story.

For the Sub-Creator, each of these three types of worlds presents different problems in the making of their history. The Single Story World is the simplest situation, for if the history of the world enters the story at all, it is significant to the story line. The World Revisited is the most awkward, for the author has to be careful in opening out the history, in order that he not introduce impossible inconsistencies or change the significance of previously established “history.” The Multi-Story World is the most complex, for the Sub-Creator is really involved in discovering the world.

Ursula K. LeGuin in The Language of the Night (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1979) uses just that word: “discovering.” And “exploring.” “I am not an engineer, but an explorer. I discovered Earthsea” (p. 50). But in mythopoesis, discovery is only rarely a chronological (in the fantasy world’s reference) process. Various story ideas may randomly appear to the author anywhere along his world’s time-line. Additionally, new stories grow out of older (in the author’s mind) stories, like leaves appearing on the branches of a sapling.

On top of this haphazard chronology, the Sub-Creator has to deal with the fact that stories may change shape under his hands. Walter Hooper in Past Watchful Dragons (Collier Books, 1979) observes this in Lewis’s notebooks for the Narnia tales:

Although (Lewis’s notebooks) don’t tell us very much, there is nevertheless sufficient to give us an idea of the “deliberate inventing” that was sometimes necessary when his mental “pictures” did not group themselves into a complete tale. It is also obvious that his first pictures were sometimes supplanted by others, and that pictures that were not used in one story often found a place in some other. (PWD, p. 45-46)

Christopher Tolkien in an editorial note in Unfinished Tales (Houghton Mifflin, 1980) in the section on Aldarion and Erendis makes a related observation about this process:

From the point where Aldarion read the letter from Erendis, refusing to return to Armenelos, the story can only be traced in glimpses and snatches, from notes and jottings: and even those do not constitute the fragments of a wholly consistent story, being composed at different times and often at odds with themselves. (UT, p. 205)

If the author is aware of which type of world he is creating, handling its “history” becomes a slightly easier chore. But only “slightly” easier, for story-ideas, like a band of mischievous monkeys, are likely to bounce up and down and hop from one place to another, while the author scrambles to get them into their proper places.

An author, additionally, needs to be “in tune” with his fantasy world, so that he can tell when a story (or “historical”) idea has finally settled down into the proper shape.

These, then, are the two forces a Sub-Creator has to deal with while forming the history of his fantasy world: the non-chronological fashion in which story ideas present themselves, and the fact that the story may change shape (sometimes drastically) under his hands. Yet even being aware that this is often how the mythopoeic process works will not save the Sub-Creator from a degree of frustration. His creatures may not have free will such as we possess, but they do often have an adamant determination to be self-consistent that can border on the willful. If the Sub-Creator pays attention to his creatures he may even find the course of the history which he has mapped out being changed by some willful hero or heroine in one of his stories.

The whole process of creating a history is a slippery one, and should be approached with care. One slip, and the creatures will be leading the Sub-Creator – not necessarily in a bad manner, but certainly in an unexpected one.

(originally in Mythlore 37, Winter 1984; revised 2006)


About Sarah

Now residing in Las Vegas, I was born in Michigan and moved to Texas when 16. After getting my Masters degree in English, I moved to Hollywood, because of the high demand for Medievalists (NOT!). As a freelance writer and editor, I found Nevada offers better conditions for the wallet. I love writing all sorts of things, and occasionally also create some artwork.
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