A long time ago, someone requested that I put my thesis on JU. Well, the actual thesis is very long, so here are the notes I used when I presented it. Enjoy! (Or run away as fast as you can)
Welcome to my presentation of Mythology, Fantasy Literature and the Modern Reader. What is the hold fantasy literature seems to have on its readers? What magic spell does it cast on readers from different countries, age groups, and backgrounds? I believe this is because contemporary fantasy literature contains references from ancient mythology and archetypes that set the reader in a structure outside of themselves and into a universal framework to which they can relate. By looking at references made to mythology, archetypes found in fantasy literature, I hope to find how this framework is created and why it is so appealing to the fantasy audience.
There are many myths that have been taken from ancient cultures and brought into Fantasy literature. I would like to look at 5 of these myths. The re-use of myths give a framework to fantasy stories. Imagine a window. Through the window panes, the reader can see the story as the author has written it, but, beyond that visual field, lies the surrounding world they have created. The mythologies they use from other cultures can still make the whole structure stable. Readers do not have to become familiar with new creatures or new beasts because those things already exist in some incarnation in their own minds.
Dragons exist in almost every culture and fantasy series. Dragons appear in the stories of JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling, Ursula K. LeGuin, Anne McCaffrey, and many others. Some dragons breathe fire and hoard gold, some are able to speak orally while others communicate telepathically with humans bound to them. Historically, humans created these blended creatures either out of fear of the unknown, or, as in some Eastern cultures, as great protectors and benefactors. Their perceived malevolence in Western cultures created heroes as humans found it necessary to find people able to defeat the things that they could not see nor understand. Because dragons are so important to the human consciousness, they can be found in stories like Beowulf, the legend of St. George and in the biblical books of Exodus and Revelations. Hercules slew several dragons, including the nine-headed dragon Hydra.
The human mind sees time as linear with a beginning and end and feels as though he or she has been placed in the middle of a timeline. This leads to man’s need to create beginning to time and existence. This desire for a beginning translates itself to fantasy literature, and often causes authors to include creation myths in their stories – even if those stories exist only in their heads or are published at a later time for the public to read and enjoy. Tolkien created The Silmarillion because he needed that background for his world in The Hobbit, and he fought to have The Silmarillion published with The Lord of the Rings.
Heroes cannot defeat dragons, nor can gods protect their creations without magical weaponry. Weapons are not always limited to magic swords, hammers or axes, though these are common enough. Magic weapons must also include rings, staffs, amulets and wands. Historically, magical weapons have appeared in stories like the King Arthur legend with the famous Excalibur, or in Norse mythology with Thor’s ever-returning hammer. Luned, the Lady of the Fountain gives the Celtic hero Owain a Ring of Invisibility. When speaking of magical rings, most fantasy readers will undoubtedly think of the One Ring from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Other rings, however exist in fantasy literature like the ones found in Elizabeth Moon’s trilogy, The Deed of Paksenarrion. These rings are important to note because they mirror the importance of ring giving from Norse culture. Kings were known to be good kings if they rewarded their subjects and warriors with gifts of weaponry and rings. Rings were symbols of power and fame.
Humans have always seemed to feel the need to know that they are not alone on earth. In old myths the “little folk” have often been seen as intelligent creatures that lay around the edges of society. Sometimes malevolent and sometimes helpful, these sects and races of creatures have been taken from mythology and placed in fantasy literature. Before Tolkien, most people thought “elves” were little, mischievous creatures that lived in flowers and toadstools. The folk of Faerie were diminutive and inelegant – not to be trusted within their lands. To eat from the table of an elf or fairy was to spend the rest of one’s existence bound in the land where time moved at a much slower pace than that of the outside world. With Tolkien’s writings, however, “elf” came back to an older, different image. Tall, wise, immortal and unearthly beautiful, Tolkien’s elves share a closer kinship to the tall and beautiful Celtic Tuatha Dé Danann.
During more primitive times, the tree was an extremely important part of the human race’s survival. Trees provided food, shelter and, when chopped down and burned, warmth. Therefore the tree is an important aspect of creation myths, survival myths or can function as the central focus of a myth. In Genesis, Adam and Eve are told not to eat from two trees: the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Their disobedience leads to the fall of man. In Norse mythology, the tree Yggdrasil connects the underworld at the roots, the world at the trunk and the heavens with its branches. Of all the trees in fantasy literature, the Ents are my favorites. Tolkien wrote once that he saw a production of Macbeth and his disappointment from that show inspired some of The Lord of the Rings. Macbeth was told in a prophecy that his reign would last until the trees moved against him. Tolkien’s imagination was inspired by the thought of trees moving against a king and was disappointed when the moving trees turned out to be nothing but men with twigs on their heads. In retaliation to Shakespeare, Tolkien created the ents. Forests are often seen as the realm of the natural or even the real of Faerie. Woods also represent the pagan, the untamed, and contained to the Christian mind evil spirits waiting to do harm to any that strayed into its waiting dark. People often meet the devil or other evil spirits in the forest.
Karl Jung brought archetypes to the forefront of psychology in the early 1900’s. He believed that archetypes arise from a shared sense of history – a collective unconscious. In his essay on the myth of the divine child, Jung explains archetypes in the following way: “Even the best attempts at explanation [of archetypes] are only more or less successful translations into another metaphorical language. (…) The most we can do is to dream the myth onwards and give it modern dress.” (Jung, 79) This need for modern dress, I have no doubt, is the reason for fantasy literature.
Transformation is one of the most common motifs in fairytales and myths and is an important aspect in fantasy literature. A common form of transformation is the change of man (or woman) from human to beast. The werewolf is not a recent invention but goes back to the ancient Romans. Ovid wrote about the story of Lycaon: the man who angered Jove and was punished: My favorite werewolf from fantasy writing is professor Lupin from the Harry Potter series. Professor Lupin was also changed into a werewolf out of revenge. The nasty werewolf Fenrir Greyback bit the young Lupin because Lupin’s father had angered the werewolf.
“(a) a sacred place is symbolized by an opening by which passage from from heaven to earth or from earth to the underworld is made possible (c) communication with heaven is expressed by certain images, all of which refer to the axis mundi: pillar, ladder, mountain, tree, vine, etc.”
While the idea of sacred space is present in fantasy literature, it is most interesting to note that mountaintops have become less important. Authors seem more concerned with the insides of mountains than their tops. In fantasy literature, the myth of the center has been replaced by travel into the underworld. In a post World War society, humans feel the lack of center in our world, so there is a corresponding lack of center in our mythos. Characters do not have a “holy space” where they can find help or comfort. The Harry Potter series is an interesting study of post-World War world. During WWII, parents sent their children to boarding schools in the country in hopes that they would be safe from air raids. Hogwarts is the equivalent of an English boarding school, but is far from safe. The war between the good and bad wizards is centered at this school. Harry and his friends do not find safety at their school but mortal danger. They do not travel to mountain tops to commune with gods, but take multiple journeys to the underworld.
Man’s belief in an afterlife has translated itself from culture to culture. In mythologies, this belief in an underworld is often written about as the hero who must make a journey to the underworld to gain wisdom, to finish a quest, or to rescue a loved one. Odysseus takes a trip to the underworld to discover how to get back to Ithaca. Orpheus travels into Hades to reclaim his bride, Eurydice. In fantasy literature, Aragorn must make a journey into the mountains to the city of the dead to rally an army; Ged travels to the land of the dead in attempts to heal the sick and then to heal magic in the world. Garth Nix’s Abhorsen Trilogy follows a family who must keep the dead at bay by frequent trips into their land.
Eliade said that the myth of eternal return could cause “anxiety before the danger of the new, refusal to assume responsibility for a genuine historical existence”. Richard Purtill says that myth satisfies a, “need for significant form in our experience. We want to be able to relate the things that happen to us as parts of an understandable whole. For some, the idea of Fate or the idea of the Will of God seems to satisfy this need, whereas for others, it is important that what happens be seen as due to their own choice”.
“Yet I was making what I felt was a significant point about Harry and Voldemort, and about prophecies themselves, in showing Neville as the also-ran. If neither was ‘pre-ordained’ before Voldemort’s attack to become his possible vanquisher, then the prophecy becomes the catalyst for a situation that would never have occurred if it had not been made. (…) Destiny is a name often given in retrospect to choices that had dramatic consequences.”
The one archetype that seemed to appear in every fantasy story was that of the Wise Old Man / Woman. Gandalf, Dumbledore, Obi-Wan, Merlin, Galadriel, Ogion, etc. fulfill the wise old man / woman archetype for the various fantasy stories.
The double figure is, perhaps, one of the most common archetypes simply because it figures into the mind of man so greatly: night and day, life and death, male and female. Duality exists in our own mind in the conscious and the subconscious. This archetype can be modified when it exists in fantasy literature. The double can manifest itself in twin characters, like Castor and Pollux from Greek mythology or the Weasley twins from the Harry Potter series, telepathically joined characters like Lyra and her daemon in His Dark Materials, characters who transform like Professor Lupin or even Aragon (from Ranger to King), or characters with dual personality like Gollum / Smeagol.
The Trickster is often the exaggeration of less than positive traits found in humans. In classic mythology, the trickster is best found in Norse mythology in the god, Loki. The typical trickster found in Greek mythology is the god Hermes. In contemporary fantasy literature, however, the trickster is lacking. This is not to say that it does not exist at all. In the Harry Potter series, the Weasly twins, Fred and George, are very close to trickster figures. They cause mishap and mayhem, eventually leaving school early to open up their very own joke shop. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and its sequel Anansi Boys are two other books that explore the trickster figure directly. American Gods features Loki and Odin playing a con on the other ancient gods brought to America by immigrants.
In Tolkien’s essay, “On Fairy Stories” Tolkien writes that he believes that fairy stories offer a means of recovery and escape for the human mind. “Recovery is a re-gaining of a clear view. They allow us to clean our windows and see green and be startled anew.” We have seen the grass every day, walked on it, seen it cut and not given it much thought. After reading a fairy tale, though, we look at the grass and see how green it is. A circle in the grass ceases being a mere discoloration, and becomes fairy ring where the fairies come to dance and where, if we stand in the middle of it, we can see magic. Fairy tales allow us to change our viewpoint. The world is no longer ordinary, but filled with extraordinary things. In the land of Faerie, nothing is simply as it seems, and by visiting that world, the reader is able to see his or her own world in a new, magical light.
By giving children fairy tales, you can also teach them to believe in something beyond themselves and thus keep them from a wolfish, self-serving existence. Without imagination, life is just a pitched struggle between people with no charity or mercy. Humans may indeed be selfish beings, but sometimes they are selfless and self-sacrificing. Children know there are monsters, despite what their parents tell them. Fairy tales help them to believe that they can defeat those monsters, or at least help them believe that there are those out there who will defeat the monsters for them.
Myth, a higher form than Faerie, allows us to escape, not just from our grim reality but from our profane time and into a sacred time.
“Myth and ritual allow us to go back to a time when gods roamed the Earth. Sacred time makes possible the other, ordinary time.” (Eliade)
Because of the sacred we are able to survive in the profane just as the world of Faerie helps to cope with reality. Whereas in Sacred Space, man is taken to a place where that is not only separated from the mundane, but were a greater-than-he is in charge, where a deity, not fate or chance, is in charge of his destiny. He desires the active presence of gods and a world that is fresh, pure and strong.
Fantasy literature is the continuation of the fairy tale and the myth. The fantasy genre is the new dressing given to the old tales. Fantasy literature is not just the literature for adolescents, or brain candy for the bored. Fantasy literature books function as the stories for our culture, for our minds. Neil Gaiman said that myth begins as religion then become moral truths. Then, those truths become myths and those myths turn into stories. And when people no longer read those stories, when they no longer fill anything for man, they are discarded to become compost from which new stories may grow. Contemporary fantasy literature books are those new stories. The modern reader continues to devour fantasy stories because these stories have functions beyond the entertainment value. Like the fairy tale and the myth, fantasy novels offer the reader understanding, escape, and connection.