I have long been a reader of fantasy literature, but only really of a certain type, which I read and re-read avidly; how narrow a type this is becomes evident when people ask me about other fantasy novelists, most of whom I haven’t read. It wasn’t until I happened across the Mythopoeic Society that I discovered there was a name for what one might call this sub-genre, although I think it’s at the heart of all poetry.
Mythopoeia comes from two Greek works, mythos and poeia: myth-making. It’s used as a name for a certain type of fantasy literature, most famously that of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams. A scan through the Society’s list of nominees and awards provides a host of other authors; most of my favourites are on there, and I’ve found a few others by way of it. Next year I may try to go to the convention. One year I hope my books will be on the list.
One of the central elements of myth is the interplay between the deeply concrete and the far-reachingly-mysterious. The one tree whose apples grant life, or wisdom, or death; the well at the world’s end; the golden ring; the importance of friendship, hope, promises. To my mind, the best fantasy holds true to this central truth of poetry, the potency and potential of the particular. There is something to be said for the back-and-forth between the Aristotelian and the Platonic in the writer, the tug-of-war desire to write about the Real through the medium of the false image of reality. The mythmakers bring together all sorts of stories with their own, until we suddenly see in Tolkien’s ring the ring of Gyges from Plato’s Republic, or are pleasantly flabbergasted to reach the top of Dante’s Mount Purgatory and realise we’ve been to the Earthly Paradise before by way of Narnia.
The mythmakers need practical tools: they want to know how bread is baked — so that they know why it was burned by King Alfred, and an inkling of the sacred mystery of breaking it. They want to know how an inukshuk is made; and used; and that it means ‘man of stone’ in Inuktitut. The mythmakers’ craft is to see the truth underlying the surface, the meaning of the things in this world, and show them forth to others. We’re groping to find meaning in our society, as people start to ask what it is about farming, or home preserving, or crafts, that speaks so to our souls in a way that consumerism doesn’t: the stories we tell ourselves matter. Making rowan jelly is an activity with breadth and depth and height, and has only a very small amount to do with the fact that one cannot buy it in a store. I wouldn’t anyway. I don’t consider myself much of a consumer; I savour. But then again I’ve just spent three weeks reading Plato.