Myths and Legends, Fairy Tales and Fables … Oh, My


Recently I was introduced to the term mythopoeic. I’m trying to understand this. Wikipedia has this to say about the related noun:

The word mythopoeia and description was coined and developed by J.R.R. Tolkien in the 1930’s. The authors in this genre integrate traditional mythological themes and archetypes, into fiction. Mythopoeia is also the act of making (creating) such mythologies.

So which is it—integrating traditional mythology or creating mythology? Can you even do the latter? 8)

My online dictionary defines mythology as the following:

a collection of myths, esp. one belonging to a particular religious or cultural tradition

The same dictionary also defines myth like this:

a traditional story, esp. one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.

So can you create a “traditional story”? Doesn’t “traditional” suggest that this is a shared set of beliefs, not exclusive to one generation?

Would a newly created myth be one, then, that retained the traditional beliefs within the framework of a new imaginative tale?

And here’s the real question: how is “myth” different from “fantasy”? And what about fables, fairy tales, legends—what differentiates one from another? How are these different from just plain old fiction?

Because I’m a fantasy writer, I’m curious about all this. In some ways, it seems to me, myth is at the heart of all fiction. The roots, certainly, of all fiction include oral story telling, which many scholars believe was first the account of actual events and later the embellishment of actual events.

The interesting thing is that a well-told story feels so real, it’s nearly impossible to tell if it actually happened or if it lacked any basis in fact. Often times the “give-away” is the presence of the supernatural. Or perhaps, whatever is unknown today.

I guess I’ll give a stab at how I see these different forms. In reverse order:

Fables. A fable seems to exist to make a point, to teach a lesson. I think of the story about the little boy who cried wolf as an example. Fables often use talking animals. An example of a novel might be The Story of the Dun Cow.

Fairy Tales. Written for children, fairy tales involve imaginary beings or places and also teach lessons, though perhaps less pointedly so. Famous fairy tales are numerous. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs comes to mind. A novelist telling fairy tales might be Shannon Hale (Goose Girl, The Princess Academy).

Legends. Based on fact but embellished, with numerous beyond-belief additions. King Arthur comes to mind. Not sure if “superhero” stories fit here or not. These seem to rely on considerably more than embellishment.

Myths. These are the stories that involve the supernatural, it would seem. Of old, this would include Beowulf and Odysseus. Novels would include The Lord of the Rings.

So in what classification do these stories fall?

  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis
  • Watership Down, Richard Adams
  • The Sixth Sense (I only know about the movie)
  • The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum
  • Perelandra, C. S. Lewis

OK, we’ll see where this takes us. Not sure if the topic is worth more conversation or not.

For further discussion, see “Fables, Fairy Tales, and Parables” and “Fables and Fantasies.”

Published in: on September 5, 2007 at 12:40 pm  Comments (6)  
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