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)  

6 Comments

  1. Hi, Becky,
    I’m with you on the myth deal. I don’t think we can ‘create’ myth unless we make the myth a fictional one that is embedded in the minds and folklore of our fictional world. Quite an undertaking, but it might prove challenging.
    As for where your five titles fall in the categories: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe might fall into at least two. Namely, Fairy tales and fables. How about another one – Allegory?
    The Sixth Sense would surely be Fairy Tale since it doesn’t seem to have a moral, nor a basis in myth.
    The Wizard of Oz mixes legend, ie. What happens in tornadoes, and Fairy Tale as the characters make their way through the land of Oz.
    Perelandra is a different matter. Lewis certainly takes us into a fantasy, although he makes it appear so real, we become involved with its characters and predicaments. This also happens with Tolkien’s works making us want to read them again and again.
    Could it be that a story makes its own classification as it is written?
    Thansk again for making us think.
    Donna

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  2. “I’m with you on the myth deal. I don’t think we can ‘create’ myth unless we make the myth a fictional one that is embedded in the minds and folklore of our fictional world.”

    I was about to say exactly the same thing. As an example (and because I can’t resist a plug) I’m working on a ficiton world of salthan people. I’m developing a culture, religion, language and myths, legends and fairy tales.
    If you’re interested, it’s at http://www.bikaesh.pbwiki.com

    A for the classificaiton I agree with your list. I’ve only seen the movie of watership down, and it seems to fit in as a fairy tale. Maybe a fable. I havn’t seen it in a long while and vaugly remember a more “save te enviroment” type moral, so I guess that wold make it count as a fable.

    It’s an interesting thought, though I tend ot dislike classifying things since alot of times they defy classification.

    I had never even heard the term before.

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  3. Mythopoeia? Sorry, I can’t help you here. My brain automatically rejects all words that contain 4 vowels in a row. 😛

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  4. Well, I hadn’t thought to add “Allegory” as a separate category, but it probably does deserve one.

    I’m still not sure about the myth thing. I mean, Beowulf is a myth, the Greek stories about Odysseus and the gods are myths. They might have some marginally slender basis in fact, but by and large, someone made them up. Maybe to explain what they saw or experienced, perhaps, but still, they are fabrications.

    So can we create a myth, knowing it is a fabrication? Some say Tolkiens Lord of the Rings is now myth. And why not? But, he also relied upon existent myths. Is that necessary?

    I don’t know. It’s an intriguing topic to me. But maybe most fantasy defies classification.

    Here’s my effort at pigeon-holing those books:
    The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis – fable
    Watership Down, Richard Adams – fable (it’s been too long ago for me to remember the point, but there was a lot about bullying and forgiveness and strength being more than physical)
    The Sixth Sense (I only know about the movie) – legend
    The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum – fairy tale
    Perelandra, C. S. Lewis – myth

    Sorry about all those vowels, Mark. So you’re also not a fan of the poetic device onomatopoeia, are you. 😀

    Becky

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  5. Catching up on my Bloglines reading . . . when it gets past 300 new posts I get a little nervous – it’s past 600 now.

    Not very familiar with The Sixth Sense and Watership Down, so I’ll skip those.

    Just watched the classic version of The Wizard of Oz, and I’d put that as a fable. The lessons are overly pointed.

    I’d consider The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a fairy tale according to your parameters.

    I agree with you about Perelandra being myth.

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  6. […] Thoughts on the Most Popular Post Filed under: Fantasy, Theme — by Rebecca LuElla Miller @ 12:19 pm Tags: allegory, C.S. Lewis, fables, fairy tales, Fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien, legends, myths, Stephen Lawhead, Theme Picture me surprised. The post here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction that gets the most hits—a steady number each week—is Myths and Legends, Fairy Tales and Fables … Oh, My. […]

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