Sunday, August 28, 2011

Heroic Fantasy and Myth Making

Heroic fantasy is a literature of myth making. It's not about telling things the way they are, or even about how they were or might have been. It's about telling, or at least hinting at, the deepest truths and mysteries of human existence. It's about ancient days when human consciousness was first arising and we as a race were becoming something more, and less, than animal. In those days the gods and demons and all manner of supernatural beings were real--at least to the people of those times--more real than they can ever be to the majority of modern humans.

Despite what one of its practitioners once wrote, Heroic Fantasy is not about a world undreamed of. In symbols at least, we have all dreamed of it. I consider thinkers like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung to be more philosophers than scientists. If you want to understand psychology as a "science" then you might as well ignore them both, as well as many others of the same mindset. But, if you enjoy speculating about the origins of human consciousness and the ways in which those origins influence modern literary traditions (which is not scientific psychology), then both Freud and Jung (particularly Jung) can be useful.

For both Freud and Jung, human prehistory was a time when the seeds of later myths, and of many later truths, were being planted. I believe they are right (though not for the reasons they are often thought of as right). And I believe that one thing that separates great Heroic Fantasy from lesser work in the field is the degree to which a tale taps into the substratum of myth, and the degree to which it evokes the “depth” of prehistorical time in which those myths were arising. (All this assumes, of course, that the writer has the storytelling skills to hold the reader's attention long enough to evoke his or her sense of myth and of time’s vastness.)

Robert E. Howard is perhaps the best illustration of what I'm talking about. Howard tapped into almost pure myth when he created the worlds of Kull and Conan, and when he modified historical ages to provide an arena for the adventures of Bran Mak Morn, Cormac Mac Art, and Solomon Kane. There is an underlying coherence to Howard's fantasy worlds. His mysteries are shrouded in the web of ages but when one reads of his green-walled ruins and his leftover denizens from elder races one feels the living power behind his craftings. One feels as if there is something more there behind the stories, something that is real, or should have been real. It’s much the same feeling one gets when swimming and something powerful passes by just under the surface.
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36 comments:

David J. West said...

Very interesting Charles, especially since I just started reading Campbells, The Power of Myth this afternoon.

Cloudia said...

You are an able explicator of the great value in this sort of literature, Charles. You are correct, when the writing works. Often it falls short of the lofty resonance you describe. It is not 'just cool stuff happening' but must resonate with the deep things you discuss. This piece is worthy scholarship and should be read widely by those who want to be writers in these genres. Thank you for educating us all.

Aloha from Waikiki;


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eric1313 said...

In the middle of reading the Silmarillion now. Too many elf names! In 2 invented languages no less... lol

Yes, having the framework of a myth is not enough, one has to be able to voice it properly. If the story is being told as though by a historian, you have to have the right perfect historical voice. But good diction alone is not enough, one has to find a suitable level of archaic quality. Can be tough but I actually like this aproach. But it won't work for everything.

Much harder is trying to tell it through the hero or heroine's eyes, at least in terms of conveying the proper sense of myth, as you were saying. And do it without sounding cheesy. Very tough to do I think, at least to pull it off.

Deka Black said...

"One feels as if there is something more there behind the stories, something that is real, or should have been real." ---> That should be the goal of many wordsmiths. And particularly in Heroic fantasy

I re-started to write almost a year ago, and this is my goal. Too ambitious? Can be, but is worth. in the way i learned a thing or two.

And the most important is, if you want to do some myth making, is to love what you write.

Why i want to write heroic fantasy? Because i want to build words.

Because i consider myself and all who write this kind of story the heirs of a tradition old as storytelling itself. (Yes, that includes you, Charles)

And because deep inside of me, i'm still the one who saw for the first time the walls of Xuchotl and wondered about the ancient city and his secrets. ;)

the walking man said...

The biggest proof of our ongoing evolving to a greater society is the alien creatures among us...those of the clan teenager. They live in a myth and fantasy filled world that is not easily explained and at times painful to witness.

the walking man said...

I guess you could add politicians into that description too.

Charles Gramlich said...

David J. West, I still haven't read that. sad to say.

Cloudia, resonance is so important. I've talked about it before but it always stays with me.

Eric1313, the translation of myth into story is one of those hard hard things to do. But when it works there is little better.

Deka, I'm there with you, looking up a those walls and wondering.

Mark, very true. And if left to their own devices, as they are too often, their myths become dangerous to society as a whole.

Tom Doolan said...

You know, this is something I don't think I have ever considered. When I create characters, i just go for the cool factor and then try to make them original. The mythology approach may help me make my characters more interesting! :)

Lana Gramlich said...

Loved this post, hon. You've hit the nail on the head!
Cormac Mac Art/Airt, a High King of Ireland, came directly from the world of Celtic myth (the Fenian/Ossianic cycle.) At the very least the name did, anyway.
I love all things mythological/symbolic. Not much on Freud, but Jung rocks the house!

Ron Scheer said...

Do Grimm's fairy tales fit anywhere in what you are saying? They're not myth, but there is a kind of psychological truth underlying them as well.

Paul R. McNamee said...

Nice imagery. Howard was a master, of course. Others managed that, too for me - Lovecraft, of course, who somehow expanded the cosmos and made it more disturbing. I really get that "lost vistas" feel from some of Clark Ashton Smith's work.

Manly Wade Wellman conceived of Hok, who carried a club and wore an animal skin, because he thought Hercules was some kind of pre-Greek throwback to stone age man. Clubs and lion skins really weren't a "Greek" thing - they had moved on to spears and armor by the time the myths evolved.

It's definitely interesting what might lie under the human consciousness of existence as a racial whole.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Tapping into human myths and truths - makes sense. Conan certainly did that.

Chris said...

Great post, Charles. I think you've really tapped into what I love about this kind of thing.

Ron, what I find most fascinating about the Grimm's stuff is so much of what they draw on are old and dark stories certainly not meant for children.

BernardL said...

Excellently put.

Erik Donald France said...

Yes, I'm with you on Freud and Jung as philosophers; and on heroic fantasy and myth making in general.

The oldest (physically) book I've got is from the 1700s, a translation of the Iliad. Always strikes me as great, deep primal stuff.

Charles Gramlich said...

Tom Doolan, I spend a fair amount of time trying to think of some new way to evoke the mythological. Not easy. I don't have a lot of luck, but I think about it.

Lana Gramlich, Yeah, Jung is much more interesting than Freud. Freud did talk about myth in Totem and Taboo, one of his most interesting books.

Ron Scheer, I think Grimm's tales are sort of mythological short hand. They do tie to myths but in a short hand way, sort of yesterday's urban legend.

said...

Paul R. McNamee, CAS does it better for me than HPL, although I do like HPL quite a lot. CAS connect better to the old myths while HPL is trying to create a new mythos it seems. I've ordered the HOK the mighty. Looking forward to reading the tales.

Alex J. Cavanaugh, That's why I like this kind of literature so much.

Chris, exactly. I think some of us are really more mythological minded than others. I certainly am and love reading and writing those things that impinge on myth.


BernardL, thankee, man.

Erik Donald France, The iliad and odyssey are good examples. The writers in those days were closer to the basic human myths I think.

David Cranmer said...

You always give me food for thought, Charles. Great post, sir.

Deka Black said...

Well Charles, then there is only one answer!.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Charles, well are mutual love of Howard (and poetry) binds us.

It struck me that the first part of your definition - "It's about telling, or at least hinting at, the deepest truths and mysteries of human existence." - could also apply to poetry.

Charles Gramlich said...

David Cranmer, glad you enjoyed.

Deka, to write it, man.

Don, I think so, that it does apply to poetry. So often the truth lies beneath in poetry.

laughingwolf said...

well said, charles...

my 'mentors' are jung, joe campbell, and jim henson... others contributed to my love of myth as well, but those three most prominently....

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, I like that you have Henson in there.

laughingwolf said...

he was amazing, as you know :D

Scott said...

Charles,

Great post, and excellent thoughts on REH. Nicely done.

Ty Johnston said...

Charles, excellent choice of using Howard as an example. More than any other author I've ever read (though Steve Goble comes close sometimes), Howard could transport me not only into other times and places, but into another mindset, a primitive mindset where the world is generally quite threatening.

Though I write a lot of fantasy, I've never considered myself a heroic fantasy author in large part because I don't think I can pull off that mindset, though I might give it a serious go someday. No, I think of myself more as an epic fantasy writer, with less of a focus upon a primeval ethos and more of a spotlight on denial of such, though I doubt most readers find such matters in my literature (it's there, though hidden, or maybe I don't pull it off real well ... yikes!).

Though he doesn't get into the mindsets so much, being an anthropologist Steven Erikson does an excellent job, in my opinion, in creating his fantasy worlds.

And one last thing ... while I'm thinking about your myth making post ... I know you like Westerns, so I have a suggestion. Watch any spaghetti western again. Any of them. Doesn't even have to involve Clint. Now, when you watch, instead of thinking you're watching a semi-historical tale about the Old West, imagine the story is taking place in a faraway world not too different from our own. But instead of just dusty gunfighters, the men with guns are gods walking the earth. Just a suggestion.

Drizel said...

O my word, I have nothing intelligent to add. Just enjoyed this post allot:)

Charles Gramlich said...

laughingwolf, indeed so.

Scott, thanks, man. I knew you would get them.

Ty Johnston, absolutely on the westerns. In fact, that's why I so much enjoy the spaghetti westerns like "Once Upon a Time in the West." So completly mythological. I've got an idea for a western I want to write along those lines. I'm calling it "the Time of the Gun." Not gonna be down and dirty and realistic so much as, hopefully, a myth. I've got to read some ERikson.

Drizel, thanks, glad you enjoyed.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Both my husband and daughter are big admirers of Freud despite the holes in his thinking. Both have used Dora in their courses for instance.

Charles Gramlich said...

Patti, I talk about Freud from a historical perspective. I've read most of his writings. Interesting thinker but not a scientist certainly.

cs harris said...

Interesting, Charles.

Oddly, however, although I love the Iliad and have read it half a dozen times (including once, painfully, in the original Greek), I've never been able to read Conan.

The Golden Eagle said...

Interesting post.

I'm not that familiar with Freud or Jung--but it is a powerful idea that there's a current beneath the surface of some stories to which people respond.

eric1313 said...

no doubt! One day I'll have to share what I've been working on. Perhaps it's best not to think about that too much right now and just do it.

X. Dell said...

In Discovery of the Self, Jung mentioned a conversation with Freud in which the latter expressed ideas along these lines. When Jung asked why he never wrote or published any of these thoughts, Freud replied that he didn't want to give fuel to occultic thinking.

Perhaps that's the allure of the occult to some. In a weird way, science serves the same purpose for others (see Kuhn on the irrationality of science), especially in a logocentric culture.

Charles Gramlich said...

Candy, Conan moves a little faster than the Iliad. :) I like 'em both.

The Golden Eagle, resonance. I keep coming back to that element so often.

eric1313, sometimes overthinking is the myth killer. You can't make it too conscious, I suspect.

X. Dell, humans, at least many humans, NEED some kind of outlet for their spiritual mindedness. Some do indeed find it in science. I think Carl Sagan was an example.

Rachel V. Olivier said...

That makes a lot of sense. I think that's what Tolkien was trying to get to, a history of England without the French influence. You can see that in George R. R. Martin, too.

Charles Gramlich said...

Rachel, I love the mythology of Tolkien and the detail he worked into his worlds.