Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Using Myth

My sister, Rocket Scientist, spurred on this blog today by discussing the Bible, reminding me how much myth plays into what I enjoy reading and tend to write. If you wish to get into a deep discussion of whether the Bible is myth or not, go to my sister's page. If, however, you want to see how myth fits in with writing, read on.

Let me define myth, using Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary:

  • Main Entry: myth 
  • Pronunciation: \ˈmith\
  • Function: noun
  • Etymology: Greek mythos
  • Date: 1830

1 a : a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon b : parableallegory
2 a : a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially : one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society myth of individualism — Orde Coombs> b: an unfounded or false notion
3 : a person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence
4 : the whole body of myths

As you can tell from the definitions, myth can stem from real events--whether historically verifiable or not--and is also used to explain meaning, whether explaining natural events, human interactions, or beliefs. And because myth underlies the reality of our existence, it gives us more meaning than the events themselves have (without interpretation). Myth doesn't imply that we, as humans, truly know why something happens. To me, it says far more about us than it does about the world we are trying to make sense of. 

Whether you know it or not, your life is filled with myth, and if you read or watch movies, you fill it with even more. Many of my favorite books are filled with myth--from the Harry Potter series to the Fablehaven novels... magic is one attempt to create meaning out of the random events. But religion fits this as well, for it attempts to guide us, help us interpret what is happening to us and to others, and creates a system of meaning for us. 

How can we use this in writing? Perhaps the key is when we are "world-building," when we are setting up the world we will use in a work we are creating. What are the characters' mythic systems, whether religious or otherwise? What truths govern their world differently than ours?

In Shannon Hale's Princess Academy, the underlying mythic system involved the mountains--more specifically, the rock being mined from them. The miners and their families had lived there for generations, and the rock was in their blood, creating a sort of magical relationship between the mountain and the people who lived on it. In Robin McKinley's Beauty, magic held certain places more strongly than others, and people avoided magical areas, suspicious of its power when they couldn't control it. 

Look at what you are writing. What mythic assumptions do your characters live by? What guides their behavior, their relationships, and even their daily habits? What knowledge do they have to discover (in other words, what mythic systems exist within the world without their knowledge?). What will the discovery of such knowledge do to characters who discover it?

If you examine your work and find it lacks any such system, it may be you haven't looked closely enough. More than likely, though, it may be that you haven't developed this part of your world enough to make it meaningful. Can you add to this? Can you make the journey your characters are on mean more?


  1. You know, I don't really explore the religious aspects of my world (though it clearly exists). I'm comfortable with that, though, and I'll tell you why.

    There are some people for whom the search for spirituality is pivotal if not all. For many others, the understanding and acceptance of the local myths is as much the normal part of their day as the color of the sky.

    I don't think either is wrong; both reflect the way real people live.

  2. But the more imbued it is in a culture's system, the more finely tuned it should be. I can't tell you how many books, for me, have failed because either the system was horribly flawed or because it lacked consistency.

    And you are right. For some characters, the mythic system will be part of their active lives and thoughts, while for others, it will be less than conscious, built mainly of assumptions and habits. Either way it is still important for the author of it to have a hand in shaping it meaningfully.