Mythic Fantasy

When I started this blog, I had a concept in mind, an inkling that I called "sideways-in and bottom-up stories," where the hero of the tale is a not-very-important-person who's gotten caught up in something much larger than himself or herself. And here the heroism starts in.

Later I found out, to my pleasure, that my concept overlaps quite a bit with a genre some folks call "mythic fantasy." Mythic fantasy, in turn, is the "literary" branch of a much larger stream, "the mythic arts"--including visual, poetic, bardic, and yes, storytelling. I suspect a lot of mythic artists see Terri Windling as part muse, part grand dame of these mythic arts. She edited a journal called Endicott Studio (site still active, but sadly, journal not), has edited or coedited both novel-length and shorter tales working in this genre, and she now maintains a wonderful blog called Myth & Moor. (See my sidebar for the blog.)

My perception of "sideways-in fantasy" picks up on a strain in the genre of fantasy Windling described years ago in a lovely speech. In her words, the sort of stories I was craving are "those rooted in the humbler stuff of folklore and fairy tales." These are "smaller tales, more intimate in nature — stories of individual rites of passage and personal transformation."

Here are a few thoughts I've had on the genre.


This "mythic" or "folktale" kind of fantasy shares with much of the fairy tale and folktale tradition a motif or frame of reference, a kind of “lowly” perspective. In the great epics of the past—like much modern (“epic”) fantasy—the characters in sideways-in tales would be nothing more than the “little people,” minor characters who (in those epics) would go nameless. In sideways-in fantasy, by contrast, the “little people” tend to provide the eyes through which the reader sees and understands the story’s events, even if those events are world-changing.

This lowly perspective is a common feature of much (though not all) folk tradition and fairy tale, which explains why it filters into so much mythic fantasy. Epic, by contrast, concerns the “big people” and their big wars and battles. It has to do with migrations and heavy-handed deities, who fight for their people. Clashes of cultures, the machinery of war, building things, founding cities, spreading civilizations—or their demise. Those who see themselves as heirs of Tolkien's legacy typically work in this vein.

Most of the folk tradition, while sometimes aware of all these great events going on between lords and lands, focuses on the vital struggle of the “little people,” the farmers whose produce is taxed to fund the wars, whose sons get conscripted into these same wars. These little people might crave wealth and power: they’ll ask for it almost every time, if they manage to snag a fey creature capable of giving it to them. But you know those tales never end well. Greed, the lust for power, destroys not only themselves, but everything they’ve gained. (The Fisherman and His Wife)

When they aren’t asking their three wishes, these little people are sometimes angling to get married to the wealthy. Cinderella is a classic example here: with a little magic, and a lot of unjust suffering borne with utmost patience, you too can be a gold-digger.

A lot more could be said about this. Not every character of low birth in the folk tradition is seeking wealth. Many are just trying to make a decent living. Sometimes the wealthy come in for poverty, too, and have to find their way back up—reader beware. (Beauty and the Beast) But even when they’re trying to make a normal life, the story is about how they can’t—thanks to some being of greater power than themselves. This sometimes turns out well, and sometimes it doesn’t. You might marry a princess, and then be mocked for your humble birth, and wind up killing her and every one of her friends. (The King of the Golden Mountain) Then again, you might kill a rich giant and make off with his treasures. Even so, chances are that when he comes crashing down, he’ll take out part of your family farm with him. (Jack and the Beanstalk)

Mythic fantasy taps into this rich treasure of folklore, but not necessarily in an obvious way (as in a retelling). It simply follows the tradition of focusing on the “little people” and their vital struggle against magical, and sometimes distant political, forces. Small fry get pulled into events they haven’t caused, and they rely on their wits and virtues—if they have them—to salvage what they can from the encounter. Sometimes it turns out well, sometimes it doesn’t.


The advantages of this kind of fantasy, what it offers us, are significant. First, we can relate to it. If you’re reading this blog, you probably have never initiated a war over your (or your nation’s) honor. You are, whether you normally think so or not, one of the “little people” who wouldn’t warrant being named in the epic histories of our times. A story about people like you, facing dangers as bad as your own (hopefully worse), holds the same power that folktales held for people of a bygone era.

Which brings up a second advantage. Mythic fantasy lets us explore the complex terrain of moral and amoral choices. What’s the best way forward from here—never mind how you got here, whose fault it was, how beyond grasp the forces you face. What do you do, with your little skill set, facing such odds? Such powers? Such devastation? Whatever it is, mythic fantasy lets you explore it, mull it over, live it almost, without any of the risks of making those choices yourself.

In that sense, it’s like that folktale theme about wealth. What if I could get my hands on it? What would happen to me and the ones I love? Would I be able to control my lust for it? Or would it control me? In the story, I get to find out, vicariously. I might not like the answer, might not believe it. But if I recognize myself in it, I learn something about my potential, a possible version of myself. That’s the power of that folktale.

Novels have the advantage—at least in theory—of being longer, more involved, complex, exploratory. They can take this folktale motif and deepen its psychological effect. They do this by exploring the interior world of the folktale hero, who is usually only described by her or his external actions in the folktales. If you tell a story without any psychological probing, you sometimes fall back on stereotyped motives to explain actions. (Envy in Snow White; revenge in Sleeping Beauty; honor in Hans the Hedgehog.) And sometimes, you don’t explain them at all. (So, for instance, the young fellow who comes upon an imprisoned princess will believe her and do any outrageous thing she asks, without narrative explanation.) This impervious quality of the hero can be—almost always is—reversed in a fantasy story, where we are privy to the interior workings of the hero/heroine’s soul, insofar as the author has discerned them. Naturally, that kind of thing can be overdone. But it’s part of the nature of novels (modern ones, at least) to deepen that dimension, to explore it, to chart it perhaps, or confront us with the unchartability of it.

I don’t say that fantasy novels of this kind are better than folktales and fairy tales. They might speak more to our own artistic tastes. They’re literate, idiosyncratic, and less time-worn or time-tested. But the old tales have their charm, power, and much of their vitality, at least to me. Even so, in bringing their themes and tropes forward to us, writers of mythic fantasy are confronting us with the same potent opportunity our forebears had, to contemplate the dilemmas that our struggle against mysterious, powerful forces creates. That’s their virtue and, I think, why we still need them.


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