‘Fantasy’s just made-up stuff, though, isn’t it.’
Ah, if only it were that simple, it would be far easier to write. Let’s think about it for a second. Did Tolkein simply make it all up? Or did he, as a Professor of Anglo-Saxon, manage to distill a lifetime of research and knowledge into an epic narrative that succeeded in speaking first to the English, then Europe, and then the entire world?
For me, it’s the latter. That is the monumental achievement that even today has readers’ jaws smacking the floor in wonder and awe. He captured a “lost past” for us and brought it back to life… through mere words. For the main legacy of the Anglo-Saxons was linguistic – most archaeological evidence of their wood-based culture has rotted away of course.
Tolkein could have chosen to write a dry treatise on the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary that still survives in English today – and he would have had precious few readers had he done so. Fortunately for us, however, he decided to recreate something of the life, dreams, agonies and culture of the Anglo-Saxons instead. He resurrected the Anglo-Saxons for us, breathed fresh life into them and introduced us to them. And helped us see that we wouldn’t be who we are now without them.
What am I saying here? That there is something real in Tolkein’s work? That there is something real in fantasy? Yes, that’s precisely what I’m saying, paradoxical though it might seem.
Am I saying there were once elves and dwarves? Are you barmy, Dalton? No, of course I’m not saying that. But what I am saying is that the Anglo-Saxons had a real belief in such things. To this day, there are Scandanavian folk stories about gnomes, dragons, those who are fey, changelings and the swarthy people of the mountains. The UK has similar ancient stories of the physically distinct Picts, the druids, Loch Ness, the ferocious red-haired tribe from across the water, the elusive people of our primeval forests, and so on. And before the arrival of Christianity, it was real to us that a spirit inhabited evergreens, and that bringing such a plant into our homes during the winter solstice would see us blessed and able to survive the cruelest and most barren of the year’s seasons. For death stalked the land in winter, along with his demons and ghostly minions. Only fire kept them at bay – and that is why the fires are still built so high on All Hallow’s Even (Hallowe’en), the day the world becomes its darkest and the sun is rarely seen.
That is why there is something “familiar” about fantasy. It references the mythos that actually underpins our cultural identity. We experience a tingle when we read it. We recognise it. We know and understand the beliefs it contains. Through its characters and narratives, we share those beliefs once more… and magic becomes real once more.
So, fantasy that stays with us does so by referencing a past mythos. And there are different types of mythos, which help create subgenres, allow for crossover and differentiate one author from another. Here’s a list of the different mythoses (I doubt that’s a word), albeit not an exhaustive one:
- The Christian mythos – in which there is a saviour/“chosen one” type figure and a devil type character (demon, vampire, Darth Vader or whatever)
- The Anglo-Saxon/Viking mythos – in which there are dragons, dwarves and goblins – as per Beowulf, The Lord of the Rings and, more recently, The Gospel of Loki (Joanne Harris)
- The Greek mythos – in which there is an interfering pantheon of the gods – as per Clash of the Titans, Hercules, and Necromancer’s Gambit
- The Middle Eastern mythos – more of a Western orientalist fantasy in truth – as per Sinbad, and the Arabian Nights
- The Egyptian mythos – in which there are tombs, animal-headed gods and dervishes – as per Tomb Raider, Necromancer’s Fall, The Mummy, and, more recently, Throne of the Crescent Moon (Saladin Ahmed)
- The Holy Grail/Arthurian mythos – with wandering knights and a strong sense of quest – as per The Warlord Series (Bernard Cornwell), Magic Kingdom for Sale (Terry Brooks) and many, many others
- The Medieval/Old English mythos – with yet more knights, characters like Tom Bombadil, and acts of derring do – as per The Red Knight (Miles Cameron)
- The Japanese mythos – in which there are ninja, samurai and a strong honour code – as per Daughter of the Empire (Raymond E Feist)
- The Celtic mythos – in which you’ve got scary old Cthulu – as per The Age of Misrule (Mark Chadbourn)
- The Native Indian mythos – in which there are shamen and animal guides – as per Soldier Son (Robin Hobb)
- The Renaissance mythos – in which there is an age of discovery and invention, religious persecution and, if you’re lucky, witches – as per School of Night (Deborah Harkness)
- The Victorian mythos – in which steam-based technology does futuristic things – as per The Time Machine (H. G. Wells), and the Skaven in Gotrek and Felix (Black Library)
Phew. Does all that mean we have to do years of research like Tolkein and have a grey beard as long as Gandalf’s before we can write fantasy? No, of course not. But fantasy authors do need to know their myth and legend if their work is really going to give readers that tingle previously mentioned.
And why am I wittering on about all this? Well, it’s the way I think about fantasy, and if you’re a like-minded person then you might enjoy my latest release, Tithe of the Saviours, available from 17 April 2014. It’s the third and final book (for now) in the Chronicles of a Cosmic Warlord, which started with Empire of the Saviours. What mythos is it? Well, it’s Roman Britain mythos mixed with Christian mythos. If that’s your sort of thing, then give it a whirl. I’ll be giving a talk on creative writing and publishing, and signing books of course, at Waterstones Warrington on Saturday 19 April 2014, from 11am. There’ll be other signings too (Manchester, Notts, Leeds, Leicester, etc), details of which will appear on www.ajdalton.eu. Hurrah!
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