Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Legends, not Myths

Well, that's what I was talking about yesterday.

I had a niggling thought that I was a bit incomprehensible when I posted about America's favoring of 'elfets' in fantasy literature so I asked [identity-protected] what the definition of mythology was.

I was right and I was wrong: what I was actually talking about was legends, not mythology.

Anyway, as promised, Chris had a mouthful to say on the subject:

Elves and dragons are not British-only mythological elements, but thanks to a man with the initials J.R.R.T., that's they way we think of them now. I think the upswing of crap fantasy literature from modern american authors owes more to the sucess of LOTR and the works it later "inspired" more than anything else. Before the latter half of the 20th century, stories with such things in them were meant for children.

There is another, more important factor at play: America as a whole does not have a single, easily-identifiable fantasy myth system like the elves/dragons thing. There are a few easy-to-point-out hot spots (bigfoot, Paul Bunyon, wendigos, mothman, jersey devil, etc), but they either aren't widespread enough or are just far too silly to form the basis of more than a few good books.

America is a huge area, both geographically and socially. It is also quite new, and was born from a lot of competing heritages. So not every tall tale or monster resonates with everybody, and most tend to have very localized appeal. So in the cases where some (really cool) indian legends or local monsters are incorporated into the local heritage, that's usually as far as it goes. Some basic things like ghosts and UFOs are fairly universal, and given their history I suppose one could argue that UFOs are primarily an American myth. But it doesn't feel the same.

America does have its own myths, and some of them are big and deep-rooted enough to strike a chord with nearly everybody. But these myths are not "fantasy myths" that can be easily exploited as staple ingredients in a fantasy story.

I suspect that, due to the young age of the USA, its more popular myths are all very modern. The "wild west," many popular anecdotes about the founding fathers and the birth of the nation, common beliefs of mobster, hippie, or even hiphop lifestyles have all taken on the epic proportions/tone of myths from older cultures. But since we live so close to these things, they aren't usually considered "myths." To most people, they're just part of the culture.

There are books that already adapt these myths toward their own purposes, but most are not considered fantasy books. Westerns, historical romances, and spy thrillers are all genres by themsleves, and many more outlandish modern myths are now considered sci fi.

I think that the mixing of modern and ancient myths is one component of many that has blurred the distinction between sci fi, fantasy, and many other genres in the delightfully gray area we now call "speculative fiction." (italizations mine)

Chris says it better about what I was trying to say in my last post, especially the idea that the USA is a 'young nation' or a transplanted one. However, I never would have thought that its mythology is a bit 'modern' and hence, too close to see it as myths. (Good one, Chris.)

(Here in the Philippines, we have our own mythology but unfortunately, our own conception of statehood or nation-hood is a bit immature such that it hasn't seeped into our national literature as much yet. That is, I've yet to read fictional books using our pre-colonial past.)

Rob also mentioned a good point about other authors trying to correct this current trend in modern fantasy:

...there are a some really interesting mythologies, folklores and myths on the American continents. Writers like (Charles) deLint focus on some of these myths, but not as much on the Epic/High fantasy subgenre.

In particular, de Lint focuse on the mixture of different mythologies, like Amerindian and Irish, though he also uses the cities mythology to great effect.

Interesting things about a nation and its mythology to think about, especially for a non-American like me.

What sayeth the non-Americans in the crowd?

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