This has been an intense week, and writing-wise I probably made it a little harder than it had to be, but I think I’m getting something good out of it. The time has come for the almost inevitable mythical backstory of my world, which is very much a part of fantasy writing and poses a unique challenge. Writing a myth is hard.
For me, there are a few requirements for a good invented myth. It has to be unique, it has to be detailed, and it has to be told in a memorable way. When I think of all the books on my shelves, there are very few whose myths I remember and enjoy on their own merits. Most of the time they’re necessary elements that led to the present conundrum. Off the top of my head, of all the mythic origins I’ve read, I can only remember two: Tolkien and Jacqueline Carey’s story of Elua, the origin-god of her d’Angeline people. I’ve read a lot of other fantasy series, but I really have to rack my brain before I start to come up with any others.
What I think was unusual about Tolkien and Carey’s myths was the amount of effort they put into them. Tolkien’s histories, songs, and lore are epic. He is father of modern fantasy, he set the standard for world-building. He has thousands of years of detailed history of all his races. He has stories and songs of their heroes and religious figures. Most crucially, in my opinion, he spent six years writing a translation of Beowulf. Everyone knows Tolkien’s skill as a linguist–at least, everyone with even a glancing familiarity with Lord of the Rings–but I think an exhaustive study of a myth like Beowulf would give real insight into what makes an enduring myth.
Carey also goes much deeper with her myth. She repeats aspects of the origin story throughout her trilogies, all of which are rich with symbolism, but she even wrote and released a book that was basically a short bible of the origin story, written in appropriately mythic language. It’s clear that the myth wasn’t just a utilitarian bit of backstory; she gave a great deal of time and effort to developing it to support different aspects of her story telling and provide a structure for her world-building. She made it vivid and lyrical, with several very memorable images and often-repeated quotes, i.e. love as thou wilt. It wasn’t a story she wrote, inserted into the novel, and then abandoned. It underpinned it and floated to the surface in different iterations repeatedly.
I will add that to my list of requirements. Unique, detailed, memorably told, and embedded in the world.
What I did that made this harder on myself–but might benefit in the long run, we’ll see–is actually looked up myths to see how the language looked. I found a translation of Homer’s “Odyssey” and looked at local myths for one of the cultures I’m referencing, and also some of the traditional poetry of another reference culture. I actually avoided Beowulf because the Eagles have nothing of that language in their make-up and I don’t want to contaminate them; my Wolves are decidedly more Beowulf-y and I mean to save him for them. I wrote to myself about what the important points of the myth are; there are key points that I need to carry down to my current-day story, not just to support the explanations of this is why my world is as it is, but also to highlight certain cultural values that will underpin my own civilizations.
What I found for the oldest myths and stories, like the Bible, for example, is simple language that was meant to be spoke aloud. I do read my dialogue aloud frequently, just to see how it feels, but I think it’ll be crucial in writing this myth. Homer often has single-phrase descriptions of his characters, like “wise-eyed Athena” or something similar, which I think has a definite mythic quality. Picking the descriptors for my mythical characters (and not too many of them) will hopefully let me make them unique and memorable in as few words as possible.
But I think this is a section I’m going to keep rewriting and cutting down for a long time, long after I’ve moved on in the story. It’s way too long as it is right now.