Understanding Mythology


There are plenty of reasons why an author or blogger might want to understand mythology. You could use the mythic past to inspire your writing, or you may want to recreate these magical mysteries and bring them back to life.

This is what Tolkein did with his tales The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings. Have you ever wondered what propelled Tolkien to become the father of fantasy, what makes his stories remain famous to this day? Apart from his talents for constructing potent prose, weaving a dramatic plot and unrivalled attention to detail?

Why is fantasy one of the most popular fiction genres, enjoyed by adults and children alike?

The answer lies in who we are as people. Several generations ago (less than we would care to admit) our ancestors lived in fear of legendary monsters which ate men, witches who poisoned crops with spells and dwarves dwelling beneath the earth. Fantasy connects us with our sleeping memories of a time when the world was afire with charm, myths and magic.

To understand this, you must understand mythology.

We view mythology now in a woefully two-dimensional way. Our eyes see myths in a modern, industrial world through the lense of book religion. Most of our lives are spent in an urban environment and we learnt religion as a factual written account: call deity X, worship by doing Y, the faith is Z.

Our ancestors walked through a land which was all natural. Until a few centuries ago, humans were hardly a spot on the landscape. In the Dark Ages and earlier we would see streams, forests and hills all around us. Each had a name, a story and a mystery. The myths were real. They were in evidence everywhere our ancestors looked.

These myths and legends were not shackled to truth by writing. They lived, changed and adapted to location through the flexibility of oral storytelling. Athens and Rome never fought wars over whether Zeus or Jupiter was the supreme divinity. His shape changed wherever he went, as a flash of lightning or crash of thunder overhead.

The same cannot be said of our own limited mythologies. The major religions of our time are notorious for spilling blood to determine whose interpretation of the book is correct. Writing creates universal truth, something mankind will fight for. Oral myths flow from clear mountain spring to shadowed ocean depths, changing with fluid ease all the way.

A myth was not something your ancestor heard, saw, read or believed. It was the world they lived in. The greatest mystery for my generation: “What did they do before TV?” Before internet, radio, even books were invented? They were alive in a realm of fantasy we can only imagine.

Who needs TV when each rock hides an elf or other mythic being?

Why did Tolkein choose to make The Shire an inward-looking place where elves, dwarves and wizards are seldom seen? He was trying to tell the reader about mythology. Without doubt, we are hobbits. We know a few things about elves, but they live out there in fiction. When Bilbo and Frodo leave The Shire, they encounter men for whom the sight of elves is commonplace.

These are the Dark Ages ancestors who gave Tolkein his inspiration. Their lives were much like ours, if we could only stop distinguishing myth from reality.


3 thoughts on “Understanding Mythology

  1. Who needs mythology and fantasy when we have empiricism? The mystery of the world, gone and rusted with human progress. Can’t complain, because I have a laptop and live in a city, but sometimes, and sometimes frequently, I get to thinking how obvious it was to the native americans who lived in the american southwest – the red plateaus and vast plains. It was Looney Toons Land. It’s amazing down there. And I think you’re completely correct – eons ago, before suburban sprawl basically, there were few humans and we were all a lot closer to nature. Because no matter where we went, there was lots of undisturbed nature. We could definitely keep our technological developments and still live within nature, but probably it won’t ever happen – no stopping suburban spread.

    I leave Led Zeppelin: “So I’m packing my bags for the Misty Mountains where the spirits go, over the hills where the spirits fly.”
    (Also, they totally reference Gollum and Mordor in Ramble On. (no wonder they’re the greatest band ever).)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Some of my favorite creations are stories that are made up myths and legends, drawn from the spur of the moment. Even when I was a teacher, my favorite things to do would make a student question, “Are you serious?” Because half the time, I wasn’t, I was just making them think. And the other half, I was pulling obscure stories from even more obscure locations to widen their view of the world. Tolkien is an epic example of how to take mythology and turn it into your own world of fantasy. Similarly, C.S. Lewis, but both of them had a prior inspiration that helped them – George MacDonald – a little known name, but such fantastic stories drawn from myth and making them real. Thank you for the reminder and the assistance in driving inspiration.

    Liked by 1 person

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