We were TALKing of DRAGONS | TOLkien and I
If you want to learn how to write myths, perhaps the best place to start is this absolutely wonderful tutorial: Myth Writing Workshop with Jane Yolen. And you will indeed learn how to write myth, in the strict sense of “an origin-story that anthropomorphises the natural world.” A visit to the site is worth it simply for discovering the Yolen’s own myth of that type, “Mother Nature’s Son.” But having written a “myth,” in that sense, is not necessarily the same thing as having performed mythopoesis.
Mythopoesis can be roughly defined as “the writing of myth.” That definition precisely—almost perfectly—encapsulates what mythopoesis is not. It is, indeed, a cheat—a desperate appeal to the precise translation of words, but hoping to bluster past the self-evident definition: “the writing of stories.” If it were as simple as that, we could all just call ourselves mythopoets. Or else bring in Occam’s Razor, call ourselves “writers,” and have done.
This question is timely for me, as I’m currently preparing an article on one of my favourite authors, Claire Massey, whom I consider one of the most important writers of this generation, and whose work beautifully embodies mythopoesis. So, following George MacDonald’s example, I can only say: read “Raven.” That is mythopoesis.
The blogalectic arrives at an unusual consensus today. We seem to have agreed that mythopoesis involves what might be termed relational knowledge. Jenna explains:
Myth is not made alone. It always entails one heart, one soul, one spirit going out to another or others. […] The new myths grow with my development of and love for the characters themselves—my soul-and-ink-and-paper children, whose lack of fleshly existence I sometimes have a hard time remembering. It’s frightening, sometimes, how dear those people are to me.
And Masha agrees:
Myth-makers pull moments out of time to make them mean more than the moment could on it’s own, and as Jenna reminds us in her post, "Myth is not made alone," it belongs to the whole culture. The myth-maker weaves the dreams of his society into realities that hover just out of sight, dreams that are sometimes joyful and sometimes nightmares. […] Myth-makers are artists, shaping the souls of those who fall into the myth, they offer each of us a chance to believe in beauty, to remember who we are, and to step out again into life, strengthened and renewed.
And I agree—almost. The difficulty for me in this discussion is simply that, like the definition given above, it seems too limited. It seems significant that the word mythopoesis didn’t appear in the language until 1882. And it carries with it the redolence of the late-Victorian era: the flowery erudition, the fascination with strangeness and primitivism, the worry of identity, the almost—but not entirely—subconscious creeping unease with Imperialism. Folkloristics and anthropology were rapidly developing fields in the English-speaking world, and—not to put too fine a point on it—needed long, technical-sounding words. They needed classifications and demarcations. They needed tools whereby to study the practices of common people and savages.
In fact I very much doubt whether this fussy little coinage would have been at all remembered were it not for the Inklings. Tolkien, Lewis, and Barfield in particular monopolised the term and its cousins; their work may best be understood as redefinition, even resuscitation. The Imperial project had been destroyed and disjointed by the Great War, and quest for corporate and individual identity turned from analysing the other to pondering the self; if I may put it so reductively, in the struggle between the Researcher and the Romantic, which typified the discipline, the Romantic had gained the upper hand.
I must admit I owe much of my knowledge of mythopoesis to Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson, who has so eloquently discussed the use of the term among the Inklings; it was as much ideological as literary. Tolkien, of course, famously encouraged Lewis to think in those terms, and Lewis famously retrospectively applied the term to George MacDonald. It was not one MacDonald applied to himself.
And Jeffrey Johnson argues, convincingly I find, that Lewis rather mistakes the efficacy of myth; he connects it to “a pattern of events that affects us,” but it is not the pattern alone but the relationships within the pattern which create the affect. This is why, partly, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice can feel so palpably different than the story of Balder, why the tale of Cupid and Psyche feels so different from Beauty and the Beast. We are not so much interested in events, but the people caught up in them; mythopoeia could arguably be the harmony of person and event, a specific combination which for one reason or another evokes powerful emotion, wonder, eucatastrophe.
This brings us round to the agreement of this blogalectic. There is between us, I think, a shared recognition of the personality of knowledge—relational knowledge I called it earlier, for want of a better term. Parker J. Palmer, an educational theorist, has eloquently described this:
The goal of knowledge arising from love is the reunification and reconstruction of broken selves and worlds. A knowledge born of compassion aims not at exploiting and manipulating creation but at reconciling the world to itself. The mind motivated by compassion reaches out to know as the heart reaches out to love. Here, the act of knowing is an act of love, the act of entering and embracing the reality of the other, of allowing the other to enter and embrace our own. (8)
To again reach for a simple definition: mythpoeia is that, mythopoesis is writing it.
Really—go read “Raven.”