mythically speaking

Today as I was engaged in revising the embookenation of my blog, I found myself jotting a few paragraphs of new, exclusive content (ahem) about the mythic arts. That’s where a lot of my creative writing CV to date seems to belong, and so inevitably it appears in my writings on writing. But this got me wondering again about that curious little genre marker, Mythic Arts. I tried to find an explanation of the term’ s origins (QED) at the Endicott Studio, but they’re under construction. So I was left to my own musings—and now you are, too.

Generally speaking, we could say that mythic arts is anything that would go well with illustrations by Brian Froud—call it the Froud Test, if you will. Perhaps it’s not even a particular style as much as a sensibility, marked by a profound respect for folklore and folk belief, a strong sense of roots and traditional arts, and an almost Romantic appreciation for—and fellowship with—the natural world. Its interest lies not just in literary tradition, but in the whole culture of practice and ritual and art; consequently its influences and expressions tend to be more diverse than some other genres. And it seems to be where most of the best fairy tale retellings and collections and anthologies are found.

But even saying that seems to beg a lot of questions. Did, for instance, Angela Carter write ‘mythic arts’? Fairy tale retellings, certainly—but the aesthetic quality and uses of Carter’s work seems sharply different from the prevalent character of the mythic arts community. (I suspect The Bloody Chamber would fail the Froud Test.) And of course there are certain writers and artists—the Celtic Twilight, the pre-Raphaelites—who seem to have informed and shaped the movement but are called ‘mythic arts’ only retrospectively, and for the most part unhelpfully.

Is mythic arts a sub-genre of fantasy? Once upon a time the answer was yes, and I’m sure the fantasy industry would like to think that’s always and forever the case; invariably there’s some overlap of interests and readership. But contrast the subjects and interests and preoccupations of Myth & Moor with, and it becomes pretty apparent pretty quickly they’re about as immediately akin as Hollywood and a public library.

There’s a bigger discussion of genre, and it wandered through my mind as I wrote. But today what struck me as more interesting—perhaps more important—was the word mythic. The dominant form of the mythic arts is the fairy tale. (We can quibble about the spelling faerie later—it’s Tolkien’s fault, mostly.) And yet a folklorist will be only too keen to tell you that fairy tales and folklore are 1) not technically the same thing and 2) not at all the same as myths. The official myths—the deeds of gods and heroes, stories from the shaping of the world—don’t seem feature that prominently in the mythic arts as such.

The easy excuse, of course, is to blame it all on Joseph Campbell. If only he hadn’t gone and sacrificed technical precision on the altar of eloquence, and muddled up mythological and folkloristics (the argument goes), we wouldn’t have all this confusion of fairy tale and mythology. And the mythic arts would be called, I dunno, the folkloric arts. Which just sounds ridiculous.

But it’s not that simple, not least because several mythic arts practitioners of my acquaintance haven’t read and aren’t familiar with Campbell’s theories (and they are theories, whatever else they are—they’re perfectly coherent schematically and make more sense than post-structuralism). The alignment of myth with folklore and fairy tale is much older than Campbell’s work, or even Frazer. Andrew Lang wrote a very important article called ‘Mythology and Fairy Tales’ in 1873, claiming that fairy tales are the progenitors of mythology. This was a direct reversal of the position advocated by Sir Walter Scott, who writes about it in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-1803). Scott specifically connects Scottish folk traditions with the classical deities. Scott and Lang both, of course, wrote new ballads and literary fairy tales whilst firmly convinced that the medium they worked in was related to mythology.

So we’re getting a scholarly and artistic pairing of myth and fairy tale for over 200 years. It may even go back further. Of course, we can try to argue that Scott and his disciples worked in a cosmology that is no longer with us, that there is no basic human property that generate these tales, that the division of high and low culture is hopelessly backward, and so on. And there may be some validity to that, but perhaps not as much as was so vigorously declared 20 or 30 years ago.

dragoncBut the fact remains that in so arguing, we’re arguing against our own history, linguistic as well as academic, and linguistic resonances die hard. Whether mythology is the fountainhead from which fairy tales flow, or the rarefication and elaboration to which they mature, is hardly the point. The idea of the mythic arts seems to be that overarching sense of belonging, a willingness to reassert folk belief and lore and custom as one’s own inherited mythology. It’s trying to reconstruct and render artistically the way in which these folk rituals and customs helped explain the world—specifically, a more agrarian, nature-sympathetic world.

Now, one self-identified folklorist of my acquaintance got very upset when I suggested that there may be overarching aesthetic standards, even ideals, in literary fairy tales. The folklorist (who shall remain nameless) insisted that the study of folklore has moved beyond such patronizing and imperialist assertions, so-called. But I confess myself bewildered—then and now—that any art form should go without aesthetics, or ideal types. Any musician can tell you that, yes, you need to be open to all sorts of styles and expressions and traditions of music—but that doesn’t excuse you from mastering the specific tradition you’re working in. You can’t just feel the music; there is rigorous discipline and education to be undergone. A lifetime of it, no less. To think that writing literary fairy tales and fantasy requires anything less is patently absurd. To assert that, as scholars, we have no business attempting to identify and assess the ideal types of our art form robs us of any chance of critical or creative comprehension of our art.

So I think the inherent value of the term mythic arts is not in some Campbellian psychobabble about self-realization, but in that it re-orients the literary fairy tale with a viable aesthetic framework. In this it continues to attempt at reconciling  the centuries-old conflict of folk belief and custom in an industrial world, gods and nursery rhymes, myths and fairy tales. Perhaps the best explanation is that mythic arts, as such, is traditional in Eliot’s use of the word, being aware ‘not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence’. It reasserts the folkloric roots and origins of fairy tale, and, by relating this to myth proper,  re-infuses fairy tale and fantasy with the condition of belief, or perhaps more importantly a willingness to believe, a hope that belief is possible, necessary to art’s highest calling (to borrow Glenn Gould’s phrase): the creation of a lifelong state of wonder.

4 thoughts on “mythically speaking

  1. I think the three places I would send people who are at the beginning of a search to find NOT a definition of mythic arts (that way madness lies) but perhaps some of the borders of that faire countrie. And they are: 1. Terri WIndling’s blog Myth and Moor which sometimes conflates fairie with woodlore and minstrelsy with folk tales and Dartmoor ponies with the horses of the fairy queen. 2. Parabola Magazine which was begun by Joseph Cambell and P.L. Travers (yes, of Mary Poppins fame but also a well known folklorist manque) in which international poets and tale retellers mix with mythic mutterings and reports of the oddities of worship and 3. Heidi Heimer’s Surlalune website where you should mostly ignore the questions on her q&a part of the site since a lot of it is from students wanting answers to thesis topics, and go to the meat of her meaning where she explores well known tales and their variants. But this is only the beginning of course. Along the way you might look at Angela Carter, Maria Tater, Jack Zipes, Marina Warner, websites of people like Midori Snyder and Katherine Langrish. Oh it is the long twisty road into fairy, full of briars and Briar Roses, and beyond. Oh and Jung and (God help us) Bettleheim’s “The Uses of Enchantment” with a HUGE grain of salt at hand. And Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stores” essay. And all of Lang’s Color Fairy Books”. And maybe even the essay that begins my colletion “Favorite Folktales from Around the World.” That may take you several years and you will still be on the first steps of the journey.

  2. I’d agree with your comments about myths having a foundation in somebody’s beliefs. And I think fairy tales do fit into the category of myth because as belief in fairies has long been connected with the British Isles- as evidenced in place names such as ‘Fairy Holes,’ and ‘Fairy Lane’ etc.

  3. Thank you for the thought provoking article, on a subject I don’t get to see discussed that often (contemporary myth/folk/fairytale arts)

    I’ve always rather liked Robert Holdstocks label ‘Mythago’. In his fiction “Mythago Wood”; characters that are the worlds collective imaginary manifestations of stories (legend, myth, folk and fairy tale) holding in one (confused?) character the many layers of retellings.

    The word Myth-ic while largley labelling myths has that ‘ic’ which suggests ‘ish’ a kind of enveloping term. Not very academically precise or accurate but words have a habit of doing that and sticking. I will have to look up that article by Andrew Lang.

    I think I too, may fail the Froud test though I hope I pass the “re-orients the literary fairy tale with a viable aesthetic framework” one.

    Glad to find your blog, it’s now in my feedly.

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