When I was young, I used to enjoy reading books of myths and legends: the Wanderings of Odysseus; the Labors of Hercules; Robin Hood and King Arthur; Paul Bunyan; How the Sea Became Salt and How the Bear Lost His Tail. They helped fuel my love of stories.
Looking back it occurs to me that many of the books I’ve enjoyed have contain their own internal myths, stories within stories, which add flavor to their worlds. The Baskerville Legend from The Hound of the Baskervilles; the Tales of El-ahrairah from Watership Down; the Creation of the Rings of Power from Lord of the Rings, (and many others; you can’t swing a hobbit in LOTR without hitting a tale of ages past). I’ve done something like that in my own stories too: inventing my own myths to provide “corroborative detail” for the worlds I’ve made.
I suppose I should clarify what I mean by “myths”. I don’t mean it in the “Mythbusters” sense of “Something Untrue”, or “Breathing a lie through Silver” as another fellow once put it. Nor am I limiting it to stories about gods and magic, although in a fantasy story either one may pop up.
What I’m calling a Myth is a story that has gained some degree of cultural significance. It conveys a truth — or at least is regarded as doing so — regardless of the factuality of some of its narrative details. It is held to be important by the people who tell it. That’s what separates these internal myths from other types of embedded stories, like flashbacks or backstories. It’s an anecdote which has attained apotheosis.
In the beginning of The Hobbit, Bilbo learns about how the dragon Smaug attacked the Lonely Mountain and drove out the dwarves who lived there. This is important backstory, because it establishes the reason why the dwarves want to return. But Bilbo does not first hear this story in a dry infodump; he, (and the readers), hear it in the form of a song the dwarves sing. This is no “Once Upon A Time” fairy tale. For the dwarves it is a piece of recent history that occurred within living memory of most of the party, but by recasting this tragic event into a song, they have transformed it into more than history. It is lore, a part of their dwarvish cultural identity; and the song captures Bilbo’s imagination in a way that a prosaic infodump might not. That’s what makes it mythic.
A myth can serve different functions in a story. In some cases it is little more than flavor text. In college I created a sword & sorcery comic titled Brisbane the Barbarian. Each issue would begin with an ornately-lettered caption reading: “Ages ago when Atlantis was young and the world still flat, mighty warriors blazed a path of blade and blood across unheard-of realms…” I intended this introduction to set the tone of the comic: Heroic Fantasy after the Robert E. Howard tradition, but not too serious.
Granted, that little snippet of mine, although it tried to sound mythic, is hardly a myth. It’s more like a cross between an invocation and a running gag. At best it serves a similar role to narrative formulas in fairy-tales like “Once Upon a Time” or “And They All Lived Happily Ever After”, which Tolkien compared to margins around an illustration or picture frames; they act like verbal parentheses, marking a story’s beginning and end.
Myths can be put to better use. One of these uses is to provide the reader with background information, as in the case of the dwarves’s song in The Hobbit. In my webcomic, Cat-Men from Mars, the Martian hostility towards the Earth derives from an ancient war between the Martian Old Ones and a now-extinct race which fled to Earth’s Moon. The reader learns about this war between the Martians and the Lunarian in bits and pieces, through fragments of legend which, even to the Cat-Men seem like half-forgotten lore.
The Mythic Introduction has become a standard gimmick of the Three Volume Fantasy Epic, like the Obligatory Map of the Fantasy Realm, describing the cosmology of the world and setting up the major conflicts which will shape the plot. I’m not sure how common this is anymore. Tolkien probably gets some blame for it, although he limited his prologue in Lord of the Rings to just explaining about hobbits and allowed the reader to pick up the rest of the History of the Elder Days as he went along. An Origin Myth shouldn’t leave the reader with the impression that there’ll be a quiz on this later on.
Myths are also useful for introducing McGuffins of Power. If a magical artifact has any significance at all, it’s got to have some sort of myths accumulated around it, if only the story of its creation. In a role-playing campaign I ran many years back, I wanted to give one of my players a magical shield. I invented a story about a warrior of long ago who was given a choice by the gods of either a magical sword that would kill his enemies, or an enchanted shield which would protect his friends. The story was a not-terribly-subtle hint to the player about which item to take when he faced the same choice later in the adventure. Not that the player needed a hint; he was playing Captain America, so of course he was going to take the shield.
None of these absolutely need the mythic voice. A writer can provide a history or a backstory through flashback, through an omniscient narrator, or simply through one character saying “As You Know, Bob…” to another. But invented legends and lore bring something to a story which other types of infodumps might not. A character, or a first-person narrator telling a story reveals something of themselves in the process of the telling. When that background story is presented as a piece of lore, then it also says something about the people who came up with that myth: what they believe, what values they hold, what assumptions they have about the universe. Apart from the narrative details found in a myth, the fact that people chose to mythologize that particular subject also says something about the society and culture.
I once wrote a story for a shared-world anthology a friend of mine organized, about an orkish shaman undergoing something like a crisis of faith when a new religion comes to challenge his traditions. I decided to start the story off with a creation myth, telling how when the World was New, the divine Powers summoned the young races of the earth to let them choose which of the Powers they would worship. The Humans chose the Sun, for it’s splendor and might; the Elves chose the Stars for their great beauty; and the Dwarves chose the Earth for her deep wisdom. When they came to the Orcs, the Father of Orcs, in his pride, refused to worship any of them, saying that Orcs could take care of themselves and would remain independent and free. This angered the Sun, who placed a curse on the Orc-folk, which is why Orcs don’t like the daylight.
This story did a couple of things. For one thing, it helped me get a feel for my narrator’s voice. More importantly, it helped me get into his head. The story of Urg-Dar, the First Orc, helped establish important elements of Orkish culture for my story: their pride, their sense of independence and self-sufficiency, and their strong ties to tradition. It led up to the later conflict with the new religion of the Sleeping God when the World Changes, and how the protagonist ultimately reconciles the old traditions with the new status quo.
Invented myths like these won’t fit in every story; but they can be a useful world-building tool, giving the reader a sense of the people living in that world. Even if the myths are not historically accurate, the presence of the myths give the reader a sense that there is a history behind that world.
In his secret identitiy, Kurt Wilcken is a ninja cartoonist. He has written and drawn stories for Antarctic Press and Radio Comix and his current webcomic, a Pulp-Era adventure titled Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine, appears on his website. He also blogs occasionally on subjects ranging from comic books to obscure Bible stories. You can find his story about the orkish shaman, “Spitting at the Sun”, in the fantasy anthology Hunt the Winterlands.