July 16, 2007

Mythinformation, Mythappropriation & Mythapplication

Writing in the Globe & Mail's Books section, July 14, 2007, Guy Gavriel Kay adds justification to the value of mythology and the contemporary fantasy narratives that have grown out of these classic myths and legends. In the wake of excitement about the new Harry Potter book and movie releases, GGK wants us to "consider context and antecedents."
Keith Thomas, [in his book "Religion and the Decline of Magic," 1971], explores the tensions that emerged during the Enlightenment as science added its voice to that of the clergy in denouncing "primitive" rituals, beliefs, traditions. The irony? Science was denounced too, of course, and much of its own early history emerges from studies such as astrology or forbidden alchemy: men trying — wizard-like — to transmute one element into another in search of the elixir of life, or gold from lead.

An understanding of the enduring power of this idea of magic in the world, the notion of wizards (or witches) among us with arcane knowledge, and how this lies at the gates of our modern age, emerges clearly from reading Thomas's masterpiece. You will also know which way widdershins is.

Before Potter there was, of course, The Lord of the Rings. Any discussion of wizards in contemporary literature quickly reaches the figure of J. R. R. Tolkien. What too few readers might realize, especially those who know his vision only through Hollywood's rendering (or distortion) of his trilogy, is how brilliantly Tolkien the novelist made use of Tolkien the scholar.

This was a man who spent a lifetime reading and reflecting upon myth and folklore. Magic in Tolkien isn't arbitrary or superimposed. It is elegantly derived from traditions that go back to Anglo-Saxon epic poems (and riddles!), Icelandic sagas and the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala, among many other sources.

Here is my favourite part:
The point (in this context, at any rate) is that Tolkien's wizards and his magic are grounded in elements of our culture reaching back a long way. There's nothing childlike in an awareness of these roots. Myth and legend, folk tradition, are the underpinnings of a society. Indeed, one might say that to be unaware of them leaves us at risk of being as children, oblivious to the origins of our own world and worldview.
And the last bit I'm quoting here, because it's an important consideration, even though it frustrates me that I have so much research to do for my own story project that borrows elements from religion and mythology:
In purely literary terms, no one writing fiction in this vein since, no one making use of the idea of a magic-wielding wizard, can honestly say they were not influenced — directly or indirectly — by Tolkien's work. But a great many of his horde of imitators have never bothered to go back to the sources as he did. It makes a difference.

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