Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Myths

A myth is something we like to believe in but know is false; it is thus a Fabulation. Alternatively, a myth may be almost anything once believed and subsequently proved false; myths are thereby close to Folklore, although scientific refutation does not stop a myth remaining in the national consciousness – indeed, the very refutation of some myths leads to an alternate study that re-establishes the myth on a new scientific basis. Myths are closely allied to legend – a collection of linked Legends may become a culture's mythology. Although the term "myth" is most often applied to ancient beliefs or events, it is frequently used to describe anything false and fanciful, and is often synonymous with Fairytale. The word derives from the Greek muthos, meaning Story. Myths are thus the basis of storytelling, and provide the Taproot Texts for many later tales. Some of the earliest fantasies are myths like the story of Gilgamesh and the Egyptian Book of the Dead, both dating from the second millennium BC, and the poems of Homer and Hesiod from the 8th century BC.

Although all nations have their myths, Fantasy has been most influenced by the mythologies of the Greeks (> Greek and Latin Classics), Celts (> Celtic Fantasy), Scandinavians (> Nordic Fantasy), Persians and Arabs (> Arabian Fantasy), Chinese and Japanese (> Chinoiserie; Oriental Fantasy) and, more recently, Native Americans and Australian Aborigines.

Collections of myths are frequently set in story form (> Revisionist Fantasy), although early retellings were often aimed at children (> Children's Fantasy). Early redactors include Nathaniel Hawthorne with A Wonder-Book for Boys and Girls (coll 1851) and Tanglewood Tales (coll 1853), Charles Kingsley with The Heroes (coll 1856), Thomas Bulfinch with The Age of Fable (coll 1855) and Annie Keary (1825-1879), who produced The Heroes of Asgard (coll 1857) with her sister Eliza. Similar compilations were made by Andrew Lang in Tales of Troy and Greece (coll 1907) and by Roger Lancelyn Green in Tales of the Greek Heroes (coll 1958), Heroes of Greece and Troy (coll 1960) and The Saga of Asgard (coll 1960; vt Myths of the Norsemen 1970), while Leon Garfield utilized myths in The God Beneath the Sea (1970) to bring the ancient world back to life. It was the fascination of William Morris for the ancient Greek and Nordic myths that turned his attention to producing fantastic fiction. Likewise Lord Dunsany presented his earliest fantasies, The Gods of Pegana (coll 1905), about a mythical Pantheon. The use of the Greek myths in particular gave a degree of respectability to fantasy in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, as shown in the works of Richard Garnett in The Twilight of the Gods (coll 1888; exp 1903) and Andrew Lang who, with H Rider Haggard, retold the stories of Odysseus's final wanderings in The World's Desire (1890). This attitude is evident even as late as Eden Phillpotts's stories like The Miniature (1926), though by then it was becoming fashionable to lampoon the myths, as in The Night Life of the Gods (1931) by Thorne Smith. The Greek myths continue to be popular with writers. Some seek to rationalize them as straight history (> Rationalized Fantasy). Notable in this area have been Robert Graves (1895-1985) – who retold the story of Jason and the Argonauts in The Golden Fleece (1945; vt Jason), and produced his own collations, The Greek Myths (1955) and The Hebrew Myths (1964), as well as utilizing the themes and images of ancient myths in many of his works – and Mary Renault (real name Mary Challans; 1905-1983) with her Theseus books, The King Must Die (1958) and The Bull from the Sea (1962). Further writers taking this approach include Edward Lucas White (1866-1934) with Helen (1925), John Erskine with The Private Life of Helen of Troy (1925), Edison Marshall (1894-1967) with Earth Giant (1960), about Hercules, Henry Treece with his Greek TrilogyJason (1961), Electra (1963) and Oedipus (1964) – and Rosemary Sutcliff with Black Ships Before Troy (1993). Others accept the stories for what they are and treat the supernatural as part of everyday life, but still present the stories as about real people leading real lives; authors include S P Somtow with The Shattered Horse (1986), Marion Zimmer Bradley with The Firebrand (1987), Hilary Bailey (1936-    ) with Cassandra: Princess of Troy (1994) and Patrick H Adkins with his Titans trilogy, which takes us back to the very dawn of the Greek myths. One of the most accomplished reworkers of myths was Thomas Burnett Swann, almost all of whose books explored the Thinning of the elder world through over 4000 years, starting with The Minikins of Yam (1976), set in ancient Egypt. Roberto Calasso turned the Greek myths inside out for his radical reinterpretation in Le Nozze di Cadmo e Armonia (1988; trans Tim Parks as The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony 1993 US).

Myths continue to be created (> Urban Legends), but in the form in which we usually regard them – as the earliest attempts by people to interpret and understand their world – they have a permanent freshness. [MA]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.