Last night a friend and I were having a discussion regarding Myth and Fantasy on his Facebook page. Since this is a subject I have much studied and long thought about I decided I would post my reply to his discussion on this page. So here is my summation of some of the more salient differences, and some of the basic similarities, between Fantasy and Myth.
This is in the form of my Facebook page response, of course, but later I will create an essay out of this and related material I have written in the past on the same subjects.
SOME OF THE DIFFERENCES AND SIMILARITIES BETWEEN FANTASY AND MYTH
To me it mostly depends on if you’re writing Myth or Fantasy.
Myth, such as Tolkien wrote is filled with footnotes and endnotes and much of Tolkien’s myth refers directly to real world history or is a thinly veiled modification of it, just as Classical myth is, e.g.. Homer and Virgil.
The Black Gate is a modification of the Iron Gate of the Byzantines, Rohan was a modification of a real place and people, etc..
If it is fantasy it might also contain heavy historical elements, but they are greatly modified and changed significantly. In that kind of fantasy (swords and sorcery fantasy) magic is more important than myth, the supernatural more important than technology or realism, story more important than history, and character more important than culture (typically).
Tolkien for instance created very realistic cultures and landscapes that were well developed enough to imagine living in, or wanting to live in. Howard, with Conan (fantasy), created heavily modified versions of semi-realistic, but mostly underdeveloped proto-human cultures that few if any would really want to love in. Same with Moorcock (another fantasy writer). A lot of underlying history and myth in both Howard and Moorcock, no real admirable cultures or worlds to live in. No real higher mythic and spiritual content, a lot more grunt-work and gritty adventure and survival.
I follow that same general pattern. I’m writing a mythic series (The Other World) which is a mix of Byzantine realism and the mythos of Prester John. It is also a retelling of the Fall of Constantinople and the founding of America in mythic form. It has a lot of “high, mythic, poetic, and spiritual content.”
I am writing another series of what I call magic and miracles fantasy which is based on what we now know of pre-historic and proto-human cultures, but the emphasis is not on sweeping myths or great cultures, but on personal adventure, and individual supernatural and magical experience.
(And this is paradoxically why poetry and song so rarely appear in pure fantasy, and when it does, it is almost always of very inferior quality – but in myth really good song and poetry is a primary and necessary component – Beowulf and the Iliad are poetic, in Conan real poetry and song are absent. Real Myth is poetic, by nature. Fantasy is prosaic, comparatively speaking.)
In myth magic is tightly controlled and there is little of it, especially overtly. Magic is underground and few can master it. Magic is an elite force employed by an elite few. In fantasy it is usually ubiquitous yet extremely dangerous and likely always out of control, or completely uncontrolled. In fantasy the elite think they can master magic but it almost always it overmasters them. In myth they often can master magic, be it Gandalf or Wotan, though it always has a price for the greedy and unwise. (Such as Fafnir.)
On the other hand, Conan being a fantasy character and a barbarian and a primal man instinctively knows this about his world, he lives in a supernatural and fantastical environment (not a mythic one) , well above his personal pay-grade. The way to equalize magic is not to make it rare and tightly controlled, like in myth, but to avoid it altogether, or destroy it if possible. In myth magic is really a spiritual force, good or bad, and not easily understood or mastered. In fantasy magic is not a spiritual force, but supernatural nitro-glycerin.)
In myth there are also obviously miraculous and apparently fated events. In fantasy fate is what a man makes of himself.
And to me therein lies another of the real differences. In myth, although the characters are very important, the myth is Fundamental. Obviously much bigger things than the individual are at Work.
The myth is what is really being discussed; the characters are archetypes in action.
In fantasy the cultures and the environment are the archetypes, it is the characters being discussed. The individual is what is at Work. The person is in reaction, struggling to bring things under his own control, and usually failing.
In my second series, the fantasy series, the books are about the adventures of Solimar, who is renamed by his god and given a mission to fulfill in the world. So he roams the world seeking to fulfill his mission and understand his supernatural origins, both at birth, and at “rebirth and renaming.”
Solimar, who begins as Soar (So-ar), is really a retelling of the stories of Jacov and of Abram (Solimar’s god, Olim, or Holim, inserts his own name in the middle of Soar’s name to remake him into his representative in the world) in a vaguely Conan like form. Though Solimar is not a warrior but more of a spy, and a Jack of all Trades adventurer, who has become his god’s semi-reluctant and covert Agent.
Now all of that being said I still think there is plenty of room in the middle. As a matter of fact GRR Martin and his series is exactly that. Half-mythic realism, half-magical fantasy. Half Westeros mythos (and Real World history – Dunk and Egg), and half Dragon-Egg/White Walker fantasy. And you can clearly see how the two separate worlds impinge upon and overlap one another, and you can also clearly see how they are separated by, “A Wall.” (In Tolkien the wall of separation was the frontier of Mordor.)
So if you ask me you can lean towards the ends of the bell curve, or, if you wish, seek the top and the middle.
Plenty of room to roam landscapes in all directions if you so wish.