A Guest Post by Preston Cobb
One of my favorite things that writers do (and one of my favorite things to do as a writer) is make mythology. Well-crafted mythology places the story being told in the context of a larger narrative, one which may never be explored completely. Using the MICE terminology, the mythology of a story is part of its milieu, but a part that the characters can’t directly interact with. Mythology certainly concerns events and characters, but none that are actually considered in the tale at hand. It can be a source for ideologies, but is usually interpreted in light of the ideas held by the characters or narrator.
J. R. R. Tolkien is a master of mythology. He should be, as he spent 20 years building his Legendarium (body of mythology) before he published The Hobbit, and continued working with it for over 30 years until his death, when it was posthumously collected and published as The Silmarillion. I distinguish this from back-story, because what happens in the First Age has only the vaguest connections to what happens in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It is less a prequel, and more a Bible. Even if they aren’t all literal, procedurally correct history, these are the stories that everyone from Bilbo to Boromir grew up with, the legends that are at the heart of the songs they sing. As a reader, I am drawn out of the tale, but thrust further into its world. The Lord of the Rings, as epic as it is, transforms from a tower to the highest block on a pyramid.
For those who don’t have 20 years to spare (or who aren’t sure their efforts will pay off as well as Tolkien’s): Don’t Panic. There is a way of cheating that pays off exceedingly well. Namely, improvisation. Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s “Trilogy”) and Susanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell) use this tactic to great effect. Adams, throughout his books, includes passages from the eponymous “Guide” that are almost always humorous and frequently have nothing to do with the ongoing narrative. What they do instead is build up the universe in which his stories take place. Did he spend years coming up with these passages? Not at all. Rather, when something funny struck him, he would write it down, riff on it for a while, and then edit out what didn’t work well enough. Susanna Clarke’s story of gentleman magician’s in early 1800’s England is littered with footnotes containing historical anecdotes about various magicians or quotes from books that only exist in the story’s world. They can be ignored, but reading them makes the story that much better.
Mythology makes for a grander tale, but be careful. If myths get too close, they become prophecies that the reader expects to be fulfilled. Enough narrative distance, though, and they’re an unexpected treat.
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Preston Cobb is an aspiring novelist, engineer, musician, programmer, actor, teacher, poet, missionary, and playwright and an avid reader. If you live in the Atlanta area and (a) require the services of any of these or (b) wish to give him books, he would love to talk with you further and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.Tags: Sequence 00: Guest Posts, Thursday's Thoughts