It seems to me that mythology and fairy stories go together pretty much hand in hand.
One of the twentieth century masters of the art of writing them was J R R Tolkien, whose Middle Earth imaginarium spanned the whole lot. The Silmarillion, the foundation of his mythos, was deliberate mythology. He drew inspiration from the Norse and Germanic traditions, primarily, intentionally writing something that could be a mythology for England, which he felt lacked such stories.
Tolkien’s mythology was also very much a modern mythology – something for the twentieth century. He drew on the literary-fantasy traditions of the early twentieth century, which were also being explored by people such as Lord Dunsany and Tolkien’s good friend C. S. Lewis. His mythology was also literally founded in the First World War trenches, where he began writing it, and the themes and ideas spoke to the demands of the new century .
He was not the first to use that northern mythos that way. Richard Wagner did the same thing with the same myths in the nineteenth century, adapting them to his own modern need and use in his operas. But where Wagner’s interpretation was deliberately designed as a hard-edged appeal to Germanic nationalism, Tolkien’s more pastoral view keyed – almost accidentally – into a very different time and society, the social trends of the mid-late twentieth century.
Tolkien also wrote fairy tales – ‘faerie’, in his terminology. The Hobbit was the longest, a classic hero journey focussed on a single individual. And he penned other tales such as Farmer Giles of Ham which fall into much the same category.
The distinction is as much one of scale as anything else. Both kinds of stories are different aspects of the same thing – allegorical tales that reveal some aspect of the human condition and which play on our imaginations. But where mythology explores the soaring scale of gods and heroes, fairy stories (‘faerie’) are more folkish, more mundane – often (though not always) focussed on a single character and a few relatively domestic events.
The other thing about them – as Wagner and Tolkien both showed – is that older mythology can be modernised. It often doesn’t take much: the themes are cultural and social, and adapting them to the same society that originated them, as it has developed, isn’t usually hard.
The doyen of them, for me, is still George Lucas – whose Star Wars was deliberately written to speak to mythology. And that’s why his movies – along with Tolkien’s imaginarium – have struck such chords across the western world.
Wagner? Not so much. A stage show lasting three or four days filled with people making the kind of sounds you’d expect after a door is slammed on a delicate body part doesn’t have much appeal. And that’s quite apart from the way some madman with a Charlie Chaplin moustache hijacked the whole torch-parade imagery for his own evil purposes.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017