What is a myth – and what is a fairy story?

It seems to me that mythology and fairy stories go together pretty much hand in hand.

Wright_Flowers2One 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

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7 thoughts on “What is a myth – and what is a fairy story?

  1. Well, I dunno… if opera isn’t your thing, I can see you wouldn’t want to sit through the Ring Cycle. And as I recall, the first one, Das Rheingold, is kind of tedious. Some years ago, CBC radio did something called “The Ring in a Day” — all 4 operas back to back. I followed most of it, with a translation of the librettos in hand, and was moved by the grand sweep of the thing. Mythology in music. If nothing else, the very last bit of Gotterdammerung, in which the world is consumed by fire, is worth a listen. And I agree with you about Tolkien’s works; they are definitely on my faves list.

    1. I don’t mind Wagner’s music in small doses, it’s just that there is such a lot of it and the singing is incomprehensible (the problem of pre-microphone days and trying to be heard over the orchestra at the back of the hall).

  2. hehe I do like what you said about Tolkien and Star Wars. However, even I, with a special hatred for Wagner (his “Jews have no soul” essay isn’t something I’m likely to forget, or his turning on his patron Meyerbeer, or the way his family donated to Hitler) and a preference for other classical musicians can’t pretend it’s bad or deny the influence he’s had on music, especially movie soundtracks. Sorry for this slightly off topic comment!

    1. I find Wagner more tedious than offensive in a purely musical sense; but there’s no question about his personal attitudes or what his music came to symbolise. The ease with which his material was co-opted by the Nazis for their evil speaks volumes about its undertones. It always intrigues me that Wagner and Tolkien riffed from exactly the same mythology and came out with almost diametrically opposed stories – to some extent, I guess, the difference between Tolkien’s quintessential Englishness and Wagner’s nationalist fervour. I wrote my own recent novella ‘The Last Citadel of the Innocent’, set in a particularly nasty fantasy ‘police state’ and riffing on the Volsung saga, specifically as a counterpoint to Wagner’s approach. There will be more to that story – one reviewer noticed it seemed to end on an anti-climax (quite deliberately, I might add – I knew I should have put ‘to be continued’ at the bottom…).

      1. Yes very true. Like I said- I’m not a fan of listening to his music- I think tedious is the perfect way to describe (that and chilling when I think of what it was used for). All that nationalism brooding in the background since the Napoleonic wars certainly didn’t help- though I suppose it’s also true to say Tolkien had the benefit of not being a total tool 😉
        Wow that sounds amazing- I’m very excited to read that and see it in action (I still haven’t had the chance to, but it’s on my kindle- have a few other things I have to read first- but I’m very excited cos I really enjoyed volume 1!)

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