We’re all swimming in culture, all of the time. Humans are natural story-tellers. Even on an individual level we have those defining stories of the time we did X or saw Y. And any fictional world that is expected to be taken seriously, whose inhabitants are to be accepted as real people, must have its own stories and art and culture and political views. It’s not enough to make a passing mention of it. We need to see some of it.
For me, at least, J.K. Rowling hit her peak with Goblet of Fire, book four of the Harry Potter series. But when I finally got around to picking up the concluding volume of the saga, she won me back, at least a little, with her wizarding-world fairy tale, “The Three Brothers,” ably handled in the film.
Far from being a parenthetical aside, the tale is central to the novel’s plot. It also allows Rowling to indulge herself in a very different style of storytelling for one small section of her book (and paves the way for the filmmakers, later, to make a similar departure in their cinematography). Most importantly, it helps to cement the fictional world of Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic as a real place.
Myths, legends, fairy tales — these stories are only one facet of human existence but an important one. The tales form a tradition that binds us to our ancestors, acknowledging shared fears, beliefs, and hopes, weaving a common narrative fabric that defines us as peoples. These stories tell us who we are, whether or not they’re literally true.
Another example is “Three Brothers of the Air,” hidden at the end of one chapter of the 1995 novel, The Mask of the Sorceror. Darrell Schweitzer’s story-within-a-story anticipates Rowling’s in more ways than one. His three brothers also face a personification of Death, and here, too, it is the youngest brother who successfully overcomes death. But Schweitzer’s is also a creation story, and when Schweitzer returns to the tale later, adding details which change the meaning of the original text, the world changes with it.
Scholars of such tales — J.R.R. Tolkien, for example — recognize the narrative and linguistic clues which identify such texts. The prose tends to be sparing, almost minimalist. The stories are often written in the past-perfect tense. They almost always tell rather than show. Characters often have no names. They are “the king,” “the hunter,” “the seamstress,” “the three brothers” — representing archetypes moreso than any individual person. If a character does have a name, he is probably a legendary figure, constituting an archetype in his own right.
An example of the latter might be Geoff Ryman’s “The Last Ten Years in the Life of the Hero Kai,” collected in Paradise Tales, set in a fantasy version of ancient Cambodia. We get no inner monologue of Kai: We are told, in the manner of The Epic of Gilgamesh or Beowulf, that Kai did this, Kai said that. Even emotions are of a matter-of-fact sort: “he wept and was very sorrowful, then marched with his armies,” et cetera, et cetera. Because Kai is something more than a man and his deeds are legend.
In this case, Ryman is not setting the stage for a larger narrative; nevertheless, its style of telling still implies a larger world and history, wherein people are remembering and sharing the tale centuries later. (And it seems that less is more with mythical narratives. Ryman’s stand-alone short story and Schweitzer’s novel-embedded interlude are just the right length. But Schweitzer also published a slim novel, The White Isle, told in a similar classical style, and it drags a little.)
Myths are not just told and retold for their colourful prose, relatable characters, or cool action scenes. They tell us something about who we think we are, or perhaps who we should be. In real-world history, the stories the Hebrew people have told about themselves, and particularly the stories their enemies told about them, have defined nations and justified genocides.
It’s not far-fetched at all, then, when Susanna Clarke’s 800-page opus, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, describes a version of early-nineteenth-century England wherein contemporary political lines align perfectly with the borders of one fabled Raven King. In Clarke’s version of history, this Norman-era figure remains a bone of contention between the rural North and metropolitan South of England centuries later. Of course, in a world where magic is still a real, albeit fading art, one’s position on subjects of legend is more relevant than you might expect.
Of course the use of invented myths in a fictional fantasy world makes perfect sense, but science fiction writers are also capable of channelling Homer or the Brothers Grimm. In The Sunless Countries, Karl Schroeder’s unlikely hero, a mousey historian, draws heavily on myths and legends dating back to the ancient (yet still futuristic) origins of her own artificial world of Virga. “The Parliament of Flies,” a creepy tale of madness and hopelessness, provides both a lesson and a warning for her people, if its meaning can be deciphered.
The post-apocalyptic world of Walter Miller’s best-known work closes the circle, showing how the stories of today become the myths of tomorrow. The takeaway may be that even in the future, a shared mythos continues to be an indispensable means of communicating some truths.
J.J.S. Boyce is a writer, educator, and semi-pro omelette chef. He can frequently be found writing at the Green Man Review, Library Journal, and Care2. He also maintains a meta-narrative at his blog, The Back of the Envelope.