Posted by: kshayes513 | November 28, 2009

A Worldbuilder’s Benchmark, Part 2: Fantasy

Following up on my last post, here are a few thoughts on Gordon Van Gelder’s benchmark for excellent fantasy:

“A fantasy story that reaches the level of myth.”

For me, successful fantasy always at least brushes along the borders of myth, and the best fantasy plunges right in.  What does that mean? Let me start by defining what I mean by myth.

A myth is a sacred story that has significance that is far deeper and more meaningful than its surface events and characters. Joseph Campbell once called myth the doorway through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos enter human consciousness (paraphrasing because I can’t find the exact quote; sorry!). Myth or sacred story is the way we humans try to understand the nature of the universe and the divine (God or gods or the Way or chi or whatever), as well as our own nature and our relationship to the cosmos.

While good science fiction tends to deal with matters of technology and society,  good fantasy goes right to the meaning-of-life stuff: “Who are we?” “Why are we here?” “What is God or the universe trying to do to us?” and most interesting in many fantasies: “Who are those other creatures, and what does it mean to share the world with them?”

(Bad fantasy or science fiction often just sets the characters down in a stereotypical fantasy/Sf environment – dragons! elves! space ships! ion cannons! – for some kind of adventure that’s supposed to be a big sweeping epic. Nothing wrong with this approach for popcorn entertainment as long as it’s executed with some style. However, failing to lay a solid conceptual foundation will always limit the scope of the story.)

I think achieving myth starts with reading a lot of myths and stories, and from there, being able to put mythical beings or objects into a story, or being able to invent good ones of your own. But it only starts there.

For me, the real benchmark is to capture the otherness of mythical elements: the unexpected, the unexplainable, the weird and sometimes frightening and completely beyond rationality; an otherness that you can recognize but can never completely assimilate even to the reality of the world you’re building, let alone the one we all seem to live in.

So here’s a short list of some fantasy creators that achieve myth on a regular basis:

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. I’m long overdue to be writing a “Reading” post on the Discworld. No one is better than Sir Terry at combining contemporary genres (mystery, horror, satire, romance) with comedy, folklore and genuine myth. My favorite Discworld novel, Hogfather, has more layers to it than the Tooth Fairy has teeth.

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion is inhabited by gods, demons and animal spirits that interact with, and sometimes possess people in ways that you’d never expect but that feel absolutely true. (I discussed these books in more depth in an early post that you can find by following my Reading tag)

Nina Kiriki Hoffman. In the short stories and novels I’ve read so far, the main character has some natural magical power; that is, the power is closely related to the natural world.  And what is more mythical than nature?

Greg Keyes. His first pair of fantasies drew on Northeast Asian mythology; his latest tetralogy, Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone is supposedly “Northern European fantasy” but you won’t find any of the familiar fantasy creatures in it. The world feels enormously old, with powers and forces sliding by in the shadows, or breaking into the light to scare you to pieces.

Charles de Lint writes urban fantasy about people whose hometowns overlap with ancient worlds: the gods and spirits of Native American myth, the fairy courts of the Celtic lands, or even stranger characters that, as far as I know, spring from his own imagination.

I’ve already posted a great deal about my favorites, Neil Gaiman, Ursula K Le Guin, and of course Tolkien. Just follow their tags to see what I’ve already said about how each of them uses myth in their writing.


  1. I like what Diana’s Grove has to say about myth: facts don’t change people; stories do.

    They also quote the following:

    “A myth is story that has never happened
    and is always happening.”
    —Howard Sasportas

    I think that’s my favorite definition of myth!

  2. I like those quotes. Sasportas sounds like something Le Guin might say, too.

    But you made no suggestions for your own fantasy fiction favorites that cross into myth. I know you have some!

  3. Reblogged this on DragOn Writing.

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