Tolkien’s legendarium is arguably the sine que non of the practice of modern worldbuilding (founded, of course on the ancient mythopoeias of Greece, Rome and especially the Germanic peoples of Northern Europe). The mythological histories that lurk behind the stories of Patrick Rothfuss, Susanna Clarke and G.R.R. Martin likewise inspire a wonder that deepens the metaphoric and thematic meanings of their respective works, reinforcing the actual narratives through foreshadowing, repetition of events and themes and the creation of seemingly-living systems of belief and culture that bring characters to life.
Mythopoeia is powerful because its focus is unabashedly meaning without the need for historicity and “hard” logic—it is the intuitive quality of dreams brought to bear upon the waking world. It is important on one hand because it makes for better fantastic worlds and tales; on the other it bears a power of its own that cannot be found in any other mode of storytelling.
Here’s the rub—the natural drive to develop mythologies and legends for our created worlds is to emulate the feeling of known mythopoeia, to capture the nostalgia of indulging in such modes of thought without sufficient critique of the cultures and ideologies that informed old ways of thinking—whether from the early 20th Century A.D. or the late 20th Century B.C.
Some of my first steps into Avar Narn involved journeys into the mythological and legendary foundations of the setting. I looked to the great writers before me in too imitative and awestruck a manner.
There were two mistakes here. First—this is my opinion based upon my own experience, so take it for what it is—one should not start at the beginning when crafted a world meant for storytelling. Quite the contrary, one should begin in forming the milieu in which the stories will take place—the worlds “modern day,” if you will—because this will more heavily influence the types of stories you tell with that setting. Start with the immediate, and work backwards—what kind of things might have historically occurred to result in the current state of political affairs, what legends and mythologies would have shaped the “modern” ideologies, perspectives and values that exist in that world?
Second, if we adhere too closely to historical mythologies and their fantastic descendants, we are not carefully crafting the values our world has.
By way of example—a world with a mythology of creation that draws heavily upon the Adam and Eve story is more likely to result in a misogynistic worldview—blame Eve for Adam’s sin as historic theologians tended to do. If that influence is there, it either has to be somehow present in the current time of the setting (even if its influence has waned such that people do not openly espouse such a view—but still think it to themselves) or something has to have occurred to change the initial perspective created by that mythology. This could be as simple as a change of the interpretive hermeneutic applied to a mythology or story of spiritual import. But it could represent a major change in theology or the mythology itself—perhaps one explanatory story was replaced by another. This could be a result of historical events: new propagandistic motives of rulers; the influence of foreign ideas upon domestic, whether by trade or conquering; events (natural or otherwise) that undercut or destroyed the explanatory power of the earlier story.
In other words, if we uncritically draw upon Tolkien’s legendarium to shape our own, we’ll get a mythology informed (subtly or not) but the dominant ideas of the early 20th century (and, perhaps, ancient Germanic mythologies as interpreted through the lens of that same time). Draw heavily upon Greek mythology for your world and—without an outside influence—the inhabitants of that world will have Greek values.
I’m tempted to say that sometimes this doesn’t matter, but any work on worldbuilding or crafting narrative that doesn’t influence some other aspect of the process is time wasted and meaning lost.
For me, the productive turn (which has occurred only recently as I return to the Avarian mythologies and legends to revise them as the setting moves toward its final state) happened when I realized that I needed to think about the social values I want to have (and, as important, have conflict over) in the setting.
The most important (and thus controversial) social matters—race, sexuality, religion, politics, immigration, environmental issues, bioethics, etc.—are treated with outdated and untenable views by much mythopoeic work, old and more recent. If you want to deal with these issues in ways that modern readers could relate to, ways that stimulate thought about the subject (particularly as an examination of all sides of an issue rather than solely a diatribe or invective current in your work), your world’s mythopoeia itself needs to challenge or wrestle with these ideas. What does it mean in your world if your mythology has divine beings engaged in homosexual relationships? It is not enough simply to have such stories—if questions of human sexuality are something you want to explore in your world, the context of those stories also matters heavily.
Maybe my point is simple—like Penn & Teller’s statement that “words mean shit!”, stories mean shit! No part of the crafting process of a setting or story should go without scrutiny or intentional design.
From this, the real crux of my argument is simple: do not imitate sample mythologies uncritically! Strive to capture the power and the feel of the mythopoeic, borrow from the tropes of the mythopoeic when helpful, but craft something that is uniquely yours and that tells readers something about the setting and your story! Take hold of the explanatory purpose of the mythopoeic and use it to your own ends! Your fantasy world’s mythologies should inform both you and your readers about the kinds of values and ideas that are taken for granted, as well as those that rebel against traditional beliefs and those that have come into question. Your mythologies are not so much about the conflict within those stories as the conflicts they set up for your “main” narratives.