Sunday, November 6, 2011

A Mythocabulary

J. R. R. Tolkien, the man who gave us the greatest mythic tale since medieval times, also gave us some useful words for talking about stories—a mythocabulary, if you will.

J. R. R. Tolkien, 1916
“If God is mythopoeic,” said a young Tolkien to a young C. S. Lewis, “man must become mythopathic.”

Tolkien coined the word mythopoeic to describe the art of myth-making—the kind of myth-making he did in creating The Lord of the Rings trilogy. You know--the kind where you create a complete world with languages and literature and cultures--aka high fantasy. Tolkien felt that human myth-makers are sub-creators, under the master storyteller—God.  

In this worldview, God is telling an epic story through the history of man. If you happen to be a story-maker, then you already know that your characters need to have free will. They must act and speak from their own personalities and POV, and not be puppets jerked around by an author omniscient. And yet you, as author, have a say in how-it-all-turns-out. Our story-making is an imperfect parable of God’s great story, now in progress and starring you as a main character.

The Misty Mountains, by J. R. R. Tolkien

Let’s face it. Not everyone is mythopoeic—especially not at the genius level like Mr. Tolkien. But we can all be mythopathic—receptive to myth, receiving nourishment and understanding from stories. For the most part, it isn’t even a conscious process. We hear/read/watch a story, and the story imparts  a hidden wisdom. 

One of the annoying “rules” of fiction writing today is that a story shouldn’t be didactic. It shouldn't try to make a point or teach you something. (Apparently we already know everything.) But in fact, stories by their very nature are teachers. The best stories will teach us without beating us over the head, often when we are not even aware. Sneaky, huh?

Tolkien, the quadraped--not the author
Thank you, Professor Tolkien, for giving us some really cool-sounding words for talking about stories.  However, I fear you may have missed one.

Mythopathological–-so myth-crazed that you feel compelled to blog about it—perhaps even to name your cat Tolkien. Such a hapless individual may at last become a Stark Raving Mythopath.

Welcome to my world.


  1. You would have been very annoyed at Earlham's writing colloquium, to hear one of the presenters say that the way to fail as a writer is to write a story to teach a lesson. Excuse me?! We all know we're not to hit the reader over the head, but all good literature has to have some kind of moral base, doesn't it?! Otherwise, it's like reading facebook every day!

  2. I'm so elated to have come across your site today! I am reading The Inklings and was utterly captivated by the revealed mythopoeic/mythopathic conversation between Tolkien and Lewis (and Dyson?). Whereupon I found your site. I'm looking forward to enjoying more of it!

  3. from George Bernard Shaw: I wish to boast that Pygmalion has been an extremely successful play all over Europe and North America as well as at home. It is so intensely and deliberately didactic, and its subject is esteemed so dry, that I delight in throwing it at the heads of the wiseacres who repeat the parrot cry that art should never be didactic. It goes to prove my contention that art should never be anything else.