Alrighty folks, it's time for another thread. On magic, and, to a lesser extent, magicians and wizards, in fantasy.

This is what I think about while hitting the gym.

So, let's dive in.

There's something about older fantasy of all subgenres (epic fantasy, sword and sorcery, etc.) that seems to be missing in modern literature.


And I don't mean throwing about fireballs or conjuring up specters from the vasty deep. I speak of something more subtle.

It's a rather indescribable quality, but it permeates the entirety of the works, even if a wizard or enchantress never shows up in the pages. It's a richness, a whiff of the unearthly that permeates everything. Magic is the best word to describe it.

Modern works don't have it. They're fun, but they don't have the same feel as Lord of the Rings, or Conan, or the Dying Earth, or even parts of Nine Princes in Amber, let alone someone like Dunsany.

I think it comes from the viewpoint being written.

Modern fantasy writers tend to, with treatment (prose, style, description, plot) or theme, focus on de-mythologizing. Sometimes it's intentional (I've had discussions about how Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicles do this) and sometimes it just shows a lack of craft.

Worldbuilding consistency is important, yes, but many of the rules developed should stay behind the scenes. It is also a difficult thing to master, showing the unearthly in that which is explicitly unearthly, much less showing the unearthly in everything.

Craft and style are also, in this day and age, a difficult thing to develop. Everything is in, nothing is bad writing unless it is. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is toxic to someone who wants to genuinely increase his skill. No standard for performance, you see.

So some authors just can't handle the unearthly. Maybe they came up with a cool naturalistic explanation for magic. Maybe they just can't write a deity showing up with the proper gravitas. That's unintentional.

It's the intentional stuff I'm not a fan of.

At its least offensive, de-mythologizing turns into what I'm now calling the Scooby Doo Effect. The strange and unearthly has a COMPLETELY UNDERSTANDABLE explanation. It robs the mystery from magic (in this case, magic is referring to fireball throwing stuff) for example.

At its worst, de-mythologizing becomes snobbish and condescending. Here the target is usually one of two things: religion or tradition. It either ridicules folks for believing or participating in them or accuses them of trying to hoodwink and deceive others.

But enough of this modern age. How is the older stuff different? Simple.

It doesn't de-mythologize. It mythologizes.

It's to varying degrees, of course, but it brings a gravitas back. And of course it varies, as some authors mythologize and de-mythologize simultaneously.

Robert Jordan does a bit of both, though he falls on the mythic side moreso. His magic is a little too divorced from the mystic, but he is hardly the worst offender, and it is nitpicks. Now...the Forsaken, he goes straight into myth.

Thirteen madly powerful sorcerers serving the Dark One, each with a specialized set of horrors. One brewed monstrous armies, one mind-controlled the aristocrats of entire countries, others leading armies with seemingly invincible stratagems.

To de-mythologize such things... it is what all de-mythologizing does. It reduces them. Jordan plays them straight. It stands out for that fact, and they're so memorable that it's been four years at least and I can name twelve of the thirteen and describe all of them.

We humans latch on to stories and myths to describe the world. Some are factually false, but teach a crucial lesson. The best are those that teach such lessons and are true.

Here's another example. I'm reading a collections of oral legends of the Maasai tribe.

First legend is the introduction of death. It was listed, I haven't gotten to it yet (there is a lot of pre-legend reading on how the Maasai shared stories), but I can GUARANTEE it says how but it also says WHY
If I were to explain to this storyteller the nature of how cells die, explain how our bodies cease to function, talk about brain activity, I'm merely talking about the physical. The HOW.

The storyteller speaks at a deeper and more subtle world. He speaks to the WHY.

Conflate this with the telos, the philosophical chief end of a thing. It is a similar concept. This is what myth speaks in. Myths are the stories that echo in two worlds, the physical and the spiritual. The teleological. The nonmaterial.

To de-mythologize is to DIMINISH because it cuts off from the nonmaterial. It also makes the subject less impressive, as it sets up high expectations and then invariably disappoints. It's stuck in the material world and obscures the nonmaterial.

So the mythic is this magic, this ineffable touch.

Sometimes it's hoarded, spent in these careful places. Whenever Odin appears in The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson this is the mythic. But to truly make it sparkle... You must give generously.

Every action possesses the grace of ritual or the horror of blasphemy. Every hero has shades of Odysseus, Gilgamesh, Heracles in his countenance, every heroine Bradamante or Antigone in hers. You must SUFFUSE your work with myth.

The world of myth is a world that is full of the larger-than-life. It is a world haunted with wonders and terrors, and that is enough to make it clash with the world we now live in. But, what, say you, of the moments of myth within myth? Is that wonder wasted or diminished?

This is the tough part. When everything is mythic, one may be tempted to think nothing is mythic. That can happen, yes. But there is the subtle wonder and magic of a world with purpose, a world haunted by spirit, and the mythic resonance of gods and sorcerers.

When all is suffused with the incense of mythos, one must call upon Wonder's cousin, Awe. Dial it up to 11 when you show these things, embrace the hyper-mythic. It is a difficult and perilous task. It is one I struggle to do, and often fail.

So why try? Why embrace the mythos if it's easy to fall. Yes, you can fall, and I can guarantee that your work will have a haunted sense about it that others who don't even try for it will never attain.

But more importantly...

What if you fly?

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