Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Creating an American Mythology

It is a fairly widely known fact among fans of The Lord of the Rings that Tolkien created Middle Earth in part as a way to fulfill his desire for a mythology for England.  He borrowed heavily from other sources (particularly the Nordic myths), but what he created was uniquely his and representative of English ideology.

In the past when I thought about this quest of Tolkien's I wondered if he was truly successful.  Middle Earth, while having many parallels to our world, is clearly not our world.  Isn't a myth supposed to enrich our cultural perception of place?

But now I think I've come to understand that Tolkien did create just such a thing.  A few years ago I traveled to the UK, and one of the things I loved most about the five weeks I spent there was knowing that I was in the place where Tolkien's fantasy was still alive.  Everywhere I looked I saw pieces of Middle Earth, pieces of the Shire, pieces of magic.  For me the UK has become the place where magic lives.  I can see now just how successful and relevant Tolkien's mythology really was.

However, as much as I love Middle Earth, I'm not British.  Tolkien's mythology has been borrowed in America and widely used, but it is not an American mythology.  I've heard of Americans searching for a mythology for our country, an analog to Middle Earth, but something that is unique to us.

This isn't a new idea, but it's one that has recently taken hold in my mind.  While I was in Charlottesville for the VA Book Festival I spent some time talking with my dad about the idea.  Together we came up with a few thoughts about what might influence an American mythology.

First, we both recognized that this is a bit of a challenge.  For one thing, America is so incredibly diverse; how can we come up with a mythology that is relevant to all of us?  Secondly, most of us come from families who have only been present in this land for a few generations, just a handful of centuries at most; if mythology is so much about place, how can we claim any mythology having to do with America?

I think the answer to both questions is to choose pieces from a variety of sources that can all fit into one world.

First, the place and its natural history.  Though many of us don't have genetic history here, this land does have a very long, very rich history.  I think Native American myths would be an excellent source for creating some of the foundation of our mythological world.  It would be a world where nature was even more alive, where animals spoke and embodied archetypes such as the trickster, the sage and the warrior.

Doing this would also provide some opportunity to borrow from some of the other cultures that have been pulled into the American mixing pot.  For example, the Native American myths about animals could be supplemented by some of the African animal myths.  Perhaps we could also include Asian shape-shifters.

Second, the people in the world.  Though we are diverse, we have still managed to create an American point of view.  We value hard work, individualism and cunning.  We value equality and freedom from oppression.  We already have some stories that speak to these traits.  Here are a few examples:

American folk tales.  Paul Bunyan is our quintessential can-do man.  Along with others such as Davy Crockett and Pecos Bill, he would be a prime example of a character type to include in an American mythology.

Similarly, cowboys embody this idea of individualism.  I could see the people in our mythology being very rugged types.  I think for some people cowboy stories already are the American myths.  In fact, even though a lot of that cowboy culture is disappearing, we still love the idea so much that we have pushed it forward into futuristic space stories.  Cowboys are American through-and-through.

But part of what makes cowboys possible is having lots of physical land area that is yet untamed.  Therefore one of the requirements for an American mythology would be lots of land that is undiscovered.  This would be a major deviation from a Tolkien-type mythology.  In Middle Earth all things have boundaries and are well-defined.  In an American mythology that would not be the case.  There would be a few pockets of society and relative safety, surrounded by area that would be generally known but not fully tamed, and then further out would be the unknown.

So in sum we would have a wild world inhabited by archetypical animals and by humans, some larger than life, who have to fight for survival.

Of course there is still much to be determined and much that could be added (I've barely even made a beginning here), but I think these ideas serve well as a basis for creating our mythology.  Anyone have other comments or arguments to the contrary?


  1. I think the land itself is definitely one of the players in any American mythology -- and most especially the western plains and desert, since those so capture our collective imagination. So much of our landscape seems larger than life: Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, the geysers of Yellowstone, the giant sequoias -- a landscape much different than that of Tolkien's England.

    And while our people are terrifically diverse, it seems to me there are some things that connect us (the same things that brought many of our ancestors here): restlessness, wanderlust, the lure of the horizon. The desire for something better, and the self confidence to pursue it. Entrepreneurial spirit. Optimism.

    And for better or worse, I think we are largely a people who tend to see moral issues in terms of absolutes. Subtlety has never been a notable aspect of the American Super-ego.

    I think these elements would be at home in an American mythology.

  2. Yes, very much so. Those I think are the defining characteristics of the people we would be following in the mythology.

    Since the land is such a major player I almost think it would be necessary to go on a long road trip cross-country to see all the variety. That or maybe Planet Earth has some good shots...

    So I had some further ideas over the past 24 hours. I don't know the why or how of the backstory, but I was thinking something along the following lines for the population of this fantasy world:

    First would come the Animal Archetypes. One of each animal, and each one having one defining characteristic. For example, Rabbit would probably be the Trickster type. These animals would be larger than what we normally think of and would be able to speak and have centuries-long complex relationships with each other. They would be almost like demi-gods, each maneuvering for power over each other.

    They would all have children as well, animals that could speak and retain the archetype, but that would be mortal and less powerful.

    Next would come the First People. In their basic form they are humanoid. However, they are given all of the archetypes of the Animals, and whenever they take on aspects of a particular archetype they also take on some of the physical appearance of the corresponding animal. The changes can be subtle: ears, eyes, tail, etc; but the First People can also change shape entirely if they devote themselves fully to a particular trait.

    Finally would come the beasts and the humans. The beasts would be mute and in every way just like the creatures we know. The humans would be just like us, unable to shift forms. (Which is both good and bad: they can't take on some of the physical strengths of other creatures, but on the other hand they can act as they wish without physical characteristics giving away their intentions.)

    The humans would have small pockets of cultivated land and civilization, but the farther they wander from that society the more wild things they come across. They would probably have relationships with some clans of the First People. Maybe different clans tend more toward one animal or another, so perhaps they have a very good, mutually beneficial relationship with a Dog clan but they are constantly fighting off a Wolf clan. And perhaps they are aware of a nearby Deer clan but have not been able to get close enough to establish any ties.

    Into this setting we would throw our heroes, who have worked hard all their lives to survive in this setting but who are itching to go out and explore the unknown land outside of civilization. The story could be an Odyssey of sorts I suppose.

    Just one direction we could take this.

  3. I like a lot of this - I was thinking about your topic for a while (just now got around to posting!), and Paul Bunyan came up.

    John Henry is an amazing story - I honestly don't know how much of what happened there is true, so that's something to research and possibly build upon.

    It occurred to me - I'm not sure I understand Tolkien's purpose in having the Silmarillion be mythology for Britain. Isn't that what the Mabinogion, the Ulster cycle, Arthur, etc. are? Then it occurred to me, maybe he was going for a mythology for a *united* Britain? i.e. all the component parts?

    But even given that - the Silmarillion is an amazing story. And Arthur legends are likewise, and the Dark is Rising/Taran books are just fantastic.

    There's also the American Gods aspect - in addition to Native American mythology, you could hypothetically bring in things from other cultures.

    I really, really like the folklore ideas though. And the idea of using cowboys is really good. We've been watching a bunch of Westerns lately, and they're quite enjoyable. And really, Westerns/gunslingers are their own set of folk legends - Stephen King even took that and made it an actually-fantasy scenario in The Dark Tower (first book, which is quasi-standalone: The Gunslinger).

    Have you read any Charles de Lint? (I can never remember which friends read what.)

    Yes @ wanderlust and moral absolutes. And the land as practically a character in and of itself - genius loci? Isn't one of the fundamental structures of story conflict "man vs. nature" ?