Myths & Legends in Worldbuilding

Genre fiction, particularly the fantastic and speculative genres, is a fertile ground for myths and legends. In fact, the genres seem to be intrinsically tied to myth and legend. Tolkien, for one, built his primary work of fiction around the myths and legends of the Valar, once he developed the languages. So, what should we consider with these topics?

There is a huge variety of myths and legends out there, but first it may prove helpful to define the two terms:

Mythology—Fictitious tales that explain something (an event, phenomenon, cultural practice), involve divine agency, and are part of religious belief. Ex. Ovid’s tale of Lycaon explains why human sacrifice is not practiced (it angers the gods).

Legend—Fictitious tales that explain cultural practices, cultural history, or origins but are apart from religious beliefs and practices. Ex. the Arthurian legends explain a cultural Golden Age but are not religious in nature.

Myths tend to cover creation of the world, explanations of natural phenomena, cultural traditions, and origins of natural elements or places. Ovid’s Metamorphoses covers a wide range of origin stories and cultural traditions including the origin of the seasons (Persephone) and hospitality traditions (Baucis and Philemon).

Legends tend to focus more on culture heroes, a previous Golden Age, family history, and cultural foundations. The Arthurian legends are a good example of culture heroes. Shakespeare’s Richard III can, arguably, be seen as a legend about the founding of the Tudor dynasty (family history). The Brut Manuscript presents a foundation story of England that connects it to Troy via a manufactured Trojan named Brutus.

Inclusion of myth and legend in secondary worlds can add a layer of reality to a fantasy setting. However, they often seem to be limited in their usage. We commonly see creation myths, whether Tolkien’s Valar or Martin’s legends of Bran the Builder, but other types of myth seem to be less commonly included. Legends about places crop up regularly as do some regarding culture heroes. Only rarely does the tradition of phenomena myths—source of lightning, cause of earthquakes—seem to appear.

In urban fantasy, the use of real myths and legends has been used to connect the paranormal to the real or to inspire the paranormal elements of the world. This takes some research and a significant amount of reading and familiarity, but there are a lot of resources available out there. Including real myths and legends can spawn plots, places, objects, species, and even inspire entire paranormal societies (ex. Rick Riordan). Rowling’s use of Nicholas Flamel, Merlin, and Archimedes as wizards (Chocolate Frog Cards) is a play on this idea. Jaye Wells builds her entire paranormal society around tales of Cain and Lilith. Ilona Andrews mines Mesopotamian lore and Eastern European legends and folk tales on a regular basis.

Even in science fiction’s innumerable sub-genres, the use of myth and legend has its place. Often, they are employed in the same way as the fantasy genre does, for non-Earth based sci-fi or as urban fantasy does, for Earth-based. Legends often come into play in the form of the legendary inventors of technology or products or stories like rumors of rogue AIs on the net. The 2004 Battlestar Galactica (BSG) reboot constructed its entire plot arc on mythology, for example. The Jedi of Star Wars were surrounded by legends, living (Yoda) and otherwise, and myth. Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda often mentioned legends of Tarn Vedra and its disappearance, evoking Atlantis in some ways. Firefly includes many references to “Earth That Was” in almost reverential tones. R.A. Heinlein’s Job: A Comedy of Justice is built around Christian mythology. Mike Resnick’s Santiago makes exceptional use of legend as well.

In short, myth and legend are very useful for all sorts of genre fiction as inspiration or flavor for the setting.


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2 comments on “Myths & Legends in Worldbuilding

  1. calmgrove says:

    I used to find a particular rule of thumb helpful when I was first confused about the difference between myths and legends: myths were original oral and legends (as suggested by the name, legendum ‘something read’) were written down. Of course the religious/secular division is useful too, though some legends — like the Devil throwing a stone or a Saint walking around with their head under their arm — touch on the religious, especially when you see some of the same motifs occurring in polytheistic religions.

    Then there’s the thin line between these two and folklore, and then between folktale and fairytale. I can see why so much speculative fiction feels free to borrow from all willy-nilly!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would tend to call the saint stories myths.

      Folklore is one that I tend to identify as oral in nature, at least originally, and relatively “common” (versus the epic legend). I think folklore tends to remain intensely local while legend, I think, tends to be more cultural/national.

      But they are, certainly, relatively fluid given that they’re constructed categories applied to “organic” entities.

      Liked by 1 person

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