Mythic Fiction for Young Adults

by Julie Bartel

"The Reader" by Marie Spartali Stillman

Coined by authors Charles de Lint and Terri Windling to describe their own work, the term "mythic fiction" has become more widely recognized in recent years, though its exact definition is somewhat difficult to elucidate. The simplest and best definition of mythic fiction is fiction that draws essential substance from myth, folklore, fairy tale, and legend. The conscious use of mythic themes and tropes — that is elements and language that reflect either figurative or literal use of images, symbols, and metaphors from myth and folklore —is the key ingredient, allowing authors to explore realistic themes on a symbolic level. As in much of the best fantastic literature, the strength of mythic fiction lies in the metaphorical foundations of the story, and in the writer's use of timeless motifs to comment on or illuminate contemporary life. Drawing upon material that has inspired for thousands of years gives writers a voice in the continuing conversation which tries to make sense of the human experience, and adds resonance and depth to mythic fiction.

The term is sometimes used interchangeably with "urban fantasy" or "contemporary fantasy," despite the differences in meanings. Actually, not all mythic fiction takes place in an urban setting, and not all mythic fiction is set in contemporary times, making those labels ambiguous, at best. Furthermore, not all mythic fiction could realistically be called fantasy. In fact, it was their unhappiness with the impreciseness of "fantasy" — a term both too broad (because it includes work not based on myth or folklore) and not broad enough (because it connotes only books published in the fantasy and science fiction genre, usually set in imaginary worlds) — that inspired de Lint and Windling to label their work mythic fiction. A similar distinction must be drawn between mythic fiction and magic realist literature, often associated with Latin American writers but increasingly popular across the globe as a way to express specific ideas through story. Though they share a number of like qualities, works of magic realism are not always mythic, utilizing, as they may, any and all kinds of imagery to create their magic. The use of surrealist imagery or other random fantastical elements sets some works of magic realism apart from mythic fiction, though their literary ambitions are often the same. While some books with young adult appeal, such as Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate (1995) and Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things (1998), do indeed fit nicely into both categories, other works of magic realist literature uses imagery too random to be correctly labeled mythic fiction.

The concept of mythic fiction encourages examination of the notions of "literary" versus "popular" literature, or "mainstream" versus "genre," and challenges readers to look beyond the publishers label and judge quality and content for themselves. Working from the premise that what is good can also be popular, and that work that appeals to the masses can also have critical merit, de Lint, Windling, and others who champion the term use mythic fiction as a label which bridges the perceived gap between mainstream and genre literature, between "quality work" and "popular work." Intentionally challenging the artificial distinctions of the publishing industry, mythic fiction encompasses the whole range of literary novels, crossing genre boundaries to include everything from high fantasy to historical fiction, horror, and mythic works published as "mainstream" fiction. In retrospect, de Lint and Windling's attempt to more faithfully reflect the spirit of their writing, and to appeal to a broader audience, has given us a much–needed term with which to define a large, coherent, though somewhat amorphous, body of literature.

In actual practice, some mythic fiction is easy to identify, as it uses traditional tales in obvious ways, such as retold fairy tales like The Goose Girl (2003), Shannon Hale's lyrical retelling of the story of the same name, and Robin McKinley's Spindle's End (2002), based on the tale of Sleeping Beauty. Besides the growing number of collections of retold fairy tales for teens, such as Swan Sister: Fairy Tales Retold and A Wolf at the Door: And Other Retold Fairy Tales (2001), both edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, collections of myth–based tales like Green Man: Tales from the Mythic Forest (2002), also from Datlow and Windling, are becoming popular. Taking it's theme from the mythic Green Man, the book includes stories which evoke various incarnations (some traditional, some most definitely not) of that mythic being. In a similar vein, Firebirds: An Anthology of Original Fantasy and Science Fiction edited by Sharyn November (2003), includes many stories that could be considered mythic fiction, including Delia Sherman's "Cotillion," a re–telling of the ballad "Tam Lin," and Kara Dalkey's reworking of Hans Christian Anderson's "The Snow Queen" in "The Lady of the Ice Garden." Novels based on myths, either forthrightly like Quiver (2002), Stephanie Spinner's account of Atalanta, or as inspiration like Cynthia Voight's Orfe (2002), which transplants the story of Orpheus and Eurydice to the modern day world of rock music, are also readily identifiable as mythic fiction. Robert Holdstocks' complex Celtika (2003), and its sequel The Iron Grail (2004), offers a similar, if more intricate and challenging story which blends the Merlin legends, the story of Jason and Medea, and early Celtic mythology.

Some works, however, are more subtle, using images, language, and symbols, rather than the story itself, to create a mythic sensibility. Charles de Lint's Someplace to be Flying (1999) doesn't reflect a particular myth or legend, but uses mythic tropes and archetypes to comment on real world relationships, the idea of family, the grace of forgiveness. Drawing on images from Native American mythology, Someplace to be Flying features Raven (whose pot starts all the trouble), Coyote (the Trickster) and the Crow Girls (more dangerous than they look), among others — First People who have walked the earth since its creation and who still involve themselves in the affairs of men. Even beyond the more obvious archetypal characters, the novel creates a feeling of mythic depth by incorporating scenes and images which rely on myth for their resonance and power. For example, after his beloved is killed while trying to fly (a disturbing scene with it's own mythic echos), Jack Daw takes violent revenge on the Cuckoo clan in a bloody massacre that evokes deep and instant connection by using imagery and motivation familiar from a myriad other tales. The fantastic elements are not just trappings, but are crucial to the substance of the novel, and de Lint skillfully selects from the rich store of mythic material to add potency and wisdom to the story he tells.

A number of classic young adult series often labeled simply "fantasy" can truly be called mythic fiction, including Susan Cooper's "Dark Is Rising" series, Madeleine L'Engle's "Time Quartet," the "Tales of Alvin Maker" series by Orson Scott Card, and "His Dark Materials" trilogy by Philip Pullman. Infused with folkloric reference and mythic resonance, each of these authors uses traditional material to add additional layers of meaning to their work. Mythic fiction novels aimed at or suitable for young adults are becoming increasingly popular of late, ranging across the genre spectrum from ghost stories and historical fiction to epic fantasy. Authors like Charles de Lint, Alan Garner, Robert Holdstock, Jane Lindskold, Juliet Marillier, Patricia McKillip, Robin McKinley, Tim Powers, and Terri Windling produce consistently excellent mythic works which appeal to teens, but there are also a number of other novels and authors which may not spring so readily to mind.

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