Myth and History in Fantasy Literature

OR Melling discusses some of the ideas behind her work with reference to her first book, The Druid’s Tune.

(Given as a talk in the Belfast Arts Club, Northern Ireland , in August 1992. Subsequently published in Children’s Books in Ireland, the magazine of CLAI, the Children’s Literature Association of Ireland, November 1993.) 

At the heart’s core of fantasy literature lies the infinite possibility of dreams. Whether it presents alternate worlds in outer or inner space, alternate forms of life beyond humanity, alternate realities beyond our own, this genre speaks not to the limited self but to the limitless spirit. The well from which it draws its inspiration - be it established myth or the capacity for myth-making - is that which Joseph Campbell calls ‘the lost forgotten living waters of the inexhaustible source.’

Fantasy literature of the high tradition is a song of hope. It whispers a simple message: as long as the spirit is intact, nothing is broken irreparably. It is idealistic in both the conventional and the Platonic sense and can therefore be a nourishing source for the idealism of youth. Young people are by nature idealistic as, regardless of the hardships they may have already endured, they do not have the accumulation of failures which every adult has gathered through time and experience.

We as adults can react to youth’s spirit in either a negative or positive way. We can envy or resent their innate optimism and we can discourage it with cynicism, or even actively try to break it. Or we can nurture and encourage that fiery seed in the hopes that this generation might actually win. This generation may not inevitably lose their dreams to disillusionment or defeat. Gottfried von Strassburg, the 13th century author of Tristan, wrote of his work: ‘I have undertaken a labour, a labour out of love for the world, to comfort noble hearts.’

Fantasy literature is often considered to be simply a form of escapist fiction. Firstly I do not feel that ‘escaping’ is necessarily valueless in itself. As anyone who needs a holiday will attest, escaping can be a form of psychological and psychic regeneration as necessary as sleep. But I would also maintain that anything which encourages dreams and aspirations of a better self or a better world, anything which ‘comforts noble hearts’, is hardly an escape from reality. Rather, it can be an aid to survival and a source of strength, as well as a possible vehicle for improvement. And, as Tolkien pointed out, ‘a living mythology can deepen rather than cloud our vision of reality.’

A critic who reviewed The Druid’s Tune when it was first published in Canada made this comment: ‘The themes have less to do with the actuality of that ancient world and more to do with dreams. images of courage, love, nobility and self-sacrifice indicate the strength of fantasy to depict our deepest longing and dreams of right behaviour.’

From early childhood I was an avid reader of fantasy writers - C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, P.L. Travers, E. Nesbit , Susan Cooper. Patricia Lynch, John Masefield, and Alan Garner among many others. Today I would say without a doubt that it is their books and not any other source of social inculcation — be it religious, parental, educational or whatever — that instilled in me an inner sense of realisation and judgement about right and wrong, good and evil.

While I’m speaking so grandly here I should point out that my book is quite simple and quite simply written. On one level it is a time-travel adventure in which two modern-day teenagers are brought back into Ireland ’s mythical past to meet the warrior queen Maeve and the boy hero Cuchulainn. But on another level there is an undercurrent or subtext which deals with the questions of the necessity of war and the existence of the soul and the infinite spirit of life.

It’s not that I have consciously sugar-coated ‘important messages’ with an action-packed adventure. I do not think the book would work if I had done that, as young people, especially teenagers, can smell a rat a mile away. But in fact this is the nature and integrity of ancient myth itself. Again I quote Tolkien: ‘The mythological imagination can deal in a profoundly revelatory way with serious moral and spiritual issues.’

One of the most fascinating aspects of the epic myth on which my book is based — the Táin Bó Culaigne or Cattle-Raid of Cooley — is that the original tale itself contains the message that all the battles and bloodshed are ultimately tragic and futile. Two sections of the myth underline this idea: the massacre of the youth troop of Ulster and Cuchulainn’s killing of his foster-brother Ferdia. I feel that a scene which begins with the ‘glorious gallantry’ of battle and ends with the slaughter of a group of youngsters does more to raise questions about the nature of war than any outright moralising or argumentation. The same can be said of a scene in which the very like- able Cuchulainn weeps over the body of his best friend whom he has had to kill.

Is this, you may ask, a fit subject for young people? (A critic in Canada who objected to my work maintained I was ‘as bad as C.S. Lewis’ for having my young characters go to war.) I believe the greatest disservice we can do to young people is to pretend that something is not there when it is. We live in a war-torn world. By refusing to admit the reality of war, by denying its constant presence in the history of our race, by refusing to talk about it and the reasons for its existence, we guarantee that it will continue. And we are not protecting our children by guarding them from it; rather, our silence may well guarantee that they will experience it.

Bruce Chatwin, the travel writer, had a wonderful anecdote on this notion of ‘shielding’ children from the truth. When he was a little boy he went for a walk in the country with his father, and he spotted the carcass of an animal on the side of the road.

‘What’s that?’ he asked his father.

‘An old coat, I think,’ was the reply, to protect the child’s sensibilities.

‘Looks like a squashed hedgehog to me,’ said the boy.

The myth on which The Druid’s Tune is based is a tale of war. So my young characters, with all the naivety and innocence and idealism of youth, enter into and confront one of the most common realities and greatest tragedies of our race. How they deal with this confrontation, keeping their spirits intact is the stuff of which my own myth is made.

In conclusion, I would say of modern mythical fantasies that they reflect the same universality as their traditional forbears. For they, too, echo with ‘ancient dreams’ the unconscious knowledge of what it has always been to be human, all the wonder and horror of our existence, and all the yearning and hope for some thing better.