Authors often describe their fictional worlds and characters as something they discover rather than something they invent. When I first read such a description by an author, I took it is an amusing but dishonest conceit. However, repeated encounters with authors and artists expressing this sentiment have cautioned me against such hasty dismissal. The contrast I introduced in a previous article between mythical thinking and logical thinking provides a good lens through which to look at this phenomenon. In this article, I explore a number of statements from authors and artists about their own art, looking at them as examples of mythical thinking.
A good author with which to start would be J.R.R. Tolkien, arguably the most influential author of modern fantasy. Tolkien had written an extensive collection of myths and legends that he later incorporated into The Lord of the Rings as its mythological background. When seeking a publisher for both works together, he wrote a lengthy letter to one potential publisher, most likely late in 1951. (The Lord of the Rings was published separately in 1954, but the other material was not published until after his death as The Silmarillion in 1978.) In that letter, he included the following description of the earlier mythological material:
[The] stories [ ] arose in my mind as ‘given’ things. [ ] Always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there’, somewhere: not of ‘inventing’. (Letters #131)
In another article in this issue, Laura discusses science and religion in Madeleine L’Engle’s Many Waters. L’Engle, an American writer best known for her young-adult fantasy novels like A Wrinkle in Time (1962), L’Engle told an anecdote along similar lines about writing The Arm of the Starfish (1965). Her ten-year-old would listen to sections of the book as they were written, until one of the characters died.
He got very excited and upset. “Change it,” he demanded. [ ]
“I can’t. I didn’t want [that character] to get shot, either, but that’s what happened. I couldn’t stop it.”
“But you can. You’re the writer!” [ ]
He was so angry with me for allowing [that character] to die that he wouldn’t read anything else I wrote for several years. [ ] Now he has grown up and understands that the artist cannot change the work at a whim, but can only listen, look, wait, and set down what is revealed. (Walking On Water 185-186)
This moving and highly personal anecdote demonstrates to me in a powerful way that L’Engle took this aspect of her work quite seriously.
In a previous article, I discussed 2007 Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing’s book Shikasta in terms of mythical thinking. At the beginning of Shikasta, published in 1979, Lessing included some introductory remarks:
As I wrote [Shikasta] I was invaded with ideas for other books, other stories. [ ] It was clear that I had made — or found — a new world for myself. (Shikasta x)
Neil Gaiman, perhaps one of the best-known authors of speculative fiction writing today, expressed something similar regarding the title character of his popular comic book series The Sandman. The series, which ran from 1989 to 1996, has subsequently been published in eleven volumes. In an afterword to the first volume, written in 1991, Gaiman wrote:
Looking back, the process of coming up with the Lord of Dreams seems less like an act of creation than one of sculpture: as if he were already waiting, grave and patient, inside a block of white marble, and all I needed to do was chip away everything that wasn’t him. (Afterword 238)
I discussed the magnificent carved columns of the Pacific Northwest and their relationships to mythic narratives in a previous article on totem poles. Bill Reid, one of the great totem pole carvers of the twentieth century, described his art with these words:
With half my mind, I know I do believe that the figures on that totem pole I’m carving […] grew inside that tree as it was growing. And all I have to do is peel away the outer layers and there they’ll be. And the other half of my mind tells me that’s complete nonsense and romantic balderdash. I can live with both points of view — and enjoy them both, actually. (Bill Reid 4:50-5:30)
Reid’s first point of view — that the figures grow inside the cedar trees — resembles the other statements by the authors. These all reflect mythical thinking (mythos), which approaches the world through intuitive means and subjective insights. They all explain their art in terms of other worlds or hidden realms, which is a common element found in many products of mythical thinking. The land of the gods above the skies or faraway places over the seas are familiar expressions of this element, but mythical thinkers also often posit an invisible reality or hidden plane of existence within our own world. I imagine that these authors and artists did not deduce the existence of their characters or their stories from objective experiments or impersonal proofs; rather, they posited these objects to describe the very subjective — but also very real — feelings they experienced while creating their art.
But do such invisible realities exist? Did the figures Reid carved actually grow inside the trees? Could L’Engle really not have changed the story to satisfy her son? Logical thinking (logos) might look for something more objective than hidden realms to explain these subjective feelings. A logos-only thinker might perform experiments on cedar trees, looking for the hidden figures. Such experiments would (presumably) produce no objective evidence for these figures, and their existence would then be rejected. Reid’s second point of view — that this is all “complete nonsense and romantic balderdash” — reflects the conclusions of such a logos-only approach. But Reid did not think that logos offered a superior or more satisfying way to think about his art, and I think all the authors I mentioned above would have agreed with him on the complementary nature of mythos and logos in this regard. Mythical thinking provided all these authors a method to make sense of their own work and to share that sense with others.
- Tolkien, J.R.R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter. 2nd edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
- L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking On Water. Bantam Books, 1982.
- Lessing, Doris. Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta. New York : Random House, 1979.
- Gaiman, Neil. “Afterword.” The Sandman, Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes. New York: DC Comics, 1991.
- Bill Reid. Directed by Jack Long. National Film Board of Canada, 1979. (Full documentary available online.)