Fantasy and the need to remake our origin stories

Left to themselves, people remake their origin stories every few generations to suit present circumstances. Once our stories were set down in a way that made it hard to revisit them for different purposes, some of us turned to telling different kinds of stories, some to faking new origin stories, and then a whole generation to outright fantasies of origin—Tolkien, Lovecraft, Peake, Eddison, Dunsany, Mirrlees, Anderson etc. Since then, fantasy has been retelling and reinventing their stories for our own changing purposes, because that’s what people do, what people need to do. If they don’t do it, they tend to go a bit mad.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden and I put this theory together over dinner at Boskone, and yes, there was alcohol involved.

Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography From the Revolution to the First World War (2007) is a book about the innumerable tiny subcultures of pre-modern France, and how wildly diverse they were until surprisingly recently. He discusses the way many of these little cultures changed their origin stories every few generations, without really being aware of it:

History in the usual sense had very little to do with it. In the Tarn, ‘the Romans’ were widely confused with ‘the English’, and in parts of the Auvergne, people talked about ‘le bon César’, not realizing that “good old Caesar” had tortured and massacred their Gallic ancestors. Other groups—the people of Sens, the marsh dwellers of Poitou and the royal house of Savoy—went further and traced their roots to Gallic tribes who had never surrendered to the Romans.

Even if this was oral tradition, the tradition was unlikely to be very old. Local tales rarely date back more than two or three generations. Town and village legends had a rough, home-made quality, quite different from the rich, erudite heritage that was later bestowed on provincial France. Most historical information supplied by modern tourist offices would be unrecognizable to natives of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. After a four-year expedition to Brittany, a folklorist returned to Paris in 1881 to report—no doubt to the disappointment of Romantic lovers of the misty Armorican peninsula–that not a single Breton peasant had ever heard of bards or Druids.

In 1760, James McPherson faked a long epic poem in pseudo-Celtic style. Ossian became very popular. It was much more appealing in the eighteenth century than actual Celtic poetry, because it was so much more to their taste. This seems to me related to the way it’s often easier for the work of someone in a majority group writing about a minority group to appeal to the majority, than it is for work directly coming out of the minority group. People enjoy just the right amount of strangeness, and authenticity is often too strange. Ossian provided a bridge for eighteenth century readers towards Celtic originals—though today it seems such a clear fake it’s hard to believe anyone could have believed it real. As well as McPherson in Scotland there was also Iolo Morgannwg, the Welsh antiquarian and forger, who has irrevocably muddled the entire field of scholarship. Through the nineteenth century (and even more recently) there were people in Wales busily faking not only documents but whole archaeological sites.

Were they doing this because they needed to rewrite their origin stories, but with their origin stories written down and already too fixed to alter?

Our myths, our legends, aren’t necessarily true, but they are truly necessary. They have to do with the way we interpret the world and our place in it. Origin stories, and perhaps fairy tales too, can be the story you need them to be, if you can change them.

A while ago I was involved in a discussion of Arthurian retellings, where I jokingly said that nobody updates them to the present. Nobody tells the story of General Douglas MacArthur as Arthur. Nobody says that when Cromwell left Ireland he’d killed everyone except for seven pregnant women hiding in a cave.

There are other kinds of origin stories. The stories we tell about how Paleolithic people lived are one. In the fifties, Paleolithic people lived in nuclear families with a hunting father bringing back food to a mother who cooked and looked after the children. In the sixties, they lived in larger more communal groups, with frequent festivals with art and music and sex. In the seventies, the women’s contribution via gathering started to be noticed. In the eighties, we heard about the alpha male with a harem driving out the other males. In the nineties, we heard how the other more geeky males came back while the alpha was off hunting and impregnated the females. In the last decade we started to hear what an advantage it was to the cavepeople to have gay uncles. It’s not that any of these stories are true or untrue, it’s the way we tell them. I think the same can be said for the stories of the origin of the universe. It’s not about the evidence, it’s about interpreting the evidence to make a useful story.

With the invention of the printing press and widespread literacy, it becomes harder to revise origin stories, or any stories. Once canonical versions exist, retellings are a different thing. Several things happened—one was the advent of something quite new, mimetic fiction. This caught on in a huge way in the nineteenth century, people were for the first time reading stories about relatively realistic characters set in what was supposed to be the real world, with no fantastic elements at all. There were the fakers. Later came the new mythologies.

Tolkien said:

I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend, ranging from the large and cosmogonic, to the level of romantic fairy-story—the larger founded on the lesser in contact with the earth, the lesser drawing splendour from the vast backcloths—which I could dedicate quite simply to: to England; to my country.

(Letter to Milton Waldman 1951, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien ed. Carpenter, 1981, p.144)

It has always seemed strange that after centuries where people wrote very little original fantasy there should suddenly be this explosion of it at about the same time. First, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, came new children’s fantasy—no longer retellings and revisions of old fairy tales, which now had canonical versions, but new stories. Alice in Wonderland. The Jungle Book. Five Children and It. Peter Pan. There hadn’t been a separate children’s literature, and what there had been was mostly morality tales. Then, a generation later, came the fantasists writing for adults—Lovecraft and Tolkien and Peake don’t have much in common, but they lived at the same time and they reacted to their time with a new mythology. Dunsany’s a little earlier, but a lot of what he wrote, and certainly where he started, with Pergana, also looks like a new mythology. Eddison too, and Mirlees—none of these people were influenced by each other (well, Tolkien had read Dunsany) and they were writing very different things, yet they all feel as if they were trying to achieve the same goal, trying to tell an origin story.

Fantasy, post-Tolkien, has been largely involved with retelling Tolkien, or revolting against Tolkien. That isn’t all it’s been doing, but that’s one of the things that’s been central. I think one of the things that caused the huge popularity of first Tolkien and then genre fantasy is that it provided a new origin story that people needed and liked.

Horror hasn’t got stuck with this kind of problem. Horror has kept revising the stories into the present and relevant—there’s no canon that stops it being reinvented to be useful. Those sparkly vampires are a sign of health, not sickness.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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