As a guest blogger on the blog [Myth, the Universe, and Everything] of writer Alana Joli Abbott, I recently discussed the mythworld:
There is a certain line of descent when it comes to things literary. A regression would take us from the contemporary world through history – and, from there into folktale, then into legend, then into myth.
Myth is what the magic stardust of time and distance does to someone else’s reality – things turn bigger and brighter and darker and more numinous for being sprinkled with the stardust of magic and mystery and a pinch of faith.
The world of the folk tale, or fairy tale (which is a form of folk tale woven with a magic thread), is a world that is only touching on the otherworldly, and it depends on what happens to the humans who stumble into that other world. It is not fundamentally about the creatures that inhabit that other world – and it is certainly not about things that are much vaster than the human characters who carry the story. There are no transcendent gods or angels here.
The folk and fairy tales depend on certain accepted tropes and storylines and types of character – they are stories, if you like, of STEREOTYPE. Instantly recognizable stereotype. Princess in peril. The youngest of three princely siblings. Talking animals. Baba Yaga and her cottage with the chicken legs.
That is the world of the fairy tale.
Myth is just BIGGER than everything else. So much bigger.
The myth is inhabited by ARCHETYPES rather than stereotypes. Archetypes are not named. They are not actual character. They are EveryCharacter, they are over-reaching ideas which cross space and time and personal vision. An angel is an archetype; a fairytale princess is not.
There is a very definite archetype vs stereotype divide.
I have used a bit of both in my young adult “Worldweavers” series. My “misfit kids” who turn out to do well for themselves are almost stereotypes – and Thea Winthrop, my protagonist, is very much one, the plucky heroine who “figures it all out”. But in my story the stereotype has acquired added dimensions, and learns and grows through the series in a way that genuine stereotypes never do because they never step out of the mould at all.
On the other hand, the Native American characters from the Worldweavers books (Grandmother Spider, Coyote) are VERY much archetypes, and highly mythopoeic in the sense that their roots lie in deeper and older myths – and they are not confined to any particular story therein, just to a certain kind of ideas and meaning and over-reaching context.
A character like Nikola Tesla can be a little bit of both – he was “real” in the sense that he lived but I have mythologised him in the books to the extent that I have used the nickname that he WAS known by in his own real life, The New Wizard of the West, as a “genuine” title.
So it’s a question of scale, really. Where you peg your character, what context you give that character. A diminished archetype can turn into a stereotype, and a sufficiently exalted stereotype can metamorphose into an archetype – the chasm is not completely impossible to cross.
Tread carefully on the fragile bridge that is the mything link, metamorphosing a story into either star-blazing mythology or the quiet hearthside folktale. Transcended, the archetype vs. stereotype transformation can be absolutely awe-inspiring. Failure means crashing into that chasm, and it’s a long, long way down.