Forms of Fantasy: Back to Roots

Discussion in 'Non-Maker Specific Tutorials' started by Failivrin, Jan 22, 2018.

  1. Failivrin

    Failivrin Final Frontiersman Veteran

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    In the scale of human story-telling, novels and video games are recent developments. This particular article will not cover contemporary genres like high fantasy, urban fantasy, or paranormal. Instead we will be exploring the oldest forms of fantasy, which form a bedrock for all other genres, and discuss a few misconceptions along the way.
    As a game developer, how can this knowledge help you?

    1. Know where your story fits
    Yokai Watch is inspired by Japanese fairy tales. The Wolf Among Us is also inspired by fairy tales, but grossly misuses the term “fable.” Understanding forms of fantasy highlights your game’s relationship to larger, often ancient artistic traditions.

    2. Expand your game’s lore
    Most RPGs depend on myths and legends to create a sense of history and culture. Crisis Core adds a twist—a villain obsessed with an epic poem called “Loveless.” The player gathers excerpts of this poem throughout the game, which reveal elements of the villain’s personality and motivations. Understanding forms of fantasy provides tools to deepen your game lore in surprising ways!


    I. General forms
    These forms of fantasy are common to all cultures and are defined by their cultural significance. They often share an evolutionary relationship. Over time a myth may become a legend, a legend may become a fairy tale, a fairy tale may become a folk tale—and vice versa.

    “Myth” is sometimes used as slang for superstitious nonsense, things science cannot prove. Many myths are religious in nature and some, like the Garden of Eden myth, notoriously conflict with modern science. But myths are much more than superstitious nonsense. They are perhaps the oldest form of fantasy, and one of the oldest forms of story-telling.

    A myth is a supernatural story of cultural heritage that affirms a sense of belonging and purpose. Myths describe struggles between the natural and supernatural, the human and the divine. They include “creation” myths, the origins of cultures; origins of animals, mountains, rivers and oceans; explanations of death and afterlife, explanations of natural phenomena, apocalypses past and present, and the personalities of the gods.

    I put “creation” myths in quotes to show the diversity of traditions. In one Masai myth, a god discovered the world as one might discover a new continent. In some Vedic traditions, the world was born through its own desire, or as an emanation of God. In Norse mythology, the gods fashioned earth and other realms from pre-existing material—the bones and flesh of a giant.

    Like myths, legends contain supernatural elements and are part of cultural heritage. Unlike myths, legends do not attempt to answer spiritual or existential questions. Legends are concerned with the lives of individuals, usually cultural heroes. They can be demigods like Heracles, lords like King Arthur, warriors like Mulan, or lovers like Tristan and Iseult. Legendary figures are said to be historical, although their deeds take place “once upon a time” in prehistory. Legends represent the greatest and most tragic of human aspirations and achievements. As such they transfer between cultures more easily than myths.

    As the name suggests, fairy tales are about fairies or fairy encounters. Unlike myths or legends they do not refer to specific gods, people or events.

    Tolkien explains that a critical element of fairy tales is the wonder they inspire, lending magical significance to the unknown, precarious elements of everyday life. Magic in fairy tales belongs to capricious spirits, ranging from gnomes and trolls to the “little people” who live under the hills. The hero is often a simpleton who obtains great luck through honorable dealings with fairies.

    Although “fairy” is a European term, natural spirits appear in literature all over the world, and they are too diverse to describe! Japan for example has 16 categories of yokai spirits, with hundreds of yokai officially recognized.

    In fairy tales magic is otherworldly, controlled by spirits, witches, animal familiars or artifacts. In folk tales magic is spontaneous and surrealist, indistinguishable from luck. Paul Bunyan’s gigantic size is simply taken for granted; it is not the result of a spell or fairy pact.

    Folk tales often have mundane themes, focusing on the lives of peasants and workers rather than kings and princesses. They are nevertheless told in similar style, and most collections of fairy tales also include folk tales.

    II. Specialized forms
    Some forms of fantasy are popularly known but misunderstood. Fables and sagas belong to specific cultures, while epics are found in many cultures. They may share common themes with myths, legends, fairy and folk tales, but each of these forms is composed with a specialized structure.

    During the Victorian Era, Western culture considered fairy tales to be childish and silly. The Brothers Grimm originally titled their collection Lies for Children. To avoid the negative connotations of the term “fairy tale,” contemporary writers have started calling their stories “fables,” just because they are magical. This is a big mistake—like saying sonnets are the same as haikus, just because they are poems! Just as haiku is a specific art form which originated in Japan, fable is a specific art form which (at least in its modern forms) originated in Africa.

    Most people are familiar with Aesop’s Fables, stories like “The Tortoise and the Hare” or “The Ass in the Lion’s Skin.” A fable is a moral tale, usually comic or tragic. Animals behave as charicatures of humans; there is no “hero” and often no magic. Each fable is wrapped up with a proverb or memorable saying, sometimes called the moral of the story.

    Aesop was the given name of an African slave in Greece, and his fables were part of his African heritage. Fables are shared in the oral literature of numerous African cultures, such as the Yoruba, Ashanti, Ekoi, etc. While the animal actors often change depending on the region, insights on the wisdom and foibles of human morality remain timeless and enjoyable to everyone.

    The term “saga” in contemporary usage refers to an ongoing story. It is actually an Old Norse term roughly translated as “what is told.” Sagas stem from Viking culture, particularly medieval Iceland. They are lengthy prose works, often with poetry interspersed. Part history, part fantasy, they give accounts of family drama spanning multiple generations. Often the narrative is divided into episodes covering the lives and deaths of specific characters, or the turning of major events. If written today, some like Egil’s Saga would qualify as magical realism, while others like the Saga of the Volsungs are decidedly mythical. Modern research has verified the authenticity of sagas describing Viking voyages to America.

    “Epic” has become a slang term for extraordinary events in daily life—but the epic tradition is much larger and grander.

    An epic is loosely defined as “a lengthy narrative poem detaling the exploits of a national hero.” Sometimes the relationship is not obvious. Dante’s Inferno is an epic, but Dante is the narrator, not the hero. He nevertheless encounters national heroes, such as Virgil and Aeneas, on his journey through the underworld.

    Unlike some modern forms of poetry, epics are designed to be spoken aloud, with forms adapted for memorization, improvisation, and rhythm of the breath.

    The oldest surviving epic is the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, and the longest is the Indian Mahabharata. The most studied epics in Western culture are Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. English epics include Milton’s Paradise Lost, the Old English epic Beowulf, and Spenser’s satirical epic, Faerie Queen.

    Epics are found in underrepresented cultures, such as the Finnish Kalevala, the Persian Shahnameh, and the Sunjata epic of Mali. Additionally some cultures have works which are epic in scope but written in prose, such as the Irish Tain and China’s Journey to the West.
     
    Last edited: Jan 24, 2018
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  2. Frogboy

    Frogboy I'm not weak to fire Veteran

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    Nice.
     
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  3. Canini

    Canini Veteran Veteran

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    Very good explanation of important fantasy terms. This is important for pure writers to know as well! A difference between legends and myths I have heard is that legends have some basis in historical fact and tends to mention real people or events (King Arthur and the birth of Britain as a nation) and myths takes place in some unspecified past and deals with larger than life issues (Hercules fighting monsters, his rage).
     
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  4. Failivrin

    Failivrin Final Frontiersman Veteran

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    That is generally true @Canini. Although I mentioned Hercules/Heracles as a legend, many people would categorize his story as a myth. For some legendary heroes, it is difficult to tell whether they were inspired by real people or not. In many cultures it was expected that a great hero would become deified after death, so legends and myths often surround the same person.
     
    Last edited: Jan 25, 2018
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