(For previous discussion on mythology vs. fairytales, visit my entry on the Dewey Decimal system, my post on gods going underground, and this guest blog by Mark Vecchio.)
The Mything Link
There is a certain line of descent when it comes to things literary. A regression would take us from a contemporary and modern context, through recent (one's own lifetime) history and then back further into
more distant history - and, from there, into folktale, and then into legend, and then into myth.
Myth is what the magic stardust of time and distance does to someone else's quotidian 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.
Myth is just BIGGER than everything else. So much bigger.
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 (in passing) 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 recognisable stereotype. Princess in peril. The youngest of three princely siblings. Talking animals. Baba Yaga and her cottage with the chicken legs.
In the hands of a good writer, these stereotypes can definitely be turned on their heads. Take, for example, Jim Hines's (jimhines) The Stepsister Scheme. It's a story of self-admitted stereotypes, albeit given a trademark-Hines twist. Here we have a bevy of fairytale princesses who each used to have her own story, thrust together into the same storyline - but even so, they are all still instantly recognisable as
what they used to be. Cinderella is still Cinderella. Snow White, despite using mirrors more like a demented fairytale ninja than the Snow White of our childhoods, is still recognisable as Snow White (she is still USING mirrors. She still HAS dwarves.) Talia, more commonly known as Sleeping Beauty, comes closest to breaking the mould we know her in from long ago and far away - in this incarnation she is rather different from the precious princess who is stupid enough to prick her thumb on a spindle and fall asleep for a thousand years. But nonetheless these are all just tweaked stereotypes, and we know them as such and respond to them as such.
That is the world of the fairy tale.
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.
Using my own work for a moment to illustrate, if I may - I have used a bit of both, in the "Worldweavers" series. My "misfit kids" who turn out to do well for themselves are almost stereotypes - and Thea Winthrop, in particular, 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, as it were.
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 - but the transformation, if at all successful,
lies in the lines of space and time... and, last but by far not least, in the competency of the storyteller who is telling any given story.
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.