Many fantasy stories draw their inspiration from mythology and legend, which in turn often developed out of the remnants of dead religions. The great majority of the creatures that can be found in the fantasy genre began in traditional myths of one sort or another – such as the now-familiar staple elves and dwarves, for instance, which derive from Norse myth. So in one sense, all fantasy is derived from myth, directly or indirectly. So in order to make it a useful distinction, mythic fantasy is the name given to tales that are set within one specific traditional mythological milieu.
There are as many subdivisions as there are mythologies of course, but not all of them generate the same amount of mythic fantasy. Although the Norse and Greek myths have probably been the most influential in contributing to the flavour of modern fantasy, they are not particularly common settings for modern works. Perhaps they’re the victims of their own success, too familiar in terms of general fantasy to be appealing as a mythic story venue.
Other mythic cycles seem to be more attractive to fantasy writers. The Arthurian legend cycle of western Europe remains one of the most popular mythic fantasy settings. The historical origins of the ‘real’ King Arthur remain obscure. There are some mentions of a 5th-century British war-leader in some of the ancient chronicles, but they are tantalisingly slight, and generate a lot of debate. Anyhow, whatever the truth is, it certainly bears precious little relation to the mythic figure.
Robert Wace added the Round Table in 1155, with the Holy Grail and Sir Lancelot arriving some twenty-five years later through Chretien de Troyes. Many others contributed, until the whole cycle was broadly cemented in its current form by Thomas Malory in Le Morte D’Arthur, around 1470. The definitive modern Arthurian fantasy – so far, anyhow – remains TH White’s “The Once and Future King” (1958). Although the text makes use of anachronistic comparisons and similes, and the story itself is considerably more overtly magical than most, this is still the most influential piece of Arthuriana.
Ancient China is another common setting for mythic fantasies. China has a unique depth of continuous cultural history to draw on, and its own self-image of its mythological past is enthusiastically magical. There are many domestic Chinese fantasies of course – in the West, the best known are “Outlaws of the Marsh”, by Shi Nai’an and Luo Guanzhong (c. 1380), and “Journey to the West” by Wu Ch’eng-en (1592), better known as “Monkey”. Both of these epics are boisterous, highly magical and, like Homer’s “Odyssey” and “Iliad”, highly repetitive, at least in their original forms.