British Studies Web Pages

Myths, Legends, Fantasy...


Myths, Legends, Fantasy … Introduction

On the photos above you can see, St Michael’s Mount, a Cornish tin mine, Caernarfon Castle, Lindisfarne and Stonehenge. All of them have associations with myths and legends (as do many other places in Britain) and are often used as locations for fantasy writing.


It was not easy choosing a title for this edition - should we have included folk tales, should we have included science fiction? You will certainly find both these represented by the ‘dots’ in our title as well as many others (see e.g. Science Fiction and Fantasy Survey and How to... use folk tales in class). In many ways these themes, and myths, legends and fantasy themselves, are linked not by what they are but by what they are not - in the sense that they refer to worlds other than those that can be measured scientifically or we recognise as an everyday reality. They are linked of course by imagination, but it is not easy to draw boundaries as all fiction and poetry involves imagination. Many writers are included in our Overview of British Science Fiction & Fantasy and Overview of Polish Science Fiction & Fantasy but this still excludes for instance the well-known genre of magic realism where Angela Carter, Milorad Pavić and Isabel Allende are particularly strong examples.


National or international?

Although contributing to national identity, and in addition to many familiar national examples (for instance Robin Hood and Janosik), a characteristic of these tales is their inter- or non-nationality. Whether located in the past or the future, fantasy writing does not often set itself in a national context. Perhaps this accounts in part for its popularity among younger readers and why they lend themselves easily to cross-cultural discussion based on similarity rather than difference.


Examples from both the UK and the English language can be used to illustrate this diversity of cultural origin; Saint George the patron saint of England had no connection with it at all, was probably from what is now Turkey, may be a combination of a number of people and is the patron saint of several European countries. Many days of the week are based on gods from Norse mythology e.g. Tyr (Tuesday) - a god of war, Odin/ Woden (Wednesday) - a god of wisdom and agriculture, Thor (Thursday) - a god of thunder and war, and Freyja (Friday) - a goddess of love and the dead. Easter though now the major Christian festival retains the pagan name of a goddess of dawn. The months of the year however have Roman names including gods from classical mythology e.g. May from Maia - the goddess of growth and increase, and January from Janus - the god with two faces.


Idioms common to many European languages often have their roots in classical cultures; several appear in Mrs A's Diary - see which ones you can recognise. The Mythical A to Z and the stories and characters found in the Mythical Quiz would be recognisable equally to Polish or English learners; further evidence of a common European element to our identities regardless of country or language.

On our pages

Representing fantasy we have a variety of items on the current cults of the Lord of the Rings e.g. What’s so good about Lord of the Rings? and The Return of the King - film review, Harry Potter with a variety of opinions e.g. a teenager's view and a teacher's view. A much wider view of fantasy writing can be found in an Overview of British Science Fiction & Fantasy and an Overview of Polish Science Fiction & Fantasy where each of the many featured writers is a link to a website in English for you to follow up your interest. In Science Fiction and Fantasy Survey a variety of British and Polish people give their very interesting views on what it means to them.

It is a particular pleasure to present An Interview with Stephen Baxter, one the famous contemporary fantasy writer made during a visit to Warsaw. Fantasy has become highly popular through the growth of computer games, with the exotic in space and time being a huge attraction; Tomb Raider a film inspired by such games shows how the origins of Lara Croft were in Britain.

For myths we have a general introduction The Power of Myth, a Mythical A to Z and Irish Myths and Legends, while for legends National legends - UK patron saints and The Legend of Smok Wawelski. From our Food edition we have Salt - Wieliczka and Elsewhere with salt mine legends. Folk tales are represented by An Other World - Celtic Folk Beliefs and How to...use folk tales in class, a particularly rich resource with many classroom activities.

If you want to find out more we have an excellent Annotated Bibliography, links to Graded readers and an extensive Useful Links. Imagine This, a British Council Poland project on the themes of Science Fiction and Fantasy, has an extensive set of links in those areas, while Talking Books is a particularly interesting development, contains a series of science fiction book reviews and a further extended interview with Stephen Baxter.


For the classroom we have a number of quizzes e.g. a Harry Potter Quiz, a Mythical Quiz and a Mrs A's Diary Quiz testing the extensive list of idioms with classical roots featured in Mrs A's diary. Also in a special section Stories for the Classroom we have Dick Whittington and His Cat , Peter Pan, The Pied Piper, the Field of Boliauns and An aboriginal story, while other items encouraging you to go deeper are found in Analysing Traditional Stories. You will also find that a number of items e.g. An Other World - Celtic Folk Beliefs have activities attached. In Culture, Comenius and the Primary Classroom you will find an example of how a teacher used folktales to demonstrate how culture can be successfully introduced to 10 year-old language beginners (Polish 4th year).

We have not been able to include everything - the roots of the fantasy found in computer games, a powerful stimulus for many who go on to get involved with the literature, would be a source of fascinating analysis. From another angle, the UK is now a multicultural society and many children are brought up on myths whose origins e.g. are in the Caribbean, tropical Africa or China, or those common to Hindu or Islamic cultures. What is one person’s entertaining legend can be another’s deep religious belief.


… going deeper

Each of the terms myth, legend and fantasy has a wide range of contemporary meanings (sometimes overlapping). The story of King Arthur is a legend, within it is the myth of the Holy Grail and it is the chosen location for a significant quantity of fantasy writing. In Let's Talk About - Views from Teachers popular opinions on the nature of myths and legends (along with folk and fairy tales) are considered and you will find some stimulating ideas to promote discussion for the connected classroom activities.


The Power of Myth will lead you more deeply into present thinking with examples of twentieth century thinkers, literary figures from the past and contemporary film being given, and this can be followed by Dr Anna Tomczak’s review of a particularly significant work "Mythologies" by Roland Barthes.


To give you a sense of the range of meanings available some discussion and dictionary entries are given in A note on the terms Myth, Legend and Fantasy.


Finally …

What will be the myths and legends of the future based on events happening today? How long will fantasy remain a top-selling fictional genre and who will finally be evaluated as its great writers? A connected theme, little discussed here, is superstition. Will globalisation, which seems so rational now, be seen merely as the prevailing superstition of the 21st century?


These are all by nature unpredictable - who would have guessed earlier in the 20th century the intense interest, both popularly and academically, that would be aroused. Urban folk tales are now an accepted fact and genre, what could be the next …


Imagine This is a British Council Poland project on the themes of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Go to Imagine This for an update on events, interviews and for excellent links.

wwwPupilpower In addition the annual wwwPupilpower competition for the creation of school web pages in English is also based on the themes of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

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