The "Mythopoeic Gift" of H. P. Lovecraft (a work in progress)


Well-Known Member
Aug 21, 2010
The “Mythopeic Gift” of H. P. Lovecraft – First Draft, 13 March 2015

Thinking about several places in which C. S. Lewis discussed fantasists who wrote works that are compelling despite serious literary faults enables me to get a grip on why Lovecraft remains a major author in my personal canon, despite my criticisms of his philosophy and my perception that his style and characterization are generally defective.

Lovecraft is not a peer of Coleridge (“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” “Kubla Khan,” “Christabel”), Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), or Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings). In works such as these, Lewis believes, the literary “mythopoeic gift” is complemented by “specifically literary powers.”

Lovecraft is best understood as a peer of mythopoeic authors such as George MacDonald, Rider Haggard, and David Lindsay. First, I’ll quote from Lewis’s remarks on the literary defects of these three authors. I think many readers will perceive a relevance to Lovecraft. I’ll note that each author held to some kind of philosophy. Then I’ll present some of what Lewis had to say about what he calls the “mythopoeic gift.” I’ll conclude by suggesting that Lovecraft makes a fourth with the three authors listed at the beginning of this paragraph.

[a] MacDonald (1824-1905)

MacDonald wrote several book-length fantasies, including Lilith (Lovecraft fans should read the first few chapters and see if they aren’t gripped by them), Phantastes, The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and Curdie, and At the Back of the North Wind, as well as some fantastic short stories (such as “The Golden Key”) and novellas (“Photogen and Nycteris”) that Lin Carter reprinted in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. I think that the style in these works is often unobjectionable, but occasionally (perhaps in “The Wise Woman,” for example) he drifted into the faults evident in his many long realistic novels. Lewis may be thinking specifically of the novels, or of MacDonald’s writing in general, when he says that “the texture of his writing as a whole is undistinguished, at times fumbling,” sometimes verbose, sometimes showing a Scottish “weakness for florid ornament,” sometimes “an oversweetness picked up from Novalis.”

Incidentally, when W. H. Auden introduced readers to MacDonald’s two great fantasies for adults, Phantastes and Lilith, he said the Scottish author was equal to, or even superior to, the best of Poe. That should intrigue Lovecraft fans, who of course know of their idol’s devotion to Poe.

Haggard (1856-1925)

Lewis bemoaned “the clichés, jocosities, frothy eloquence” in which Haggard indulged in his romances about Ayesha. Lewis noted an irony – that Haggard seems amused, when writing of Allan Quatermain, of the “unliterary” manner of the narratives related by the “simple hunter. It never dawned on him that what he wrote in his own person was a great deal worse – ‘literary’ in the most damning sense of the word.”

[c] Lindsay (1876-1945)

In A Voyage to Arcturus, the only one of Lindsay’s books that Lewis seems to have known, the“style is appalling,” etc.

Each of these three authors possessed a mythopoeic gift, as I think Lovecraft did to some degree, and also held, like Lovecraft, to a philosophy that his admirers often contend for. MacDonald tirelessly contended for an unorthodox version of Christianity focused on the “inexorable love” of the Father, in which Christ’s atoning work on the Cross is either ignored or reinterpreted and in which even the devil may be saved after eons of purgatorial suffering bring him to repentance. Haggard held, Lewis says, to “an eclectic outfit of vaguely Christian, theosophical and spiritualistic notions, trying to say something profound about that fatal subject, ‘Life’.” Lindsay’s “intolerable” novel propounds a “ghastly vision” – about which there has been some controversy; it seems to be Gnostic. Lovecraft’s mechanistic materialism is widely recognized.

The four authors’ philosophies do interact with the literary presentations of their mythopoeic imaginings. Some readers, moved by the mythopoeia, may think they are persuaded by the philosophies to a greater degree than they really are. Feeling the mythic element to be so valuable, they may want to be convinced by the philosophy. Others may keep returning to the mythopoeic works despite their recognized disagreements with the philosophies.

Writing of George MacDonald, Lewis declared: “What he does best is fantasy – fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man.”* “MacDonald is the greatest genius of this [mythopoeic] kind whom I know. But I do not know how to classify such genius. To call it literary genius seems unsatisfactory since it can coexist with great inferiority in the art of words… It is in some way more akin to music than to poetry… It goes beyond the expression of things we have already felt. It arouses in us sensations we have never had before, never anticipated having…. It gets under our skin, hits us at a deeper level than our thoughts or even our passions,” etc.

Lewis continues: “The critical problem with which we are confronted is whether this art – the art of myth-making – is a species of the literary art. The objection to so classifying it is that the Myth does not essentially exist in words at all. We all agree that the story of Balder is a great myth, a thing of inexhaustible value. But of whose version – whose words – are we thinking when we say this? // For my own part, the answer is that I am not thinking of anyone’s words. No poet, so far as I know or can remember, has told this story supremely well. I am not thinking of any particular version of it. …What really delights and nourishes me is a particular pattern of events, which would equally delight and nourish if it had reached me by some medium which involved no words at all – say by a mime, or [relatively few words, such as] a film. …To be sure, if the means of communication are words, it is desirable that a letter which brings you important news should be fairly written. But this is only a minor convenience. …In poetry the words are the body and the ‘theme’ or ‘content’ is the soul. But in myth the imagined events are the body and something inexpressible is the soul.”

The mythopoeic gift, Lewis came to believe, is distinct from literary artistry. “This gift, when it exists in full measure [as in Haggard’s She], is irresistible. We can say of this, as Aristotle said of metaphor, ‘no man can learn it from another’. It is the work of what Kipling called ‘the daemon’. It triumphs over all obstacles and makes us tolerate all faults. It is quite unaffected by any foolish notions which the author himself, after the daemon has left him, may entertain about his own myths.” Though Lewis saw Lindsay as a bad writer – his style is, “at times (to be frank) abominable” -- he found Arcturus (that word again)“irresistible.”

In his very valuable late work An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis turned to the discussion of myth. Here he was thinking primarily, I suppose, of the ancient stories we usually think of as myths. Again he states that the “mythical quality” may come through despite defects of literary artistry. “The man who first learns what is to him a great myth through a verbal account which is baldly or vulgarly or cacophonously written, discounts and ignores the bad writing and attends solely to the myth. He hardly minds about the writing. …The value of myth is not a specifically literary value, nor the appreciation of myth a specifically literary experience.”

Lewis adds – and this is surely significant for Lovecraft, given the oft-mentioned objection that HPL “telegraphs” the endings of his stories such that what apparently is meant to be a surprise is no surprise, “The pleasure of myth depends hardly at all on such usual narrative attractions as suspense or surprise. Even at a first hearing it is felt to be inevitable. And the first hearing is chiefly valuable in introducing us to a permanent object of contemplation – more like a thing than a narration – which works upon us by a peculiar flavour or quality…. Sometimes … there is hardly any narrative element.”

Moreover, Lewis adds, “Human sympathy is at a minimum. We do not project ourselves at all strongly into the characters.”** More: “They are like shapes moving in another world.”

Lewis notes that he is writing of myths “as we experience them” now –“myths contemplated but not believed, dissociated from ritual, held up before the fully waking imagination of a logical mind.”

Finally: “Since I define myths by their effect on us, it is plain that for me the same story may be a myth to one man and not to another.”
A few concluding remarks:

I think the essence of the Lovecraftian mythopoeic quality can be stated concisely: the cosmos is haunted.

The Lovecraft stories in which this quality is minimal or nonexistent, such as “The Tomb,” may be entertaining, but if he had written only such thrillers his reputation would be nothing like what it is. Conversely, the stories in which this quality is prominent establish Lovecraft as a more mythopoeic author than his idol Poe.

I think that Lovecraft did, on occasion, display considerable skill in managing suspense, as in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” Also, I’ll assert, without arguing the point, that Lovecraft’s mature stories generally seem to be told at the right pace and to be of the right length. These qualities shouldn’t be discounted even though they are distinct from the mythopoeic gift.

If Lewis had read Lovecraft’s “Colour Out of Space,” At the Mountains of Madness, and “The Shadow Out of Time,” maybe he would have recognized the American author as a peer or near-peer of the three authors on whose style I have cited him, and each of whom he regarded highly for his mythopoeia.

*Lewis was writing years before The Lord of the Rings was finished, let alone published, so I am not sure that he would always have said MacDonald was the greatest of all fantasists.

**Thus, through around 45 years of reading them, so far as I remember my emotions have never been wrung by the catastrophes that occur to the protagonists of “The Outsider,” “The Rats in the Walls,” “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” etc. An exception: “The Colour Out of Space.”

SOURCES for Lewis quotations: “The Mythopoeic Gift of Rider Haggard,” “On Science Fiction,” “On Stories,” and “Unreal Estates” in Of Other Worlds; Preface to George MacDonald: An Anthology; An Experiment in Criticism.

© 2015 Dale Nelson
Like music is it...? well then it's time to start a band - Haunted Cosmos, based on the writings.
Nice one ExT, this explains a lot. The writing almost can't get in the way of a good myth.
This is really fascinating, despite the idea that Lovecraft's style and characterization are generally defective, which is a false perception. I think, somewhere (or more than one somewheres) that Lovecraft explained he preferred to invent his own myths than be hindered by actual myths, feeling that to invent his own gave him greater creative control and originality.
This is really fascinating, despite the idea that Lovecraft's style and characterization are generally defective, which is a false perception.

It might be better for me to comment on the issues of Lovecraft's style(s) and characterization for the thread you started, since those topics have already come up -- so, see you there!

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