A Potemkin Mythology?

Extollager

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Offered for discussion...

POTEMKIN MYTHOLOGY

The term Potemkin mythology refers to ad hoc references to gods, monsters, worlds, books, talismans, or the like that are referred to in fictional stories to provide a coherent illusion of depth, as background.

Robert W. Chambers employed a Potemkin mythology in his weird stories referring to Cassilda, the “King in Yellow” play, and so on. With his “wicked Voorish dome” and “Mao games,” Machen devised a Potemkin mythology for the purposes of “The White People.” Lovecraft’s “abominable Mi-Go,” “plateau of Leng,” &c. were properties in a Potemkin mythology; they were ad hoc creations for the sake of creating an illusion, sustained while the reader peruses his several stories, of a dreadful and little-known dimension of existence. Borges engaged in Potemkin mythologizing in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.”

Such “stage properties” may be elaborated and added to subsequently, just as (in the incident as usually received) Catherine the Great’s minister Prince Grigory Potemkin could have done even more with the painting and ornamentation of the façades of village buildings.

The essence of a Potemkin mythology is that it’s originally devised to serve the immediate needs of the moment when an author wants a way to suggest a depth in his or her fiction that isn’t really there.

When later writers try to work up a greater degree of depth and coherence, the result (whether or not it happens to receive professional publication) is probably going basically to be fanfic.

The deployment of elements of a Potemkin mythology may be a legitimate artistic move. In fact, it’s probably almost inevitable when an author is writing fantasy.

Now, in contrast -- a previously existing, well-developed mythology might be referred to in an author’s later stories; portions of that mythology having been published already, or not, as the case may be.

It exists in its own right as having been the object of an author’s serious and sustained artistic endeavor.

Thus when, in The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo in great danger cries out to Elbereth, the reader of the book might not have known it, but Elbereth or Varda was a being in her own right created by Tolkien many years earlier. Elbereth was not an ad hoc invention, but would have “existed” had Tolkien never written The Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien begged the publisher Collins to publish The Silmarillion as well as The Lord of the Rings, saying that the latter couldn’t really be understood completely without the original mythology. If a term for that existing body of legend and myth is needed, it may be called a generative mythology.

(Tolkien was not above a bit of Potemkin mythologizing when he wrote of Queen Berúthiel and her cats in that same first book of The Lord of the Rings. This casual bit of invention in [probably] late 1939 seems to have bothered Tolkien, and he had to work out who Berúthiel was, what her whole story was and what its place was in the vast body of his mythopoeic Secondary World – and he did so; see Unfinished Tales, “The Istari,” Note 7.)
 
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ginny

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I'm unsure of the use of the term Potemkin; here.
The reason I say this is that Potemkin to me comes from Potemkin villages which have a larger definition of something contrived to conceal or obfuscate the truth.

Unless the myths you are referring to were solely meant to conceal something--I think we need a different word. However, that might be all wrong because this may be a term someone uses for this purpose and I've never run across it.

As to the question of myth and even cultural references and religion as you have them here; it brings to mind my current study of US American History from the point of view of indigenous natives. When I started looking into this I began to realize that you can't understand either sides history(that of the settlers and that of the indigenous)without understanding the culture, the religion, the politics, the economy and the myths of both sides. My point is that the addition of these element do ad depth the the story so I'm not sure how much you could claim they were meant to add the illusion of depth any more or less than any other world building.

However maybe I misunderstand here and your reference to ad hoc myth is about something included to obscure the truth.
 

Extollager

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Ginny, the usage familiar to me is that "Potemkin village" suggests façades with nothing much behind them. Lovecraft liked to adorn his stories with references to entities, books, locations, etc. that sounded impressive but were little or nothing but names. He derived a twofold satisfaction from this kind of thing: (1) whatever enhancement of the atmosphere of his stories was effected, and (2) the enjoyment of a specialized type of game he played with his literary friends.

Fantasy authors do this sort of thing all the time. Jack Vance, in his Dying Earth stories, alluded to the names of various types of magical spells that, so far as I'm aware from the stories themselves, and for all I know to the contrary from perusing his autobiography, were just ad hoc inventions.

A generative mythology, such as Tolkien's, is substantial, the object of an author's sustained creative interest and contemplation, and from its depths the author may bring forth additional stories. Thus, Tolkien had worked for many years on the "myths" of the Valar (such as Elbereth) and legends of the lost world of the First and Second Ages, and when characters in his familiar fictions of the Third Age refer to them, these are real things in the world of Middle-earth, about which the characters could have told much more (e.g. Elrond at Rivendell), and, outside the fiction, Tolkien himself had much to say. Elbereth, Morgoth, Númenor, &c., alluded to in The Lord of the Rings, are by no means merely impressive-sounding names, but persons and places who had an "independent existence" in Tolkien's creative work long before he wrote LotR.

Perhaps "mythology" was a misleading word, since I'm not referring to any actual mythology, e.g. of the ancient Greeks, but to fantasy fiction and the way it's often written.
 

ginny

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Potemkin Villages were facades; I'll grant you that, however they were meant to obfuscate. The same as a story of a ship named Potemkin was meant to obscure a truth.

The facade you are talking about is more like having a bookcase in a scene yet never using the books. Even having titles or a genre called out; yet nothing further is said about them.

Much like having Chekov's gun in a scene and never using it--he would tell you not to do that.

Your Potemkin Village is more like the facade in a movie set, where you have a street full of buildings as long as you stay on the street and don't peek around any of the buildings or go down the alleys. And not necessarily trying to hide the fact that you are in the middle of the desert or inside a building; but creating an illusion.

Not quite the same as the wizard of oz where inside the movie story the wizard is trying to deceive everyone.
 

tegeus-Cromis

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I had the same thought as Ginny when reading the OP. "Potemkin" whatever suggests something meant to deceive. If you had an ersatz, made-up Pantheon in-story, that might be a Potemkin mythology. (Say, an atheist nation comes up with a fake religion so as not to be destroyed by a neighboring empire that respects all religions but despises unbelievers.) But for what you describe, Extollager, I don't think the term is quite right.
 

tegeus-Cromis

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Ginny, the usage familiar to me is that "Potemkin village" suggests façades with nothing much behind them. Lovecraft liked to adorn his stories with references to entities, books, locations, etc. that sounded impressive but were little or nothing but names. He derived a twofold satisfaction from this kind of thing: (1) whatever enhancement of the atmosphere of his stories was effected, and (2) the enjoyment of a specialized type of game he played with his literary friends.

Fantasy authors do this sort of thing all the time. Jack Vance, in his Dying Earth stories, alluded to the names of various types of magical spells that, so far as I'm aware from the stories themselves, and for all I know to the contrary from perusing his autobiography, were just ad hoc inventions.

A generative mythology, such as Tolkien's, is substantial, the object of an author's sustained creative interest and contemplation, and from its depths the author may bring forth additional stories. Thus, Tolkien had worked for many years on the "myths" of the Valar (such as Elbereth) and legends of the lost world of the First and Second Ages, and when characters in his familiar fictions of the Third Age refer to them, these are real things in the world of Middle-earth, about which the characters could have told much more (e.g. Elrond at Rivendell), and, outside the fiction, Tolkien himself had much to say. Elbereth, Morgoth, Númenor, &c., alluded to in The Lord of the Rings, are by no means merely impressive-sounding names, but persons and places who had an "independent existence" in Tolkien's creative work long before he wrote LotR.

Perhaps "mythology" was a misleading word, since I'm not referring to any actual mythology, e.g. of the ancient Greeks, but to fantasy fiction and the way it's often written.
Based on the distinction you're drawing, I'd say Vance's way is the rule and Tolkien's the exception. Think of all the spells in Harry Potter: what else do we know about them besides their names and what they do? What else is there to know? Or, even more precise a parallel, in Lev Grossman's Magicians trilogy, many spells, magic training exercises, etc. are named with no explanation whatsoever. It's just part of the worldbuilding.

M. John Harrison has a brilliant passage of this type in Light, when he discusses all the "entradistas" who had ventured before into the Kefahuchi singularity: it's filled with names that appear there for the first and only time, and terms that we can only guess vaguely at what they mean, or even that we can only guess mean something. It becomes a kind of poetry, and fills in a sense of history without any explanatory info-dumping.

So, I'd think, if we need a term for something (though I'm not sure we do), it would be for Tolkien's procedure, maybe?
 

Don

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"The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" by Heinlein probably info dumps how a mainframe computer named Michael (Michelle) conjures up a vast virtual verisimilitude of a fully functional rebel organization.

"Animales de los espejos" by Borges warns about animals in the mirror. Miéville credits it as the inspiration behind the imagos in "The Tain."
 

Don

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A couple of other tales, which possibly possess Potemkin potential, came to mind. "The Lottery" by Jackson and "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Le Guin. The hard and fast rules present in both short stories simply exist as a fact of life without the benefit of a backstory.
 
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