Mythic, Legendary, Romantic, Satirical

Fun fact: Literature has power tiers. Not in the sense that we can meaningfully figure out whether Achilles would beat Lancelot in a fight, because the power tiers are very broad and those two both occupy the same tier, and within-tier comparisons are basically meaningless as there’s too little consistency between and often even within stories as to what characters can and cannot accomplish. Authors and audiences simply do not have the exhaustive knowledge of scientific reality to be able to accurately describe whether a character is ten or one hundred times stronger, faster, etc. etc. than a regular human being, and thus two demonstrations of strength by the same character in the same story that are meant to be similarly taxing will indicate vast differences in actual strength. To authors and audiences, casually punching a regular squishy human hard enough that they explode into giblets and then later lifting a dump truck overhead only with great effort seem like perfectly reasonable limits, but have you actually done the math on whether or not that makes any sense at all? I haven’t.

But there are four broadly distinct literary power tiers, because they operate on levels of power scaling that human minds can intuit. Those tiers are, as you likely guessed from the post title, mythic, legendary, romantic, and satirical. Loosely, the stories of gods, heroes, exceptional people, and people who kind of suck.

The defining trait of mythic storytelling is that it explains how something in the world came to be, and its protagonists are therefore naturally of world-shaping power. Even when they behave like petty warlords (like Olympians) or even like lazy stoners (many trickster spirit stories are like this), they do things like shape all the world’s snakes or raise mountains from the earth or whatever. Like, spiders used to be swole but one day the spider god Anansi played a trick that backfired and got stretched in all directions and now spiders have skinny legs. This story is downright slice-of-life, but it also made all spiders everywhere have skinny legs, which makes it mythic. Tales of Olympians tend to be pretty much the same as tales of Greek heroes, except that Olympic stories usually end up with a new island being formed, or an old one being submerged, or mountains being punched flat, or whatever.

The defining trait of a legendary story is that the protagonists have capabilities that are clearly superhuman. These are super hero stories. Achilles is flat-out invincible, Lancelot defeats dozens of other knights in combat, Cuchulain defeated an army single-handed, that kind of thing. The heroes of a legendary story are very blatantly superhuman, but not to the point where they reshape the landscape. Legendary heroes are often part of founding myths for cities, but they do not spawn forests or oceans or whatever.

There’s some edge cases, like, Heracles once redirected a river to flood out some crazy huge stables he was supposed to clean and doing it the regular way was for chumps. It’s questionable what tier Heracles exists on, but it’s notable that he was considered overpowered even compared to other Greek heroes. Lots of versions of Jason and the Argonauts like to make the Argonauts a who’s who of Greek heroes, but then have to contrive some reason why Heracles doesn’t solve everything by being way more powerful than everyone else. The best part is that the contrivance is that they forgot him on an island while he was taking a nap and just didn’t go back for him.

In a romantic story, the protagonist is super cool but not superhuman. You could see someone like that actually existing. These stories start getting more common in the Enlightenment era, when we start noticing some definitive upward limits on human ability. Absent some good records and the scientific method, it’s reasonable to believe that, seeing as how some people are considerably stronger than others, it is therefore possible for very rare individuals to be considerably stronger than that and can therefore throw pickup trucks around.

Most of the stories written by famous dead people in the Victorian era are romantic. A Tale of Two Cities is about a hard-drinking cynic trading places with a noble idealist who looks pretty similar to him so that said idealist can escape the French Revolution, which is something anyone could do but which most people wouldn’t. His only superpower is that he happens to look kind of like another guy. Sherlock Holmes is just a really good detective, though the sheer breadth of his knowledge is potentially superhuman in the sense of “how does one person find the time to learn all this stuff,” that’s another “have you done the math” question, and Holmes’ powers in any one field are accomplished but not unprecedented. Les Miserables is about Jean Valjean, who is mega-strong and (after some brief prologue establishes his motivation) very moral, but not superhumanly so. Well, maybe superhumanly so, because I haven’t done the math on how hard it is to climb the walls of Paris bare-handed in the 1830s, but not so superhumanly so that it’s immediately obvious. In any case, Valjean’s incredible strength isn’t even his defining attribute and gets used to solve problems, like, three times in the entire table-busting novel. The modern genre of romance is descended from stories in the romantic tradition like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, which suffer tremendously from having not even one magic cloak that allows its wearer to transform into a bird.

Finally, the satirical story is about people who would easily avoid or solve their problems if they weren’t kind of dumb. You can actually make satires that aren’t like this at all, and there are stories like this that aren’t satires. I wish I could remember who introduced me to this classification scheme so I could direct your scorn towards them for having such a dumb name for the last category, and I am slightly worried that I’m just misremembering it. Anyway, in this context we’re talking about things like A Comedy of Errors, where the plot is driven partly by an extremely specific string of coincidences but also by the incapability of the protagonists to sit down and have a clarifying conversation with each other.

I think it’s interesting that science has killed the myth but reinvigorated the legend. Early on in the enlightenment, legendary storytelling began to die out in favor of the romantic style, but as we moved on to the industrial era, and especially into the 20th century, things got steadily more legendary again. Fantasy storytelling took off, unironically telling the same legendary stories of heroes and monsters even in an era where it was perfectly well understood that such things were definitely ahistorical, and science fiction stories used lasers and spaceships to bestow upon its protagonists the super powers that were once the domain of divine gifts (whether metaphorical gifts from descent or literal gifts in the form of magic items). Science fiction myths aren’t unheard of, there are stories about alien cultures whose technology is so advanced they may as well be gods going around creating planets and such, but they’re comparatively rare (in relative terms – the rate at which we create fiction has so exploded that our least common stories are more frequent in absolute terms than the most popular stories of previous ages).

On the other hand, as our terraforming tech advances, previously mythic feats are getting pushed into the realm of lower and lower tiers. A story about terraforming Mars is probably a legendary story about heroes with access to fantastic technology, but whose abilities are by no means godlike compared to our own, and the construction of an artificial island in the South China Sea could be a perfectly grounded bit of military fiction firmly in the romantic tier. The way things are going, someday we’ll have stories about a pair of lazy stoners who make new planets for fun, you know, like unemployed slackers are prone to, and get in over their heads when they accidentally recycle what looked like an unimportant moon but was actually a vital observation post in a century-spanning scientific experiment by a galaxy-wide super-intelligence. Hijinks ensue when the super-intelligence mistakes our bumbling protagonists for saboteurs!

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