[GUEST POST] C. Robert Cargill on Folklore, Mythology and Religion in Fantasy
C. Robert Cargill has written for Ain’t it Cool News for nearly a decade under the pseudonym Massawyrm, served as a staff writer for Film.com and Hollywood.com, and appeared as the animated character Carlyle on spill.com. He is the screenwriter of the forthcoming film Sinister (cowritten and directed by Scott Derrickson and starring Ethan Hawke). He lives and works in Austin, Texas.
Folklore and Mythology are the polite, though backhanded, words we use to describe religion we don’t believe in; Mythology being the word we ascribe to officially recognized beliefs, Folklore to those that didn’t borrow from the establishment, but people believed anyway. When you think about it, it’s strange that so much of what we put in our fantasy books, movies and video games actually, once upon a time, was believed somewhere, by someone, as (their) God’s honest truth. After all, Tolkien didn’t invent elves and dwarves – he borrowed them from the religions of northern Europe – and The Arabian Nights weren’t all just bedtime stories, they were lessons of Islam and tales about the things people once thought really might lurk in the desert sands.
Most fantasy stems from abandoned religion. If you work backwards through the legends and fairy tales, all the way back to religious texts, you can trace the evolution of creatures and myths from one religion to the next. Because as each new religion worked its way into a region, it often adopted a number of the local beliefs, rolling them into their own in order to make it easier to convert the locals. Not only was this the evolution of the Classical Olympian gods, in which local deities had their stories and heroics absorbed into those of invaders’ gods, leaving us with a rich tapestry of tales – that are sometimes contradictory – but it can also be traced through Catholicism’s spread through pagan regions as they picked up stories of fairies, spirits and witchcraft, rolling them into its own evolving folklore.
Many tales try to combine conflicting mythologies into one grand unified theory of the supernatural. Fairies and Djinn become fallen angels who fell to earth instead of hell, adapting to their new surroundings. The Wild Hunt ceased to be led by forest spirits with the invasion of the Romans becoming the host of Zeus (Jupiter) or Diana, then later becoming a tool of hell, dragging adulterers and the unbaptized back down with them – or signaling major events in the church’s history – with the rise and importation of Christianity.
It was with all this in mind that I set out to create the world of DREAMS AND SHADOWS. While I had the narrative in mind, I wanted the world surrounding it to have a feeling of that shared universe. As fascinated as I was with all of these various stories and creatures, I was even more entranced with how a number of theologians and academics over the centuries tried to rationalize these conflicting beliefs into one system that blended perfectly with their already existing canon. And that’s where the novel’s chief academic voice, Dr. Thaddeus Ray, found his origins. He’s a man trying to make sense of it all, while allowing me to show the reader the breadcrumbs leading from one ancient tale to the next.
To do so, I made sure not to alter a single detail of the folklore or legends. Each story – the creatures, their habits, their personalities – remained intact; I only added to the stories to bring them in line with the book’s universal connecting tissue- dreamstuff. At times I had to choose between one version of the story or another, and for others I invented details from whole cloth that worked within the framework of their tales – especially when details were sparse. But I always stayed true to the stories from which I drew inspiration, in the hope that it would not only be an entertaining story, but a great primer for exploring folklore. I wanted to build a world that not only had internal cohesion, but could very easily be *our* world; one that would allow you to walk through downtown Austin and point out the awnings on which angels were most likely to roost, or would dare you to find the nooks where fairies hid.
It became something of a puzzle – dumping all of the pieces out of the box and trying to find the way they all fit together. The resulting picture is the world of Colby Stevens, a sideways universe every bit as dark as our own history, reflecting back everything we show it. That was half the fun of writing the book and why I may well spend more time in that world than originally intended. Our long and storied human history of folklore is rich, layered and filled with the lessons of a hundred civilizations. It’s an amazing sandbox to play in, which no doubt is why so many of us draw upon it for inspiration, and why so many of us so often return to it to be entertained time and again.
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