MIND MELD: When Genre Intersects Classical Literature and Myth
This week we asked our participants to dive into ancient legends, history and myth:
Here’s what they said…
A typical approach to discussing allusions and patterns in genre work drawn from myths and epics is to invoke the Campbellian monomyth: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder … fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won … the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” (Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, p. 23). In such discussions, the epics and myths are seen as adhering to a fundamental, universal narrative that transcends cultures and times, and contemporary genre works echo them because they’re working with the same basic impulses and aspects of human nature. Thus, when Frankenstein or Blade Runner rework Paradise Lost and the earlier Biblical tradition, Mary Shelley or Ridley Scott, like Milton or the Biblical authors, may be seen as reacting to the same narrative instincts and logic of desire that are embedded in our subconscious.
This approach can be useful, but I’m always troubled by claims of universality and skeptical of generalizations: if you are willing to pull back far enough, all stories do begin to look alike, but the ways in which each individual story works both with and against larger patterns tend to get lost.
Take the Iliad, a foundational text for the Western canon — in the shadow of which lives much contemporary fantasy and science fiction — and allow me quote its opening lines as translated by William Cowper:
Achilles sing, O Goddess! Peleus’ son;
His wrath pernicious, who ten thousand woes
Caused to Achaia’s host, sent many a soul
Illustrious into Ades premature,
And Heroes gave (so stood the will of Jove)
To dogs and to all ravening fowls a prey,
When fierce dispute had separated once
The noble Chief Achilles from the son
Of Atreus, Agamemnon, King of men.
Who them to strife impell’d? What power divine?
Latona’s son and Jove’s. For he, incensed
Against the King, a foul contagion raised
In all the host, and multitudes destroy’d,
For that the son of Atreus had his priest
Dishonored, Chryses. To the fleet he came
Bearing rich ransom glorious to redeem
His daughter, and his hands charged with the wreath
And golden sceptre of the God shaft-arm’d.
Unless you were a Classics major, I dare say that much of this sounds like gibberish. Who is “Latona’s son and Jove’s”? (Answer: Apollo). Who is Chryses and why do we care? It is among the worst of possible openings by modern aesthetic standards: the piling on of name after name with no explanation; telling instead of showing (why tell us that Apollo’s plague “multitudes destroy’d” instead of portraying the devastation with carefully selected details?); a pointless flashback; …
Yet this scene sets up the one detail from the Iliad most likely to be familiar to modern readers: the wrath of Achilles (Chryses came to redeem his daughter, Chryseis, and Agamemnon, we find out later, would demand Briseis, a captured girl Achilles had claimed as war-prize, as compensation). Unless you’re reading an edition with extensive footnotes, translations of the Iliad are virtually unreadable.
To Homer’s audience, of course, all of these names and allusions and circumlocutions would have been rich with meaning. And this is among the more accessible passages of the Iliad: other scenes often involve customs and motivations and histories and grievances utterly foreign to us.
This is but an instance of the general pattern that what we think we know of the Classics bears little resemblance to the original. The story of the Trojan Horse, for instance, is not told in the Iliad and only obliquely referenced in the Odyssey (did you know that Helen suspected the plot and came to knock on the horse? And Odysseus had to gag his companions from answering). The account most familiar to us comes from, of all places, Virgil’s Aeneid, a work of propaganda written by a poet from an imperialistic, consciously myth-making culture as distant in time to Homer as you and I are from Abelard and Heloise.
The myths that we think we’re reworking and alluding to, therefore, are often only distillations, a few select teeth and bone fragments that we chisel and polish and incorporate into our own works, knowing and possibly caring little of the monsters they were originally a part of. I don’t believe that the bits of myths and epics that have survived as part of our cultural legacy did so because they tap into some unconscious monomyth; rather, they have survived (and may survive into the future) as a result of conscious decisions by individuals to participate in a cultural conversation over time, to appropriate these symbols and metaphors for their own purposes.
We work with myths and epics the way the Tamarians make use of their histories and legends in the ST:TNG episode “Darmok.” “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” is used as a cultural shorthand much the way we make use of “the wrath of Achilles” or “the Trojan Horse.” The epics and myths supply us with a shared vocabulary of symbols and metaphors that we reuse again and again, and they derive their power from the fact that they have been reused so often and been given so many new meanings. They form a structure running through the history of our canon, a set of commonalities and sites of resistance around which we derive meaning and create new meaning. Writers must work both with and against these traditions, reinterpreting old symbols when necessary to tell a new story, as Mary Shelley and Ridley Scott have done.
Science fiction is perhaps the modern genre most likely to engage in self-conscious acts of myth-making. Science and technology are our gods, our heroes, and it is entirely unsurprising that genre works will recycle the vocabulary of our old myths and epics and weave them into new myths. Just as Virgil appropriated Ulysses and the Trojan Horse into a new story suitable for the imperial project of Augustus, we continue to appropriate and recycle these symbols to tell stories suitable for our times and our politics.
These myths show fantasy to be the first literature. This is why it’s important – it’s how we first learned to understand ourselves, it’s deep in our cultural heritage and carries deep resonances for us.
I write historical fantasy and my own approach is simply to take the mythology of the day literally. So, in my book Son of the Morning, which is set in the 100 Years War, kings really are appointed by God, devils and demons do walk the earth vying for the souls of humanity. What I find interesting is then to explore the contradictions this throws up. OK, kings are appointed by God. So what happens when the French king and the English king go to war? Whose side is God on. And, when God sets the social hierarchy in stone – who do the poor turn to if they wish to rebel.
Similarly, when I write in the Viking period under my MD Lachlan name, I try to look for the questions the mythology throws up. Why, almost unique among the major Norse gods, is Loki not a god of war? If he is such an evil god, why is he the only god in the sagas who really helps humans? These make excellent jumping off points for stories.
The great thing about using real myths and legends is the constraint they put on your writing. You need to wind around, work things out, invent, in order to accommodate them.
People who best rework them are Ursula Le Guin with her reworking of Daoism, Marion Zimmer Bradley with her feminist reworking of the Arthur myth and, clearly, Tolkien with his immense and immersive reworking of Norse and English myth. There are many others but these leap out.
I’m going to answer this question quite broadly, starting with the last part. The tradition of reworking of ancient myth goes back at least as far as the Homeric epics, which – as is the subject of far too much academic debate – were reworked as they were retold; but were perhaps most masterfully reworked by Euripides in the fifth century BCE in his Trojan Women, with Vergil’s Aeneid a close second. Hence, ancient myths are the root not only of the idea of a canon but also of fanfiction; that Harry/Ron slash you read yesterday comes from the same place as ancient tragic dramas!
As for science fiction, I don’t think it comes from the same place as myth, except in parodies of it – Gulliver’s Travels, partly inspired by the Odyssey, is obviously on the road to fantasy, but it more closely follows the work of the ancient writer Lucian, whose True History is probably the first science fiction work: a parody of the travelogue-style work of writers such as Xenophon, its hero travels into space, sees aliens, and indeed deals with some themes that remain science fictional staples.
It’s also to Xenophon that SF writers seem to turn for their strongest inspiration; while Kate Elliott may reference the Aeneid in the Spiritwalker trilogy, and Katy Stauber has written a very pulpy Odyssey-in-space in Spin the Sky, the examples of Anabasis-retellings range from the science fictional reworkings of David Weber and John Ringo (March Upcountry) to the relatively straight, lightly fantastical retelling of Paul Kearney (The Ten Thousand).
In the end, storytelling is part of human nature; myths come from a time when the boundaries of knowledge were so much closer, when fiction and reality weren’t such distinct categories as they are now. That fascination is what drives us to create stories and to talk, even in novels featuring walking trees that eat people, about “believability” and “verisimilitude”; we’re searching for that mingling of truth and fiction, and science fiction is one place we turn to for that.
Oh, and read Lucian’s True History. It’s short, utterly mad, and rather brilliant.
For some time I’ve been fascinated with the idea of early antecedents for horror literature—literature designed expressly to frighten—that goes beyond the Gothic. By trade, I study medieval literature from England, particularly Middle English literature of the fourteenth century, and there are a few narratives there that seem to play with a similar concept. One that comes to mind is a story commonly called “St. Patrick’s Purgatory” in which a sinful knight in Ireland named Sir Owain comes upon a hole in the earth, and, when he goes on a penitential journey into it, discovers it leads to Purgatory. Cue up the typical diabolical visions: dragons, newts and snakes, demonic torture, wheels of fire for the thieves, backbiters, false swearers of the world, et cetera, et cetera. Properly terrifying stuff, particularly in the fourteenth century when the Black Plague was wiping out half the population. A second lengthy medieval treatise, more didactic in nature, is called the “Prick of Conscience”, and it similarly describes the pains of death and bodily decay with particularly vivid fire-and-brimstone imagery. It was one of the most popular English texts of the period. Both of these medieval poems were designed specifically as “horror” narratives. But there’s an obvious difference between those poems and modern horror literature, and that has to do with the nature of fiction—that is, those medieval texts were considered to be reflecting a cosmology that most of the listeners would have understood to be true, whereas modern horror stories are genuinely understood to be “imaginative” literature. Do we react to monsters inherently differently in a society in which we believe they exist? Does literature about those monsters work according to a different logic?
Sure it does. A story about Hell creates affect in an entirely different way if the audience believes Hell is a real place than if it’s understood as a fictional device. There’s a difference in what’s at stake. There’s a difference in what the text tries to accomplish. Stephen King’s “It” doesn’t try to teach us to be better people by suggesting a psychotic clown will hunt us down if we aren’t. But. Regardless of the reality of the monsters, it does teach us something about the frailty of our own existence, the possibility of real pain and loss—and perhaps that’s what horror literature really does. It acts as a memento mori.
Horror is a rather shifty genre to begin with, because it collapses a specific emotion with a set of literary conventions. But there are clear parallels, I think, to the relationship between myths—and we might push at this further to include, for example, the Arthurian legends and other knightly tales—and fantasy literature. All of these types of stories are willing to push us beyond strict realism: but myths when they were originally produced, like the medieval horror poems I was talking about, were still able to be perceived in a framework of reality. Do we read the Odyssey differently if we live in a society where we believe the gods can affect the outcome of daily events? You betcha. That makes them different somehow from modern fantasy stories. When we write, we’re more likely to be trying to present some kind of metaphorical or allegorical or psychological truth. Few enough among us would be willing to claim to be producing non-fiction.
But the point is that the best of these tales have survived the collapse of their original cosmology—though, to be fair, last September when I was on the island of Delos, the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, I did encounter a group of pagan revivalists so perhaps claims of the death of the Greek gods are premature. There’s something in the myths that still allows them to work as stories. Not religion. Not truth. But stories. And that is where fantasy begins. There’s a reason we don’t read the “Prick of Conscience” anymore. It doesn’t work as a story—though it’s still got some riveting material in it. But we might still read “St. Patrick’s Purgatory.” We can find a story there, something we can relate to: transgression and redemption, we can dig that.
So maybe that’s an academic answer. Because I think myths and legends are trying to do something similar to what good fantasy does: it’s trying to entertain us (of course!) but it also pushes us to see the boundaries of what we perceive to be reality as fluid. That’s vital. It’s vital to us as writers of fantasy, science fiction and horror—but it’s vital to us more broadly as writers engaged in the project of creating fiction in general.
I had a friend, once, who told me he didn’t ever reading fiction. “Why?” I asked him. “Because,” he said, “Whenever I read something like He was sitting down at the table to breakfast I immediately think, no, he wasn’t!” He couldn’t get over the basic lie. But the lie is important. The lie is what allows us to explore the universe more boldly, more thrillingly than pure realism—or pure literalism—might allow. And it allows us to open up the possibility of worlds that do not yet exist, worlds we might invent, and worlds we might change our own to resemble. Or avoid.
I have a hard time assigning ancient myths and folk tales any sort of “genre” label, even just by association with current works, because it applies a very modern (going by the timeline of human literature) compartmentalization to a type of writing that used to be much more universal. Time was, myths and fantasies were our main way of telling the human story, of addressing the big questions. Why are we here? How did we come to be? Where the hell are we headed? They were religion and philosophy, social commentary, political allegory, the whole shebang. In fact, a perverse part of me likes to think of modern, straight-up “realist” fiction as the genre, the weird outlier on the spectrum. I get a little bit exasperated when folks talk about “crossover” fiction, and the “current trend” of blending genre elements into lit fic (while knowing full well that my own novel fits into this category as it’s been defined). To me, this isn’t a trend so much as the balance shifting back towards the historical norm. Something in us has always hungered for ghost stories and fairy stories and gods and monsters, and our literary culture could only sequester them away for so long before they began to bleed back into the mainstream. These days, Margaret Atwood can write the MaddAddam trilogy and insist on calling it speculative fiction, not science fiction; and we’ll fall all over ourselves quibbling over terminology, and whether it’s a valid distinction or a marketing move or just plain snobbery or what. But in the end, it’s one of our greatest English-language authors describing a world that isn’t ours, but that says everything about where our ambitions might be taking us. Go backward in time, and you can draw a line from MaddAddam to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, to William Blake’s nightmare-tinged depictions of the Industrial Revolution, all the way back to Prometheus and Pandora and their ilk. The motivating question, and our methods of addressing it, remain the same throughout time.
My childhood was filled with stories – cleaned up Grimm’s fairy tales, Star Wars, the Man of La Mancha soundtrack, books about classic horror movies, urban legends and family legends such as the time that Uncle Richard yelled “blow me” at a woman honking her horn and almost started a bloody squabble between families at a picnic. Her brothers were younger than my great uncles, but my great uncles were armed with wrenches and crow bars. In the middle of it, my Great Aunt Ella was asking one of the woman’s brothers what “blow me” meant, thus forcing the poor kid to explain fellatio to a woman old enough to be his grandmother. I’m told that he used hand gestures.
Two of those stories involve Superman and the Iliad. In one of those collected works with early Superman (the one that is a total asshole and gets off on rejecting Lois Lane in the same way that she rejected him as Clark Kent), the introduction stated that many of the Greek heroes were like Superman, having super-strength, flying abilities and near invulnerability. Basically, Superman was like Hercules or Perseus but way more awesome. Due to Hollywood, it’s hard not to be annoyed with that comparison since almost every Greek myth seems to be an excuse to do a superhero movie. Jason will find the Golden Fleece but won’t watch as his wife kills his new bride, father-in-law and children. Hercules won’t accidentally kill his teacher with a lute.
By contrast, my first exposure to the Iliad was from a book that translated the Iliad for children. In fourth grade, it was my favorite book since it involved a whole lot of people getting speared through the foreheads. I marveled that anyone would think that the book was appropriate for children, but quite happy that it managed to slip through the system. Later on, I would recognize other elements such as the role of hubris and the social tensions between the parties with poor Hector as the lone voice or reason. Knowing that Achilles was a paradigm of martial virtues for the original audience does not alter my reading of Achilles as a spoiled child. The power of the story lies in the way that it can be enjoyed by different cultures, different generations and different age groups with the same intensity – if not in the same interpretation. One generation may see the Epic of Gilgamesh as a heroic epic and another will appreciate the wry commentary that it provides on the standard “kill the monster” tales.
Not only are the myths the road to science fiction, they form the basis of most literature. The place where mythology informs science fiction and fantasy is the casual intersection of the ordinary and the extraordinary, and this is something that is often overlooked in literary books like The King Must Die where all the gods and magical creatures are off stage or explained away as legends. Euripides did not need to mitigate the extraordinary aspects of Medea or The Bacchae in order to create compelling drama. At no point in Midsummer Night’s Dream does Shakespeare stop to tell the audience that these aren’t really fairies but hallucinogenic delusions.
Before I talk about the writers who use mythology well, I am going to talk about the worst examples of mythology. Anne Rice’s Memnoch the Devil. In Rice’s hands, biblical mythology becomes a tedious little soap opera. God and the Devil are just squabbling and when the devil speaks, he babbles for hundreds of pages like an angsty teenager who never got a copy of The Catcher in the Rye to quote. When I was reading the slush pile for She Nailed a Stake Through His Head: Tale of Biblical Terror, every other story seemed to be a story about a fundamentalist Christian serial killer who kept reminding himself that Jesus was all about love and forgiveness.
The best usage of mythology does not reduce it to vulgar little soap operas but expands upon it and delves into the mythology for the values, freely deconstructing and playing with the templates. There is always a danger of cultural imperialism and appropriation but as long as the author is seriously engaging in the myth and not just using it for decoration, outstanding storytelling can result.
Tanith Lee has been doing it for years, with her Flat Earth series freely riffing on the Arabian Nights and Christian mythology, particularly when her demon-hero sacrifices himself for humanity and upon resurrection feels quite burned that he is not being worshiped for his troubles. Catherynne Valente takes a decidedly feminist and academic perspective on great myths including her story “Psalm of the Second Body” where she uses a scene from Gilgamesh as a template for all attempts to impose social order upon a chaotic world and her first poetry collection Apocrypha where she alludes to Biblical prophecy, Buddhist legends and Greek heroes with a skill that eludes most writers. Of course, Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of the greatest reinterpretation of Christian mythology in history, mostly because he went and made Satan into the hero.
There are stories that will be forgotten in a few decades and stories that will continue for centuries, informing and inspiring future writers. The myths of ancient civilizations represent a treasure trove of material for modern writers to manipulate, change and adapt to suit their personal muses.
I grew up on ancient myths and legends. Journey To The West. Lady White Snake. Fox spirits, snake and spider demons. Fantastic combat between Sun Wukong and his opponents. Nezha, Pan Gu and Nu Wa. Even then the division between good and evil is clear: you are supposed to hate fox spirits, snake and spider demons.
Then, as I grew, I was exposed to the other stories: the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, Hang Tuan and his exploits. I live in Singapore, right smack in the middle of Southeast Asia, itself a region with diverse myths and legends.
I would say that these ancient myths and legends have helped me grow as a genre fiction writer, because they are real to me and that they form the basis, the foundation, of my identity. The fact that I grew up that these stories are so natural and so fantastic at the same time – helps heaps.
However, as I wised up (growing up does it to you), I started to question things like morality, good versus evil and filial piety in the stories. I mean, not all snake demons are that bad, right?. I mean, just look at all Hong Kong serials and movies ‘re-writing’ the myths. I would say that people are writing fan-fiction of these myths! Fan-fiction, in my opinion, fills in the gaps and right the wrongs we perceive in the stories. We are doing the same to ancient myths and legends. Myths and legends are also changing, evolving.
For writers who hail from diasporic communities, such myths form lifelines to what and who we are. Likewise, as diasporic writers, we are also constantly re-imagining the myths that make up our identities:
Benjanun Sriduangkaew with her lesbian re-telling of Houyi and Chang’Er, the archer, in “Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon”.
Aliette de Bodard with her re-interpretation of the guardians of the four directions, in “The Days of the War, As Red As Blood, As Dark As Bile”.
For myself, I want to re-work and re-examine Lady White Snake, the story of a white snake spirit who falls in love with a human scholar. She ends up exposed as a white snake, imprisoned and prevented from seeing her son. My father told me, privately, that he sympathized with Lady White Snake, a sentiment which I share. So, I ended writing a triptych called “Green and Lady White”, Green being the mui zhai (Cantonese for maid) of Lady White Snake. An excerpt (and a bit of self-horn-tooting):
“Aiyah! Aiyah! Listen to me!”
The wanderer stood outside the wooden door, shouting a storm. Summer often brought them out. Green sighed and slipped away from her peonies to attend the problem. She slid the wooden block side-ways and opened the door.
There he stood, the wanderer, all filthy and in rags. He must be one of those who lurked under the temples, absorbing the sutras and the wisdom, believing they were enlightened and tasked by the Lord Buddha to spout prophecies.
“Lady, Lady, tell your mistress not to fall in love with humans!” He hopped from one foot to another, his spittle flying everywhere.
What irony. They were all in human form, even the smelly wanderer. They all wanted to be human. Green smoothed her flowing sleeves and gave the wanderer her best viper glare.
“Nonsense. Go away! Go harass the Lee family two houses down the street,” she hissed and closed the door firmly. The wanderer stuck his hand through the slit. He had black bitten nails.
“Wait, Lady! Listen to me, your mistress shouldn’t go to West Lake! She shouldn’t fall in love. Oh, calamity! Oh, suffering!”
Green wanted to shout something else, something deliciously vulgar, when she spied Lady White emerging from the prayer room. Jie Jie was disturbed at her meditations. Oh, stupid wanderer! How dared he disturb her Jie Jie?
“Mei Mei,” Lady White said. “What is wrong?”
Green shook her head. “Just a wanderer.”
There are a lot of genre boundaries that become meaningless when examined closely, not only the one between “genre” and “literary” fiction (or “realist” and “non-realist” fiction), but the one between “myth” and “history”. Let’s begin with Sargon of Akkad. Sargon was a real king in the 3rd millennium BCE. What we know about him is filtered through writing and re-writing — re-telling — of his life over the next two thousand years in the Ancient Near East, across cultures and languages. Like Gilgameš, he became a legendary king who did great deeds of conquest and world-exploration — in a 1st millennium BCE text/map (the “Babylonian World Map”), two of the three figures associated with the far reaches of the world are Utnapištim (a figure in the Gilgameš legend) and Sargon. In the legends of Sargon (in early omina, in later surviving texts) we find an episode where the land he journeys through goes unnaturally dark, but he crosses it and the light returns for him. We find a similar episode in legends of Alexander III of Macedon, another real king whose “history” and “myths” are too tangled to tell apart. Alexander enters a land of darkness and, after various events, manages to leave. This belongs to a series of related texts collectively (if restrictively) known as the Alexander Romance, where he also encounters a fish with a lantern-bright stone in its belly and men with hands like saws. This is an idea of the world shared between various Near Eastern texts and the Alexander Romance, among numerous other ancient writings: the further you go from your land, the more “monstrous” the people you find and the stranger their lands. Some of the details in Alexander’s legendary exploits seem to be influenced by the legends of Sargon, Gilgameš and others — miniature re-tellings. The dating of the Alexander Romance texts is difficult (and the extent of the oral tradition is not traceable), but we know they proliferated in the two millennia of the Common Era. They, with many other Classical texts, interacted intensely with the Romances of medieval Europe. The “monstrous races” were re-told across the Romances, including the Letter of Prester John, an account of a fantastical kingdom in the east that was apparently believed by a good number of people. Prester John’s letter inspired a trilogy of novels by Catherynne M. Valente, of which two have been published by a genre press: The Habitation of the Blessed and The Folded World.
All of this (hasty summary though it is) is to say: “ancient myths and stories” and “the world of genre” are a lot more complex than two points on a timeline. The space between them is not an empty chasm, it’s an active space. The centuries are full. Real and non-real are not static.
(When Margaret Cavendish’s future Empress crosses to the Blazing World in 1666 CE, she encounters bear-men and fox-men living in that unfamiliar land with a thoroughly human leader at their centre — of course she does — because that’s the narrative landscape created by a textual network that includes the Alexander Romance. The Blazing World was not “genre” back in 1666.)
I find it reductive to talk about Achilles, Odysseus, Gilgameš, Sri Rama and Xuanzang as “on the road” to modern genre — reductive and genre-centric. The textual networks are vaster than this.
I most enjoy fiction with an awareness of the complexity of these textual networks in our world — or invented networks in other worlds — and the instability of categories across centuries. Angélica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial reflects this well. Its empire has a great many histories. The play with history and legends in Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars is similarly delightful and layered. If I remember rightly, Andreas Eschbach’s The Carpet Makers also demonstrates an awareness of the spread of stories, this time across the stars. I love the poetry of Sonya Taaffe. I enjoyed the mythic landscapes of Greer Gilman’s Moonwise and Cloud & Ashes. I find it interesting that Catherynne M. Valente’s short story “A Buyer’s Guide to the Maps of Antarctica” fits into the tradition of wonders at the edges of the world, situating those wonders in Antarctica, the only uninhabited part of the world. That re-telling lay at the heart of Hal Duncan’s Vellum and Ink was why I enjoyed them so much: the recurrence of motifs, their power, their mutability.
I’m sure it’s apparent from this list that more straightforward re-tellings are less exciting to me. I find it like reading the closely-related versions of the Alexander Romance: sure, the slight differences are of academic interest, but reading the same story 10 times isn’t actually that fun. I’ve enjoyed some — the anthology Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana, ed. Anil Menon and Vandana Singh, the stories “Chang’e Dashes from the Moon” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew and “Conservation of Shadows” by Yoon Ha Lee — but they aren’t so straightforward; they change. As they ought.
I know a professor of Classics who believes that written Greek was invented for the purpose of writing down the Homeric epics. I’m not sure I buy that theory (although it’s less far-fetched than it initially sounds), but I think it offers up a useful way to think about this question.
Myths come before writing: our word “myth” comes from the Greek muthos, which means a word,, something spoken out loud or spread by word of mouth. Same with the word “fable”, which comes from a Latin verb for speaking. They were our means of conveying information about the world before we asked ourselves questions about genre, before we worried about whether something was “history” or “story”, and long, long before we asked whether a story was “literary” or “popular fiction”.
But I don’t like using the image of a road here. Literary evolution is real, but I dislike the idea that we departed from Ur, passed through Lucian and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and ended up somewhere in the vicinity of Roger Zelazny and Octavia Butler. It’s a bit too teleological for something as organic as literary evolution. I prefer to imagine a tree, something with deep roots we can’t entirely see and that puts out branches that twine around each other.
From that angle I believe we can say that clearly, yes, the tropes and archetypes established in ancient myth are critical to the genres of Fantasy and Science Fiction today. It is difficult to imagine the hero’s quest without the patterns laid out in Gilgamesh or the Odyssey; Achilles’ tragic flaw, his pride and anger, combined with his superhuman skills at warfare make him one of the original templates for characters from Conan to James Bond to Malcolm Reynolds.
They act as more than templates, as well. These ancient works inspire direct adaptations in many genres. My two favorites (at the moment: the sheer wealth of adaptations keeps one busy) are “O Brother Where Art Thou”, which portrays a wayward Odysseus making his way through the wilds of the American South and “Hadestown”, a refitting of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth to new American folk music. Both of these modern works succeed not only because they tell their stories in new ways, in terms of setting, characterization, and media, but because they engage with their source material directly and in an original manner. “O Brother”’s signature song, for example, “Man of Constant Sorrow” is both a reference to one of Odysseus’ epithets (“much-suffering”) and to the fact that The Odyssey is in great part narrated by Odysseus himself.
But the wealth of ancient mythology holds a few dangers. Good adaptations are like adding a new spice to your grandma’s chicken soup recipe: the comfort of familiarity combined with the excitement of originality. The joy in the experience is in both the creation itself and in the discovery of something new in what you thought you already fully understood. But bad and mediocre adaptations are everywhere. Tired allusions can be mistaken for real depth and laziness can be misinterpreted as erudition. The lengthy tradition of adapting myth means that a great many artists try it without putting in the effort to understand the original stories, both as stand-alone works and as parts of existing traditions. This is especially dangerous when dealing with non-Western mythologies: there is a very fine line between adaptation and appropriation, and a lack of homework rapidly leads to the latter. With both Western and non-Western traditions, an artist often needs to ask not only if they can adapt a myth but also if they should.
Good reinterpretations are fine art in their own right. Bad reinterpretations are little better than playing paper dolls with someone else’s characters.
Artistry and craft lie in learning the difference.
Classical history and mythology are, in many ways, a lot like my favourite works of fantasy. They take a setting familiar to their audience and overlay a story that might very well be true. The world of Homer has its origins in early Greece. People lived in the shadows of the Myceneans and Minoans, and from the echoes of history developed stories of gods and heroes and wars in far off half-fantastic lands.
When considering the topic, I re-read an essay I once wrote comparing the interpretation of truth in Herodotus and Lucian. Herodotus sets out to record the history of the Greco-Persian Wars, surrounded by geography and ethnography. He states that, unlike Homer, he will avoid anything involving the gods and incorporates often accurate first-hand observations. But when faced with the question of whether or not to include an element of the fantastic, he says “well, no, this thing I’m about to describe probably doesn’t exist, but what the heck, it’s really cool”. He then drops phrases like “they say” and “the story goes” liberally into an account of the phoenix. We do not know what the mind-set of Herodotus’ audience was, but there seems to be a desire for the fantastic in his world, and Herodotus, despite his claimed preference for fact, includes it. Even if he is as doubtful as he claims, he does go on about the phoenix for some length, his declamations about truth perhaps a smoke screen.
Then there is Virgil, creating the story of Aeneas because the Romans didn’t quite fit. He aims for the kind of origin story the Greek and Phoenician cities had, and it doesn’t matter that it isn’t true. The stories it co-opts contain both history and fiction and it blends them, adding to the canon. One result, some centuries later, is one of my favourite works of modern fantasy retelling, Ursula K. le Guin’s Lavinia. This tackles the blurred boundary between truth and fiction. It feels very much like historical fiction, portraying a believable Latin society, but where the main character directly addresses her creator. It suggests that in telling her story, Virgil literally brought her to life. That he changed the history. That he has the power to do that but, being just a writer not a god, made mistakes.
So to Lucian and his Vera Historia, or Science Fiction: doing satire since the second century. He criticises Thucydides, Herodotus and Homer for their unreliability. He then describes a fictional journey, like the journeys Herodotus claims to have undertaken himself, stretching the traditionally fantastical tales of lands beyond the known world to end up with an account of men on the moon, a battle 60 million strong and rivers of blood dripping down on the earth below. He also manages early portal fantasy, in which his narrator wanders off into another world and talks to the long-dead Homer (among others). By the period he was writing, it seems at least some of that hand-wavy view of the truth was becoming a problem. Lucian may have been alone in thinking that. Just him and whoever decided his work needed preserving for posterity. That’s the trouble with ancient history – we are reliant on what survived for our view of the world it comes from. We don’t know how much of the fantastic is scattered within. Or so Lucian appears to think.
This blurring of the boundaries between the fantastic and the real world in ancient literature is used frequently in modern speculative fiction. Expanding the world as we know it to include the fantastic. I’m still not totally convinced I won’t one day find a magical land in the back of a wardrobe, or receive that (admittedly, quite late) letter from Hogwarts. Herodotus’ readers may have known the truth but still half-hoped they’d one day see a phoenix. It doesn’t matter that Narnia probably (ok, not probably) isn’t real, because you never know, and that is my approach to the fantastic.
My favourite kind of speculative fiction is the stories that might be true.
Books!: Vera Historia (Lucian), History of Rome Book 9.17-9 (Livy does Alternate History), Lavinia (le Guin), Love & Romanpunk (Tansy Rayner Roberts), Five Children and It (E. Nesbit), The Borrowers (Mary Norton), Some Kind of Fairy Tale (Graham Joyce), The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman), Among Others (Jo Walton), Between Two Thorns (Emma Newman), and probably most of the urban fantasy genre.
I think the question of whether the old myths and fairy tales mesh with genre is moot — genre writers tackle them over and over and over again, drafting their own interpretations and versions, some strikingly original, some not so much. Often those ancient stories involve magic of some sort, so it’s only natural that those who want to tell tales containing magic made literal (or magic as funneled through Clarke’s Law) would try their hands at it.
As an aside, in my experience as an editor, most everyone tackles the “Grrs” — the Grimm tales and the Greek myths — so for me, it’s wonderful when someone steps outside those glass coffins and sarcophagi. So many interesting examples exist that it’s hard to narrow them down to just a few.
One particularly memorable take that I encountered in my teen years, that may not be familiar to readers now, arrived in the pages of Asimov’s Science Fiction. Robert Silverberg wrote a trilogy of novellas about Gilgamesh searching Hell to find his lost friend Enkidu (“Gilgamesh in the Outback,” “The Fascination of the Abomination,” “Gilgamesh in Uruk”) — envisioning Hell as a modern place where the recently departed also turn up. The spirits of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard are recurring characters who keep crossing paths with Gilgamesh, and as Silverberg envisions it, the creator of Conan develops an unrequited crush on our Sumerian hero. (I understand those stories eventually became the fix-up novel To the Land of the Living.)
Let’s jump to the present day and highlight a spot where more people ought to be looking. Much of the poetry that appears in places like Strange Horizons, Apex, Goblin Fruit, Stone Telling, my own Mythic Delirium, is steeped in myth and the influence of these ancient narratives, which were, you know, written as poems. These same writers who produce this poetry — Catherynne M. Valente, Theodora Goss, Rose Lemberg, Sonya Taaffe, Sofia Samatar, Amal El-Mohtar, Erzebet YellowBoy, to name just a handful — bring those same interests to their prose. Valente in particular has produced her own extraordinarily complex take on One Thousand and One Nights, the Mythopoeic Award-winning Orphan’s Tales (which was published in two parts, In the Night Garden and In the Cities of Coin and Spice.)
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that my own anthology series Clockwork Phoenix contains several samples of exactly this very thing. Vandana Singh’s epic novelette “Oblivion: A Journey” in the first volume is a far-future space opera based on the Ramayana. In the second volume, Valente again: her story “The Secret History of Mirrors” is a beautifully twisted montage centered on the magic mirror as it reflects, heh, through the narratives of many different traditions. In the third volume Shweta Narayan combines the real-life exploits of Alexander the Great with an Armenian folk tale with clockwork automatons with an examination of clashing cultures in “Eyes of Carven Emerald,” and in “The Gospel of Nachash,” Marie Brennan takes a new look at what I daresay is one of the most relevant mythic narratives in Western culture: the Bible, specifically the Book of Genesis.
I hardly think genre writers are alone in addressing and assimilating these ancient tales. Let’s face it: we encounter these stories starting when we’re young, sometimes many different versions of them; we internalize them, accept or reject them, try to make them our own. Luckily for us, the mode of storytelling we’ve chosen doesn’t require us to pen those timeless magics within the realm of metaphor.
But seriously, mythology and fairytale/folklore were a formative influence on my path to SF-Fantasy. My first distinct encounter with mythology was a poster of the twelve Olympians featured by an elementary school teacher. I immediately wanted to know more and read all I could of the Greco-Roman, Norse, Celtic, Eygptian and Babylonian myths in swift succession, supplemented by collected folklore and fairytales.
Unsurprisingly, I was drawn to writers such as the Lewis’s, CS (Narnia) and Hilda (The Ship That Flew), Alan Garner, Ursula Le Guin and Diana Wynne Jones – and anything else I could lay my hands on. As a teen, I graduated to authors such as Tolkien, Cherryh, Moorcock and Joan Vinge. Given earlier reading, I readily recognized mythic influences, from the strong Norse elements of The Lord Of The Rings, to the Mabinogion in Garner’s work, and both fairytale and myth in many CJ Cherryh novels, as well as Vinge’s The Snow Queen. And then there’s the prevalence of the Matter Of Britain in SFF, from works such as Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists Of Avalon, Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave, and Patricia Keneally’s The Hawk’s Gray Feather.
I am sure unconscious mythological influences inform my writing, but there are also conscious decisions, such as weaving aspects of the Arthurian cycle into Thornspell (a fairytale retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of the prince.) The Wall Of Night series has been said to be pervaded by “Nordic doom… an unrelentingly dark haunting atmosphere” (Specusphere.) Yet the story also draws on a specific Norse myth that should become apparent by the end of Book Three (of Four), due in 2015.
So I see my path to creating SF-Fantasy as shaped by mythology, and recognize similar influences in other works. Yet so long as authors are “making it new” in each literary generation, the material will never be “old hat.” Fine exemplars include Diana Wynne Jones’s treatment of the Loki story in her first novel, Eight Days Of Luke – a myth recently re-imagined for adults in Joanne Harris’s The Gospel Of Loki.
Having first experienced Mary Renault’s “legendary history” The King Must Die as a teen, I was intrigued to see the myth of Theseus and the tributes reshaped in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. Malinda Lo’s Ash recasts Cinderella with a Celtic influenced Faerie and figures such as the Hunter, while giving the traditional story a LGBTQ interpretation. In Junior fiction, Grace Liu retells Chinese myth in The Mountain Meets The Moon, joining Barry Hughart’s (adult) Bridge Of Birds and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven and River Of Stars.
Which brings me back to Journey To The West and Monkey, but also the premise, to which I reply that mythology is not only always with us in SFF, but always speaking.
It’s easy to make a statement like that: two words, set out in front, to be read as the reader likes. It’s easy, I suspect, to agree with (as long as we keep it vague, as long as we do not define what we mean by mythologies, as long as I – over here behind the keyboard – don’t step too hard on the toes of those beliefs that you – over there, on the other side of the screen – hold dear, hold true, hold personal. It’s easy to agree that myths matter as long as we assume a kind of common, un-nuanced meaning. I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to do that because mythologies matter and their meanings are neither vague nor without nuance, and their properties are specific and painful and belong to the dreams and needs and histories and cultures of real people, living people, the overwhelming majority of whom are not you, not me, not that ill-defined, argumentative, defensive, aggressive so-called ‘western’ us.
Mythologies are cultural property. Some cultures are explicitly aware of this and seek, quite properly, to maintain control over their myths when outsiders seek to exploit them. Many cultures are aware of this on some level and their members express and experience unease when they see their myths used and stretched thin by outsiders. Some cultures see myths as engaging stories, shiny toys to be taken and shaken, played with and analysed and distorted, a kind of global property (while at the same time policing access to and opinion on their own myths strictly and insisting on special respect for them). In this modern world, most of those cultures who seek to protect their mythologies from outside use are dis-privileged, subject to colonialism and imperialism and outside interference. Most of the cultures who see themselves possessed of a right to pick up myths and play are privileged: colonists, representatives of global power and dominance. The ways in which they play may vary and the claims they make as to why this is allowed come in many forms, but at base, they do it because they can, because they’re in a position to pick and choose which myths they treat as valuable and which as objects to be studied and reshaped.
A great deal of modern western thought about mythologies is informed by the anthropologist, classicists and folklore scholars of the late 19th and 20th centuries C.E, who, informed by the scientific methods of their day, sought to analyse and schematise myths and extract from them what they considered to be a core set of common images, story-elements, beliefs and explanations, in the hope of extracting or deriving some kind of Ur-mythology shared by all humans. The meanings ascribed to individual myths by their cultures of origin are dismissed or elided in this method – or, at best, employed as some sort of tool to ‘expose’ the deeper meaning underneath. In this reductionist approach, the only meaning that really matters is the one decided upon by the scholar, the outsider looking in with his privileged toolkit and this meaning, when revealed, is held up as the genuine Truth. Living myths are exploited to show how their owners are just like privileged outsiders in some ways, but at a far less enlightened, more ‘primitive’ stage. Myths considered ‘dead’ – myths derived from ancient religions and cultures – are considered common property. Some of them, usually the ones dear for some reason to the dominant culture – are taken as a kind of gold standard: in the west, this is usually the mythologies of ancient Greece and Rome. Others, usually the ones still active directly in the dominant culture, are placed to one side as sacred and real. But the mythologies of the Other become a kind of free-for-all, available to everyone (as long as they accept that the version promulgated by the dominant outsider is the ‘best’ one and don’t make too much fuss about their ideas on their myths and as long as they don’t dare question the superiority of any myths possessed or promulgated by the outsiders).
And thus, in the eyes of the dominant culture, the mythologies of others become superstitions, minor things to be ignored, mocked or taken over for amusement.
But mythologies matter. Mythologies shape and express who we, culture by culture, group by group see, have seen, explain, express and explore our worlds. They speak to our fears and our needs, to our particular modes of understanding, to our boundaries and angers and histories. Yes, they codify the world, as those post-Frazerian anthropologists would have us believe. But that is not the core of them nor is it much of their meaning. Mythologies are more than just explanations for lightning invented by men who do not yet have detailed scientific knowledge. Myths bind cultures together, and take shape in the strange spaces that arise: they are numinous and transcendent, liminal and immanent. They are not always and everywhere meant to be understood, at least on the so-called ‘rational’ level. They are the things we sense at the edges and in the flames, at the fall of night and the start of the day, in the space between our hierarchies and the gaps in our security. They are not road-maps to understanding ‘the Other’ or pretty stories to be reshaped and they are most assuredly not common property. Myths shape cultures. Myths express cultures and contain meanings specific to those cultures. And most of the time most of us do not have the ability to see those meanings. We impose our own, and in so doing we warp and distort the myth.
Someone is going, at this point, to say, ‘But what about dead myths?’ meaning those that derive from cultures long gone, and whose descendants now express or seem to express different beliefs. Many of such ‘dead’ myths – Greek, Roman, Norse, Irish, Inca, Egyptian – have been long-subjected to analysis and reshaping, their bones picked clean and broken open, like the bones of Thor’s goats. Modern writers and scholars use them as bases for stories and studies, or to find ‘new’ meanings hidden in them (usually meanings that satisfy modern cravings). And the mythologies are pulled further and further away from their origins, lose more and more of their centre. I don’t have an answer for this, save to point out that these cultures have descendants still living in the landscapes that birthed the mythologies, speaking languages descended from those in which they were first expressed. And many of these cultures have lost parts of their shapes to newer forces, be it in the 1st century C.E. or the 15th. Many of the people still living in the spaces that first expressed these feel deeply divorced from these myths that were once their property, and which have been taken from them, boiled down, and handed back in new and inauthentic forms. There is no such thing as a ‘dead’ mythology, not really. We may no longer fully understand the meanings they express, but those meanings are still there, and the myths are still part of what makes a culture – and those cultures have descendants to whom those myths still belong.
So what about writers? I appear to be saying “Hands off”, and there is a big part of me that wants to say just that. Myths matter: they should never be approached lightly, nor picked up and played with just for novelty. When we place ourselves at the heart of someone else’s myth, we are, however unwittingly, expressing a sense of ownership, of dominance, over that other person. When we remake a myth to suit our particular priorities, or to make it safe and sentimental, we do the same thing. It’s contemptuous, it’s damaging. It hurts. So what can a writer do? I don’t have the answer to that, either, not really. Think: think long and hard and carefully. Does that story really need a white person at its centre, holding all the special, shiny magics? Does this other story really need to be rewritten to make 21st century C.E. readers feel good about their current sets of beliefs? Be careful, be considerate. Be thoughtful. Be ready to back off. Question yourself. Don’t impose a reductionist, Joseph Campbell framework. Do not, please, think, oh, but I’m 1/64th descended from group X so their things are mine (or, indeed, my grandfather was stationed out there during the Empire, so I understand it All). Read, research, ask courteous and respectful questions. Try to keep yourself, your priorities and desires out of the centre. It can be done. I can’t speak, at this point, of any mythology other than the ones that belong to my own culture, which is Welsh-English. And I will be honest, most ‘Celtic’ fantasies, and Arthurian stories and Robin Hood reworkings don’t work for me. They feel wrong, acted out by foreigners expressing things that don’t fit.  But there are some that do work, that seem to me to express the same things that I feel when I read The Mabinogion, say, or Le Morte d’Arthur. Evangeline Walton’s 4-novel retelling of the 4 Branches of the Mabinogi makes me shiver in the exact same way as the tales themselves, and brings to them new touches that fit perfectly. Katherine Kerr’s Deverry sequence is built on a deep and detailed understanding of and sympathy for the history, archaeology and philology of early Welsh and Breton culture and develops it in ways that feel real and strong and true. Samuel R Delany’s Nova grasps the liminality and immanence of the grail legends with genuine sensitivity to the material, and expresses it in a fresh and transcendent way. Parke Godwin’s Beloved Exile combines the Arthurian stories with what we know of early Anglo-Saxon culture with huge skill and results in a moving, original story about an ageing woman stripped of privilege and placed on the wrong side of the power hierarchy, without triumphalism or any unlikely redemption. All four writers have stepped into my myths without stealing or distorting them, and produced novels I love and value. Delany even placed an American — an explicit outsider — at the centre without breaking his material. It can be done and well, but it must always be approached with care and respect and, yes, humility.
Tagged with: Alex Dally MacFarlane • daniel franklin • Helen Lowe • Helen Marshall • Helene Wecker • joyce chng • kari sperring • Ken Liu • louise hughes • mark barrowcliffe • Mike Allen • Mind Meld • tim lieder
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