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Mind Meld Make-Up: Judith Tarr on the Intersection of Genre, Classical Literature and Myth

We have an additional entry on our Mind Meld on the connections between Myth, Classics and Genre, from None other than Judith Tarr!

Q: The Iliad and the Odyssey…the Epic of Gilgamesh…the MahabharataJourney to the West… These ancient myths and stories, and many others seem to partake of genre elements. Are they, in fact, on the Road to Science Fiction, to quote James Gunn’s classic series? How do they fit into the world of genre? How can they inform and be used in modern reinterpretations and borrowings of these myths and stories? What writers and stories best rework these myths and legends?

Judith Tarr
Judith Tarr has degrees in Classics and in Medieval Studies, and has read the IliadnOdyssey (as Victorian schoolboys used to say) in Greek and the Aeneid in Latin. She has written historicals and prehistoricals both long and short in settings from prehistoric Central Asia to ancient Egypt to the empire of Alexander to medieval Europe and the Middle East, as well as historical fantasy. Her “Epona Sequence” (White Mare’s Daughter, Lady of Horses, Daughter of Lir) is based on a combination of Marija Gimbutas’ “Old Europe,” David Anthony’s work on the origins of horse cultures, and the oldest known stories including the Bhagavad Gita; with “The God of Chariots” in The First Heroes, she both wrote a sequel to Daughter of Lir and retold the story of the descent of Inanna into the Underworld. She is a member of Book View Cafe.

This question segues for me from a twitter conversation with Kate Elliott, Kari Sperring, et al., about the way in which the writer or reader’s assumptions can lie, completely unexamined, beneath a text. The line that stays with me is a quotation from an interview with a Very Famous Filmmaker, who talks about the ways in which he glommed on to a particular story. Then he laughs and says, “Of course, none of it’s real.”

My myth is your sacred and completely true religious text.

The Iliad was sung and then read as a seminal historical text. It was not read as fantasy at all. It was not “fantasy,” i.e. a fictional story in an invented world. Its gods and heroes were real. They existed. This is their history, set forth as a lesson to future ages.

I’ll skip the monograph on the Classical juggle between fact and fiction. Herodotus, the Father of History, was also known as the Father of Lies. Facts were malleable. They served the purpose of the text, the time, and the teller. They were still, fundamentally, true.

Today, that way of thinking informs religious texts. When it comes to secular texts, we’ve separated Church and State, Religion and Science, and set up a distinction between empirical or provable fact and what you might call the beautiful lie: deliberate and demonstrable fiction.

Achilles and Odysseus, Gilgamesh and Arjuna, were read or heard about as real people living through real history in the ancient world. They resonated the way our sacred stories resonate with us. Our modern world has shifted these stories (these biographies or even hagiographies, if you will) to the realm of fantasy: stuff that -really- didn’t exist. Totally made up. Never happened.

And yet.

These are deeply archetypal stories. Stories that run through our culture, that reflect deeply ingrained assumptions and attitudes, and enhance and influence huge numbers of later stories.

Endless brutal war over a single issue (whether a woman or a trade route). Love and betrayal between brothers. Love or friendship that survive beyond death–even defy death. Forces of nature and supernature that defy human understanding–though the human persists in trying, somehow, to understand.

We’re still figuring these things out. These stories that are so old, that have been so deeply ingrained in our culture, keep calling us back again and again. Time was when we might have expanded on the history of these archetypal figures, or expanded on their philosophy. Now, we write fiction, and call it fantasy, because we don’t regard it as -our- history. It’s a myth. A story without solid historical basis (the excavation of Troy notwithstanding), and no longer supported by religious faith for the parts that can’t be proved.

So now we have another way of approaching these stories. Not as, “Oh, it’s not true, ha ha, of course not; let me patronize it while I co-opt it.” Though there’s a sad oversufficiency of that. We have writers who try to honor the spirit of the stories; to see them as fundamentally and emotionally or psychologically true, and to view them as the original tellers might have done. To believe, for the duration of the telling, that the gods are real and magic exists, and these heroes (female as well as male) are real people with real lives and thoughts and emotions.

Seeing a deeper truth, you could say. Anthologies like The First Heroes show examples of this. Brenda Clough’s How Like a God and Jane Lindskold’s Athanor novels play riffs on Gilgamesh. The Iliad? It’s everywhere. Dan Simmons’ Ilium for example, telling the story as science fiction. The Odyssey is so fundamental and so prevalent that a story with a whole lot of travel and adventure and suitable epic scope is actually called an odyssey.

We keep going back to these stories because they never grow old. They’re truly archetypal. Foundations of fantasy, yes–but also foundations of our literature in general, and a remarkable number of our cultural assumptions. Wars, heroes, great prizes to be won and lost; love, betrayal, death and life and all the spaces between. They’re our bedrock, on which we build our structures of art and story.

About Paul Weimer (366 Articles)
Not really a Prince of Amber, but rather an ex-pat New Yorker that has found himself living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading SF and Fantasy for over 30 years and exploring the world of roleplaying games for over 25 years. Almost as long as he has been reading and watching movies, he has enjoyed telling people what he has thought of them. In addition to SF Signal, he can be found at his own blog, Blog Jvstin Style, Skiffy and Fanty, SFF Audio, Twitter, and many other places on the Internet!

1 Comment on Mind Meld Make-Up: Judith Tarr on the Intersection of Genre, Classical Literature and Myth

  1. Wonderful, Judy! And of course I’m now wanting to know the filmmaker…

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