Friday, July 15, 2011
One of the reasons I particularly love writing stories with mythological underpinnings is that mythology is so changeable. Reading summaries of some of the most prominent mythological tales can be like reading a choose-your-own-adventure book—first either A, B, or C happened, then our hero did either D, E, or F, and then G, H, or I happened, all depending on whose version you choose. (Look up Tam Lin on Wikipedia to get a hint of what I mean.) Because there are so many different versions of the stories, it’s easy to pick and choose the aspects that you like best, and it also feels very natural to tinker with it so that it fits the story you want to tell.
At the heart of every mythological story—no matter how many variations of it exist—is a kernel of certainty, a constant on which all the variations are built. The story of Tam Lin, for example, is always the story of a man who is rescued from the Queen of Faerie by a mortal woman who loves him. Any story based on Tam Lin is bound to have that basic story as its core, even if the details are wildly different. (If you look at the Wikipedia entry again, you’ll see that even Tam Lin’s name and the name of the woman who rescued him are not constant.)
That is the way I like to use mythology in my books: to take the core of the story/legend, and then build the details I need for my own story. I have used many elements of Celtic mythology in my Faeriewalker series—the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, and the Wild Hunt, for example—but I have mixed and matched and made up the elements in ways you won’t find in any of the original ballads or stories. If there is any source material in which the Erlking is associated with the Wild Hunt, I’m not aware of it. (The Erlking isn’t even associated with Celtic mythology; his origins are Scandinavian. But when I needed someone to lead my Wild Hunt, the legend of the Erlking popped into my mind and I thought his story blended well with that of the Wild Hunt.)
I think my love of using mythology in this fashion, of not sticking strictly to the original stories, stems from the same drive that inspired me to become a writer in the first place. I think it’s a rare writer who didn’t in her childhood find herself reading a book (or even watching a movie), without thinking something to the effect of, “The story would be much better if X happened instead of Y. If I were the author, I’d make X happen instead.” That’s pretty much what I like to do with the mythology in my books. I don’t actually think I’m making the mythology “better,” of course; I merely think I’m making it better for my book. I’m sure there are mythology aficionados out there who cringe at seeing the original tales manhandled by modern-day authors like me. But while my books are based on old stories and legends, they aren’t a retelling of those stories, and for me, playing fast and loose with the mythology is part of the fun of writing them.
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