Mythology and Fantasy—Where’s the Line?

By Gail Z. Martin

If you’re a fan of world mythology, you may have noticed that famous (and rather obscure) creatures from folklore and legend have made their way to the pages of recent bestsellers.  Epic and urban fantasy, paranormal romance and blockbuster movies all seem to have raided the pages of Bullfinch’s Mythology for their cast of characters.

What’s behind our fascination with the characters—and plotlines—of ancient myths?  Do these modern versions qualify as “retellings” of the myths, or just the literary equivalent of discount knock-offs?

The myths have hung around for thousands of years because they speak to something deeply human, and to shared dreams, fears and fantasies.  The myths also give us an archetypal framework in which to discuss good vs. evil, hubris and humility, and the values that make it possible to create a successful civilization, like honesty, hard work, truthfulness, loyalty, friendship, self-sacrifice, etc.  The characters may be fabrications, but they are very human on a bigger-than-life scale.

Telling the old stories WAS popular entertainment for much of human history.  These are the stories that ancient peoples memorized by heart and handed down from generation to generation.  Many of the ancient cultures borrowed their myths from even more ancient peoples, adapting them to fit the times and the conventions of their civilizations.  They would be told, retold and embellished at night around the campfire, on long winter evenings, and during celebrations and special ceremonies.  Oral traditions became murals, tapestries, plays, and ballads.  Plays became books, movies, ballads became operas. Watch closely, and you’ll even see the old themes play out in music videos.

So what’s with using mythology in modern fantasy?  In my opinion, it’s just another generation’s retelling of the old, old stories, spruced up for today’s readers.  The setting and superficial details change, but the essence of the stories and characters remain the same.  Does that mean there’s no such thing as a “new” story?  Perhaps in one way, because according to some experts, there are only two real plots in all of literature: 1) a person takes a trip and 2) a stranger comes to town. (Someone else pointed out that it’s really just one story told from different perspectives.)

But in another way, there are an infinite number of stories, because each storyteller brings a unique personal interpretation to the myth, the journey and the characters.  Re-told myths become more relevant when they are framed in contemporary images, broadening their appeal.  Those of us who tell stories for a living are just the latest in a long line of bards, spinning tales around a campfire.

 

Gail Z. Martin is the author of Ice Forged in her new The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga (Orbit Books), plus The Chronicles of The Necromancer series (The Summoner, The Blood King, Dark Haven & Dark Lady’s Chosen ) and The Fallen Kings Cycle (The Sworn  and The Dread).  She is also the author of two series on ebook short stories: The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures and the Deadly Curiosities Series. Find her online at www.AscendantKingdoms.com.

 

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