Modern Myth

Well, I’m still working on Shards of Babylon. Should be finished soon… or at least as “finished” as any story of mine ever is. In the meantime I’ve started planning a few short stories to work on later this year. One I’m looking forward to is The Last Giant. It’s going to be a bit of a departure for me, more of a modern fairy tale.

Over the last few years I’ve found myself drawing more heavily on different myths and motifs as inspiration for my stories, which is one reason for TLG; I want to try to create a mythic world, based in the real world. I guess that shouldn’t be a great surprise; mythology and history have always been great interests of mine. The reason I like the “classic” mythic structure, though, is that it’s a great template, allowing character and thematic development against an epic landscape. Myths reflect the times they were created in, the concerns of the people who created them, and right now that offers the chance to talk about the terror age in a way people can understand; that’s something that appeals to me too.

It’ll be a few months until I have TLG finished, but the reason I’m mentioning this is because I was talking to someone about it the other day and she asked me something interesting: why aren’t those kinds of myths still being written today? Stories like The Iliad, Isis and Osiris, Gilgamesh – why are they being retold, instead of new myths being invented? My initial reaction was that all myths are retold stories anyway, but there are new ones being written, in new forms. Where myths used to be handed down through generations, modern myth is now told through the media. But the same themes are there, if you know where to look.

So what is modern myth? I think one of the best examples lies in comic books. It’s no coincidence that the plethora of superhero films we’ve seen recently have achieved such success; the comics they’re based on verge on myth. Comics like Superman and Spider-Man have evolved over their decades in print, creating detailed back-stories and constantly exploring the conflict between good and evil. They’ve created their own mythologies, but while they have done that they’ve also stayed true to the classic themes of all myths: humanity, friendship, love, lust, betrayal. Think of the recent X-Men: The Last Stand. Near the end the X-Men stand united against Magneto and the Brotherhood of Mutants outside the walls of Alcatraz; is this so different than the Trojans and Achaeans clashing outside Troy? Indeed, the mutants are fighting over their “cure”, which you could see as a battle over their immortality and legend; at the heart of The Iliad is Achilles quest for immortality by slaying Hector, a theme that recurs again and again throughout mythology – from Heracles and Gilgamesh, to the quest for the Holy Grail.

Likewise, mythic themes are constantly reinvented in literature. The most obvious example is fantasy, where an entire genre has been derived from the tales and figures of our past; witches, dragons, goblins, fairies, all have their origins in one mythic tale or another (and in some dark fear of their time). Even Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, perhaps the most famous (and detailed) mythology to have been invented, has its origins in many Germanic and Norse myths. More recent works have taken the classic mythic structure in new directions; the Harry Potter stories in introducing children to classic fairy-tales in unorthodox ways, Garth Nix’s creating a world of the dead in his Abhorsen trilogy, James Morrow’s Towing Jehovah following a classic quest when God’s corpse is found floating in the Pacific. It extends well beyond fantasy, though. Before Shakespeare told Romeo and Juliet, the greatest of all love stories, there were the myths of Tristan and Isolde, Paris and Helen, and many others. In contemporary literature Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code draws heavily on a mythological structure; not least in its quest archtype or its speculations about Christ, but also in its re-imagining of the quest for the Holy Grail, a theme which again stretches back to the knights of King Arthur, and Achilles. In fact you could say that all stories originate from one mythic theme or another; tales of romance, conflict, revenge, lust, metamorphosis, were shared long before anyone knew how to write. No story is ever truly original, only re-imagined, put in a new context, with new ideas.

My point then is that myth isn’t dead; rather it’s everywhere, echoing in every part of our society, but not everyone recognises it. They expect the same stories to take the same form, but mythology evolves so that its form is different to each generation, while the themes remain. What were oral tales handed down through centuries are now told through the media; through books like The Lord of the Rings, movies like Edward Scissorhands and Pan’s Labyrinth, music like Wagner’s Rings opus. They tell the same stories, in different ways, and reach more people than they ever could before.

And that’s why I’m looking forward to The Last Giant; perhaps somewhat selfishly, because it’s something I’ve long wanted to try, but also because, based in myth, it allows me to reflect the concerns of our time. And that’s the fiction I want to write; stories as much concerned about character as the world it creates. I’m also planning a series later which will draw on those themes again, The Chosen… but we’ll see how TLG goes first!

So in the meantime, why not grab a book, watch a film? Maybe it’s something you’ve read or seen before, maybe not… but in the end, it doesn’t really matter. Chances are you’re familiar with it anyway, aren’t you, in that way we all are: by remembering a time, long ago, when we sat around a campfire, the light flickering on our faces, as our elders told us a story about heroes, gods, and monsters, and we dared to dream.

Leave a Reply