This has been a serious myth-week for me. Friday, I was in downtown Campbell LARPing (Live Action Role-Playing) with a friend’s Vampire: The Requiem group, which draws from a mass of vampire legend sources for its world-shape (it was my second time and great fun!). Sunday, I toured another friend around Fanime, and if most anime’s don’t draw from the communal stock-pot of archetypes and myth I know of no genre that does. Through all this, I’ve been reading J.A. Pitt’s Black Blade Blues which is equally steeped in Norse myths, Society for Creative Anachronism adventures, and smith-lore.
Finally, today I read a delightfully foul-mouthed retelling of a Norse epic poem from Myths-Retold (hat-tip to Anthea for pointing me to the site). Here are a few choice quotes:
[when asked by the giant Utgard-Loki what his skills are]and thor says i am the best at getting drunkso utgard-loki is like ok hereand he gives him a drinking hornthe manliest of all drinking vesselsand is like okif you are a good drinker you will down this in one trytwo is the averageand even the biggest pansy in the castle can do it in 3so thor looks at the hornits pretty bigbut thor is like world champion of alcoholismso hes like psh no problemand he starts chugging
[Agamemnon to Calchas (prophet)]
[…] You damn soothsayer!
You’ve never given me a good omen yet.
You take some kind of perverse pleasure in prophesying
Doom, don’t you? Not a single favorable omen ever!
Nothing good ever happens! […]
Many authors who play in the myth sandbox tend towards the subversive and irreverent. One of my favorite writers growing up–Robin McKinley*–made her name retelling Beauty and the Beast (Beauty, Rose Daughter), Sleeping Beauty (Spindel’s End), and Deer Skin (Deer-Skin). What made her works delightful was the ways she subverted some of their sexist themes and made them into stories of female empowerment (except for Deerskin, which took the myth in the most disturbing direction possible. Incest is never ok).
This irreverence and subversion are only possible because authors can assume their readers already know the world and its usual rules (witches are cruel, wolves are hungry, princesses are beautiful). The good authors can take these assumptions and work against them, play with them, add consequences where there were none (Into The Woods) or tweak the back story in interesting ways–Beauty’s name was a cruel joke (Beauty), Sleeping Beauty might have hated her 21 birthday gifts (Spindel’s End).
That is the power of fairy-tales–they give their listeners a common language. The wolf will eat you. The apple is poison. Keep to the path. Don’t eat the witch’s cabbage. Be kind to sparrows.
The way that authors draw on myth to fill out their worlds feels a lot like how fanfic writers draw on popular culture to fill out their worlds. A commenter on the last post put it quite well:
Is origami from purchased paper uncreative because other people make paper and then make origami out of it? Telling a good story about people and making characters are two totally different skill sets. Stories about ancient gods and goddesses were often FanFiction, William Shakespeare wrote FanFiction about historical characters, and even some musicals (Wicked, hello) definitely qualify as FanFiction; would we dare call any of that uncreative?
Fanfiction of most myths, fairy-tales and folk-stories avoids most of the thorny copyright issues of works still under copyright because their sources are in the public domain. Though they do not share a common peril, published authors who write in worlds defined by communally held myths have much in common with fanfiction writers to my mind (even if, as Lilly pointed out, they do not think so).
Writing for an audience that already knows the structure of the world–regardless of whether you’ll allow that structure to stand or disassemble it brick by brick–gives authors a different sort of freedom than they will find in a world wholly of their own creation. The problem comes when the people who first wrote the rules for that world need rent money and have megaphones to complain about how you’ve subverted their plans. It gets ugly when those people come to the opinion that they have the right to try to erase the effects of their worlds on others’ minds, to chain the creative limbs of those who walk in the paths they have gardened.
Their right to those megaphones and those checks is part of copyright law. Their right to wall and chain are still being decided. How we treat myth and retelling is part of how we construct our culture. It is important to everyone who wishes to tell fairy-tales in the future.
*Unfortunately, Ms McKinley is teetering on her perch as my favorite author because of her stance on fanfiction. It’s funny how many people who make their playing in worlds they did not build refuse to share.
“We can keep from a child all knowledge of earlier myths, but we cannot take from him the need for mythology.”–Carl Gustav Jung
PS: The fifth season of Dr Who has also been long on myth: