Dana’s Dojo: Mythical Writing Part III

Today in the Dojo: Mythic Structure

The latest incarnation of Oedipus, the continued romance of Beauty and the Beast, stand this afternoon on the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, waiting for the traffic light to change.
-Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces

Joseph Campbell started it.  He identified the archetypical structure of the Hero’s Journey in world mythology, wrote a book, and next thing you know the damned Hero’s Journey is everywhere.

If you don’t believe me, watch Star Wars again.  The good – I mean, original – ones.  George Lucas was heavily influenced by The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and it shows all throughout the first trilogy.  The Lord of the Rings followed that structure, too, only before Joseph Campbell (Tolkien was so steeped in ancient myth that he didn’t need a map anymore).  In fact, if you type “mythic structure” into a search engine, you will come up at least one article griping about how everybody and God patterns films after the Hero’s Journey these days. 

There’s good reason for it, though: mythic structure works.

We’re back to the human propensity for pattern recognition.  It’s easier for the audience to follow along to the rhythm of these ancient structures.  Audiences tend to want “the same only different”, so if you can use mythic structure to guide your work whilst throwing in a twist or two thousand (Homer never expected lightsabers, I guarantee you), then you’ll have a potential winner on your hands.  And no, it’s not cheating and it’s not going by formula and it’s not a cheap trick.  It’s good art.  Unless of course you’re dreadfully obvious about it.

Briefly put, the Hero’s Journey entails a person who is called to an adventure, refuses the call but eventually accepts, and embarks on a journey (physical, psychological or both) in which he will meet a threshold guardian who tries to force him to turn back and mentors who help him along the way.  Eventually, he reaches his goal, obtains a boon, and returns to the everyday world with that boon.  The Hero’s Journey is not, of course, the only archetype, but in its most basic form is the basis for most myths and legends.  Christ’s life and death follow the pattern.  So does Buddha’s, Odin’s and just about any other god or goddess you care to name, in endless variations on the theme.  Ordinary people doing extraordinary things also follow the pattern.  So do keep in mind that you’re not limiting yourself to one particular type of story if you follow that structure.  It’s hard to think of two works more different than The Odyssey and Ulysses - one a straight-up adventure tale and the other a stream-of-consciousness modern novel – but they both follow the same pattern, intentionally on James Joyce’s part. 

Which is probably why some people can actually read Ulysses….

But I digress. 

Unless you’re intentionally rewriting a myth, it’s probably best not to follow any one myth too closely.  Certainly don’t use the Hero’s Journey as a formula – if you throw in a threshold guardian just because the structure calls for one, you’re missing the point.  If your story needs a threshold guardian or any of the other bits of the Journey, they’ll usually show up on their own.  It’s enough to know the basics of the structure and recognize how it can help your story.  If you find your story’s working fine without one of the elements, don’t crowbar it in.  But if it’s sagging somewhere, and you realize it’s been following the Journey quite closely, knowing the pattern will tell you if the sag’s coming from some essential character metaphorically having been out for a surreptitious smoke when he or she should have been on the job.

But aside from that warning, there’s a lot of benefit to using a myth as a pattern for your stories, as Joyce did with Ulysses.  How you should do it depends on the story you’re trying to tell, and how well-known the myth is.  If you want to contrast modern life to the ancient world, following a popular myth closely won’t hurt a thing.  If you want your story to be fresh and original, choosing something well-known and following it closely won’t do unless you break ground like Joyce did with his stream-of-consciousness writing.

This is where it can be a great idea to delve into those dusty old tomes for a myth that the majority of your target audience has probably never heard of or has only a passing acquaintance with, and using it to flavor your story accordingly.  Imagine following a Taoist story about people searching for immortality, only it’s set in Small Town, USA.  I can so see housewives getting together in their spare time, pursuing an elixir while the kids play in the back yard.  Can you?

Superimpose disparate themes together – again, Joyce did this in Ulysses, with a main character who’s pretty much just Average Joe instead of Big Hero who is following Odysseus’s course.  Transform major elements: the war in the myth becomes a conflict between boss and employee, maybe.  Play with bits and pieces, changing, rearranging, until you have something that pleases you and your readers.  Play the What If? game continually as you consider the myth you’re working with, and you’ll come up with something unexpected.

Using fairy tales as inspiration is also a fruitful course to pursue.  There’s nothing simple or trite about fairy tales.  Originally, they weren’t even for children.  Dig a little further than Grimm’s, and you’ll find some pretty dark and scary goings-on.  Play the Where Are They Now? game, and see where you end up: where’s Little Red Riding Hood in the Big City?  How can you transform those tales to reflect a new age where the world has changed, but people really haven’t?  And the plot structures themselves are classic: you can create completely different characters, situations and settings, but use the fairy tale structure to give your story a pattern that will be eerily familiar to readers.  It can be an intriguing result.

Mine urban legends for really interesting story ideas and patterns if you want something a little closer to modern-day life.  Snopes.com always has some really great stuff: so does your Inbox, if you’ve got the kind of friends who like to forward silly emails.  You can have a lot of fun with some of those stories, taking elements from them to comment on modern life, and you’ve got the added benefit of using something you know people find fascinating.  After all, they wouldn’t have become urban legends if they didn’t interest folks.

When you’re considering all of these sources – myth, fairy tale and urban legend – look for ways to tell the story that haven’t been used before.  Has anyone written a story about the alligators in the sewers becoming a homeless guy’s pets?  Written the story of the Hook from the serial killer’s point of view?  Even when things have been done before, like placing gods and goddesses in the modern age, there are still endless variations left.  See where your imagination takes you.

Wherever you end up, whatever you end up doing, I can promise that reading myth and legend will greatly expand your talents as a writer.  These stories have endured because they’re told right, have the right elements and the right characters to keep them alive.  You can learn a lot by seeing what continues to hold the interest of so many people.  And in the midst of all of it, you might just discover a sense of wonder in the world you haven’t felt since childhood, which will enrich your writing immeasurably.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Neil Gaiman’s poem “Locks,” based on the story of Goldilocks, that I hope will give you as much of a sense of purpose as it’s given me:

“We owe it to each other to tell stories…
“Again.
“Again.
“Again.”

PART THREE RESOURCES:

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.  The definitive work on mythic structure and pattern.  It’s heavy going at times, but soldier on: some of the best stories in the world owe their telling to this book.

The Universal Myths by Joseph Campbell, Alexander Eliot and Mircea Eliade.  It’s written by three of the giants in comparative mythology, and deserves to be on every writer’s bookshelf.  This book will help you see the commonalities in mythic thinking the world over, and help you find structure for your stories that works.

The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.  (With apologies to Glynis, who doesn’t like this book).  If The Hero With a Thousand Faces is a little too dense for your reading pleasure, try this one: it’s a very readable book about the Hero’s Journey motif in writing, written for writers by a writer, and breaks down the elements into an easily digestible form.  It’s a good book to use as a kind of Cliff’s Notes to Campbell’s work.  Just remember that it’s not a map to success, just a guide to a structure that, with proper care and consideration, will probably work quite well for you, too.

Reader Appreciation Day

Source

It’s time to take a moment out of the week’s blogging topics and say, “Thank you!”

You, my dear readers, are absolutely brilliant.

I put out a plea for the things that scare you, and you weren’t afraid to rise to the challenge.  If I end up with the writing chops to create a truly frightening Big Bad, it will be because you – yes, you - stepped up and delved into your minds and risked nightmares and probably worse to let me know what terrifies you.  Without that, I wouldn’t have a clue.  And I wouldn’t have the confidence to attempt this.  Incredible.

Then there are all of you who commented on my last, rather lame Oregon Geology post.  You got me the info on benchmarks I’ll need for this summer.  You’ve inspired me to go out and find some benchmarks and make something of them.  And all those kind words!  All I can say in reply is that I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the series so much, because it’s all been for you.  Wouldn’t be writing this stuff if you weren’t there, you know – what would be the point?  90% of the fun in going out, seeing and doing these things, is in writing them up afterward, hoping I’ll have given you a bit o’ adventure as well.  I take each and every one of you into the field with me.  I get wonderfully excited, finding things you might like.  So it’s a vast relief to know I’m getting the job done.  Thank you for being there.  Thank you for egging me on!

We’ve got quite a few more adventures coming up.  I’ve still got bulging folders full of images from other trips waiting for your viewing pleasure.  And this summer, new adventures!  Requests welcome: I’ll announce each one, and you can tell me if there’s a particular bit you want to see.  You’re along for the ride, even if only virtually.

Now, should I ever, say, win the lottery or make bags of money by publishing books people decide to devour, those virtual trips shall become a reality.  You’re all invited.  Nothing would please me more than to gather groups of you and get out there and see the world with you.

This world is a better place with all of you in it.  Never doubt that.  You guys rock, and you make me the luckiest woman alive.

Two Posts on Religion Everyone Should Read

Back before I got so completely immersed in Doctor Who and the subsequent explosions of ideas that I haven’t had time for much else, I was spending quite a lot of time catching up on every post ever written by Eric MacDonald.  His blog, Choice in Dying, is one I can’t recommend highly enough for those who need a philosopher’s perspective on these thorny issues of religion, atheism, morality, and choices.  He reminds me a bit of Dan Dennett, one of our Four Horsemen.  All I can say is, someone had better saddle that man a horse, because we’ve got a fifth Horseman.

Two posts from January particularly caught my eye.  In one, Eric talks about the cost of religion:

I do not think the sums have been done. Religion is not a peaceful thing, despite all claims to the contrary. It has been protected, for centuries, just as Islam still protects its holiness, by threats of violence. The English Bible that, for all its glories, is sometimes pedestrian and dull, is regarded with special reverence, in large measure because it had to be fought for, and people died so that they could read the Bible in their own language.

And in this, about the social pathology of religion:

We are becoming so accustomed to religious oppression and pathology that we scarcely dare to talk openly about it, and to call it openly by its name. Governments and large press organisations do a clever soft-shoe shuffle around it every time it becomes too obvious to be simply ignored, but no one is saying that this religious idiocy should end, and that it is intolerable that religions should play this role in the world. It seems to be taken for granted that there is nothing that we can do to moderate these pathologies except to try to insulate them in ghettoes of religious belief, the result of which can only be a mosaic of intolerant communities intolerantly related. If Roman Catholic hospitals want to kill women by refusing them appropriate medical care, well, that is just a peculiar belief system which has nothing to do with the rest of society. And when Roman Catholics or Muslims band together to oppose the practice of contraception in a world bursting at the seams with people, well, that too is just a religious peculiarity, and we must learn to live with these things.

Eric, once an Anglican pastor, has a very clear view of the harm religion can do and does.  He doesn’t believe we have to live with it.  He doesn’t believe we should stay silent in the face of it, just to spare the feelings of believers or in the interests of a false social harmony.

I wish all of my friends who were still believers would read his blog, start to finish, and really think about what it is they’re doing, and what religion truly is.

Cantina Quote o’ The Week: Lao Tzu

The very bones of those you talk about have turned to dust.  All that remains of them is their words.

-Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu, of course, wrote the Tao Te Ching, and legends have sprung up around him like cats on a tuna can.  But this legendary tale might well be true:

The oldest surviving biography of Lao Tzu can be found in the annals of one of China’s greatest historians: Ssu-ma Ch’ien, written nearly 400 years after Lao Tzu died. From him we know that Lao Tzu was born in the state of Ch’u (presently eastern Honan Province). He writes about Lao Tzu’s meeting with the philosopher Confucious (K’ung Fu-tzu) — two individuals who represented philosophies that would dominate Chinese culture and society for over 2,000 years. Ssu-ma Ch’ien explained:

“When K’ung Fu-tzu went to Ch’u, he asked Lao Tzu to tutor him in the rites. Lao Tzu replied, “The very bones of those you talk about have turned to dust. All that remains of them is their words. You know that when a noble lives in times which are good, he travels to court in a carriage. But when times are difficult, he goes where the wind blows. Some say that a wise mechant hides his wealth and thus seems poor. Likewise the sage, if he has great internal virtue, seems on the outside to be a fool. Stop being so arrogant — all these demands — your self-importance and your overkeen enthusiasm — none of this is true to yourself. That is all I have to say to you.” 

K’ung left and said to this followers, “I know that a bird can fly; that fishes swim; that animals can run. Things that run can be trapped in nets. What can swim can be caught in traps. Those that fly can be shot down with arrows. But what to do with the dragon, I do not know. It rises on the clouds and the wind. Today I have met Lao Tzu, and he is like the dragon.” 

You’d think Chinese kings would’ve learned…

Los Links 3/18

It’s been a week.  Top story, of course, was the earthquake in Japan, and the still-unfolding disaster as nuclear power plants failed.

A great many geobloggers have presented excellent posts.  For links to a vast array of information, try Looking for Detachment and Outside the Interzone, where Silver Fox and Lockwood have collected a wide range of sources.  Mountain Beltway was on top of things from the very first morning, and Chris Rowan did one of his typical brilliant assessments, along with a post on the SciAm guest blog.  Evelyn at Georneys has a series of interviews with her dad, a nuclear engineer.  All excellent stuff.

Dan McShane posted a brilliant assessment of how the Japan earthquake should impact policy considerations for those of us in Cascadia.  I think this needs to be thrust into the hands of every politician, city planner, and – oh, fuck it, absolutely everyone in the region.

Rachael Acks at 4.5 Billion Years of Wonder had something very important to say in the aftermath:

There is no meaning to the Sendai earthquake. There is no capricious god, no vast karmic wheel. It is simply a thing that has happened, that we as humans must struggle against, and fight to overcome, and mourn those who have died afterward. Because there is nothing more to it – it’s just the summation of physics and time – what we do is so very important. We have only this world, only this life, and only each other.

Truth.

And the NYT asks if we “get” tsunamis yet.  Judging by the fact that so many people ran to the water to have a look at one in this country, I’d say the answer is probably no.  This is an important artiicle, and gets bonus points for quoting Gandalf.  No, really, I mean it.  Go have a look.

Finally, if you missed Callan’s post on secondary effects, don’t miss it now.

In non-earthquake-and-tsunami news, Rep. Ed Markey went off on a glorious rant about science and the GOP attacks thereon, which is a thing of beauty and should not be missed by anyone.  Also on the political front, read Steve Benen’s very important post about power grabs.  There’s so much happening you may know nothing about, and if you care about the future of democratic rule in this country, this is stuff you should know:

You might be thinking, “C’mon, that can’t be right.” I’m afraid it is. Michigan’s new Republican governor is cutting funding to municipalities, and if they struggle financially as a consequence, he will have the power to simply take over those municipalities if he believes he should.

And once Snyder does take over these local governments, by virtue of his own whims, he can impose a local dictator — called an “Emergency Manager” — who will have the authority to undo collective bargaining agreements, scrap contracts, and even undo the results of elections.

And if that weren’t quite enough, the local dictator, at the behest of the new Republican governor or a designated corporate ally, can even “disincorporate or dissolve” an entire municipal government — effectively making a local government disappear — without any input from the public whatsoever.

I’m completely serious.

He completely is.  And so is the situation.  Pay attention, people.

No graceful segue is possible from that, so I won’t try.  Instead, enjoy the sensation of whiplash as I direct your attention to two posts for those interested in ebook publishing: Michael Stackpole’s 9 Must-Have Clauses for Digital Rights Contracts and Joseph Esposito’s The Terrible Price of Free.

I’m not sure about the science behind this article on the Large Hadron Collider, as I’m not very well-versed on particle physics, but it gets props from me for quoting one of the greatest Doctor Who lines ever.

And today, Mercury Messenger made it into orbit!  Two things: Lockwood ‘splains it all and Callan linked to one of the most remarkable videos I’ve ever seen.  There’s a little something uplifting for ye.

Right?  Right.  I probably missed a ton of stuff, but I’m still busy catching up on a great many lost years of Doctor Who fandom, which I’m back off to now, so adios for now.  Or (and only fans will really understand): Allons-y!

Oregon Geology Parte the Tenth: Crown Point

We’re at the end of our long journey, which began in Astoria, continued through Ecola State Park, Hug Point north and south, the world’s shortest river, Cape Kiwanda, Cape Meares, the Columbia River Gorge, and some truly tremendous waterfalls.

Now here we are at Crown Point, where the Vista House gleams like a jewel in the crown:

View of Crown Point from Chanticleer

And I could do a proper write-up, but I’d mostly just be repeating myself.  We’ll have more images than words this time round, I should think.

Floating in the Void

Now, it may look like I retouched the above photo, but I didn’t.  All natural.  That’s the Vista House against a cloudy sky.  It’s a gorgeous building, conceived by Samuel Lancaster as a place where travelers on his wonderful highway could contemplate the Gorge.  He also mentioned “silent communion with the infinite,” which any Terry Pratchett fan will love. 

Sandstone Closeup

It’s built of sandstone blocks that glow golden in the sun.  One can get very friendly with that building.  It’s some pretty wonderful architecture, possibly the only thing that can draw one’s attention away from the jaw-dropping geology of the gorge.  Those rough-hewn blocks are delightful.

And here it is, with the Gorge as its backdrop:

Vista House

Here’s the man to thank for all this beauty:

Samuel Lancaster

Now, walk down the road a bit toward a curlicue of concrete and a lamppost:

Ooo, Interesting

Here you’ll find a treasure sure to delight any geology geek:

USGS Benchmark

Now, if someone could be so kind as to explain exactly what these benchmarks are in the comments, I’d be eternally grateful.  My Google-fu has failed me.

And with that, we’ve left the Gorge.  Stop for just one last, lingering look from Chanticleer Point:

Gorge and Vista House

It’s amazing what geological processes and human beings can create when they collaborate.

Dana’s Dojo: Mythical Writing Part II

Today in the Dojo: Way Beyond the Occident

If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.
-Joseph Campbell

There’s a horrifying tendency for most writers to dig into the stuff they grew up with – Biblical, Egyptian, Greek and Roman mythology – and look no further.  I can testify that back in my school days, I didn’t even realize there was more to mythology than that.  It’s probably a bit different for school children now, but back then, things were still stuck in the Occident, and to hell with the rest of the world.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized there was a whole other three-quarters of the world chock full of some really incredible mythology.  It started with the Sumerian stuff.  I remember reading The Epic of Gilgamesh and feeling giddy.  I recognized Enkidu as the panther from Salvatore’s books.  And then I started peeling back the Arabian and Oriental myths, and man….

Later, I discovered that in my own back yard, there was some incredible mythology to be had: Navajo creation stories, Hopi kachinas, Kiowa sun stories, an endless list.  My gods, why would I want to limit myself to Greece, Rome, Egypt and Israel with all this other stuff out there?  Why did so many authors tread the mill of Arthurian legends when the Norse had some kick-ass legends of kingship, love and betrayal that hadn’t already been picked to the bone? 

I finally figured out the answer: it’s safe and easy, that’s why.


Moving into lesser-known mythologies is a dangerous road to take, as the Occidental mind sometimes can’t comprehend the Oriental, animistic, shamanistic and other traditions, and so aren’t as prepared to understand the story.  That’s why those who draw on other mythologies and don’t want to blatantly Westernize them have to be far better storytellers than otherwise if they want to reach a wide audience in the West.  While the underlying patterns might be familiar – loves won, battles fought, boons claimed, and so forth – the way those patterns are woven are different and sometimes incomprehensible at first glance.  It takes a lot of work to decipher those patterns for untrained minds, and if the author’s not careful, it ends up being a thinly fictionalized essay on other beliefs rather than a mythologically-informed story.

Also, there’s a lot less research involved, and far fewer resources available.  I discovered this while trying to research Odin.  You can get books dealing specifically with the major gods and goddesses of most Occidental traditions, but gods forbid you should need that kind of detail for a lesser-known deity or tale.  It takes a lot of digging through large and scary (and sometimes damned expensive) books to get the information needed to create a rich and detailed story based on non-mainstream myths.  In light of that, it’s no wonder most authors turn to the easier stuff.

But I challenge you to take the dangerous roads, the untrodden paths and the unmapped territories.  You’ll find rich rewards there.  Some very extraordinary modern works have been based on non-Occidental myths.  The world’s in the mood for things less parochial, more exotic, than yet another retelling of Arthurian legend.  Although they’re always in the mood for more of that, so don’t sweat it if you skip this section.

For those willing to wander off into the wilderness with me, let’s go into some foreign places.

A good place to start is “A funny thing happened….”  There’s this perception that if something’s based on myth, it’s got to be serious and intellectual and really, really profound.  Not true.  I mean, come on, how can you take Zeus’s womanizing seriously?  I can assure you the Greeks didn’t, not really.  So if you want to step out of the Occidental mindset but don’t want to leave the Occident, simply look for the humor.

You can accomplish this in one of two ways.  You can lampoon an otherwise serious myth, which Christopher Moore did to brilliant effect with Jesus’ “lost years” in Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.  Look for the comedic possibilities in the Iliad, Lucifer’s fall, anything.  It doesn’t matter how serious the subject is, you can always find something funny about it. 

Or you can simply go with a myth that was funny to begin with.  Every mythology has tricksters, whose stories are outright comedy.  Neil Gaiman took the cycle of African stories of Ananzi and created Ananzi Boys from them.  And as you delve in to world mythology, you’ll find some cultures that seem to have a more amused outlook on life, the Universe and everything than we’re used to.  There’s no shortage of mythologies whose major comment is “Funny ol’ world, isn’t it?” 

If, however, you don’t plan to write humor, there’s plenty of serious stuff out there.  You don’t get much more serious than some of the South American and Mexican mythologies, in which the world’s about to end and will end sooner if one doesn’t tear out twenty thousand hearts a year.  Delve into anthropology for a look into the minds of tiny , obscure tribes.  Ancient Sumeria’s also a good place for the grim stuff.  According to them, humanity was created to be slaves of the gods.  All kinds of potential for very serious, meaningful stories based on an outlook like that.

For sheer beauty, try some of the African and Oriental myths.  Hinduism’s a good place to go if you want to find a mythic structure that celebrates life.  One of their best-beloved stories is Krishna’s adventures with a lot of very willing young women.  And you’ll seldom find a mythology more balanced and serene than Taoism.

There’s also scary stuff.  If you’re trying to write horror without camp, a lot of the old mythologies will provide you with story material that will keep you awake with the lights on for a very, very long time.  There’s no end to the danger and monsters. 

Don’t want to go for the great big myths?  Fine.  Explore folk tales and urban legends.  These, too, are myths: they explain something about the world and follow established patterns.  They’re fertile ground for mythic storytelling even though they don’t look like myths on the surface.

It’s a big, big world out there, with plenty of myths that few people have ever heard of to base stories around.  But say you don’t want to use other people’s myths, even disguised.  Say you want to create your own.  Or maybe you’re writing fantasy or science fiction, and you don’t want the aliens or magical creatures to have the same stories as earth people do.  How do you create a new mythology? 

First, you have to understand precisely what myth is and how it’s generated.  This is where you stuff yourself full of comparative mythology.  After a bit, you’ll notice a pattern: all mythology is based around things that are important to all people.  Only the cosmetic details are different.  At core, all myth deals with the things that people desire or fear most: life, death, love, conflict…

There’s where you start.  Identify which things are most important for your aliens or other creatures.  Maybe death to them is no big deal.  Maybe they don’t agonize about the meaning of life.  In that case, they won’t have those types of myths.  But what’s really important to them is food.  They’re obsessed by it: where it comes from, why it’s eaten, why it tastes good, etc.  Once you’ve identified the important things like that, you can start building the mythologies they might have about such things.

Keep in mind the following important points while creating new mythologies:

1.  Place is important.  The climate, terrain, and other details of where people live affects their myths.

2.  Social structure impacts myth.  The Sumerians, who lived in a very rigid agrarian society, have myths that are fundamentally different from tribal and nomadic societies.  So make sure you know if the people you’re creating myths for are nomadic or settled, hunters or planters, and know how that will impact their mythologies.

3.  Biology.  All of our myths are necessarily filtered through our biological realities.  So will your beings’.  It’s hard to think like a quadruped or a fish, but do try.

4.  Age and education.  Old, established societies with a lot of scientific knowledge have different myths than younger ones, or those who don’t have science.  There’s a difference between oral and written traditions, too. 

5.  Attitude.  The Greeks had fallible gods, and the humanists among them placed humanity on a higher level than those gods.  Societies that de-emphasize the importance of humans compared to nature or the gods tell their myths differently.  So know what your people’s attitude to people in relation to the world around them is.

Once you’ve figured out what myths they might have, make sure you get the language and tone right.  The more myth you read, the better you’ll do with this.  Myths aren’t told the same way anecdotes are.  Their language may be simple or sophisticated, but it’s not like ordina
ry language.  Give it a special flavor all its own.  Remember that most fairy tales start with “Once upon a time…”  There’s a reason for that.  Find the equivalent to “Once upon a time” for your made-up myths and stick to it.  Myth is all about pattern and structure – you’ll have to create those for the myths you make up. 

And yes, it’s perfectly okay to make a chimera from bits of many different myths.  Just make sure you smooth out all of the joins so it looks like a whole, unique tradition in its own right instead of a sloppy Frankenstein with all of the stitches showing.

There’s plenty to help you out, whether you’re wanting to use established myths or make up your own.

PART TWO RESOURCES:

The Masks of God Series by Joseph Campbell.  This is comprised of four volumes: Primitive Mythology, Oriental Mythology, Occidental Mythology, and Creative Mythology.  There is no better survey of all that’s out there than this.

Transformations of Myth Through Time by Joseph Campbell.  If you want to modernize old myths or create myths of your own, there’s no better book to help you understand how myths mutate due to changing circumstances. 

Parallel Myths by J.F. Bierlein.  For those who want the-same-only-different themes, this is a great book.  It deals with a lot of common themes in world mythologies.  It will also help you pinpoint those interests people have in common.

The Enchanted World Series by Time-Life Books.  Gorgeously illustrated and wonderfully told tales from all around the world.  This series contains just about anything you’ll ever need when it comes to myths, from folktales to major mythologies, and they’re told as fact, not fiction, which makes it all the more interesting.  You can almost believe that once upon a time, all this stuff really happened….

Hypatia Day

Hypatia of Alexandria

So I gets this message from Facebook, y’see – my Pharyngulite friend Cameron Cole inviting me to an event called Hypatia Day.  Brilliant!  A day for remembering one of the most remarkable women in history.  We need more of those.  And it’s worth punking off the Dojo till tomorrow for this.

This post is for those who just went, “Hypatia who?”  And for those who just went, “Hypatia – woo-hoo!”

I first got to know Hypatia whilst reading a book called Greek Society.  I’d been quite used to history being full of men, men, and more men.  Oh, and did I mention the men?  Sometimes it really did seem like history was his-story, with just the occasional smattering of, “Oh, and there was this cool female poet once – and did we mention these totally awesome men?”  The only ancient women I really knew were ladies like Cleopatra, and the history I’d learned concentrated more on their looks and their effect on men than on their brains.

Then came Greek Society, and this section of four pages talking about a philosopher, Hypatia of Alexandria.  Four pages, you say.  Big fucking deal.  But in a 223 page book spanning Greek history from Mycenaean civilization to the rise of Rome, four pages dedicated to one woman kinda is.

I’d never heard of her, but by the end of four pages, I was in love with her.  And Mr. Frost didn’t even talk about her that much – he spent a lot of his words setting her in context.  But he described her as having an “extravagant intelligence.”  There she was – mathematician, philosopher, astronomer – blazing like a supernova from those pages.  A woman pursuing the intellect and rationality in a very male world that at the time was beginning its slide into the Dark Ages.

Students came from all over the Hellenistic world to follow her.  Her father, Theon, a mathematician and last director of the magnificent Museion in Alexandria, admitted she overshadowed him.  Together, they wrote commentaries on such works as Ptolomey’s Almagest and Euclid’s Elements, works that went on to set the European intellectual world back on fire when they were rediscovered a thousand years later.  Enjoy rational thinking?  Tip a glass to Hypatia:

How important was the survival of Euclid’s Elements to the course of human history?  The Elements was the most influential textbook in history (Boyer, 1991, p.119).  As reformulated by Theon and Hypatia, the Elements became more than just a textbook on geometry.  It became the definitive guide on how to think clearly and reason logically.  The scientists Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton were all influenced by the Elements.  Newton’s interest in mathematics was awakened when he bought and read a copy of this book (Boyer, 1991, p. 391).  He used the style of the Elements, with formal propositions and rigorous proofs, in his Principia, the book which forms the foundation of modern physics.  All of modern mathematics employs the logical, deductive method that was introduced by the Elements.  In short, modern science and technology rests on the firm foundation laid down by Euclid’s Elements.

Yeah.  She’s all that.

All of her rationality and independence and intellect, not to mention her religious affiliation (i.e., not Christian), led a mob of Christians to murder.  Apparently, she was in the way of their brave new world.  So they stripped her naked, dragged her through the streets, and slashed her to death with pottery shards.  And the darkness got that much darker.  Politics and religion killed one of the most brilliant women in history.  Then they killed the city of Alexandria, its great library, and the intellectual genius of the ancient world.  Okay, so barbarians also had a little something to do with all that chaos and destruction, but still: vast majority of it was down to politics and religion.  Science almost didn’t survive, at least in the West.

But embers still burned, and got fanned to flame during the Renaissance.  Hypatia was so influential that Raphael wanted to put her front and center in his magnificent School of Athens.  Christianity shat on her again, refusing to allow a smart pagan woman murdered by Christians to have a part in a fresco created for the Pope’s personal library.  Raphael sneaked her in there anyway.  And there she is.  Do you see her?  She’s that elegant woman in white down towards the left who seems to stand apart from the tumult, for all she’s smack in the middle of it:

School of Athens

Someday, I really need to read up on her life.  I know so little about her.  But I know she was extraordinary, an incredible woman who took her place beside the leading intellectual lights of her day, and lead many others in her turn.  We owe it to her to tell her story.

I’m glad someone thought to give her this day.

Fear and Loathing

I’m just going to throw this out there, because I’m stymied: what scares you?

Not in general, in books, I mean.  You see, I’m trying to ensure that my main antagonist, Sha’daal, isn’t just some cheesy, generic Big Bad whose soul purpose is to provide a force for the heroes to overcome.  I know Sha’daal’s not just that.  There are aspects to that character I can’t bring out until later in the series.  In their stead, I have to ensure that when Sha’daal appears, when he’s even just mentioned, people freak out.  Or at least break out in a cold sweat.

And this is difficult because we’re not talking a human character.  I could create a terrifying human and make him believable.  Probably.  But when it comes to something inhuman, something far beyond human, I’m stymied.  I’m just not afraid of most of the templates.  Satan?  Yawn.  Most everything that’s ever appeared in fiction or literature has done nasty things, but never struck terror into my heart.  And when I tried to analyze the things that terrify me, I came to a realization that I’m just not that scared.  Worried sometimes, yeah.  But not shitting myself with fear. 

Forces of nature don’t terrify me.  I’m sure I’d be shit-scared in the midst of, oh, say, a volcanic eruption or a megathrust earthquake or watching a tsunami bear down, but it’s not like I lie awake nights shivering in terror of them.  They happen, we’ll deal or we won’t.  I’d survive or I wouldn’t.  If I die, I won’t care, now, will I?  Dead people don’t care.  If I survive, then I’ve got a job o’ work to do putting the pieces back together.  And it’s impersonal.  It doesn’t mean me, specifically, any harm.  It’s just the kind of thing that happens on a geologically active planet.  So I can’t draw on the fear of forces of nature.  Haven’t got enough.

People don’t even scare me that much.  Not after what I’ve been through in life.  Dictators can be defied (should we ever get one in America, pencil me in for the revolution).  Violent people can be avoided or stopped, and if they can’t, I’m either dead (in which case, see “don’t care” above) or I’ve survived (see “job o’ work” above).  People concern me a bit more than nature, but only a bit more.  I try to mine myself for terror there and can’t find a motherlode.  And it’s no good for Sha’daal, anyway.  He has a mind, and a form, but he’s not human.  He’s not even mortal.

Then I tried going back through books and television and movies, and came up empty.  Everything everyone’s ever thrust at me saying, “This will scare you to death!” hasn’t.  I watched The Ring and never twitched.  Got bored, actually.  Horror novels make me yawn.  I’ve not yet encountered one with the power to keep me up past my bedtime.  Certainly haven’t given me nightmares.  Hell, I’ve watched “Blink” twice now, a Doctor Who episode that has one friend of a friend so terrified of stone angels that she screams every time she sees them, and that all of my friends hold up as the scary episode par excellence, and all I got was a brief but delicious case of the creeps.  Next time I see a stone weeping angel, I’ll probably thump it and say, “I’ve got your number, you barstard.”  But I won’t flee it.

All of this is a long way of saying that soul-deep, gut-wrenching, nightmare-inducing terror is a hard thing for me to achieve.  So I need you lot.  If there’s something in a book or show or movie that’s terrified you, I’d like to know about it.  Who are your favorite Big Bads?  Who or what genuinely worried you, do you loathe, do you simultaneously love and hate the author for creating?

Temple Grandin once said she feels like an anthropologist on Mars trying to figure people out.  I’m feeling the same way trying to figure out what will truly make Sha’daal a force to be feared.  So thanks for guiding me through, my darlings.  I’ve never needed you more than now.