Monday, January 7, 2008

Mythology Is Important

One of the first things any aspiring writer hears is "READ!!"

Well, okay. Read what? Read crap, and learn from it? Read the bestseller list? What Oprah recommends?

I say read the classics. And start with the oldest you can find--Classical mythology, the Bible, all that good ancient stuff. Like it or not, that is the foundation of Western literature (sorry, Easterners...I don't know squat about your mythology). They are the source of much of the symbolism and allusion in novels even now, even thousands of years later. When you're solid on the ancient classics, move up, chronologically. Get to work on Shakespeare and Beowulf and then check out the Romantics and then onward.

Don't stop reading contemporary writing, of course. Just make sure you're getting a healthy dose of Old Stuff all the time. It will affect you subtly, believe me.

Now, you can dismiss this, probably, since it comes from the girl who writes fairy tales and myths. But because I've spent so much time studying mythology, I can see how deeply these archetypal tales pervade our modern storytelling. Yes, many of them come with a moral: the gods are ruthless manipulators and we are just their puppets, like the Iliad and the Odyssey tell us. But these moralistic stories are, as I said before, archetypes. They provide a framework upon which to build.

See, these myths and early dramas tell us something very basic about ourselves. Take Euripedes' Medea. Guy cheats on his wife, so she flips out and...kills everybody. Basically, it's an illustration of the quote, "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned." (Shakespeare stole this from William Congreve, by the way. And they stole it from Euripides.) Or take the story of Prometheus--guy steals fire from the gods and ends up getting his liver torn out every day, forever. What does that show us? We're curious creatures even when the consequences are potentially drastic.

These stories are often pretty basic in their original forms--we as the reader must supply some of the color for the ancient play or epic to read like a modern novel. The fact is, literature 2000 years ago wasn't as fully realized or studied as it is today, and literature now isn't as fully realized as it will be in 2000 years. Take ancient myths as what they are: foundations.

I think that's my attraction to retellings. I like to take ancient stories and read between the lines, find the parts of the stories that compel us to tell them over and over, for generations. And I like to enhance that. Sooner or later, I'll branch out into fully original stories, but my strong base in mythology will shape everything I write.

The mythology we study is centuries old, but for writers, it's as relevant now as it was when it was first being formed, thousands of years ago. So please. Respect your cultural ancestors and read. Their. Stories. All your fiction will be the stronger for it--whether it is traditional "speculative fiction" or not.

14 comments:

Jordan said...

Archetypes make me happy :)

Good show Vanessa. I totally agree that being widely read is essential for writers, no matter what the genre. Why waste a good several-thousand-year tradition?

Standing on the shoulders of giants, that's what Sir Issac Newton said (in fact stole, from Bernard of Chartres).

Vanessa Concannon said...

Exactly. I totally could talk about this for like ten more posts. Literary fantasy...coming soon, I swear. I just have to build up to it.

Meggy said...

I think you meannt aspring writers where you said aspiring readers.

Anyway, interesting post.

Meggy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bethany said...

When I was in elementry school, the library had two big books of mythology, I checked them out like once a month. I also liked Bible stories, though really in the exact same way as mythology. I guess overall I just liked STORIES. But Mythology was great. I didn't ever like having to read it in class though, because it seemed like there were only like two stories thatwe read every year. . .

Vanessa Concannon said...

Oops, thanks, Meggy.

Dreamer3702 said...

I love mythology. Ovid's Metamorphisis (sp?) is the best. It can get complicted, but its worth the read. The Complete Idiots Guide to Mythology is worth reading too. Believe it or not, it was actually one of the required books for a classical mythology course I took.

Trish Doller said...

Greek mythology figures very heavily in my WIP :)

Sophie W. said...

I am in love with Norse and Celtic mythology, so I just had to add druids into my second WIP. :D

Vanessa Concannon said...

I actually haven't read all of the Metamorphoses...weird, I know. I tend to prefer Greek mythology to Roman, that's probably why. Euripides, he's my man.

Norse and Celtic mythology really interests me, too, I think I just didn't have the exposure to it at such a young age. So I must soon embark on researching THAT. Tall order, much?

:D My WIP has a lot of mythology in it, weirdly...?

althrasher said...

These are excellent points! I think people don't even realize how much the Bible and mythology contribute to thier thinking until they start reading them.

Sophie W. said...

You must must must research Norse and Celtic mythology!! It is the best thing ever!

My favorite story is the one of Freya, who wanted some bling, and slept with seven dwarfs to get it. :D I love her. Heehee.

If you haven't already, I'd invest in The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology. I think it's published by Hermes House. It covers all sorts of mythology from the Eastern world. I read it religiously.

Jordan said...

I love how the same stories appear in mythologies all over the world. The death of the sun in the winter and its rebirth in the spring, the triple goddess--maiden, mother and crone. Vast floods wiping out entire civilizations. Carl Jung's studies in archetypes and the collective subconscious, how what we dream at night relates to thousands of years of mythology...fascinating. Makes me feel not so alone in the world, to know that we all dream the same dreams, and have since the beginning of time.

darth333vader said...

A chroniclemaster by any screename will smell as sweet. Hi!

I totally agree. The Bible and other mythologies form part of the world view that you can't ever get outside of. It's like those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. You can be controlled by the ideas, or you can study and be empowered by them.

Personally, I hate encyclopedias though. These aren't topics, they're stories. I prefer the original poetry or a nice thick collection.