Dueling Myths

Before I start the post, just want to let you know that, with help, I’ve become more active on social media. If you’re interested in more of me than this blog and my website offer, you can find me on Instagram at gailcarsonlevine. You’ll see my dog, my husband (though he’s camera shy), our backyard, and what I’ve been up to, including a little about the summer writing workshop, which just ended.

On July 5, 2017, Moryah wrote, I have a situation and an issue. There’s this object, and two groups of people lay claim to it. Both think their claim is legitimate, and my protag is trying to find out the truth (more or less). The object is fairly ancient and steeped in myth on both sides. My problem is that I don’t know how to write a myth, much less two that conflict in just the right places and therefore lend credibility to two different claims. Also, I don’t know what, precisely, the object does (though I know what it is) or what the two groups THINK the object does or why the two groups want it. (You can probably tell I’m not a planner.)

Lots of you had ideas.

Inktail: Well, imo, there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to write a myth. If it’s a sort of creation myth, I would recommend the book In the Beginning by Virginia Hamilton. It’s a collection of old creation myths from all over the world. If it’s not a creation myth however, that is a bit trickier to recommend a book for. There are many types of myths. I’d say, go to your local library and just do a search for myths. Many will most likely come up; grab whatever seems like it would help!

Jenalyn Barton: I’ve never really had much trouble writing myths, so I’ve never really thought about it. But in my experience, myths are usually stories: stories made to explain something, like a phenomenon or how something came to be, stories that were originally true and grew to be bigger than the actual event (like Paul Bunyan, King Arthur, etc.), and stories about what may happen. So if you approach it as a story (which you definitely have experience with), then you should at least have a starting point to go off of.

Jenalyn Barton (again): I forgot to include examples for myths about what may happen. These are stories like Ragnarok, life-after-death stories (the Egyptian afterlife has quite an interesting story to it), and stories about prophecies.

Christie V Powell: You might consider rereading (or reading for the first time) how J. K. Rowling introduces the Hallows in Harry Potter 7. She uses a myth that she created, the tale of three brothers. I used a couple of myths in my series:

1. http://www.thespectrabooks.com/apps/blog/show/44519445-may-bonus-story-earth-s-creation

2. http://www.thespectrabooks.com/apps/blog/show/44078340-the-legend-of-aiyana

Angie: An example that comes to my mind is the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings. It’s treated rather like a mythical object, physically powerful, yet metaphorically as well, and people want it for different purposes. The story revolves around what happens to the ring, yet the characters become the meat of the story. Ultimately the object (and the way characters respond to its effects) embodies the themes of the whole series. I also agree with the suggestion to consider the Deathly Hallows and accompanying myth! The myth surrounding your object can be layered and exciting when you start thinking of the different ways people respond to it, or uses they would have for it. It would be a great way to dig into your individual characters.

Song4myKing: Another good book that includes myths is The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner. The story centers around an object, and, while the characters travel to find it, those who know the stories tell them to the others. The myths are Greek style, with gods and goddesses and all their squabbles.

I’m planning to write myths into one of my WIPs. I have two characters from different cultures, and I want them to have different explanations for something that happened long, long ago. I want them to each have part of the truth but not all. I have the “real” happening mostly figured out, and hope to write it someday in its own story. So I take that “real” event and try to run it through the lens of a couple thousand years and a cultural bias. I’m not sure yet how each character will tell it, but I have some ideas. One culture might be quick to attribute the strange events to magic, while the other might attribute them to the cleverness of a few of the people involved (along the lines of Br’er Rabbit). One culture might see the results of the event as a curse, and the other culture might see it as a blessing.

Now for ideas about your myths. Is it possible that your two groups of people might think the object will help them in their rivalry against the other? (e.g. In Redwall, they looked for the sword that was supposed to help them defend the abbey. Also, Cluny thought that the tapestry of Martin the Warrior was helping the defenders, since it was giving him nightmares). Think about your cultures – what is valued and what is wanted. Think about how the object could give what is needed. Once you know what the object does, perhaps you can figure out its “real” history, then tweak it for each group based on how they would view it and pass the story on.

These are great, and Moryah probably used everyone’s ideas and solved her problem long ago.

I want also to shout out my favorite source of myths, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, which I first read when I was little and still go back to. Hamilton includes Norse myths, but most of the book is devoted to Greek and Roman myths, and her love of them is infectious.

I’m with Jenalyn Barton’s comment that myths are stories. When they undergird a different ongoing story–in this case one with two groups claiming an object because of the disparate meanings it has for them–they’re a kind of backstory. To take Angie’s example of the ring from The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien didn’t show the forging of the ring or Sauron’s loss of it in forward story time. The reader finds out about the myth from the wizard Gandalf, but that backstory is the reason for the whole plot.

(I’m not sure, though, if the ring is really a myth in LOTR, since it’s fundamental to this entire world, and its powers and history are real. But it functions as a myth and is certainly backstory.)

I confess I’m not familiar with all the examples you guys raised, but I am a fan of Megan Whelan Turner. So I don’t know how most of the myths operate in these books. Since I know it, let’s compare the ring saga in LOTR with, say, the Robin Hood myth. The entire world of LOTR depends on the ring’s backstory, and everyone’s future depends on the success of Frodo’s quest. In the Robin Hood myth, by contrast, the thief’s adventures affect only those close to him, and most of medieval life goes on and will continue to go on, with or without him.

If we’re using myths, they need to be part of our world building. So a consideration when we think about creating them is how fundamental they are to the universe of our story. Our world certainly has to accommodate the myth. At the very least, it has to be comprehensible to its inhabitants, but they don’t all have to know the story. At the most, it needs to be woven into the fabric of every life.

We get to choose which. If our story needs a myth for two different groups, the myth’s importance can be different for each. Or the same.
I love this stuff! So much opportunity for invention!

Lots of myths start out as religions. The Greek and Roman myths (which are related) and the Norse myths are examples. If that’s the case in our world, we have to create a religion, too, which doesn’t have to be fleshed out in our story–we don’t have to develop a creation myth, for example, if we don’t need one, but we have to make up enough of the religion for our own use to imagine what the mythology might be. For example, let’s imagine that the supreme god of one group is a dragon and the other group worships a pantheon of heavenly chivalric knights. The object might be an enormous round steel plate. The dragon worshipers regard it as a scale from the dragon’s neck, while the pantheon believers believe it’s the breastplate from a suit of armor of their most major god.

Some myths are cautionary tales. Christie V Powell’s second link is an example. Fairy tales, which can be seen as a subset of myths, often resolve in a moral: be kind; knuckle under; be beautiful–and all will end well. As another example, “Little Red Riding Hood” is a thinly veiled warning about talking to strangers. One of the groups can have this sort of myth attached to the object. Their system of morality can depend on it.

I love myths as exaggerated history. An example in our own hallowed history is the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, which I learned as factual when I was in elementary school. First published in 1806, it lasted as truth in New York City at least into the 1950s. It’s a reassuring story about virtue in our leaders.

If we’re going to invent this kind of myth for one of the groups, we need to think about what the myth does for the population. Suppose that famine is common here. Well, we might want a myth that exaggerates the feats of a Johnny Appleseed sort of figure, a farmer with the analog of an enormous green thumb, and our object might be a rake or a scythe. A scythe is a nice choice because the shape is simple and can lend itself to a different meaning by the other group.

Then there are myths that support the dark side of humanity. I’ve been researching the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and have begun a historical novel set in this time period. In my reading, I’ve come across the underpinnings of modern antisemitism that culminated in the Holocaust. Some of these roots take the form of myth. For example, there was the myth that Jews poisoned the wells Christians drank from. This one rises out of the spread of the plague. Recent research suggests that plague pandemics were spread, not by rats, but by airborne bacteria, and Jews suffered less than the general population–because they were confined in ghettos and had less contact with infected people. Also, Jewish rites incorporated a lot of washing, which was protective. But no one knew about bacteria at the time, so the well myth rose up to both explain the disease’s seeming selectivity and to pin the scourge on an already despised people. The myth of one of the groups could operate in this negative way.

The well-poisoning myth is a dark example of myths to explain natural phenomena, like volcanos, earthquakes. As a further subset, the myth might personify a feature of the environment. A mountain may be believed to be angry, for example. In my mystery Stolen Magic, a replica of a mountain keeps the mountain from erupting as long as the replica is kept on its stand.

So there’s a lot to choose from.

Here are four prompts, but you can build plenty more on the myth variants above:

∙ Invent two different myths about a scythe, and give the scythe two different powerful effects.

∙ Write a story in which the myth operates as a sort of villain, much as the well-poisoning myth did in European history.

∙ Write a contemporary story about an MC on a quest to prove that elves really exist.

∙ Write a cautionary myth that warns people against squandering money. Then write a counter myth that warns people against being miserly.

Have fun, and save what you write!