Posts Tagged ‘myth’

Guy Gavriel Kay is, for me, one of the truly great and unusual voices in fantasy. His work has an incredible richness of character and description that keeps me exhilarated through slow paced stories. His use of fantasy to provide slight twists on historical settings, shining light on the roots of our world, is endlessly fascinating.

So it was with a certain trepidation that I started reading The Summer Tree, the first book in Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry. On the one hand, at only 400 pages this would be a relatively quick Kay read, allowing me to enjoy his writing without investing as much time. On the other hand, from what I’d heard this early work did not live up to the standards of his current writing. I settled in with uncertain expectations.

Rich in Myth

The Summer Tree tells the story of five Canadians snatched away from our world and transported to the magical world of Fionavar. There they become involved in a struggle for the future. There is political turmoil in the court of Brennin, a bastion of light and civilisation. Meanwhile, dark forces are returning in the north.

Morally, it’s a less sophisticated narrative than Kay’s later works. There are clear forces of good and evil. We empathise with the good and not the bad. It’s very much a world of myth and legend.

In this regard, it shows the heavy influence of J R R Tolkien, whose Silmarillion Kay had recently helped to edit. Like The Lord of the Rings, there are hints at deeper legends, a large cast of characters both on and off the page, and divine forces lurking in the background.

Characters of Power

Like Tolkien, Kay in the The Summer Tree is concerned with people who have great destinies, however high or low their roots. From before the characters arrive in Fionavar it is clear that they are people of significance there. I’m not a fan of the use of destinies and chosen ones in fantasy, but it is in keeping with the mythical tone of the book.

In terms of empowering people, this book therefore featured two of my least favourite fantasy tropes – destiny and interventionist gods. Yet despite this, I found it engrossing.

A large part of the pleasure comes from the characters. They aren’t all as interesting as each other, and the women in particular feel less well developed, a sin I fall guilty of in some of my own writing. But characters such as Paul Schafer and Prince Diarmuid are rich and fascinating, their existence defined in relation to other people and their pasts, as our own lives are. I really enjoyed spending time with them.

Good by Any Standard

The Summer Tree is a good fantasy novel. The world is well developed, the characters interesting, and the mythical content, while not quite to my tastes, is well executed. Given developments in both fantasy and Kay’s writing since, I’d have trouble calling this great, but compared to the genre in general it is very good, and I look forward to seeing where the story goes.

If that’s got you intrigued, I’ll be discussing this book further later in the week.

Sometimes we do best by listening to the wisdom of others. So today I’m going to take a back seat and share some wisdom from everwalker, who has forgotten more than I’ll ever know about the power of myth and story archetypes. Take it away…

 

myth chart

How many stories can you think of? One hundred? Five hundred? A thousand? In 2013 1,444 films were released worldwide, and approximately 2.2 million books published (not counting self-publishing, which accounted for 391,000 in the US alone. That’s a lot of stories, right?

According to Christian Booker, there’s only seven. In his book The Seven Basic Plots – Why We Tell Stories, he says:

“Wherever men and women have told stories, all over the world, the stories emerging to their imaginations have tended to take shape in remarkably similar ways… There are indeed a small number of plots which are so fundamental to the way we tell stories that it is virtually impossible for any story-teller ever entirely to break away from them.”

Booker is far from the first person to posit this theory. Dr Samuel Johnson and Goethe were both before him, but we don’t have any surviving texts of theirs that go into detail.

Booker’s list of basic plots, then, is as follows:

  1. Overcoming the monster: the hero sets out to destroy a great evil threatening the land.
    Examples: Perseus, Beowulf, Dracula, Harry Potter
  2. Rags to riches: the hero defies oppressive forces and blossoms into a mature figure who wins riches and the perfect mate.
    Examples: Joseph, Cinderella, Pygmalion, Superman
  3. The quest: the hero sets out to find something, usually with companions.
    Examples: The Aeneid, Pilgrim’s Progress, Treasure Island, Lord of the Rings
  4. Voyage and return: the hero sets off into a distant land with strange rules, survives the madness, and returns home more mature than when he set out.
    Examples: Orpheus, Goldilocks, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Chronicles of Narnia
  5. Comedy: the protagonists are destined to be together but dark forces intervene. The story conspires to make those forces relent and everyone is seen for who they really are.
    Examples: The Wasps, Much Ado About Nothing, Pride and Prejudice, Four Weddings and a Funeral
  6. Tragedy: the protagonist spirals slowly down into darkness and is finally defeated.
    Examples: Medusa, Faust, Dorian Grey, Lolita
  7. Rebirth: as with tragedy, but the protagonist realises his error and changes his ways.
    Examples: Orestes, The Snow Queen, A Christmas Carol, Star Wars

For me, this leaves two questions: why do we feel compelled to use the same building blocks over and over and over again, despite the changes in social structure and cultural norms? And is it something to be embraced or fought against?

seven-basic

The first question is pretty fundamental to the idea of storytelling in general. Why do we tell them at all? As a means of communication, sure, but what are we communicating? Well, generally it’s about how to live well. Stories tell us where we came from, where we are now, and how to make the best future possible. They give us social guidelines and behavioural models. Those that don’t play by the rules of the story – the villains and tragic figures – get cast out as being detrimental to the community. The details have changed to accommodate different times and cultures, but the necessity for a working communal structure remains. Thus the stories endure. There is more nuance to it, of course. Shared stories bring us together as individuals, and provide an accessible template for self-identity.

And there’s the problem. We have individual identities with egos and selfish impulses that can easily become damaging to the wider community. Stories are a tool to remind us of the ‘right’ way to behave in order to achieve the sense of belonging that we also, conflictingly, crave. They not only show us how to build a community, they also soothe that part of us which doesn’t want to.

So, should we be railing against the uniformity of our stories? Trying desperately to find an eight original plot? To be honest, I’m not sure we should. Yes, it would be nice to come up with something completely and brilliantly new but sticking to the building blocks hasn’t done people like C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling any harm. In many ways it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If, at a subconscious level, we have an expectation that stories will follow certain patterns then any that don’t run a serious risk of being unsatisfying. Besides, the fundamental need for a community that works, and a sense of belonging, is probably stronger now than ever. In this over-communicating society, connecting with people outside of cyberspace is a major challenge. Those building blocks might be a bit warn but we aren’t done with them yet.

 

EsoterX, who blogs about monsters, recently wrote an interesting post about gremlins. It explains how their myth arose from people coping with the hazards of manned flight. It got me thinking about how we relate technology to myths in fiction, particularly sci-fi, and how that maybe misses the point.

The psychology of gremlins

Gremlins started out as a way for early airforce pilots to cope with problems with their machines. They needed to be able to face flying, even knowing that their planes might not work right, and that this could kill them. To do that, they needed to feel like they could affect their machines, reducing the chance of problems. They weren’t experts in the complex reality of the problems, so they quickly latched onto the idea of gremlins, creatures that made their machines break down, and that they could appease. That appeasement gave them a feeling of control, letting them face flying. Faith in a myth was a response to technology.

If I was flying one of these, I'd believe in anything that kept me aloft

If I was flying one of these, I’d believe in anything that kept me aloft – photo by Elsie esq. on a creative commons attribution licence

Ye olde tradition in a modern world

In science fiction, that relationship between superstition and technology is usually shown in a very different way. Star Trek Deep Space Nine, for example, explores the faith of the people of Bajor. While this faith is shown to have material roots, it is still depicted as an old tradition, an ancient institution that modern Bajorans respond to. There is no mythological or superstitious response to the technology and society they face. They don’t explain transporter malfunctions using gremlins.

The same thing applies in a lot sci-fi. Faith in something unseen, whether religion or superstition or the spaghetti man in the woods, is something the characters have picked up from old traditions, not a response to their world. Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles depicts Catholics, but no superstitions surrounding the portal into the past that allows the saga to happen.

The legend that is Whedon

If I have faith in any modern cultural force then it’s Joss Whedon, so it’s no surprise that he’s at least bucked this trend a little. The Reavers in Firefly provoke an almost superstitious response from characters. These violent lunatics have a legendary quality, and the characters’ responses to them are similar to our responses to the supernatural. Stories about them have an air of exaggeration.

But even here, Joss wants us to believe that the stories are rooted in truth, that the Reavers really are that bad. The root of their myth lies in their origin story, as revealed in Serenity, not in the way people respond to them.

So what?

EsoterX’s gremlin article provides a great example of our relationship with mythology, and one I’m now totally going to use in a sci-fi story. It shows how superstitions are something we still invent in response to problems we can’t solve for ourselves. In a world where both society and technology are increasingly complex, we face more of those problems, not less. We should expect superstition to keep springing up long into the future, not just to be a relic we cling to.

Speculative fiction isn’t just about technology, it’s about human responses to it. And mythology seems like a response we should depict more.

As always, if you have any thoughts, please share them below.