Is it Live or Mythological?


A few months back, I mentioned that I would address the concept of spec fiction that deviated from mythological roots.  I realize this is a somewhat contentious issue and many authors may feel differently than I do – but fuck it, it’s my blog, so I’ll say what I want.

Mythology is one of those awesome part of a writers toolkit; it contains romance, father-son strife, monsters, acts of heroism, and all other aspects of the human experience.  It also has good concepts of origin stories, world-building, and apocalypse scenarios.  Western mythology, especially Greek mythology, is firmly entrenched in the foundation of first-world society, and is woven through the fabric of our culture.  Its facets are identifiable and relatable to readers.   Is it any wonder writers love incorporating it?  And writers being what they are, tend to take some liberties with the body of work.

(Muse:  Uh, ain’t no one taking liberties with this mythological body.)

Quiet, you.  The fact is that when writers take that incredible mass of tales and works, they warp them to fit their own stories.  You see in work such as the Percy Jackson series or in the Clash of the Titans movies, both versions.  Minotaurs and medusae (plural, since the both titles originally referred to one monster) run loose in tabletop role-playing games and video games.  The mythology written in Marvel’s Thor comics deviates significantly from the original Norse (and Greek, Egyptian, Celtic, Hindu, and others, for that matter).  Tolkein’s and Michael Moorcock’s works were heavily influenced by Norse and Finnish mythology, respectively.  Even Stephen King incorporated (highlight for spoiler) Greek goddess Persephone as his antagonist in Duma Key.  In no case did the authors/creators stick strictly to the original tales.

And is that wrong?

Well, according so some authors, yes.  A sample:

Rick Riordan screwed up Greek myths in Percy Jackson
Marvel screwed up Norse myths in Thor
The Mummy got everything wrong about Egyptian mythology
Hollywood screwed up everything in Immortals (somewhat true; myths aside, the movie was awful)

And I have spoken with some authors who feel like this an offense on par with plagiarism.  But again, I ask:  so what?

I fall in the camp that fiction authors have exactly one duty:  they have to tell the best story they can, that comes from their heart.  They are writing entertainment, or maybe something that makes people think.  They aren’t writing reference books, they aren’t writing textbooks, where accuracy is not only desirable but compulsory.

Ah, but I hear you say, what about other accuracy?  Do good authors not go to great lengths to provide details that add realism?  If a scene is set in a smithy, and they are unable to describe an anvil, does it not detract?  I agree, it does, but there is a key difference.  Anvils exist.  Smithies exist.  Medieval cottages exist(ed).  People cook real chickens over fires.  Et cetera.  Myths?  They were made up to begin with.

I guess I just find it hard to believe that we can shift a story to an alternate earth where magic or walking zombies are accepted without a glance – but because someone had a yellow-haired God of Thunder instead of a red-headed one, that the story is somehow less authentic.  In any event, who is to say the myths aren’t authentic to the world in which they take place?

And even this is situational.  If a story involves a literature professor who is on the run from vampires and he has to remember the password to the safe containing the blow-up doll that glows ultraviolet in the dark which he will use to seduce the vampire king and then fry him, and is told the password is the name of the Greek hero who slew the Hydra, it would best if it were accurate to understanding of the world.  (It’s Hercules, by the way.)  But that’s detail, not driving plot device.

Making a mountain of a molehill?  Perhaps I am.  I just don’t feel this is a big deal.  I do love the richness and depth of mythological tradition, and not just those of western cultures.  The ramayana is one of my favorite epics.  But as I look at all those tales, all that information, the wealth of wonderful ideas … and I can’t help but steal it, bend it, make it my own.

And those mythical characters would want me to.