08 March, 2011

Dana's Dojo: Mythical Writing Part I

Today in the Dojo: Why your writing could use a heaping helping of myth.

Clearly, mythology is no toy for children. Nor is it a matter of archaic, merely scholarly concern, of no moment to modern men of action. For its symbols (whether in the tangible form of images or in the abstract form of ideas) touch and release the deepest centers of motivation, moving literate and illiterate alike, moving mobs, moving civilizations.
-Joseph Campbell, Primitive Mythology

I've been doing a lot of thinking about myth and writing lately.  I'm not talking about the myths of writing (of which there are a plethora), but the role of mythology in stories.  Reading endless amounts of Joseph Campbell will do that for you. 

This isn't a new thing.  Back in the day when I was young and callow and just starting to get a handle on what writing was, I noticed a definite pattern: my favorite books, the stories that stayed with me long after "The End", were those based on myth.  It didn't matter whether or not I'd ever heard the myth before.  It made no difference if I even recognized the mythical theme at the time.  Anything with a solid base in myth had a richness and depth that resonates years later.

And that is why I spend months out of every year reading all of the books on mythology I can get my grubby hands on.  To be an excellent writer, I must have myth.

In this three-part article, I'm going to attempt to give you the same insight and information I've had the great good fortune to acquire.  Part One explores the general idea behind mythical writing, including some useful definitions and some unexpected reasons why myth and writing go together like yeast and wheat.  Part Two will open up the world of myth, going beyond the Occident even into our own mythogenesis.  Part Three will explore some useful mythic structures.  And all three parts will include some spiffy resources you can go to for a crash course in mythology.

Are you excited?  I'm excited.  So let's get started.


First off, let's debunk a possible myth before it gets started: writing mythically doesn't mean you're writing fantasy.  I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who think that only fantasy writers use mythology in their writing.  And it's true that some of the greatest mythologically-based books have been fantasy books: J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Neil Gaiman's American Gods, Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood tales, Patricia A. McKillip's Riddle-Master trilogy....  I could go on all night.  But the list of great books based on myth does not begin and end in the fantasy section of the book store.  Check out this list:

Ulysses by James Joyce (Fiction & Literature)

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse (Fiction & Literature)

No Exit and Three Other Plays by Jean-Paul Sartre (Fiction & Literature or Drama/Theatre)

The Haunted Mesa by Louis L'Amour (Westerns)

Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman (Mystery)

The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukov (Science-Physics)

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (Classics)

Does it surprise you to see an author of popular Westerns and a book on physics in there?  Then it's really going to shock you to know that the great Christian author Dante Alighieri drew just as heavily on Islamic stories as he did Christian ones.  Islam's influence is all over The Divine Comedy

So now that I've somewhat proven that mythology underlies some of the best writing of all times and all genres, creeping into places you'd never expect to find it, let me attempt to define what mythology is.

In this context, no matter what your beliefs may be, you must understand that Christianity, Islam, and every other religion qualifies as myth and will be discussed as such.  This brings me to the second myth to debunk: Calling something a myth doesn't mean it's not important.  On the contrary, mythology is extremely important to us.  We use mythology to understand, to inspire, and sometimes to enlighten.  We're not talking the kind of myths the Mythbusters bust.

Let this become our definition:  At core, myth is a story we tell to make sense of the world and people. 

People need symbols, and they need stories.  Mythology provides both.  And since it's been around for so long, we tend to recognize the symbols in those stories pretty easily, even if we can't isolate them.  In fact, Carl Jung and others believed that certain mythic symbols are part of our common heritage, found in the dreams of people who had never heard of the original myths that contained them.  H.R. Ellis Davidson points out in Gods and Myths of Northern Europe that the symbols found in everything from fairy tales to epic myths  "may be borrowed... by one religious system from another, but the reason why they are retained and develop such vigorous life in the new context seems to be due to the deep appeal which they possess to the human mind.  They express something of the desires, urges, and fears common to men of every age....  Thus it is that when we meet them in a legend or in poetic imagery, we experience immediate recognition of their rightness and power."

Now, that's power.

A lot of comparative religion has explored the commonalities between widely disparate mythologies.  Some use those commonalities to prove that their myths are"true" (meaning factual history, like a great flood that actually wiped out a good portion of humanity), but those who do are sadly mistaken.  Those commonalities aren't there because of some dimly-remembered event: they're there because they reflect how the human brain functions.  They provide a pattern that helps us understand things like birth, death, and life.  They're patterns that our minds find easy to recognize.  Even those myths that are based in historical fact, like the siege of Troy, are just using an event to say something a lot more meaningful about what it means to be human than "yeah, there was this war, and a lot of interesting stuff happened."  Myth means that the war becomes more than an armed conflict, two people's courtship is more than a story to tell the grandkids; indeed, myth can elevate any story one can tell from anecdote to philosophy of life.

That's why myth is so vitally important to writing.  The best writers understand that salting their tale with a myth or two makes all the difference.  Following mythic structure can take an otherwise ordinary tale and turn it extraordinary.  It might be as obvious as retelling the myth with all the original names in a new setting, or as subtle as setting a callow youth on a modern-day Odyssey through the streets of Dublin.  It's up to you just how much myth you use, and how identifiable it will be.

However you choose to use it, though, myth can give your stories more depth, resonance and meaning than you ever believed you could manage.

Before we close Part One, I'm going to gloss the major Occidental myths: Greek, Roman, and Christian.  This is because the resources for those are vast, obvious, and probably well known to you.  That doesn't mean that you should avoid using them.  By all means, if your story wants to follow the structure of Lucifer's fall, or Prometheus' theft from the gods, or Romulus and Remus founding Rome, go for it.  Even the most well-treaded paths can reveal something fresh through new eyes.  It doesn't even have to be spectacular and original.  After all, these stories have been around for thousands of years because people enjoy them.  They're easily recognized, which can be very useful for writing.  It's always nice when we don't have to spend a hundred pages explaining something.  If you use a myth commonly known, you have a lot less work to do on basic structure and a lot of freedom to play with other things.  Just be careful not to let your archetypes become stereotypes.

So, I've (hopefully) won you over with my semi-coherent reasons why you should write with myth in mind, but you don't know all that much about mythology.  Not a problem.  Outside of the obvious sources, here are a few general resources that will give you plenty of material to start out with:


The Joy of Sects by Peter Occhiogrosso.  You know from the title that this book is going to be wonderfully tongue-in-cheek.  It's a lively survey of world religion, covering all the major ones both East and West in a fashion entertaining enough to keep you from waking up in your chair with a drool-sodden book over your face.

Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia edited by Richard Cavendish.  A gorgeous survey of world mythology written by experts in the field.  It covers all of the well-known traditions and provides articles on many that you may not have known about at all.  An excellent introduction to the subject.

Mythology by Edith Hamilton.  This book mostly deals in Greek and Roman mythology, but it's also got a bit on the major Norse myths.  Edith knows her stuff, and she makes even the most well-known Greek and Roman tales seem fresh and new.

1 comment:

Lyle said...

Perhaps the greatest myth used in a lot of stories is the path of the everyday hero. An ordinary person is presented with a challenge that takes him/her to places where they did not think they could go. You might have a look at the book, as it provides the basic myth for a lot of stories.
I learned about this in a creativity session many years ago.