Thursday, August 29, 2013

Like a Trojan

   As I prepare lessons for my first creative-writing students, I have been thinking quite a lot on how mythology has influenced our culture and literature over the years. From the myths of the Greeks and Romans to the tales of the Norse gods, we've carried away countless, faint impressions. One could never speak today of opening Pandora's box and expect anyone to understand the term unless we knew that the world has some understanding (however vague) of the tale. Telling you that controlling his temper was  my character's Achilles' Heel would gain me a blank stare if you had never heard the reference to that Myth before. In one of her recent letters, Jenny reminded me that if one wants to get anywhere in literature, one must have a sound knowledge of the Myths. Why? Because whether you'd like to acknowledge it or not, our culture--our entire concept of story--has roots in the Myths. The Iliad and The Odyssey were actually the first foray into the world of personalized story, since formerly the tales had revolved strictly around the Greek gods. In these two epics, human involvement is cultivated and thus you have the start of the first novelistic literature in history.
    Fairytale is another form of Myth that has heavily influenced our culture and our ideas of what constitutes a good story. How many books, movies, and plays can you think of in which fairytales are referenced, rewritten, or outright copied?
   But cultural mythology is not the only basis on which we build story. There is, of course, what secularists calls "biblical mythology" but that which I call the biblical pattern. The difference in my view and the secularists is, of course, that I believe the tales in the Bible to be one hundred percent true, while the others would tend to say that they are no more true than cultural mythology is true. But whatever you wish to call it, mythology, pattern, example, what no one will deny is that the Bible has influenced literature quite as much as any other mythology. I think this is part of what fascinates me about story: we are living a story as well as writing stories, and as authors we have the capability to reflect The Story in our stories. This is the concept on which books like John Eldredge's Epic and Dorothy L. Sayers' The Mind of the Maker are based; it is a concept well worth considering, not only for a better understanding on the foundations on which we stand, but also as a fount of inspiration for plotting purposes.
   As you know, I am entering Anne Elisabeth Stengl's Five Glass Slippers contest; to enter, you must write a novella based on the tale of Cinderella. At first I thought, "what could be simpler?" - indeed, it seemed an attractive assignment, since skeletons are always my Kryptonite. (Oh look: another mythological reference!) What could be simpler than basing a novella on the story of Cinderella? There are, of course, a myriad of ways one could twist the plot to come up with a new telling of the tale, and you've already got principle characters, a series of events, and a solution. This is exactly the reason I am working madly on two very different stories, hoping one will take precedence so I don't have to juggle two contest pieces in conjunction with my own WIP.  (Driftfire and The Windy Side of Care) It got me to thinking though, what a resource mythology can be to a writer. This should be evident to the person of average intelligence, but having never tried it myself, I had not taken seriously enough the fact that in mythology we are handed the bones to stories that have endured for hundreds of generations. In addition to the convenience with which one could ease a plot over the skeletal structure of a Myth, there is another attraction to basing a story off another story:
   People like to think themselves clever, you know. We like to recognize ourselves or our favorite things -whatever they are- in the world. There is not a person I know who fails to feel a certain personal pride in their favorite actor's accomplishment of another blockbuster movie. Or an Olympian from one's own country winning a medal; surely you've felt that you were a part of that triumph, somehow. In the same manner, we like to have ownership in a story. So when you can, for instance, build a story off of a popular structure but add your own flavor to the brew, your reader will be drawn in immediately. "I know this story!" they'll think, then add: "Only not quite. I must keep reading, but what a jolly good job she's doing with my old favorite!" 
   Of course I am not presenting an opinion that every book someone writes ought to hearken back to a Myth or a Bible story, but I am pointing out that the thing is available. There are as many or more variations for a story as there are stories in the world, and they are all for the taking. When I began to think of how one could present the Cinderella story in a way it has not been done before, I started to wonder if it was possible. But then I remembered the ways filmmakers have found to present new versions of classic favorites over the years, and my spirits rose again. Below, I've listed several, and the stories they were built off of:

Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? (The Odyssey)
Kiss me, Kate (The Taming of The Shrew)
Ever After (Cinderella, though that is obvious)
Bridget Jones's Diary (Pride and Prejudice)
My Fair Lady (Pygmalion)

   So you see, it's not a new idea, and some (like My Fair Lady) have enjoyed ongoing success, bringing the classic mythology to new viewers, readers, and generations. Now I'm going to get off my soapbox, dust my hands, and dig in to my Cinderella-esque stories to do some actual work! Cheers, y'all!
" Had no one thought it mildly suspicious that the sequence of events followed a logical criminal course? Unhappy man marries coldly beautiful woman. Beautiful woman shapes up rather nasty. Unhappy man unhappier than ever. Beautiful woman unhappy as well. Three short weeks, digitalis in the wine, oops, he’s dead! Uh-oh. Poor dear child, let’s see what we can do with her in the meantime. " -The Windy Side of Care

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