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The Malleability of Myth -- by Rick Ellrod

Our stories are always built on other stories.  We draw not only on real life, but on all the other tales, tropes, and archetypes that we've encountered.

Some of those stories are especially powerful.  They express patterns that seem particularly meaningful to us.  Tolkien and Lewis called these "myth"—not in the sense of something false,  a “lie breathed through silver,” but in the sense of something fundamental.

Some mythologies are works of imagination:  the Greek or Norse gods, Superman, Star Wars.  Some may be built on elements of truth:  the fall of Troy, King Arthur.  Some may be literally true, though we can select parts of the overall story and express them in imaginative terms—for example, the tales of the American Revolution (Hamilton or 1776,) or what Lewis called the Christian myth (The Prince of Egypt, The Nativity Story).

Whatever their sources, all these tales make up a reservoir of plots, characters, themes, and locales on which authors draw—our cultural inheritance.  In his famous essay On Fairy-Stories, J.R.R. Tolkien described it this way:  “Speaking of the history of stories and especially of fairy-stories we may say that the Pot of Soup, the Cauldron of Story, has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits . . .”  (Pp. 26-27 as reprinted in The Tolkien Reader (Ballantine, 1966); p. 10 in this online reproduction of the full text.)

A good storyteller does not simply repeat a story verbatim.  We give it our own spin or flavor.  In doing so, we draw from the Cauldron elements from all sorts of other tales.  As they say, “When you take stuff from one writer it’s plagiarism, but when you take from many writers it’s called research.”

This is true even when we purport to be retelling an existing story.  The great tales tend to be open to reshaping.  But how far can we go with this sort of adaptation, and still claim to be retelling the original tale?  How much stretching and twisting can a given story take before it becomes something else altogether?


The best example may be the Arthuriad, the mythology of the Arthurian tales.  But that's so large a subject that it deserves a discussion of its own.  A more manageable example is the story of Robin Hood.

One thing that helps us feel free to adapt is the lack of a single, "canonical" original version of the story.  Any presentation of The Lord of the Rings—the movie, for example—will be judged against Tolkien's book.  But there is no unique original source for Robin Hood.  The earliest sources are a variety of medieval ballads, according to Wikipedia’s extensive discussion.

When I went in search of a standard version of the Robin Hood tale for my children's library, there was no single obvious choice.  There is an influential Howard Pyle version, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood—I haven’t read it, but apparently it’s written in an invented antique English idiom that might not be ideally accessible to young people.  I ended up with Roger Lancelyn Green's 1956 The Adventures of Robin Hood, which struck me as a good, middle-of-the-road retelling on which to start a young person.


There are enough different elements in the Robin Hood story to allow for a range of  interpretations.  On the surface, there's the sheer romance of a band of rough but virtuous rogues living cheerfully in the forest:  the "Merry Men" theme. There is the legendary adept or quasi-superhero element:  Best Bowman Ever.  (At least, "best" until you get to Katniss Everdeen, Hawkeye, (Green) Arrow, and other successors -- all of whom owe something to the Robin Hood archetype.)

There are also political themes.  The conflict between underdog Saxons and Norman aristocrats got tossed into the Cauldron in the nineteenth century, according to Wikipedia.  More specifically, Robin is often seen as defending the absent Richard the Lionhearted against Prince John's machinations.  And of course one can focus on the economic aspect, robbing from the rich to give to the poor, and make Robin a hero of the 99% against the 1%.  The tale generally includes a strong romantic element as well.

We can see how these elements can be differently mixed in some of the movie versions, all of which are fairly successful.


In the Errol Flynn classic The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Robin is good-humored and high-spirited.  Merriment abounds; the dashing Robin treats much of the action almost frivolously—“Where’s your love of fights, risk, adventure?”  He fights with a smile, like John Carter.  Marian says:  “he’s brave and he’s reckless, and yet he’s gentle and kind.”  In keeping with this light touch, much of the soundtrack music has an antic air.  Robin is an expert bowman, of course; we see this especially in the tournament/trap sequence (which seems to have been too frivolous to be used in the later movies, below).

The plot gives us Saxons versus Normans, with Robin a Saxon nobleman (though he had traditionally been portrayed as a yeoman).  In this version, the Sheriff of Nottingham is a fat fool; the villains are Prince John and Guy of Gisborne.  Richard is a noble and honorable king, though he has to be reminded of his homeland duties by Robin.  His return is protracted, and the politics is internal.  Robin (and Marian) speak for one England, not Normans against Saxons, under the one true king.  The climactic battle scene is essentially a civil war—John’s supporters against Richard’s.

Maid Marian is a pampered Londoner, a royal ward, though she comes over to Robin’s side promptly when he shows her the sufferings of the poor.  As usual, there is a competitor for her hand—in this case, Guy.  This Marian is not an action heroine.  She arranges the plan to save Robin from hanging after his capture, but it’s his men who execute the rescue.  The love story is a central thread, and the film ends with Robin and Marian rushing off from the celebration together.


Robin Hood:  Prince of Thieves, starring Kevin Costner (1991), presents a more serious treatment.  Wikipedia describes it, accurately, as a “romantic action adventure.”  The Merry Men angle appears only vestigially, befitting Costner's somewhat dour screen presence.  The Expert Archer trope certainly makes its appearance, as Robin makes progressively more unlikely bowshots to save the day.

Costner’s Robin is again an aristocrat, allying himself with the downtrodden when he returns from the Crusades.  (The notion that Robin had been on crusade with Richard is unusual:  he is usually seen as being driven to outlawry while Richard is away.)  We have the traditional Saxon-Norman conflict, complicated by throwing in a batch of wild-card Celts as well.  But the ethnic or class difference is not prominent; it is expressed primarily as a revolt against the weirdly evil and almost demented Sheriff of Nottingham.  Curiously, Prince John is not mentioned at all.  But King Richard does make an appearance at the very end, to bless the romance.  (In an entertaining nod to film history, Richard is played by Sean Connery, who had himself played Robin Hood in 1976's Robin and Marian.)

Prince of Thieves leans heavily on the romance.  Marian, a local aristocrat, was acquainted with Robin when they were children—she despised him.  She takes a shine to him, however, after Robin returns to find the Sheriff has murdered Robin’s father.  Here it is the Sheriff who has designs on Marian’s virtue.  The romantic drama rides on Michael Kamen’s epic score for the music—with a main theme so good that Disney has come to use it as the generic musical cue for Disney’s logo.


The most recent movie version is called simply Robin Hood, directed in 2010 by Ridley Scott, starring Russell Crowe.

Crowe’s Robin is serious-to-grim; no frivolous japes here.  Like Costner’s version, Crowe’s is returning from the Crusades with Richard.  But this Robin is a common archer, not a nobleman.  He does some fancy shooting, but he spends more time swordfighting.  In the climactic battle, he leads a more traditional cavalry charge—and on a beach, not in a forest.  (He does, however, deliver the final coup de grace to Godfrey the villain with a bowshot.)

This film’s whole atmosphere is more cynical than in either of the two versions described above.  For example, where Errol Flynn’s Robin gives King Richard some home truths and is honored for it, Crowe’s Robin gets put in the stocks for giving Richard an honest evaluation, even though Richard specifically asked for honesty.  The movie makes a few more nods to actual history, in the relationships of John, Richard, and Walter Marshal—though with a few minor tweaks, such as an imaginary French invasion.  (The Wikipedia page lists several criticisms on the history.)  Richard is killed near the beginning, in France, rather than returning triumphantly to England.  The focus is more on international politics than in the two preceding versions:  the big final battle here is against the French.

For most of the story, this Robin doesn’t live in the forest.  Nor is he precisely an outlaw, though he and his friends do stop one shipment of grain as “men of the hood.”  Rather, his central role is as a somewhat anachronistic voice for democracy.  Robin’s father Thomas Longstride was a “visionary” who believed in raising up all people; the repeated slogan is “Rise, and rise again, until lambs become lions.”  Thomas wrote a charter of rights, signed even by barons.   In one of the few nods to the Merry Men, these rights include the right for each man “to be as merry as he can”—a livelier form of “the pursuit of happiness.”  There’s a reference to “liberty by law,” as opposed to the despotism of a “strongman” tyrant.  Marion too, though she’s a lady, is shown doing mundane chores alongside the farmers (Robin originally mistakes her for a farm girl). 

In this version, the Sheriff is practically a nonentity.  John and the character representing Guy, who has mutated into “Godfrey,” are the villains.  Here John is a much more ambiguous character, rising to an almost heroic role at the climax.  But he then throws that role away by refusing to sign the Magna Carta—a historically dubious twist—and condemning Robin.

The romance element is also strong here, though to some extent it takes a back seat to politics (Wikipedia describes the movie as an “epic historical war film”).  Robin finds himself pretending to be the deceased Sir Robert of “Loxley” on his return to England.  At the real Robert’s father’s insistence, he steps into Robert’s shoes—including becoming (for public relations purposes) “husband” to Robert’s wife Marion.  This puts us somewhere in the region of the “Marriage Before Romance” trope, and allows for some endearing scenes as the two begin to fall for each other.

Marion herself is stronger and more assertive here than either of her film predecessors above (harking back to Green’s description of Marian as an “expert fighter,” p. 222).  She’s competent with sword and bow work; she frees her villagers; she even joins the final battle, in an Eowyn-style armor disguise.  At the same time, she still needs to be rescued occasionally, and is again pursued by unwanted romantic attention from the Sheriff.

In place of the usual happy ending, Robin is finally declared an outlaw at the very end—riding off into the sunset, as it were, as a perennial spirit of rebellion.  “And so the legend begins,” a title tells us.


As noted above, my view is that all of these movie treatments work, despite their varied treatments of Robin’s character, his martial prowess, the political angles, the villains, and the romance.  They all seem to be acceptable ways of telling the Robin Hood story.  One can appreciate the same tale rendered in a number of different ways, mutually inconsistent in their details, but able to coexist in the viewer’s mind.

On the other hand, there are limits to this variability.

The Robin Hood subgenre also offers an example of distorting the underlying myth too far -- stretching the rubber band till it breaks.  Robin McKinley's novel The Outlaws of Sherwood tries so hard to avoid the usual tropes that, in my estimation, it fails as a Robin Hood story.


McKinley's Robin is anything but merry—he's a gloomy, plodding yeoman forest ranger.  The Norman-Saxon conflict is active, but Robin has no political awareness at all; he has to be chivvied into revolt by Marian and Much the miller's son, who handle most of the overall strategy.  Adding insult to injury, he can't hit the broad side of the barn with an arrow.  All the fancy shooting is done by others, including Marian.  This is a pleasant nod to female action-hero equality, but leaves our image of Robin himself sadly lacking.

About the only thing McKinley’s Robin is good at is provisioning a comfortable forest home for his followers and their families.  You might say he makes a fine quartermaster, but he's hardly a leader.

The political themes are muted.  Guy and the Sheriff are the villains, and larger national or international issues are not prominent.  Richard the Lionheart does appear, to receive the main characters’ fealty and thus end their outlawry, though he then takes them to the Crusades as a sort of penance.

The Robin-and-Marian romance is integral to the story, but it proceeds in slower and more complex ways than in the movies.  Robin is hesitant and tongue-tied, the opposite of the dashing Errol Flynn.  Only when Marian is injured, after taking Robin’s place in the famous tournament, does he admit to loving her.

McKinley is aware of the way in which authors construct tales in different shapes as they draw their preferred elements from the Cauldron of Story.  She notes in an afterword that “[m]any people have strong ideas about who Robin was and what he was like; and a lot of our ideas are as incompatible with each other as they are with history” (p. 277).  Her version has its points; but to my mind, it stretches the main themes and tropes too far to be a satisfactory iteration of the Robin Hood legend.


We can adapt a myth in any number of ways, but not infinitely many.  There are boundaries that must be observed if the story is to remain recognizable at all.  A story seems to have an “essence,” and violating that essence makes it into something different.  The something different may be valuable in itself; it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to adapt familiar bits from the Cauldron of Story into a new tale.  But that—of course—is another story.

Posted by Rick Ellrod 7 Feb at 00:03
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Responses to this blog

Jberkowitz 9 Feb at 10:47  
Nice road trip through the various treatments of Robin Hood. And thanks for the Tolkien quote about story soup — I'll carry that with me.
Borborygmi 9 Feb at 21:48  
Seems like there's a point where it's better to just acknowledge a myth or story as the "inspiration" for one's story rather than marketing it as an adaptation. Your analysis made me think about all the recent revisionist versions of fairy tales, changed to speak to the current audience and in some ways to try and atone for past ills by making all the heroines feminist or featuring more diversity, etc.
Blandcorp 10 Feb at 00:43  
Great post, Rick!

Though I wish you had spent more time on explaining why the McKinley story isn't a Robin Hood iteration (no stake in that argument from me, I haven't read her book). I mean, I guess I can see why, but in this instance, I for one would have preferred more spoon feeding

I'll try to give my own examples of good/not so good adaptations. First, Snow White. We know the original story, or the Disneyfied version at least, so I won't insist. Gaiman has an adaptation of it called "Snow, Glass, Apples" which I think is very well made. It's from the point of view of the Queen, who fights against the rather incestuous control the King's vampiric daughter has on him. It's a fairly simple hero-villain flip; basic events stay the same but colored differently. And the Queen loses in the end, just like in the fairy tale, and is killed horribly for it.

Why this, imo, works: because it lays bare the theme of the original fairy tale, generational conflict. Either version, the old one or Gaiman's, are about a young woman coming of age and usurping an older one, whose charms are fading.

Now for an imo example of bad adaptation. Disclaimer, this book doesn't exist yet, maybe in part because a local CCer here threw a hissy fit (why y'all looking at me like that?) when the idea was brought up. I really like Fr- *cough* this CCer really liked the original Frankenstein, which again is fairly famous and needs no plot summary. The adaptation was about the monster being a split personality of Victor Frankenstein himself, and perhaps a way for him to out some otherwise repressed homosexual tendencies.

You recognize that adaptation in an instant, don't you. It's Dr Jekill and Mr Hyde in disguise. However, it's not Frankenstein. Frankenstein is —about— creation by man of what would otherwise be godly to create. It's about hubris, and about neglect, and most of all responsibility for creation. The example adaptation has none of that.

Back to McKinley's Robin Hood. The reason I'm not convinced yet that it doesn't belong in the Robin Hood verse is that I can picture Robin being a reluctant and perhaps rather inept hero, who nonetheless answers the call and finds the inner strength or whatever to stand up for the little guy.

I would class it as an annoying adaptation maybe. There's a [post-]modern tendency to take a hero story and inject it with cynicism. You know that guy, who you thought was strong and brave and pure? Turns out he's none of those things. It's a gimmick that has been done so often it's annoying most of the time. And that's the reason why, in a discussion about anti-heroes and how they are oh so much better, I stick to the heroes' side. Give me a guy who does the right thing, for the right reasons. Am I the only one here to realize how impressive it is to keep a consistent moral compass?


Paulpowell 12 Feb at 14:40  
Fun read; and I applaud the enthusiasm of the author.

But to me comparing movie-versions is more like just talking about the window-dressing of a given story. The changes that are periodically made to a dusty, hoary old yarn like Robin Hood (even in just the 20th-c.) reflects its nature as a "commercial product" somewhat akin to ...well, perhaps 'The Mummy' or 'The Wolf Man'. These are modern concoctions from which few conclusions can be drawn about the field of folklore itself; or how stories are constructed.

These products are mined and re-mined for the sake of keeping them as viable money-makers. They reliably generate revenue that movie studios will not let more than twenty yrs go by before trotting out another version even when no one is in the slightest interested.

But if we really wanted to know, 'what kind of story is Robin Hood?' we would go to a university and see first if anyone has 'mapped it' using any of the established story-classification systems.

Here's a website which gives an idea of what I'm talking about:
The Aarne-Thompson system; is eye-opening if you've never encountered it before. It's just scratching the surface of story analysis; but at a high-level it is useful for organizing ideas.

Paul Powell, Pool Player

Blandcorp 12 Feb at 14:58  
Quote by: Paulpowell
These are modern concoctions from which few conclusions can be drawn about the field of folklore itself; or how stories are constructed.

While the mention of story classification systems is interesting, I think the above misses the point. The OP really is about the modern (re)-concoctions and asks the pertinent question at what point do they cease to be window-dressing and become a new house entirely.

In terms of how stories are constructed, there's, as you mention, the very pragmatic argument that stories are also made to sell, and movie studios rely on recognizable names to get bums on seats. There is also reinvention galore to sanitize stories for modern sensibilities.

At some point, goes the OP's thesis (and I agree), a story can get stretched so far in reinvention that it is not the same story anymore. You could argue this kind of thing would correspond to it changing its AT type. That would be an interesting thesis, but at the moment I'm agnostic about that. It's possible a reinvented story might share the same type, and nonetheless feel significantly different from its original. AT types are a classification, and like all classifications ultimately arbitrary and not universally satisfying.


Paulpowell 12 Feb at 15:52  
Quote by: Blandcorp
The OP really is about the modern (re)-concoctions and asks the pertinent question at what point do they cease to be window-dressing and become a new house entirely.

Granted. I hear ya. I saw that correctly as the point of his rumination; but what I didn't see was the conclusion I was expecting. The way I am considering a story...well, you can 'change' superficial characteristics indefinitely and never really alter anything. A wedding cake can have all the icing scraped off at the last minute—and a new icing re-applied— but you can't re-bake the batter into the cake a different way. It's already set.

Quote by: Blandcorp
At some point, goes the OP's thesis (and I agree), a story can get stretched so far in reinvention that it is not the same story anymore. You could argue this kind of thing would correspond to it changing its AT type. That would be an interesting thesis, but at the moment I'm agnostic about that. It's possible a reinvented story might share the same type, and nonetheless feel significantly different from its original.

What does it mean though, when we call a story 'not the same as it was'? In the case of Robin Hood; its entirely vague since no one knows what the original form of the story was. It was cobbled together and amorphous from the start.

But to say that 'the Ridley Scott version' ...'doesn't resemble'...'the 1939 Flynn version'? Is that a real difference? I would think the difference between two movie versions is something entirely minor; something we all expect. Re-makes could hardly be shot-for-shot remakes; after all.

And films themselves are notorious for creating impressions that no two seat-companions agree on, anyway.

Next thought: a studio might face far more difficulty to significantly re-write Dracula or Sherlock Holmes in a way that we wouldn't recognize as ...Dracula and Holmes. ((Of course, these aren't cryptic, anonymously-written fairytales with obscure provenance; there are modern-day estates to consider.))

Anyway. I agree stories can feel significantly different every time they are re-released, but are they actually? A story can quietly remain the same, despite the impression (in a re-visioning) that many things now look 'off' or 'awry'. The true case may be that it hasn't changed at all in its anatomy; and that until it does change its root elements it will always be the same as it was.

Another question: what danger is inherent to all the endless re-makes? If there ever is any real worry, you can always go back to the earliest source as a check against re-versioning. I don't anyone expects Ridley Scott's Robin Hood to replace a 700 yr old legend. I'm grateful for that, certainly!

apropos quote:
'Errors of opinion are tolerable where truth remains free to combat them' (Jefferson)
(hope I got that phrasing correct)

Paul Powell, Pool Player

Blandcorp 12 Feb at 16:06  
In the case of Robin Hood, which is a myth created in retrospect, shall we say, I agree the matter is very ambiguous (though I note, Rellrod cites the film versions as different-but-valid-reimaginings, so they're not that different It's a book version by McKinley that is blamed for taking the story too far from the original). And the OP example about a bad reimagining of Robin Hood wasn't that convincing to me either.

Hence, I gave a different example, a potential Frankenstein remake where the monster is one of Dr. Frankenstein's split personalities and/or a way to cope with repressed homosexuality. I admit I'm ignorant of which AT type Dr. Frankenstein might belong to, or to which type Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde belongs to. Yes the AT types are meant for folklore and fairy-tales, but humor me and stretch their definitions a bit

Anyhoo, even in this ignorance, I think it's clear that Frankenstein is some type A, Dr J and Mr H is some other type B, and whatever type the split personality Frankenstein falls into will turn out to be type B. Again, I'm not sure I buy the idea of a story classification system that would be useful to decide if two stories "are the same". This is one of those many things were intuitions are difficult to formalize in a simple consistent way.

But in this case, I can formalize the differences between the 3 stories (original Frk, Dr J and Mr H, split-Frk) by just looking at the overall themes. They're not the same story.

As a paranthetical PS, of course the reason why Holmes or Dracula reimaginings are popular is well known. They are in the public domain, and thank goodness for that. We can get new and good writers on board the Holmes train (Gaiman again- "A study in emerald", anyone?)

Paulpowell 13 Feb at 19:07  
Hallo. Aha, I had thought those two properties were still controlled by the estates. I must have been thinking of something else; probably the Ian Fleming estate or the Ngaio Marsh estate. Don't know.

Thanks for enlightening me. Let me rephrase my observation: if you came across a Holmes story set in 1888 and set in 221B Baker Street but found Holmes being portrayed as a woman character; with a female doctor companion know immediately that the pastiche is utterly false. Not just that it has no bearing to Doyle's concept; it would have had no bearing at all to real life. Or let's just say it would have been highly unlikely in the Victorian Age.

Okay yes, sure—but even this is still just spotting a superficial discrepancy.

As you say, 'Robin' lends itself to a taffy-pull. Since there's no provenance, we can do what we like with it.
However, just because its clearly just a free-for-all with even movie studios getting into the act ...revising it to suit any need they deem marketable...well, I can say that I myself wasn't upset by the Mel Brooks version, or the Walt Disney animated version using anthropomorphic forest creatures and cel animation; I wasn't upset by the TV series; I wasn't upset by the Sean Connery/Audrey Hepburn version; etc etc etc.

When the Kevin Costner version came along; I simply rolled my eyes. It was corny before it landed. I didn't even care what slant they might be putting on it; a 'heroic' remake at that late date in cinema history? What else would it be but some kind of silly attempt at a new blockbuster? And so it was. Wasn't that flick less about Robin Hood and more about the newly developed 'arrow flight' special FX that had just been developed?

My point is, the moneymen can 'graft' on anything they like. The flourishes they add, do not seem to come from within the legacy of the tale itself. That's something else we can observe.

So where is left to go?

Well, the Aarne-Thompson Classification system is actually still just a high-level; bird's eye view of story mechanics. I cited it simply because I knew I could easily direct you all to it; and that it would introduce the concept of classification systems in a friendly-manner to anyone who might be unfamiliar with the field.

I still maintain that the way to know whether one story is truly different from another is not found in any of the literary elements we typically bandy about. Differences are found super-deep in storytelling mechanics; scene by scene myth typing as introduced by the Ruzzians, by Levi-Strauss, etc. They break apart stories in a much more thorough manner.

To sum up: re-imaginings don't bother me on either level: high or low. At the remote, pulled-back, high-level sense; revisionists don't have the power to change the lexiconography of the tale. Let them try to change Achilles into a woman, I don't mind. It just won't work in any serious manner. These experiments are mere !@#$%^&*lties (remember the All-Black version of the Odd-Couple?)

And at the deepest level, writers can't change much there either because what lies in well-typed myths just doesn't lend itself to inauthentic changes done by moderns. Either a myth has a sister myth-sequence or plot variation from the same culture, or it does not.

Paul Powell, Pool Player

Rellrod 13 Feb at 19:23  
Great discussion! (Just what I wanted to set off. )

I haven't studied any of the myth-classification systems in detail, though I'm familiar with the general idea. I'd love to dig into them one of these days. That sort of morphology might be just the thing to give some specificity to the gut-reaction judgment 'this isn't the same story any more.'

I'd want to distinguish between bad adaptations (or "annoying" ones) and adaptations that change the fundamental story. The problem with the McKinley story, in my view, wasn't that it was bad, or ticked me off in some way. A story can have either of those characteristics and still be an instantiation of the original tale. It's that so much had been changed as to deprive the central character of his essential attributes. Blandcorp's Frankenstein/Jekyll & Hyde example may be a better illustration.

In darker night, brighter stars. (Elizabeth Moon)
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Paulpowell 13 Feb at 20:13  
Agreed. He makes his point with a good illustration. Fun kicking around this stuff; and the original post too, was worth the read.
Paul Powell, Pool Player

Paulpowell 16 Feb at 13:11  
I was just reading BlankCorp's post over again. New thoughts occur to me.

For instance. We all recall that Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein' was subtitled something like, 'A modern Prometheus'—right?
Well. You might say this was the motif or theme of her story; although of course 'Prometheus' itself is a very ancient myth with all sorts of even deeper origins; that myth in itself it wasn't simply 'invented outright' by the Greeks; they themselves developed it from a very ancient history.

Now; she obviously did a very good job; but of course her story 'looks nothing like the original'. And in almost every respect, there is no reason why it should, yes? The subject matter was entirely different.

Naturally, (in her tale), her doctor hero wouldn't wind up at the end, chained to a mountain peak with his entrails being eaten out by vultures commanded by Zeus. Readers would have been confused and startled had she mimicked elements of the myth that closely.

Let's ask then: what in her story does closely mimic the "myth of the fire-bringer"? Well surely, the thinnest sort of metaphor ('fire' = 'knowledge') which she —as a good novelist—played up at every turn.

She did this for the sake of the moral she wanted to convey. But, the Greeks differed: it was simply a creation-tale & adventure-tale.

Okay so, what else? Likely, the emotional arc of the hero. The Doctor's emotions are modelled on the emotions of Prometheus. That's easy to see. With some good ole 'remorse' thrown in by the authoress, as well.

Anything else? We're running out of parallels. How about characters? Did Prometheus have a hunchbacked assistant? Nope. Did the good Doctor have a brother? I can't recall. Prometheus did have a brother, though.

Story structure? In Shelley's story, does the Doctor receive his comeuppance and then suffer for a goodly length of time until being freed by a Hercules-type figure? No, I don't believe so.

How about the personal attributes of the two heroes? Prometheus was...well its unclear what he was like, personally. Heroes were so generic back then, in myth-telling. Was Prometheus in any way, a doctor or a thinker or a man of science? No, all that was Shelley's invention. The two figures are alike merely in that they have some..'courage'.

Anyway. So here we have two stories, one 'modern', and one 'ancient' and apart from noticing similarities/'differences in 'relative' plot, 'relative' emotional arcs, and 'relative' we really have grounds to say what's different about them? All these things I've outlined so far, are the simplest elements of modern, college-lit-department story analysis.

I don't know how much else, can reliably be concluded. Yes, 'Frankenstein' might be told in a way so that it 'resembles' Jekyll/Hyde; but to me this is like setting 2 cakes down on a table together because they both have "white" icing. Underneath, one cake's batter might be yellow and the other might be brown; and the white-icing on one might be coconut whereas the white icing on another might be banana.

In what way could Shelley's story really be dissected as if it was faithful to the original myth? You'd probably have to use history (as I said earlier) and identify the family of myths which 'Prometheus' comes from. You'd have to line up all the myths you could find of that type (and from a specific region, too) and determine what the variations truly are.

In most of them you might very well find that "the seeker after knowledge" (Prometheus) was never a seeker after knowledge at all. In most of them, he might be a thief seeking his own gain. His heroism as 'bringer of light' might have been the add-on of the Greeks. He might never have been heroic; he could have been a low-character who escapes by cunning. However, how do we define 'low'? A "cunning thief" like this may have been the most heroic and ideal figure to some ancient culture or region. Who knows?

Meanwhile, back to Robin Hood: what are Robin Hood's "attributes"? He can conceivably possess any personality someone wants to write-in for him; but he is still usually depicted as a skilled man, a heroic do the fantastic, athletic, actions he does...all this, "goes along with" our idea of heroism. Is the story ever told in such a way that we simply sit with Robin in a wooded hut, doing nothing? Do we ever see him engaging in acts which suggest he is a coward? Writers today can do anything, remember.

But whatever 'family of myths' Robin comes from, its only because there's "abstraction" involved..abstraction inherent to plot, theme, character, to everything. A specific interaction like Hector/Achilles is so much more difficult to plunder and pilfer. Think about it: the Trojan War has to start and end a very specific way.

But Robin Hood is simply 'a heroic figure' who has no death-plot; his story is 'never-ending'; its 'open-ended'.

Even Jekyll/Hyde is Jekyll/Hyde precisely because we know one eventually wins and the other dies. You might say that one reason why modern stories are modern is because they have well-known endings; you can't hardly go back and claim that Dr. Jekyll was also a pirate or a cowboy.

Oh well. Just musing aloud.

Paul Powell, Pool Player

Rona 24 Feb at 10:03  
As someone who rewrites fairy tales quite a bit, I appreciate what wrote here. Reinterpreting myth, story, legend keeps them alive and gives them new relevance.
Rellrod 24 Feb at 20:45  
Paul's examples illuminate something I didn't follow up on very clearly: A story can be inspired by another story without being a "version" of it. Or have similarities; there are bound to be similarities between any two stories — abstractions, as Paul observes. You dip into the Cauldron of Story and bring out whatever combination of things you think may make for a good tale (for example, one aspect of the Prometheus myth).

One of the interesting questions concerns when one crosses the line between retelling the same story and when one is spinning off a new story. It isn't as if we're obliged to make a sharp distinction there — nothing compels us to issue judgments about what constitutes the "same" story — but it is interesting to poke around in that gray area.

In darker night, brighter stars. (Elizabeth Moon)
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Paulpowell 26 Feb at 19:09  
Quote by: Rellrod
A story can be inspired by another story without being a "version" of it.

One of the interesting questions concerns when one crosses the line between retelling the same story and when one is spinning off a new story. It isn't as if we're obliged to make a sharp distinction there — nothing compels us to issue judgments about what constitutes the "same" story

Good points Rick. I think what you're alluding to here almost deserves its own blog thread; because its kind of a depthful topic all unto itself.

Modern-day writers have a very difficult task when they try to 'make a name' for themselves. After all, one of the hallmarks of a good writer is his originality. But just try coming up with a completely new, original idea for a story? It's nigh-impossible.

It's always been hard to be original; but more challenging than ever in the modern age. A truly vast history of published works stretches out behind us. Today its not as if you must only compete with your contemporaries and peers for must also demonstrate (every time you publish) that you aren't simply duplicating someone's work from a decade ago.

This error is very easy to commit both knowingly and unknowingly. It's simply a hard-to-avoid trap given the enormous number of published works "present in the public awareness".

You remember what happened to George Harrison. Intellectual property is one of the trickiest areas of law and frankly, modern courts are perplexed by all the intricacies; they can't keep up.

So what options are there? A lot of writers do not even pretend that they can come up with something fresh; and they instead aim for a slightly lesser mark of originality: they say, "hey, I am good enough to put a fresh spin on an old story". Not always a great distinction to confer upon oneself.

Or, "I can take this well-known story and find something new in it" (this is slightly better). After all, this is almost the definition of what good genre-writing is. To write a 'proper' detective story, you have to respect all the well-known conventions the audience expects.

Other artists/writers... deliberately set out to 'homage' or 'pastiche' past works, and find a way to impress their readers that way. They admit upfront what they are forced-to-do.

But there's some line-of-demarcation right around here. It's not too far below this line when 'claiming distinctiveness' is abandoned altogether. Some authors take a much 'less savory' path, and deliberately plagiarize works which are so long out-of-date that its hard to see what they've done.

And here's why this debate is so important: at what point can we label an author 'just a copycat'...and at what point can we say he genuinely struck out in a new direction? We are put in the position of judging 'newness' of a 'new wrinkle'.

The line is sometimes very fuzzy. Stephen King, Akiro Kurosawa, Sergio Leone, Tarantino...these issues can arise for even the biggest name talents. Music, film, art, authorship. Every field has requirements for integrity.

In response to accusations of either un-originality or plagiarism, a lot of authors might reply, "Certainly I knew of this archetype story, this precedent—but I only used it as a jumping off point for my own work".

Are they truly contrite when they make this admission? Is it just a convenient brush-off? Who can really say? What can help us determine the truth?

I believe all this is one reason why we (the audience) will always need good critics and reviewers. If we don't have critics to help us, it can become impossible to tell when a rank charlatan is duping us with his plagiarism.

Bad critics —or inattentive critics—are a burden as well, of course. If America had enjoyed better critics in the 1850s, Herman Melville wouldn't have died broken and penniless. If critics had been better in the 30s, 'The Great Gatsby' might have enjoyed immediate fame instead of languishing for 20 yrs.

Double-edged swords protrude everywhere, it seems...

Paul Powell, Pool Player

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