Myths within myths
It’s no secret that many of the stories we read as kids are just retellings of ancient myths. But as writers we can do better. By having a deep knowledge of ancient mythology we can connect our stories to myths within myths, weaving in different cultures and histories in a tapestry of ideas that were connected this whole time, but were unacknowledged.
On CC, we can be animation connoisseurs as well as writers. Along with being a masterclass in comedic timing, the cartoon Spongebob Squarepants has a scene that always stuck out to me as being very applicable to the experience of writing.
In the episode Artist Unknown, the character Squidward, in full snob voice, instructs the naive Spongebob on how to make great art. Squidward tells him to take the humble, unsculpted marble and “see the sculpture within.”(9)
In my experience, that is exactly what making great writing feels like. When the words on the page feel like they were always there, were always meant to be there like the scultpure hidden in the clay, I know I’ve done something right.
But how do you get this effect? How does an idea go from “oh, that’s fun,” to “this idea was unwritten but has always existed since the dawn of time”?
One word: myths.
It’s no secret that many of the stories we read as kids are just retellings of ancient myths that were hauled out of the weeds, spruced up like a rusty jalopy, given a new coat of paint, and then sold off the lot at full retail price. But we can take this practice further and create iterations of myths that do more than just retell a story with a modern setting, or a couple added lines with pop culture references. (I’m looking at you, Disney!) There is nothing wrong with straight retellings, but we can do much better. By having a deep knowledge of ancient mythology we can connect our stories to myths within myths, weaving in different cultures and histories in a tapestry of ideas that were connected this whole time, but were unacknowledged.
Let’s look at an example of how it’s done from one of the great writers of our time, Terry Pratchett.
For those who have not read the Discworld series, Terry Pratchett is a British humorist and fantasy author of dozens of novels. He is well known for sneaking in nods to world events or parodying other tales in his writings.
In his YA novel Wintersmith, Terry Pratchett tells the tale of witch-in-training Tiffany Aching who accidentally takes part in the Dark Morris, a dance between the Summer Lady and the Wintersmith, ancient, primal beings who rule over the season of summer and winter respectively. (For those who’ve read my latest novel on CC, you’ll see some big influences.)
A less inspired author might have just played out a straight retelling of the myth of the Holly King and the Oak King, a metaphor that explains why there are two seasons(11). The two kings are in an eternal fight for power, with each ruling the land for a period of the year, holly for winter and oak for summer. This tale is already based on several Irish legends, so that would be plenty to work with right?
But Pratchett goes deeper. Tiffany, because she took part in the dance, takes the place of the Summer Lady who has gone missing. Now, there is a search for the Summer Lady who is found asleep underground, waiting for spring… almost as if she is trapped underground for six months, like someone who ate some pomegranate seeds…
So the climax of the story, sorry for spoilers, results in a rescue to save the Summer Lady, to bring her aboveground so she can destroy the Wintersmith and bring back summer. But rescuing a lady from underground kind of sounds like that one guy with a lyre who rescued his wife from the underworld... In other words, we see the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice(4). But also, we see a retelling of Snow White because the Summer Lady is found unconscious and needs a kiss to be resurrected(6). Both are within the same scene, within the Persephone myth, within the myth of the Holly King and the Oak King(3).
The list goes on. By well placed shifts in the plot, Terry Pratchett integrates and expands the myth of the Holly King and the Oak King to include the following stories within its structure:
The Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice(4)
The Greek myth of the Kidnapping of Persephone(3)
The various Greek myths of Hades and the Greek Underworld(10)
The Germanic Grimm Brothers’ tale of Snow White(6)
The 19th century Slavic tale of the Snow Child/Snow Maiden(5)
The myth of the Greek god Boreas and the kidnapping of Orithyia(7)
The American 18th century literary character of Jack Frost(2)
There are more I have not mentioned, but I want to address that the inclusion of these myths is not a coincidence. Pratchett goes out of his way to include other pieces of folklore, nursery rhymes, and ancient rituals in all of his works. In his companion novel to the Discworld series, The Folklore of Discworld, Terry Pratchett describes his attempts to educate the general public on a specific nursery rhyme used in another of his books:
“Not long after this I did a book-signing on the south coast, when I took the opportunity to ask practically every person in the queue to say the magpie rhyme (I was doing research for Carpe Jugulum). Every single one of them recited, with greater or lesser accuracy, the version of the rhyme that used to herald the beginning of the 1960s and 70s children’s TV programme Magpie – ‘One for sorrow, two for joy’. It wasn’t a bad rhyme, but like some cuckoo in the nest it was forcing out all the other versions that had existed around the country”.
He goes on to say, “But there are some things we shouldn’t forget, and mostly they add up to where we came from and how we got here and the stories we told ourselves on the way. But folklore isn’t only about the past. It grows, flowers and seeds every day, because of our innate desire to control our world by means of satisfying narratives.”
Pratchett was very successful in his attempts to grow folklore through his integration and connection of various myths. The Morris Dance, which has been practiced in England since at least the 16th century, now includes a Dark Morris version because of his story, because through the use of myths Terry Pratchett has convinced us there was always a Dark Morris dance between the beings of Summer and Winter, between Hades and Persephone, between the Holly King and the Oak King(1)(8). It was always there, we just didn’t see it.
One last point about the apt writing advice in the Spongebob Squarepants cartoon. When Spongebob “sees the sculpture within” he produces a cartoon recreation of Michelangelo’s David. Funny how it’s a reinterpretation of a classic work of art he sees, isn’t it?
Sources for Those Interested in the Myths/Books Mentioned:
1) Pratchett, Terry. Simpson, Jacqueline, The Folklore of Discworld, London, Doubleday, 2008.
*Also, as retellers of myths we must do better and change/remove insensitivies. Please, be sure to note the changes to the Border Morris tradition discussed in several articles in The Guardian and other major publications. Example here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/12/origin-morris-dancing-blacking-up-irrelevant
2) Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, New York, Oxford University Press, 2000.
5) Weiser, Jason. Weiser, Carissa, (2015), Myths and Legends, [96-Russian Folklore: Cold as Ice], January 17th, 2018, https://www.mythpodcast.com/12984/96-russian-folklore-cold-as-ice/, (August 07, 2020).
6) Weiser, Jason. Weiser, Carissa, (2015), Myths and Legends, [48-Snow White: Killer Queen], October 31st, 2016, https://www.mythpodcast.com/4268/48-snow-white-killer-queen/, (August 07, 2020).
7) The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica.. Boreas. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica, inc., October 22, 2007. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Boreas. August 07, 2020.
8) The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Morris Dance. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica, inc., February 01, 2018.https://www.britannica.com/art/Morris-dance. August 07, 2020.
9) “Artist Unknown”, Spongebob Squarepants, Nickelodeon, July 17, 1999.
10)The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Hades, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica, inc., May 14, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Hades-Greek-mythology, August 07, 2020.
11) Graves, Robert,The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, Faber & Faber, Feb 3, 2011
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