This topic has been on my mind recently because a few weekends ago, the LRP event I used to be a major part of (Odyssey LRP – which I have talked about in the past on here) came to a satisfying end. Through seven years of ongoing story, many of the characters worked through story arcs which matched those seen in mythology. Several found themselves ascending to godhood or higher, others emerged as political leaders of their people. There was glory, honour and tragedy; with much of the plot driven by the inevitable heroic fatal flaw. All in all it was an emotional finale.
As part of the preparation for this event we listened to some podcasts on myths and legends. In particular, one on the Trojan war by Paul Vincent which I feel highlights the problem (or maybe the advantage) with mythological heroes – heroes are idiots. Seriously, have you actually looked at that story? They make massive mistakes in tactics and common sense which lead to what should have been a very quickly settled dispute into ten years of constant siege. I am fairly sure that they were suffering from the age old problem of the self fulfilling prophesy in that the gods decided that there has to be a war and it must last ten years so the mortals channel their stupidity to ensure that a) the war happens and b) it carries on as long as the gods say it should.
But that issue is only part of what I want to talk about here. The main focus of this post is that weird transition between myths and history. The events in the Iliad and Odyssey, for example, combine elements of both. Archaeological evidence points at the existence of Troy, there is a good chance that there was indeed a war there between Greece and Troy. There have even been attempts at working out the exact date of this war by use of dating techniques and evidence of bodies buried near the ruins of what is believed to be Troy. The podcast also talked about how many of the historic kings of Greece claimed descent from the (in)famous kings described in these myths. Though it is unclear whether they actually were descended from those people (assuming they even existed) or were just legitimising their claim to the throne.
I think the problem here is actually based on lack of actual historic evidence coupled with biased oral history reporting. Stories passed down for generations from a time when little was actually recorded which are embellished in each retelling by individuals who have a good reason to amp up the exploits of their ancestors or excuse them their sins by blaming them on fate or the gods. The result is a bizarre merging of myth and reality where the actual exploits of individuals get exaggerated to the point where they take on a supernatural air. Cultures like the Celts have been shown to have added a creative and boastful bent to their oral storytelling – where a story of one man defeating two becomes the same man defeating ten and ultimately hundreds of enemies. The ancient Greeks would likely to have had the same tendency and it is easy to see how many famous warriors became demigods. Chances are they were good – good enough to make a name – and their fame spread and grew and their stories were embellished and added to until they were legends.
So, how does this apply to a writer? Well, it is an insight into the nature of story in general and myths specifically and can be applied other things to0, such as faerie tales. Many Urban Fantasy novels play with ideas of myths and legends – whether they are vampires, werewolves, fey, wizards or similar. Thinking critically about the stories you are playing with can help to make these more believable, especially if it is removed to a modern setting. What is the real reason why vampires do not show up in mirrors? Is this even a real thing in your world or is it just a confused story based on the recollections of survivors of vampire attacks whose perception of the events may not have been fully reliable due to stress? What about all this stuff about garlic and crucifixes? If I were an ancient undead creature trying to survive, I’d probably consider spreading some rumours about things that can kill me in the hope that the prey would turn to them when attacked instead of investigating more reliable methods. Then I could laugh at their pathetic attempt to kill me with a spear made of garlic while killing them, making sure no one knows the garlic failed. Or maybe there was a vampire who was actually allergic to garlic or one who really hated the church to the extent of reacting badly to any symbol from it and the story grew from there?* What about all the legends of fey and the rules associated with them? Can we apply a rational rule to these too? Probably.
Also, I guess you can say there is precedent (Classical Precedent at that, you cannot get much more venerable that Homer***) for allowing your characters to be idiots. Always a good way to progress a plot and make readers shout ‘No! Don’t do that, you idiot!’ at the page while they read.
Ian Stewart** said that we are Pan narrans (the story telling ape) rather than Homo sapiens (the wise man). Telling stories is our strength but sometimes the way we tell them mutates them. Understanding this can help a writer produce more unique ideas, or at least present old ones in a new way.
*It is worth pointing out here that AFAIK (correct me if wrong) the earliest example of vampire being repelled by crucifix is Dracula but since then every single one seems to have that weakness. Could it be that Dracula merely had a personal grudge against Catholicism due to their perceived betrayal and other vampires are perfectly fine with it? What about atheist vampires or those of other religions?
**In The Science of Discworld series, which is well worth a read for many many reasons. It has been invaluable to me as a science teacher for the way it interprets and describes scientific theories and challenges preconceptions. They’re also great fun, and not in the way science teachers (like me) often say ‘this is going to be fun’.
*** Not that ‘Homer’ apparently existed. Evidence suggests it was a name given to a story teller so the Iliad and the Odyssey are actually collections of folk tales. Probably the most popular versions of those tales. So again we have the oral tradition getting involved.