Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Working in the Mythos

In keeping with yesterday's topic and because I'm still not adjusted to my new schedule and not reading much, today is about everyday mythology. Recently, I attended a convention that included panels on using mythology in fiction, which were evenly divided between "use what works, however it works" and "do your research, know your sources." These aren't mutually exclusive in fact, but may be in outcome.

As a reader, I tend to fall into the first category. I've had the privilege of reading works done by friends that updated or used the bones of existing stories and made of them something newly compelling; not for their adherence to origins or use of ornamentation, but because of the characters through whom we see the story. What these characters experienced and how they acted had nothing to do with the way someone would have perceived the world 300 years ago or even 50 years ago, nor did it have anything to do with an official, academic understanding of a myth or fairy tale. Instead, they told an interesting story. For a brief moment, one was able to slip through the soap-slick boundary of the story and suspend oneself within for the entirety of the reading of it, without piercing that boundary and melting one's concentration with spikey aggregates of uncoalesced detail.

On the other hand, I would expect a story that sets itself firmly in the realm of existing mythologies to have a recognizable relationship to our existing understanding of such mythologies. Since I don't have a degree in this area, I wouldn't read such a book looking for this type of inaccuracy anyway. Fiction is the circumventing of our actual chain-of-event reality and cuts many corners to achieve this (eating, elimination, POV shifts, setting, etc.) and adherence to existing ideas, research, or cultural accuracy may be one of these corners. What struck me as interesting in the discussion, however, was the notion of respecting a culture through research. What does this mean?

We live in a society and time when there is a tremendous amount of information lurking in our stream of consciousness; where we could find leprechauns used as bathroom gender markers, thunderbirds scrawled across motorcycle chassis, and crosses dangling from the breasts of rockers and celebrities. What kind of respect is due in a story that arises from this mix? Is respect itself even a responsible goal for fiction? Whom are we respecting? In avoiding cliche, one might avoid stereotyping and the like; however, in writing a fictional acount of a fictional world, what responsibility does the author have to assess and include current and existing myths and folklore? If my thunderbird rises from the back of a motorcycle and swallows a couple of Norse-speaking ravens, is that disrespectful? If she then gives birth to a cat that senses the snarls of North American magic and untangles it so that a mage arises who begins a new tradition, is that disrepectful?

How should we be working in the mythos? What is considered disrepectful and why?

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