jennygordon: (Water Lily)
Recently, I've been having a big, therapeutic clear out of some of the clutter I've collected over the years. The other day, I came across an old interview with Joss Whedon, in which he talks about the motivation behind the creation of his iconic "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" series. He says that what he wanted to do was create a mythos for a twenty-somethings, a section of society whom he felt were largely ignored by American pop culture and fiction at the time (early 1990s). He explains:

"What is a twentysomething mythology? It's just that there is this passage in your life where you create the person you're going to be. When you're in your teens, you're in a structured environment where they're telling you what to do. When you're in your 30s, you're dealing with the choices that you made. It's when you're in your 20s that you made a lot of really important life decisions. It's when you first learned how to be a grown up. And even if that's not the most torturous thing that's ever happened to you, there's a lot of interesting stories there and a lot of opportunities for fear and things to explore."

Reading this, it struck me that this is what the 'New Adult' market is shooting for. It's a relatively new term in publishing-speak, but one which is rapidly gaining enthusiastic support.

I remember being in my early 20s and feeling frustrated that there were so few novels that featured characters my age, who were exploring the myriad facets of that in-between stage of life. One of my old novels is set among a group of university students, and it explored some of the areas Whedon talks about. Using metaphors of the fantastic, I played with notions of how choices made when we are at that newly-adult stage of our lives can have lasting consequences that can effect even subsequent generations. Maybe I wrote it because I was subconsiously responding to that remembered frustration of the lack of novels that spoke to me as a New Adult,

Returning to Whedon's stated intention to create a mythos, it seems to me all writers are busy inventing our own individual mythos (mythoses? Is that the plural?!) Our stories are created from deeply personal facets of what has shaped, obsessed and informed our life experience. They are filled with metaphor and symbolism that speaks to us, and which we hope will convey our themes and subjects to others. Whatever form or genre of writing we are drawn to work within, that highly individual mythos evolves as our body of work grows, until it becomes as uniquely recognisable as a fingerprint.

**UPDATE** No sooner do I post this than this piece appears on The Writer Unboxed.
jennygordon: (Magpie)
So here’s a poser for you.

How should publishers categorise novels dealing with characters from Greek Myth? (I’m focussing on Greek Myth here because of what I’ve been reading recently, but the same question applies to retellings of myths of all kinds). Are they historical fiction, as Madeline Miller’s excellent, Orange Prize winning novel “The Song for Achilles” is categorised, or are they Fantasy, as with Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “The Firebrand”, which also deals with characters from the Trojan War?

Tricky, isn’t it. After all, these are myths, not actual history, although the line between the two can blur, as myths (such as that of the Trojan War) often dip their roots in the lake of history. So, if they’re myths, then surely they’re fantasy.

The picture muddies further when you realise that Miller’s “Song of Achilles”, although labelled ‘historical fiction’, has an Achilles who is the son of a goddess, who is depicted in all of her fabulous inhuman glory; and it has Achilles going off to be tutored by Chiron, who is a centaur. Now, in some versions of myths, authors might make Thetis (Achilles' mother) more metaphorical than actual, and make Chiron some wise old dude living on a mountain, and forget the whole half-horse thing, but Miller doesn’t. Thetis is an honest-to-goodness deitiy, and Chiron has four hooves and a swishy tail. And yet, it’s still historical fiction, apparently. Which is great, as I’d love to believe centaurs are real, but when you come down to it … er … they’re not.

I’ve loved Greek Myths since I was a kid, and I’ve read a goodly number of novels based on them, all of which have been variously catagorised, for example:

Mary Renault’s Theseus series – historical fiction
Marion Zimmer Bradley, “The Firebrand” – fantasy
David Gemmell’s reimagined Alexander duology – fantasy. And yes, I know Alexander is a real historical figure, but bear with me
Miranda Seymour, “The Goddess” (Helen of Troy) and “Medea” – historical fiction
Sarah B Franklin “Daughter of Troy” – fantasy

I suspect some of the categorisation is dictated by the label the author’s other books are generally known by; so MZB is known as a writer of fantasy, for example. Although it’s interesting to note that her iconic opus “The Mists of Avalon” was categorised as fiction when it was first released, but now lives on the fantasy shelves. So while Gemmell is known as a fantasy writer, “The Song of Achilles” is Miller’s first novel, so the publisher can decide what to categorise her under.

I guess some of the decision might be deemed to lie in how close to the source material the author sticks (since Gemmell’s Alexander duology are very much a re-imagination in a more fantastical setting of the historical figure of Alexander, it makes sense to categorise it as fantasy). And yet I find myself returning to the fact that Miller’s novel includes a goddess (who appears in the flesh has otherworldly powers, and talks about the other gods and goddesses) and centaurs, so why isn’t her book fantasy too?

jennygordon: (Gargoyle)

I’m a big fan of all members of the corvid family (ravens, rooks, crows, magpies, jays, jackdaws, choughs).  They’re birds with such personality.  There are the magpies who squabble their way around the place with omens of sorrow and joy, the jackdaws who cock me a sideways glance when I disturb their latest no-good carry-on, the beautiful jays who sometimes visit the garden and the crow babies who dominated the neighbourhood last year with their bickering and ridiculous sideways bounce.  And even, although I live in a city suburb, there’s the occasional ‘ten-ton-balls’ croak of a raven on its way through.  Rooks are sadly lacking, although they were the ubiquitous corvids of my childhood in a different part of the UK.


I know I’m not alone in my fondness for the family.  Charles de Lint, for one, has used them, rooted in Native American myth, in many of his books, personifying them through characters such as the Crow Girls and Jack Daw.  And Tessa Gratton is such a fan she’s had them very fetchingly tattooed across her back.


Authors aside, myths and folktales the world over have countless tales of ravens and crows and magpies and jays.  Did you know, for instance, that while a single magpie in the well-known rhyme of the western world symbolises bad luck, in the Far East, it’s a fortuitous sign?  Check any book or website on folklore and myth, and you’ll find a hundred tales and more. 


It’s not just their personality and folktales references that corvids have got going for them, though.  Have you ever come across the collective nouns for each kind, and wondered why that particular noun is used.  I mean:


A murder of crows

A clattering of choughs/jackdaws

A tidings of magpies

An unkindness, or conspiracy, of ravens

A parliament of rooks

A party of jays


If those aren’t starting points for a story, I don’t know what is.

jennygordon: (Gargoyle)

A while ago, I commented that it’s a rare author who truly manages to conjure the past in a way that feels ‘true’. For me, Robert Holdstock achieves this in ways that leaves me deeply and irreversibly affected by both the strangeness of his vision and the fact that it seems to touch something deep inside me that recognises the ancient worlds he describes. Call it racial memory, call it literature-fuelled hallucinations, the power of his Mythago Wood and Merlin Codex series are undeniable. It’s the former I would like to concentrate on here.

All of the Mythago Wood books stand alone, while each also expands on the themes introduced in the first, Mythago Wood. The eponymous wood is Ryhope Wood, one of the last remnants of the Primal Forest which once covered prehistoric Britain. Ryhope Wood possesses a kind of sentience which enables it to touch the psyche and racial memory of those people who live nearby. Riffing on Jungian psychology, it pulls from their conscious memory and subconscious folk memory icons of myth which it creates out of the stuff of the woodland and breathes life into. So, within it dwell Robin Hood figures, Arthur figures, Guineveres, Jasons (as in The Argonaut) and so on. But Holdstock is interested in the most ancient forms of these figures; the rootstock which led to the mythologised character. So the wood utilises the most primal of race memories, producing instead Guiwenneth of the Green, a Dark Age heroine of the Native British, an aged and cunning Jason, the strange Jacks who are a sort of living Green Man figure. Along with these more familiar figures of myth, the wood creates much older types, those who we do not consciously recall, but who touch a nerve within us as though, somewhere deep inside, we remember them too. Among these are the Jaguth, a brotherhood of questing warriors from the Bronze Age, and Tig, a strange boy who is destined to shape the religion of the Neolithic tomb builders.


Many of the books focus on the Huxley family. The elder Huxley made a scientific study of Ryhope Wood and was the first to name its creations ‘mythagos’. When he vanished into the wood, his son, Christian was quick to follow, along with his second son, Steven some years later. For all of them, the beautiful Guiwenneth, re-created by each in the form their subconscious conjures her, plays a central role in their destiny. Eventually, of course, all three of them were to become the stuff of legend themselves.


The second novel, Lavondyss ... (clicky to

jennygordon: (Gargoyle)
In yesterday's post on books that inspire me, I mentioned Miranda Seymour's Medea, as well as Elizabeth Hand's work (and I'm thinking here of Waking the Moon and Black Light in particular).  So anyway, this got me thinking about Greek mythology and what a fabulotastic source of inspiration it is.  Admittedly, I was an early convert, introduced to the myths at the age of eight or nine by this gorgeous book, complete with wonderful illustrations by Giovanni Caselli.  I loved it, and have wallowed in the myths and their obscure sources, tangents and historical origins ever since.  Which explains why I picked up Seymour's Medea in the library at an early and impressionable age (probably too early to be honest, given some of the content).  A literary retelling of the myth of Jason and Medea from Medea's point of view, Seymour follows Robert Graves' lead in treating the myth as having foundations in history - which, of course, all myths likely do.  As the cover blurb says, "Murderer, sorceress, child of Circe the enchantress, Medea is one of the most sininster and fascinating figures of early Greek myth.  Her origins point to a demi-goddess, a cult murderess, while later versions of her life point to a woman of passion violent enough to destroy her own brother and children."  Needless to say, I haven't been the same since reading it ...

Seymour also produced The Goddess, a novel told from Helen of Troy's point of view, writing in the same vein as the legendary Mary Renault, who was perhaps the first writer to bring the figures of Greek myth and history alive in her novels.  Again, reading her Theseus books at an early age made a lasting impression on me.  Other writers have played in the world of myth: David Gemmell in his Lion of Macedon and Dark Prince reimagined the world of Alexander the Great and his father Phillip II of Macedon, and more recently (posthumously completed by his wife) wrote the Trojan War Trilogy.  In her novel, Daughter of Troy, Sarah B. Franklin retold the tale of the Trojan War from the point of view of Briseis, captive and lover of Achilles.  Elizabeth Hand has used the myths, particularly of ancient Crete and of Dionysus, as a springboard to resurrect mythological belief and sentiment - not to mention orgiastic mayhem - in the modern day.

TV and film have also, with varying degrees of success, found inspiration in the Swords and Sandals world of the myths.  As a kid, I loved the original Clash of the Titans (talking clockwork owl and all), though I haven't seen the remake yet.  Meanwhile, I scarcely need mention the Ray Harryhausen epic of Jason and the Argonauts with its memorable skeleton battle.  The more recent TV miniseries of the same was a big budget, but ultimately disappointing version portraying an insipid Medea, instead of the vital, complex woman of the original myth and hence, in my view, missing a trick.  Ultimately disappointing is a term that can also be applied Wolfgang Petersen's Troy, populated with pretty Hollywood faces, but forgettable all the same.  300 (okay, we're heading into the grey area between myth and history here) was far more memorable, reminding me of the way my original book of Greek myths made me feel.

Robert Graves' two-book study of Greek Myth is essential reading for anybody curious to delve into the intriguing possibilities of the historical origins of some of the myths.  Whether reputably founded or not, the books are marvellous sources of inspiration, filled with obscure corners of ancient history and long-mislaid tales.  Just thinking about it makes me itch to set pen to paper, and I'd love to hear from you if you have any recommendations of books or films based on the myths that I might have missed ...


jennygordon: (Default)

January 2016



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