Mangling Myths

Or, how to be original when everything has been done already.

I was worrying out loud to Amanda and Sarah about being original, and they both teased me about it. We talked about how you can take material, and make it your own, and sometimes even better than the original. Sarah pointed out that Patricia Wentworth had lifted a plot wholesale from Dame Agatha Christie, and had done beautifully with it. And I think we can all come up with authors who paid homage, or wrote fanfiction with the serial numbers filed off well enough to tell a good story of their own.

While I have no urge to do either of those things, it is comforting to know I need to worry less about creating something entirely new than giving readers what they want. With Pixie Noir and Trickster, I was trying to write within a style, to blend Noir with the urban fantasy I actually enjoy. Not the sex in leather pants stuff, but the magic unseen behind the modern facade. It was a lot of fun.

Right now I’m working on the sequel to Vulcan’s Kittens, which means mythology. My own take on it, which mingles all the myths, pointing to a common root in them, ever-living beings with a very scientific background. I had fun writing the first one, and now that the plot of this book has snapped into focus, I’m rolling right along with it and enjoying it immensely.

In order to mangle my myths into something mine, I needed to know them better than I had. I had gotten a copy of Celtic Myths and Legends by Peter Beresford Ellis, and I started to research the specific mythic figure I chosen for a central role, Mannanan Mac’Lir. But to my amusement, while I was looking at the foreword, I discovered that perhaps my fictional creation was not so far off after all. Oh, I don’t mean the parallel world and advanced science. But it seems that Celtic myth and Indian myths have a lot of common roots.

Ellis writes: “the fact that tmany of the surviving Irish tales show some remarkable resemblances to themes, stories, and even names in the sagas of the Indian Vedas, written in Sanskrit at the start of the first millenium BC, shows just how ancient they may be. The being which emerges as the Mother Goddess of the Celts – whose name is given as Danu and sometimes Anu in the Old Irish, and is cognate with Don in the Old Welsh, as well as surviving in the epigraphy of the Continental Celts – also emerges in the literature of Vedas, Persia, and in Hittite myth. The name Danu means “divine waters”. River names throughout Europe acknowledge her.”

He goes on to quote another authority, Professor Myles Dillon (Celts and Aryans: Survivals of Indo-European Speech and Society) as pointing out “parallelism between the Irish and Hindu law-books, both of them the work of a privileged professional class, is often surprisingly close; it extends not merely to form and technique but even to diction”.

There’s an interesting idea presented in this, and although it won’t make it into this book, except as the fantasy I have already spun, it’s something to tuck away for another tale, another time.

So who knows where I got this tale, which I cheerfully mangled to fit Mac’Lir’s past? I’m sure someone can identify it! A tiny snippet of The God’s Wolfling, as told by my teen boy to his new friend, the granddaughter of a god.

When Granny had vanished into the house, Linn looked at Merrick. “You okay?”

He nodded. “Yeah. I didn’t know… I was afraid she was going to say it was true.”

Merrick got up and leaned on the railing. “If she said it was true, I was going to have to believe her.”

“Oh.” Linn tried to think about this applied to Grampa Heff. “What did she mean about your great grand’s blood, this morning?”

He looked at her. “It’s how my family came to be in Mac’Lir’s service. When his first wife died, his second wife resented the children he already had, even though they were her nephews and niece. So she started trying to come up with ways to get rid of them. There was a wolf-pack that roamed near the castle, and she told Mac’Lir she was living in fear of the wolves attacking. So he allowed her to bring in two great hounds to stand guard in the nursery.

“He was away one day, and when he came back, he went straight to the nursery, as was his habit. To his horror, he found blood spatter on the stairs up to the tower where he’d left the children playing. He raced up the stairs, finding more and more blood, then the broken body of a wolf. Mac’Lir drew his sword, and leapt through the open door into the nursery. What he found there turned his blood to ice.

“The two hounds were in pieces, strewn about the floor. Four wolves were in the room, dead, or dying. Blood dripped from the ceiling, falling into Mac’Lir’s eyes, but his tears cleared them again. There was no sign of his children anywhere, except the carnage that might have been their blood as well. He saw the largest of the wolves lying on the floor move a little, and he lifted the great sword he carried, the one which could cut through anything, and prepared to drive it into the beast’s heart.

“The blood dripped in his eye again, and as he brought the sword down, he missed entirely, and only cleaved the thick boards of the floor. Then the wolf stagggered to his feet, and Mac’Lir saw that the gray beast had hidden the children beneath him, and they leapt up now, seeing they were safe, and hugged both their father, and the wolf, pleading Mac’Lir not to kill it.

“Later, the story they told him while the wolf was carried to the Great Hall and had his wounds tended delicately, was of the hounds setting on them. They hid under a bed, and peeping out while the dogs scratched and raged in vain, being too large to fit under, they saw the wolf-pack charge into the room. The wolves fought valiantly, until they too were killed. In the battle, the bed was upset, and the great wolf lay over them protecting them with his own body. When he went limp, the children were sure he was dead, and then Mac’Lir had come in.”

Merrick fell silent, looking off into the distance. The day had grown hazy with the heat of the sun, and the hills had gone from green to shadowed blue. Granny Clinch spoke behind them.

“You tell the story well, lad. That wolf was your ancestor, and your family has been devoted to Mac’Lir for centuries.”

Linn had guessed that part. “But why did they protect the children?”

“The wolves had a geas set on them. They were in the area to watch Aoife, Mac’Lir’s new wife.”

That was Granny Clinch. Merrick turned around and stared at her. “How do you know that? They didn’t even know that until much later, and we are forbidden to talk about it.”

“I knew who put it on them.” She answered calmly. “Who wants more tea?”

25 comments

  1. OK, I know the tale as Brave Gellert or Bevgellert, from Welsh legend. With a dash of the Children of Lyr tossed in at the beginning, I would guess? I grew up with Irish fairy stories and the Childe Ballads, among other corrupting influences. 🙂

    1. Yes, I think most tales have the dogs protecting from the wolves rather than the other way around, but there’s also at least one Roman version. I haven’t read it in ages, but some stories stuck with me.

  2. The oldest version of Cinderella appears to be from India, last I was looking into this sort of thing.

    I recommend you get familiar with the work of Stith Thompson, who published an immense work: The Motif-Index of Folk Literature, You can read about it here: http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/ANTH/find/motif.html (or on Wikipedia).

    Bits of it are online here: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Motif-Index_of_Folk-Literature/Volume_1 and http://www.ualberta.ca/~urban/Projects/English/Motif_Index.htm but not (apparently) the whole index (it’s very large – 6 books as I recall). It would be a grand project to have entirely online (if anyone knows of a more complete online version, please comment).

  3. “…fanfiction with the serial numbers filed off well enough to tell a good story of their own.”

    Or in the case of certain authors who play at the lowest difficulty settings, without the “filing off the serial numbers” and “telling a good story” parts.

    Man, that stank on ice.

    1. Not mine, I hope! I have not actually written deliberate fan fiction. Although someone told me basing Vulcan’s Kittens on mythology made it fan fiction, so YMMV?

      1. Cedar, I don’t think SBP is referring to you or your works.

        I’m thinking SBP is referring to John Scalzi’s _Fuzzy Nation_ where Scalzi acknowledged he was doing a take on H. Beam Piper’s _Little Fuzzy_ but wrote IMO a pile of junk.

        1. Ah, yes… that is the book I threw in the trash. Normally if I don’t care for a book, I donate it to the library, or put it in the thrift shop box. This one, I didn’t want to contaminate anyone else with. Had I thought of it, I would have put it on the chopping block and taken an axe to it. I was not a happy reader.

  4. I took a class in “Indo-European Religion” over 50 years ago. It’s not just the Irish and Sanskrit; much of Roman “history” comes from the same source. Norse mythology derives from it too. (Not the Greeks so much; most of their mythology is Mediterranean.)

    Georges Dumézil (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dumezil) was the scholar who worked most of this out.

    1. Interesting! I’m always fascinated by what I learn when I start researching, usually it’s not at all what I was looking for in the first place.

    2. If I remember right, there’s a lot of argument about how much of the Norse mythology we “know” is reworked Christian mythology.

      1. Yes, in the book Ellis refers to the bowlderization of Celtic mythology as it was recorded by monastery scribes for the first time. The spoken tales were likely a bit different… and one of the tales in his book, of the conversion of Mac Cuill and the retreat of Manannan Mac’Lir to the forgotten lands of mists, is definitely influenced by Christian tellers.

        1. Reminds me of the modern problem of “someone two books ago totally pulled this out of their tail” mythology.

          If you manage to find the origin, it’s either an un-footnoted claim or is actually labeled as a guess.

        2. The Kalevala, the compilation of Finnish myth, ends the same way, with Christianity coming to Finland and Vainamoinen leaving, though if I remember rightly and my translation is any good (both iffy) he went oversea.

          1. Ah, which explains (in part) why Longfellow ends “The Song of Hiawatha” with the arrival of the Dominicans and Jesuits.

    3. The Greeks had different influences as well, but the core was still recognizably Indo-European.
      Heck, you could say the same about the Norse. The Vanir don’t fit the standard archtypes any better than the chthonic Grecian deities. (And good gravy, don’t get started on the Hittites.)

      If I may digress a bit, my favorite part of Indo-European religions is where they veer off from animism. Explaining myself in admittedly a very broadbrush fashion… Animism is the belief that everything that moves (or refuses to move when acted upon by an outside force), possesses an animating spirit. It lends itself to hierarchies. You have an animating spirit, your family has an animating spirit, your tribe has an animating spirit, etc. So (skipping a bit) animism implies a certain type of monotheism, as in, if “everything” has an animating spirit, then there is a spirit of “everything”, which subsumes “everything”. Of course, most of “everything” wasn’t exactly friendly to primitive man. Deliberately trying to gain the attention of such an omnipotent, omniscient deity figure would have been an exercise in questionable judgement.
      Which comes back to the Indo-European religions. They had such a figure, called Ymir, Chronos, etc. They were dead (but even dead gods have power), we live on their corpse, all that is comes from them, and the killer(s) of this deity figure are those worshiped with the highest honor.
      There’s a lot here to play with.
      (And I’m tired enough that I’m rapidly losing coherence. I’m stopping now.)

  5. Over 30 years ago I took a course titled “Indo-European Religion” at the University of Texas. There are many parallels between not only the Sanskrit stories and Irish mythology, but also with Norse mythology and Roman “history”. As I recall, there are seven or eight detailed similarities between the Mahabharata, the Ragnarök myth, an Irish myth I’ve forgotten, and the account of the expulsion of the Tarquins and the founding of the Roman Republic.

    Much of the original scholarship on this was done by Georges Dumézil. As his wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dumezil) shows, several of his books are available in English translation. It’s fascinating stuff.

  6. A little off topic, but here’s a fascinating speech given my Freeman Dyson about the future of science, posed as scientific heresies. There some good material in here that can be mined for SF ideas as well. Imagining home genetic engineering kits as simple to use as a 3D printer….

Comments are closed.