Thursday, May 23, 2013

Thursday Thoughts

The subject on my mind this week is stories inspired by or reinterpreting various myths, fairy tales, ballads, and so forth.  I'm going to arbitrarily set what I'm talking about apart from retellings that are relatively faithful to the source material - that's not the topic I'm interested in.  Obviously, there are grey areas, but for the purposes of this, let's say that a retelling would relating part or all of Snow White from the point of view of the huntsman; a reinterpretation would be a story where Snow White is a werebear and she's hibernating, not sleeping.  (I never promised to provide good examples.  On the other hand, I would read that story.)

I'm fascinated with the opportunities provided by this source material.  Much of it has a primal depth to it, and you can offer a number of variations before you start to dilute the core.  The story (or stories) that got me thinking about this was a (series of) retellings from a shared world where I decided to use the ballad The Cruel Sister as partial inspiration for a character's background.

(It's a common story with a lot of variations.  One version is here:  The Cruel Sister.  Loreena McKennit also has an - overly prettified - version, The Bonny Swans.)

Since my character was a harp player - ironically, this was before I came to the instrument; ancient history, that - obviously, he came into play as the musician of the piece.  I decided he and the lady-harp developed a romance, one that is shattered in the fallout of the revelation that ends the ballad.  (We never find out what happens after, at least not in any versions I've seen.)

This was a fantasy land created by someone else outside of the bounds of story or ballad, so some changes / disguise of the original narrative were inevitable.  Still, I made a few direct references:  the title of one of the stories was "So Coal Black Grew The Other One" (another version of a line in the first verse, above).

As I start thinking about rewriting it, I ask questions that aren't in the original narrative.  One I've already indicated - what happens after the harp reveals the murder?  What happens to the beloved after the younger sister drowns?  Why / would the older sister really think she could just be given the beloved like a prize?  (Not that women haven't been treated like this in old stories so often it almost doesn't bear mentioning.)  What kind of love is that?

I think this is another powerful lure of these old stories - so often, we're left to ourselves to fill in the gaps, ask the questions ... or be content with the mysterious and nebulous impression that it would all make sense if we pulled back the curtain.  The authority of these stories is such that we don't always feel we have to ... and a fiction writer drawing them can sometimes get away with the same trick, sometimes not.

When dealing with these sources, though, the question (or a question; there are numerous) is how much to disguise them.  Does one maintain names, settings, even specific lines?  Some tales are practically public consciousness; others are more obscure, such that only a student / scholar / geek would recognize even extensive references.  Then there's the story where the author conceals the recognizable elements, only to reveal them at the end, with an, "aha" moment for the reader.  The infamous example of this is the two people who crashland on a planet and turn out to be named Adam and Eve.  Writing this story will get you retroactively blacklisted back to the point your parents met.

I'll plead guilty to writing love letters to Greek myths ... a lot of them.  We're having quite the steamy affair.  Mythocraft is essentially a reintepretation of Greek mythology with a clockwork (we'll call it proto-steampunk) angle.  A story I haven't sought publication for yet, Inside The Box, imagines that Pandora was trapped in the box after she opened it (there's another myth / tale where I don't think we really find out what happens after) and leads her through a series of dream-encounters with other mythological figures.

Then there's the simple substitution method:  X, only with Y.  A writers' challenge to take a fairytale and use a subgenre with which I wasn't comfortable led to a tale I simply had a blast writing:  a steampunk retelling of The Six Swans (or Seven - fairytales seem to have difficulty counting higher than three).  And, of course, The Naming Braid combines multiple Lais of Marie de France.

All of these are pretty transparent:  anyone who is familiar with the source material should recognize it quickly, if not immediately.  One of the major projects I've contemplated writing down the line is a fantasy reinterpretation of the Helen of Troy myth, really utilizing and treating the gods as they were in the source material:  flawed, larger-than-life meddlers.  I've been in continuous debate how much to obscure the original.  Does it lose power if too subtle - or contrary-wise, if one is slapped in the face with it?  But mythological research has already suggested some interesting variants, not all of which the purists will be happy with ... so I don't want to stay so strictly in the lines that people will pick at inaccuracies.  (For instance, my Odysseus is a woman in disguise, and while I have multiple mythological tidbits that made me decide it was appropriate ... oh, there could be uproar.  Confessedly, part of my reason for doing it was also that I hate Odysseus and it's interesting to justify "his" behavior as the effects of trying to conceal gender.)

But enough about me ... finally ... and this is by far the longest post I've done in a while, at that.  What's your favorite myth variation scheme?  How much do you think a reinterpretation or inspired-by story should be disguised?

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