Sunday, 20 June 2010

There are stories you should not tell

unless they belong to you.
I was going to write something different this morning but Lucy Coats over on Scribble City Central has interviewed Nicola Morgan on the topic of myths and legends - the use thereof - and I put my paw in. Well I put both paws in and said that you need to be careful when using myths and legends because they could come back to bite you. Ms Coats, quite rightly, wanted to know what I meant by that. I left a brief message on her blog. Here is a little more...go away now if you are not interested in cat thoughts.
There are, I think, two ways to use a myth or legend. You can re-tell the story or you can use the story. No, these are not the same thing.
In the first instance you can set out to do something as blatant as re-tell the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece. If you are a really good writer (and you need to be really good) then you can probably do it and make it sound fresh and interesting. You will set it in the proper time and you will do lots of research to make sure you do not have some impossible thing happening - like a satellite navigation system on the boat. Or you can re-tell the story and set it in another time or another place. You still need to know what you are doing. The story has to be consistent with the original. In other words you have to honour the story - and the culture it comes from. Greek myths and legends, Norse myths and legends, Celtic myths and legends are all part of our received culture. We can use them but we still need to honour the story. It is no good retelling the story and making Alexander the Great a weedy little man with asthma and a hearing loss. It simply would not be believable. We 'know' Alexander was 'not like that'. It cannot be done.
The story will come back to bite you.
Then there are great stories from other cultures - like the Ramayana. It is not part of my culture but it is an epic which is in the public arena. If I wished to do so I could perhaps use some of it. I would need to exercise great caution. It is not my story but there is the possibility that I could borrow it - but I need to honour it. I do not turn the Monkey God into another animal.
There are more familiar stories from other cultures, folk stories. Many of these are in the public arena. There are often stories so similar that we believe them to be the same story, stories of travellers, of eldest sons or youngest sons, of life, death and inheritance, of beautiful young women and ancient crones. We can re-tell those if we honour them as well.
Then there are stories we should not tell - unless they belong to us. There are African stories I have been told but I would not re-tell them because they belong to what I think of as deep African culture. They have their roots in a language I do not fully understand. They have almost certainly lost something in translation. There are indigenous Australian Dreamtime stories that I know exist but I will never be told because they are for indigenous ears only. To tell those would be to violate indigenous privacy and culture. You do not do it. I would never tell any Dreamtime story, even an "open" story. They are not mine.
Then there is the business of using a myth or legend from received culture to tell another story. That is using our culture, our received culture. It still requires skill. If we set out to do that then we have to work within the limits of the story but we can make it our own. We can alter things. Whether the alterations will work is up to our skill as story teller. Some things will be acceptable and others will not. We can make our Alexander a weedy little man with asthma and a hearing loss if we set it in the 21st C and give him the drugs and cochlear implant to overcome his problems but we have to make it believable.
A society without myths and legends is a society without a past and it is a society without a future. If we do not use myths and legends in an honourable fashion or if we ignore them then they will come back to bite us. They are part of our past. We have to use the past to understand the present and prepare ourselves for the future.


Donna Hosie said...

I don't necessarily agree. For example, the legend of the Vampire has been told through the ages, and then Stephenie Meyer came along and turned it on its head. I admire that. Regardless of what people think about her actual writing, she took a well established legend/folklore and updated it.

I don't see the harm in taking a traditional myth and turning it upside down. It is fun to read.

catdownunder said...

"(She) updated it" - but she honoured the story didn't she? I was so bored after the first three pages of the first book I did not bother to go on but my understanding is that the vampire is still a vampire. He does not stop being a vampire. Am I wrong about that? Having not read it I recognise I might be but, so long as he remains a vampire...?

catdownunder said...

Oh, and turning it upside down does not necessarily mean you do not honour the story - if you acknowledge what you are doing.

Donna Hosie said...

She didn't honour the traditional story: only come out at night/drink human blood/sleep in coffins and crypts/aversion to crosses/even the stake through the heart...

She changed nearly everything.

Nicola Morgan said...

When I talk about how writers "use" myths and old stories I don't mean in such an overt way. I mean neither a re-telling nor an updating nor a using which has to be true to the original. I don't see why anything has to be true to the original unless it claims to be trying to be. What I think of when I say that writers use stories is that the themes and concerns and frameworks of them are ones which crop up again and again and when we know where they comne from, and how they've changed over time and over different cultures (because no one culture owns any story, I don't think)then we both enrich them and are enriched by them. It's often subconscious, too. And it's more that we see threads and shadows appear in our "own" story and we know where those threads and shadows come from, which anchors us.

Writers who don't have a background of old stories have less to draw on and less chance to make such strong or new connections with readers. And the same applies when readers don't know the old stories. When readers and writers know them, the chances of recognition, of cross-referencing, of making connections, are so much greater.

Lucy Coats said...

Cat--thank you so much for this. As I said on the blog, I really appreciate your taking time and trouble to write this post, and to comment on Scribble City Central. I've replied at length there.

I quite agree about Alexander, and about not putting a sat-nav on Argo (great examples, btw). It's about remaining true to the essence of the myth.
I HAVE read the Meyer books, and I think that what she does is ok. She's not retelling the Vlad myth as such, but she does remain true to the base essence of the vampire, I think, and the whole crosses and garlic and silver thing is not set in stone--they are, I think, later additions. There's also a question of whether vampires are myth, legend or folktale. There is a difference--though each is important in its own different way. Robin McKinley too creates her own vampire lore in Sunshine (though a million trillion times better), while remaining true to the essence.

As I said on my blog, I have taken mythological beings and included them in my novels, made them my own by imagining them in my own way and making them fit into my own story--but I have remained true to that essence throughout. There are certain stories (like, as you say, the Dreamtime stories) which I would not think of touching in a retelling sense, because there is a reason they are told the way they are. Would I use a Dreamtime mythological character in a novel? Probably not--because I would feel uncomfortable doing so. Would I if I was Australian and had been brought up with them? I don't know. Probably not. Myths do need telling and retelling to keep them fresh. I never forget that these were oral and not written stories originally, and that each storyteller would have had their own variations and embellishments. If you try to fix them in stone, they die.

Tamara Hart Heiner said...

I totally disagree. I think any story can be retold, even if is not our own. We don't aim to offend, but every person perceives a story differently than another.

catdownunder said...

Thankyou Nicola and Lucy for taking so much trouble!
Tamara - our Australian indigenous community asks that some of their Dreamtime stories be respected as "sacred and not for telling" by non-indigenous Australians, indeed there are stories that would not be told to a non-indigenous person. If I knew one of those stories I would feel I could not retell it - even in the very unlikely event that I would want to.

Katherine Langrish said...

I was interested to discover this post! I've been blogging on the same subject at almost the same time at - and I agree with you, it's important to tread very carefully when you are treading on someone's dreams.

Sheep Rustler said...

A very interesting concept indeed. As for the vampire myths, there is little agreement as to the origin of them; there are a number ofpissble jumping off points in European mythology, certainly, and so many layers have been added onto them over the centuries that I think the only way to completely negate them would be to turn a vampire into a sunbathing mortal who only ate green vegetables! I have read the Stephanie Meyer books (while they were still cult classics, in my defence, before they became so mainstream!) and she deals with the elements of myth rather well, I believe personally, adjusting and altering quite subtly the various elements that have been added by numerous sources over time.

catdownunder said...

"A sunbathing mortal who only ate green vegetables"? Hmmm, I need to think about that! :-)
The idea of "vampire" really is a curious one...I have never felt the need or desire to write about it - or read Meyer either, although I should perhaps try to get through just one of them.