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.