Mythology and religion have always provided a rich well of ideas for writers to draw upon, inspiring a vast range of novels, from Dante Alighieri’s classic The Divine Comedy to Suzanne Collins’ best selling hit The Hunger Games. Some works touch lightly upon the source material, such as Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy, inspired by Central Asia and the Mongolian steppe. Others, such as Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, are more faithful to the world they borrow from.
Fantasy as a genre is steeped in lore and legend, offering pages liberally sprinkled with deities and divinities, magic and prophecy, and epic battles between good and evil. And although J.R.R. Tolkien’s Norse-inspired Lord of the Rings set the tone for fantasy for many years, there is inspiration to be found in a variety of places. Jay Kristoff’s Lotus War trilogy borrows from Japanese culture and heritage. Cindy Pon’s YA work, such as her most recent novel Serpentine, delves into Chinese mythology. Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon tips its hat to Middle Eastern lore. And Rick Riordan, best known for his Greek Mythology-based Percy Jackson novels, turned to the Egyptian gods for his Kane Chronicles trilogy.
I’ve invited two guests, whose work dives deep into mythology, to help dig a little into why fantasy is so intrinsically linked to legend and lore.
Icelandic writer and teacher Snorri Kristjansson is the author of The Valhalla Saga, with the fabulously named Swords of Good Men and Blood Will Follow. The third in the trilogy, Path of Gods, came out in July in the UK and arrives January 5th in the USA. Set in Viking Norway, in Kristjansson’s exciting prose the Norse gods are very much alive and determined to sway the fate of mankind.
English-born Kerry Buchanan is lucky enough to live on a horse farm in Northern Ireland, where the sweeping views alone are an inspiration. Often drawing upon the mythology of her adopted country in her writing, Kerry has a number of published short stories and is busily editing a novel that jumps head first into Celtic lore.
Juliana: Welcome Snorri and Kerry. First of all, the obvious question: why mythology? What draws you to write about these myths and legends?
Snorri: Because Norse mythology is cheerfully insane. When the wind howls outside your hut and all you have for heating is your flock of sheep, you’re going to need some good stories to keep you warm. In addition, while at times entertainingly insidious it is also heavy on the skull-cracking, which is relevant to my interests.
Kerry: Firstly, thank you for inviting us to contribute, Juliana. You’ve asked some great questions, too.
Mythology has always fascinated me. My Irish grandparents told me stories when I was very young, which became twisted up in my memory: The Morrigan and Cú Chulainn and the Tuatha dé Danaan.
On my father’s side, I grew up with tales of ancient Greek mythology and the tales of Homer, but my first introduction to British myths and legends was when I bought an old copy of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur from a charity shop, age around ten or so. I was lost from then on. Pretty much everything I write has threads of myth and legend running through it. And dragons. Usually dragons feature somewhere.
Juliana: Religious myths – whether borrowed, such as in your own work, or created from scratch – are a staple in fantasy. What do all these gods and goddesses bring to the literary table? Why do you think mythology is so central to the genre?
Snorri: (I am fully aware that all of this is grossly simplified and worthy of many more words, but here goes) One of the attractions of involving higher powers might be that we get a step back-view on morality – we struggle to see our own actions in context (and by extension our own privilege and god-like status, if you will), but if we take a deity and either bring them down into our world or smash them into other deities, cause and effect get highlighted. Also, Gods often bring with them simplified morality and easy way of doing good-vs-evil on a grand scale.
Kerry: I think the attraction of them is their power, and the way they interact with mortals. A human can be wandering along, minding their own business, when an irate or amorous god or goddess descends and turns their life upside down. They can never seem to keep themselves from meddling!
The French philosopher, Voltaire, once said that if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. Perhaps we need to have a power stronger than us to stay sane, but powerful entities appear in many branches of fiction, not just SFF. Remember Lord Frith, the Black Rabbit and El Ahrairah in Watership Down?
The late, great Sir Terry Pratchett had an interesting view of gods and goddesses in his Discworld novels. They would watch from Dunmanifestin (Discworld equivalent of Mt Olympus) as humans lived or died on the roll of a dice in the gods’ great game. Wonderful names, too, from Offler, the crocodile god to Annoia, goddess of things that get stuck in drawers.
Religious beings in fiction bring an element of unpredictability to a story. With enormous power and superhuman gifts, they can be a powerful force for good or evil. If the main character can’t beat them with strength or skill, he has to outwit them, and that makes for exciting plot twists.
Juliana: What are the easy pitfalls writers can run into when using mythology in their work, the most common mistakes?
Kerry: Many of these mythologies are well known folk tales, close to people’s hearts. If a story deviates from the ‘known’ facts, or portrays a character in an unfamiliar light, those who love them can be quite upset. Not only that, but there can be dozens of variations on a particular mythology, and many stories, even those from different countries, have parallels with each other, or characters in common. The names may vary, but their characteristics often don’t.
It’s can also be hard to resist the temptation to make your mythological characters invincible, or foolproof, but the best characters are flawed. Perfection wins few friends, both in real life and in fiction, so I think it’s important to write in vulnerability or weakness. No one should be perfectly likeable — or perfectly hateable either for that matter.
Snorri: For me, it’s stakes. How do you reconcile the fact that deities can do anything? How do you then make a human’s actions mean something? There are all kinds of mess you can get into. How does the religious space alien interact with the world? Is there a lot of smiting, or are we doing the Greek pawns-in-a-game thing, with Gods and Goddesses picking favourites? Like in general storytelling, you have to preserve clarity, know what you’re doing and know why. In fact, there is a process for avoiding pitfalls, and it is fairly simple.
1) Read Robert Jackson Bennett’s ‘City of Stairs’.
2) Cry angry tears at how good it is, and how you’ll never get that good.
2b) Wipe your tears away. They make it hard to see the screen/notebook/vellum.
3) Have a cup of tea.
4) Start again, and do your thing. But mind the stakes.
Juliana: When writing fiction based on existing mythologies it must be hard to walk the line between remaining faithful to the source material while making it your own story. Could you share some tips for successfully navigating these waters?
Snorri: Find the blind spots. Even the most exacting of mythologies have vast, gaping holes in ’em. Find a space where no-one has talked about what happened, and work with that. I think what makes already established deities work in stories is when there is enough to hang your hat on, but also something extra. Joanne Harris’ Gospel of Loki does this very well, and I’ll even forgive the Marvel Loki for existing.
Alternately, just go for it. Write what you want. Just make sure you buy at least one of Kristjansson’s Smite-Free Amulets first. For safety, you know.
Kerry: For my part, I play fast and loose with small details, but I try where possible to keep to the spirit of characters from myths I love. Perhaps that makes me the last person to be advising other writers, because in a sense I’ve chosen the easy route, but many of these stories are based on ages-old oral tradition, so I tell myself the details must surely have shifted over the centuries. Like Chinese whispers.
I would love to learn more of the Norse mythology Snorri writes about. I have only the sketchiest knowledge, which is a defect I intend to remedy as soon as I can. I’ll probably start with Snorri’s books, which have been on my To Be Read list for some time.
Juliana: What are some of the mythology-based works that inspire you as a reader? How about as a writer? (Movies also count!)
Kerry: Who could not cite Tolkien? The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are books I still re-read pretty much every year. His world-building is incredible, right down to the languages and writing. Impossible not to admire and be inspired by him. Some of the Peter Jackson movies irritated me, especially the Hobbit trilogy, but he certainly did a spectacular job with Lord of the Rings.
One of my main inspirations was and still is the talented Mary Stewart whose Merlin Trilogy is another series I read countless times as I was growing up. Her portrayal of Merlin has undoubtedly influenced the way I’ve written my own characters, and she was an amazing writer across several genres. Sadly, she died last year.
I also loved the slightly off the wall interpretation of Arthurian myth by T. H. White. The Once and Future King was another major inspiration for the Merlin-type character in my current novel, The Blacksmith’s Apprentice.
Snorri: Peter Madsen and Hans Rancke-Madsen’s Norse Mythology comics from the 80’s influenced me hugely as a child. These days, the aforementioned RJB counts, as does Terry Pratchett. Eventually, all stories about Gods are stories about ourselves, and Small Gods taught me plenty about religion and faith. There’s bits and bobs from here and there, but those are big’uns.
Juliana: And last of all, since we’re at the year’s end, which are some of your favorite books you read in 2015? Any theme, any genre!
Snorri: I devoured – no, inhaled Joe Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea trilogy, cursing under my breath at how a Brit could somehow be so Norse. That being said, a frequent theme in his interviews is the crushing of his enemies’ skulls, so perhaps I should not have been surprised. Highly recommended reading.
Kerry: A series of books I discovered in 2015 are the time-travelling novels, The Chronicles of St Mary’s by Jodi Taylor. She and her main character, Max, both break a lot of rules, but I find her books are un-put-downable.
My other favourites are Goblin Moon and Hobgoblin Night by Teresa Egerton. As I read them, I wondered why it had taken me so long to discover her. Her gentle humour and wonderful characters made both books an absolute pleasure to read.
Another new book I read this year is Inish Carraig, by Jo Zebedee. Nothing gentle about this one – it is a science fiction story set in near-future Belfast and follows the lives of a policeman, Inspector Carter, and two teenage boys, John and Taz, as they try to survive in post-invasion Northern Ireland. Two alien races have settled in the country, and the humans are caught in the middle, with painful and dangerous results. I think I read this novel in one white-knuckled sitting….
Juliana: Thank you both so much for joining me here, I’ve enjoyed your answers tremendously. Hopefully there will be no divine smiting of my blog after treading the dangerous waters of skull-cracking, passionate Norse and Celtic deities. I think I’ll take a dozen of Snorri’s amulets, though, just to be on the safe side…
Check out Snorri Kristjansson’s website for news, book information and blog: http://snorrikristjansson.com. You can also find Snorri on Facebook and on Twitter, as @SnorriKristjans.
For more information on Kerry Buchanan’s work, go to http://www.kerrybuchanan.co.uk. Kerry is also on Twitter as @Cavetraveller.
Spotlight is a monthly blog feature. Check out November’s Spotlight on SFF Editing with Teresa Edgerton and Richard Shealy. Next up in January: Spotlight on SFF Gatherings.