I have a special treat for you today! Nancy Holzner, author of the Deadtown urban fantasy series, has very kindly agreed to a guest post and is talking about how old myths are used in new stories. Nancy has just released the fourth book in the series, Darklands (huge congratulations, Nancy! :))…you can find out more about the series and read excerpts here.
Old Myths, New Stories
One of the things I love about Linda’s Grigori Legacy series is the way she builds upon and reworks the complex and fascinating mythology of angels. In fact, many of my favorite contemporary fantasy novels use mythology as a starting point. And my own Deadtown series borrows characters, stories, and themes from Welsh mythology. Why do ancient stories continue to resonate with modern readers?
I think myths have three main functions: to explain natural phenomena, to probe moral questions, and to reveal the hidden workings of the world. All of these come into play in mythology’s lasting appeal.
I love the way mythology takes natural phenomena and turns them into stories. Long ago, when an ancient Greek child wondered where spiders came from, the answer began, “Once there was a woman named Arachne, who was a wondrously skilled weaver . . .” And a myth was born. A Navajo child who asked the same question heard a story about how Spider Grandmother is older than the world and how the stars in the sky are dewdrops in a web she spun. Think of all the other questions about the world that mythology answers through characters and stories: Where did the Earth come from? What causes thunder and lightning? What’s a rainbow made of? How did people discover fire? What is an echo? In an age long before scientific instruments and the scientific method, people made sense of the natural world through stories.
Many of these stories also had a moral element. As much as the story of Arachne explains where spiders came from, it also warns about excessive pride. Arachne never would have gotten into trouble if she hadn’t had the hubris to challenge Athena to a weaving contest. The myth of Narcissus, hopelessly in love with his own reflection, not only gives us the origin of a certain kind of flower, it also warns about falling in love with ourselves to the exclusion of those around us.
Some of the most interesting myths examine moral questions explicitly. In answer to the question, “Why are there bad things in the world?” we get stories of Pandora’s box and the serpent lurking in Eden. Icarus cautions us about excessive ambition; stories of gods or angels in disguise teach us to be kind to strangers, while fairy tales (such as Hansel and Gretel or Little Red Riding Hood) warn us not to be too trusting. Instead of lecturing us about how we should behave, myths show us, with suspense and vivid details.
Myths also show us the hidden workings behind the world we see around us. Who hasn’t looked into the sky and wondered whether there’s more to the world than humans know or can understand? Myths draw back the curtain, revealing secret worlds behind this one. What if the souls of some people really do linger as ghostly presences after their bodies have died? What if there are spirits (friendly, hostile, indifferent), fairies, undead creatures, human-animal hybrids walking unnoticed among us? Does that chill that shoots up your spine when you walk past a graveyard mean something, or is it just a silly fear? Are signs and omens real attempts to guide us, or does their meaning come from overactive imaginations at work? What is around us that our busy, modern lives don’t let us see?
Myths tap into deep concerns about the world and our place in it, addressing anxieties and answering questions through stories. Much of the appeal of contemporary fantasy comes from taking those same questions seriously. Fantasy based on myth starts by asking, “What if this story were true? What if it really happened?” The answer becomes a fun ride that deals with concerns both modern and ancient, specific and universal.
What are some of your favorite myths? Is there a mythology you’d like to see more of in urban fantasy? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
She began her career as a medievalist, then jumped off the tenure track to try some other things. Besides teaching English and philosophy, she’s worked as a technical writer, freelance editor and instructional designer, college admissions counselor, and corporate trainer. Most of her nonfiction books are published under the name Nancy Conner.
Nancy lives in upstate New York with her husband Steve, where they both work from home without getting on each other’s nerves. She enjoys visiting local wineries and listening obsessively to opera. There are still a lot of books she wants to read.