TT: Mixing Myth and History

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back one and find out what sort of fiction can drive me nuts…  Then join me and Alan as we continue our voyage into the realms of myth fantastic.

Swann and Anderson

Swann and Anderson

JANE: Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been talking about Fantasy fiction that uses historical and mythological material for its foundations.  I’m certainly far from done!

ALAN: Me too! It’s one of my hobby horses and I tend to ride it to death.

JANE: An author I’d like to mention is Thomas Burnett Swann.  He wrote a bunch of novels that used historical events but retold them with myth and legend blended in.   For example, Lady of the Bees tells the story of Romulus and Remus but includes dryads, fauns, and other mythological creatures.  Swann also shifts the emphasis of the tale in a very interesting manner that, while not violating the “history” (if you can call a legend “history”), reinterprets the motivations of those involved.

His late novel, The Gods Abide, tells what happened to the “pagan” deities in the time of Constantine.  In his novels, Swann repeatedly addressed an issue that I’d wondered about since I was a little girl, suddenly realizing that myths were different from fairy tales in that fairy tales were just stories, but myths had been someone’s religion.  Even then I wondered, what happens to gods when their worshipers change alliance?  Swann provided some interesting answers.

ALAN: Sometimes the technique can work the other way round. Henry Treece, who I mentioned last time, did exactly the opposite with the Greek myths. He wrote three novels  – Jason, Elektra and Oedipus (guess what stories they told?), and he presented the stories as factual history with all trace of myth and magic removed (the golden fleece was just a grubby old sheepskin flecked with traces of alluvial gold). I’m not completely convinced that’s a good idea!

JANE: Oh!  I remember hearing about that…  That ratty sheepskin did take some of the romance out of the tale.   By contrast, Mary Renault, who I’ve wandered on about (WW 1-18-12), could do a realistic treatment of mythological events without reducing the sense of wonder.  Her re-tellings of the myth of Theseus – The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea – are wonderful.  The Mask of Apollo, while purely historical, adds in the spiritual dimension that would have been a big part of the participant’s lives.

ALAN: An author who was an eye opener for me was Poul Anderson. Not many of his books were published in England, but I avidly devoured the few that appeared. They were science fiction rather than fantasy, but several of them involved time travel back to some rather grim historical milieus (a word I’d never heard until I started reading Anderson!). One of them, The Corridors of Time, was my first exposure to the idea of the Earth Mother, the Goddess.  That novel remains a firm favourite of mine because of that. Of course it helps that it’s a brilliant story in its own right!

JANE: I’m a huge Anderson fan myself.  His Earthbook of Stormgate is a marvelous piece, a short fiction collection that reads like a novel.  It doesn’t hurt that it includes the novella “The Man Who Counts” – released as a novel with the unfortunate title, War of the Wingmen.  Even in these purely science fictional tales, Anderson shows his fascination for the mythic in that the frame story is an exchange of tales between humans and winged aliens.

ALAN: I’d heard rumours of fantasy novels that Anderson had written and eventually somebody published an English edition of The Broken Sword. I was absolutely blown away by the story. It’s an epic tale firmly based on the Norse view of the world. Orm the Strong kills the family of a witch. She allies herself with the elves who steal Orm’s son leaving a changeling in his place. The elves name Orm’s baby Skafloc and raise him as their own.

I’d never seen elves like these before. Mean spirited and vengeful, some might almost say evil, certainly they were cold and cruel and had little regard for the welfare of others. This was a dark and thoroughly depressing book. The villains were nasty and so were the heroes. I loved it.

JANE: It’s been a long time since I read The Broken Sword, but I remembered liking it.

ALAN: Anderson was fascinated by the Norse myths and he incorporated references to them in many of his novels. And then some time in the 1970s he wrote Hrolf Kraki’s Saga which, as the title implies, is a Norse saga told in a very Norse style. I was never very clear whether he made it up out of whole cloth or whether he fleshed out existing fragments of a real saga, but it certainly sounded very authentic. It was nominated for a British Fantasy Award. I must confess I found it hard to read; the writing style was very traditionally Norse, somewhat old-fashioned in tone and quite repetitious, with long passages in the passive voice. Not my cup of tea. But nevertheless I have to admit that it’s a tour de force.

JANE: Ah…  I differ with you there.  I read Hrolf Kraki’s Saga when I was in college and loved it almost to the point of obsession.  The Norse prose style must have resonated with my Scandinavian blood.

Hrolf Kraki was not invented by Anderson.   He was the most famous of the Danish kings in the “heroic age.”  He even had a role in Beowulf, under the name of Hrothulf.   I believe that what Anderson did in Hrolf Kraki’s Saga was similar to what Evangeline Walton did with the Mabinogi – he took what he wanted from a wide body of material about Hrolf Kraki, most especially from the Hrolfssaga, and turned it into a novel.

ALAN: Ah, I see. Thanks – I didn’t know that.

JANE: By the way, since we’re talking about Poul Anderson’s work,  I must tell a little tale.  Back in the mid-nineties, Steve (S.M.) Stirling invited Jim and me to come over, have dinner, and meet Poul and Karen Anderson.  Poul was working on a book set in the American Southwest, and Steve thought Poul might enjoy picking Jim’s brain for details.  Poul did, and Jim is mentioned in the acknowledgments for Operation Luna.  We have our signed copy – a gift from Poul – along with his thank you note, among our treasures.  A charming person, as well as an excellent writer.

ALAN: Most definitely! I have an autographed copy of The Earth Book Of Stormgate and, though I only spoke to Poul for a short time as he signed his name, I remember him as a very pleasant person, very approachable and easy to talk with. I was pleased to find that a writer I admired so much was also someone whose company I enjoyed.

JANE: I have an idea for where I’d like to take this next, but I need to get to work.  So, next time?


2 Responses to “TT: Mixing Myth and History”

  1. Paul Says:

    Regarding the comments about meeting Poul Anderson: I got to exchange a few words with him back in 1963, and value that probably far out of proportion to what it amounted to. Isn’t it great to meet someone whose work you’ve admired and find they live up to your anticipations of them? I’ve found that more true than not in the SF&F field.

    • Alan Robson Says:

      Absolutely! Over the years I’ve met many of the SF&F writers whose works I’ve admired. Almost invariably I have found them to be very nice people, great company in the bar! I treasure those meetings and those conversations.


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