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  • Writer's pictureRachel Sherlock

Neil Gaiman and Modern Myth-Making

Updated: Sep 26, 2018

The influence of myths on modern fantasy fiction can hardly be understated. The ancient stories of heroic endeavours and magical interventions, hideous monsters and deadly battles can be seen as the direct ancestors of today’s fantasy genre. These mythic characters, themes, and narrative arcs are resurrected, reused, and reshaped by countless fantasy authors. There are few better examples of this than the work of Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s love of myths began early in life. He has said that as a child he read Roger Lancelyn Green’s Myths of the Norsemen until the book fell apart. This love has continued, and been made manifest across Gaiman’s work. In his graphic novel series Sandman Gaiman created his own pantheon and mythic structure. He fashioned his own deities, each representing an aspect of the universe: Destiny, Death, Dream, Desire, Despair, Delirium and Destruction. Gaiman blended his original mythology with elements of myth from around the world; there are locations from Norse mythology and figures from ancient Greek stories. Together they form their own mythic world in which Gaiman tells his story.

Perhaps Gaiman’s most famous use of myth was in his adult fiction book American Gods, which was subsequently followed by Anansi Boys and Monarch of the Glen. Here Gaiman explores the resonances and residues of ancient beliefs in modern society. His stories imagine a world were gods and mythical creatures exist because people believe in them. As people from across the world came to America, their beliefs and therefore their gods came with them. Now, with the dwindling of faith in society, these gods are rendered destitute as the new gods of media and technology rise up. It’s a dark and complex look at the way myths and faiths change and survive across the ages.

These examples are just the bare beginning of the myriad of mythic nods and references throughout Gaiman’s work. Having established his mythophile credentials, Gaiman is now set to turn full-tilt to mythic retellings with his upcoming publication simply titled Norse Mythology. Due for release in early 2017, Gaiman’s coming book aims to gather the disparate stories of the Norse pantheon and render them into a single novelistic arc. The story will bring us from the genesis of the gods to the doom of the world in Ragnarok. Gaiman has insisted on the importance and relevance of telling myths in the modern world. In his essay ‘Some Reflections on Myth (with Several Digressions onto Gardening, Comics and Fairy tales)’ Gaiman stated:

But retelling myths is important. The act of inspecting them is important. It is not a matter of holding a myth up as a dead thing, desiccated and empty (“Now, class, what have we learned from the Death of Baldur?”), nor is it a matter of creating New Age self-help tomes (“The Gods Inside You! Releasing Your Inner Myth”). Instead we have to understand that even lost and forgotten myths are compost, in which stories grow. What is important is to tell the stories anew, and to retell the old stories. They are our stories, and they should be told.

There is a profound understanding in Gaiman’s work of the place of myth continues to play in modern storytelling. His new book is an exciting look at myths presented to a modern audience. He is not, however, the first author to turn to the telling of myths. There has been a long tradition, particularly among fantasy authors, of taking on the mythic stories and bringing them to modern audiences. If you’re looking to fill the time before Norse Mythology is published, perhaps it’s a chance to look at some other authors who have taken their turn at telling myths.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Arguably the founder of the fantasy genre, Tolkien’s work has inspired generations of writers, including Gaiman. Tolkien’s fame has led to the posthumous publication of his scholarly work on the myths of England and Scandinavia. Tolkien spent most of his life as professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, and was known as a devoted scholar of medieval language and literature. He dedicated much of his to translating myths, in order to better understand them, and teach them. There’s a certain cynicism in seeing the profusion of their publication after the commercial success of The Lord of the Rings movie franchise, yet Tolkien’s mythic work should not be discounted for this. The books suffer from the fact that they range widely in target audience. It was a problem Tolkien himself acknowledged, and it is probable that this was the reason none of this work was published in his lifetime.

However, his work remains masterful, his knowledge was extensive and his sensibility of language is often a delight to read. His Beowulf transmits the epic poem through prose, yet Tolkien’s language replicates the singular atmosphere of gravity and wonder found in the original. In his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight he painstakingly recreates in modern English the poetic metre and alliterative form of the original poem. Tolkien always handles the myths with meticulous care and love which makes these books well worth a read.

C.S. Lewis

Another stalwart of the fantasy literature canon, C.S. Lewis, like his friend Tolkien, was captivated by myth throughout his life. Similar to Gaiman, Lewis incorporated elements of myth throughout his fiction. However, his final novel Till We Have Faces is where he really comes to grips with mythic retelling. It is based the myth of Cupid and Psyche, as found in a chapter of The Golden Ass Lewis had read the story in his youth and it had stuck with him for the rest of his life. Indeed, he spent many years trying to compose a poetic retelling before writing the prose version found in Till We Have Faces. Lewis himself, along with his peers and critics, generally consider it to be his greatest work of fiction writing.

A far cry from the whimsy and simplicity of the Narnia stories, this is a deeply complex look at perspective and self-perception. The story is told in two parts, both narrated by Psyche’s sister Orual. It is an intense wrestling with the nature of suffering and self-perception. In the first part Orual rages against the gods and the suffering they have caused her and her family. However, as she writes her story she gains a greater understanding of the events that have passed, and in the second part we see her personal revelation of her own culpability in her suffering and her steps towards reconciliation with the gods. It’s a powerful retelling which gives a completely new perspective on an old myth.

Margaret Atwood

In 1999, the Canongate Myth Series project gathered famous authors and famous myths from across the world to produce a series of retellings. One of the most fascinating books to come out of this Margaret Atwood’s take on the tale of Odysseus, as found in Homer’s record of the myth in The Odyssey. Like Lewis, Atwood took the myth and shifted the narrative perspective to a secondary character. In this case Atwood tells the story from the viewpoint of Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, who waited dutifully for her husband’s return for 20 years.

In The Penelopiad, Atwood transforms the silent and seemingly perfect wife. Speaking from the afterlife, Penelope is free to tell her side of the story. Her tone is sharp and keenly self-aware, as she dismantles the perfect image of her husband and his heroic status. Intercut with this are vignettes of a Greek chorus, told by the hanging corpses of the 12 maids, killed by Odysseus on his return for their disloyalty to him. The traditionally male world of mythic heroism is pulled apart to reveal the female voices within. Atwood blends a modern voice, with ancient forms and characters to produce a startlingly fresh take on one of the most famous myths of all time.

Ted Hughes

The Canongate Myth series was not the only concerted modern effort in collective myth retelling. In the early 1990s, the British poets Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun brought together over forty poets to create the own versions of the stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This collection, named After Ovid: New Metamorphoses included four stories from poet Ted Hughes. It was this contribution to the collection which led him to write his own retelling of

Ovid, called Tales from Ovid.

Ovid’s work has long inspired writers throughout the ages, including Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer and Dryden. However, as a transmitter of mythic narratives, Ovid is more complicated than most. As Hughes himself noted, Metamorphoses itself is best described as a retelling. Still, it is fitting that these stories about ‘changes of shape, new forms’ should undergo such a series of transformation. Hughes’ retelling gets to the heart of Ovid’s work, and looks at the passions of human nature which bring people out of the banality of life and into the world of heroism and myth. Hughes focuses on 24 stories from the 250 found in Metamorphoses, and in particular addresses those dealing with lust, transgression, and violence.

It could be said that his selection of the stories reflects his own experiences; gone are Ovid’s tales of happy marriages, along with those of homosexual desire. Instead we see Hughes wrestling with the stories of instability and seduction, rape and death. It’s hard not to read this in the context of Hughes’ relationship with Sylvia Plath, which would ultimately bring them to own mythic level of tragedy and notoriety. Hughes’ language captures Ovid’s story-telling while imbibing it with his own unique expressions and preoccupations. It is a retelling of mythic poetry which has a poetic quality all its own.

This article was originally written for and published on November 4, 2016.

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