Guest Post: Past Myths in Today’s Fictional World

Please let me preface this by stating clearly, and in my “big boy voice,” that I am by NO means any kind of literary intellectual or theorist, so most of what you read in the next few paragraphs is sure to be more opinion than fact; more conjecture than analysis; more from the heart than from the head.  After all you guys, I write Middle-Grade Fantasy novels about two boys that turn into a dragon and a knight, respectively.  I am not what you would call the poster child for poststructuralism or anything like that.  What I DO have is a passion to create entertainment and share it.  And I have found that the easiest way to accomplish both of these goals is through the medium of writing fantasy/fiction novels.  So, just bear with me as I ramble on about how I’ve found pulling myths from the past to be the best way to influence today’s fantasy novels.

I assume if you have gotten this far into my diatribe, you must be somewhat interested.  I also assume you have read SOME of the classics?  These classics are responsible for taking things that ancient man created and turning them into stories for generations to enjoy.  They took myths and built them into legends that seem to outlast the fickle flow of time.  Ancient man had fears.  These fears became the dragons and mythological monstrosities that walk the pages of authors like Tolkien and Lovecraft and C.S. Lewis.  They eventually evolved further to become the protagonists and antagonists that authors like Anne McCaffrey, Robert Jordan, and Terry Brooks created to tell epic tales of sweeping fantasy worlds.  Even in the young adult and middle grade movements, authors like J.K. Rowling and Rick Riordan have based entire series off monsters and creatures that haunted (and perhaps hunted) early storytellers.  The fears of old not only ring true in today’s fictional landscape, but they are also dominant.

Ancient man also had a firm grasp on good and evil.  “I am good.  What tries to kill me is evil.”  Pretty simple philosophy.  And although the good versus evil trope is one of the oldest in literary history, it is essential to telling a worthwhile story.  The Greeks and Romans really ran this into the ground with their tales of man versus the evils of the world.  And they almost always included a lesson or knowledge their readers could take with them to survive in a world where they faced similar yet realer challenges.  We know that modern writers have spun this concept around so much that what’s good and what’s evil is barely ascertainable or sometimes even interchangeable, but the premise is still at the underlying heart of the story.  Modern fiction derives its roots from the idea that conflict can be internal or external, but modern fantasy takes it a step further by setting these conflicts on a good versus evil scale with the highest of stakes.

Ancient man also knew about wonder.  Their world was so new to them and full of it.  Yes, evil and monsters lurked in every direction, but their stories also had ways to overcome the obstacles.  Cave paintings and oral traditions describe tools used to help humankind prevail in harsh environments; to rise above the challenges.  These became the mythological weapons that classic stories utilize to fend off that ever-present evil the best characters find themselves set against.  And it’s not just weaponry, the first storytellers had a strong belief in magic too.  Magic that could protect, and restore, and give godlike abilities to the weak and demure.  I’d like to see you show me ONE fantasy novel that doesn’t employ magic spells or magic systems of some kind.  The two are virtually synonymous, which is what makes modern fiction the perfect place to replicate what our ancestors already knew used before science.  

So, I have provided only three examples of how today’s fictional world calls back to and relies on mythology of the past.  Whether it be the trope of good versus evil, the evils themselves, or the magic and weapons used to right the balance, myths play an important part in the present panorama of fiction.  Specifically in the fantasy realm like where I dwell.  If it were not for the tales of Camelot, or the Daedalus’ labyrinth on Crete, or ancient, Japanese deities, there would BE no The Talisman Series.  There would be no adventures for Rome and Julian.  There would be no wonder in a child’s eye when they open their imagination to a book.  And we have the myths of yesterday to thank for that.  Put simply: As authors, to ignore the past is to deny the future.

Brett Salter


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