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After being published in five parts on my own blog, it's time for this story to come to a wider audience. My first attempts at both a re...

Monday, 17 October 2016

New Situations, Old Problems, Softened Impact - Part 2-A

Once again, I'm splitting this into a series of blog posts, as what I've got to say about this multi-part quirk in the creation of fiction would create an uncomfortably long post. So I'm splitting it into as many parts as it needs.

The title this time isn't very self-explanatory, at least I don't think so. It's the way that settings may change or new settings may be revealed, but the issues many stories tackle are just the same. This is true for oral tales, books, comic books, films, television productions, and video games. In the first part, I discussed racism, and how its fantastic or distant portrayal could create a disconnect with racism as it still manifests in the real world. In this post, I'm talking about a topic that is still sensitive even in these modern times - religion.

Religion has been with us for thousands upon thousands of years, from ancient stone figures and carvings (we assume) to the complex divine hierarchies of India and Greece, and on to the resurgence of monotheism over the past four thousand years. Today, all religions are fair game for writers, and they run varying risks when taking them and adapting them to tell a story. Whether it be direct adaption of classic tails, or using it as backdrop for an original tale, religion has been approached in numerous ways, good and bad. And... this is a very large subject, so I'm having to subdivide it into two posts. One is devoted to polytheism, and one to monotheism. This one is for polytheism.

Due to the severe decline in the active worship of polytheistic religions in the West and Near East, these have become the favourite subject of authors creating both science fiction and fantasy. Egyptian deities provide very rich fruit. From the mystical influences of The Mummy and its derivatives, to the pseudo-scientific beings in Roger Zelazny's Creatures of Light and Darkness. In the latter, figures straight out of Egyptian myth and legend enact a grand plot infused with elements from both the fantasy and science fiction genres. This is a recurring element in Zelazny's work, and can also be seen with Hinduism in Lord of Light, Norse lore in The Mask of Loki, and multiple different schools of thought and myth in The Dream Master.

Greek and Roman myth has sourced some truly amazing works, although it has also sometimes fallen into the rut of taking a more Westernised approach to them rather than staying true to the source. Greek myth and legend has inspired many of the works of Mary Renault, the saga of how the gods battle each other is told as a teen adventure in the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, monsters from multiple myths have been liberally borrowed for books, films and video games aplenty. Clash of the Titan is one of the best-known film versions of the Perseus myth, although it slightly bowdlerizes the childish aspects of the Olympians, and doesn't stay true to what the Titans were. The modern version strays even further away from the source. It's strange to see it, but it's only the God of War video game series that's gotten anywhere close to accurately portraying what the gods and goddesses were really like.

The use of Norse and Germanic myth and legend is highly prevalent, as it lends itself well to dramatic adaptation. From the original Eddas to later sagas and even Beowulf, Norse and Germanic elements have a strong hold on modern literature. A major operatic work that uses this system is Wagner's The Ring of Nibelung, which retells the fable of the fallen Valkyrie Brynhildr. The motif of Ragnarok (Old Norse) or Gotterdammerung (German), a final climactic battle, is seen in the greater majority of fiction. Celtic myth has also sourced many great authors' works, with Alan Garner's Wierdstone trilogy drawing extensively from that system and its associated symbolism - from the non-human races to the three-sided links between Susan, the Morrigan, and the Lady of the Lake. These links are also present in Arthurian myths, which have become a genre in themselves.

Far Eastern belief systems are their own giant resource. Chinese mythology is complicated and intertwined with their rigid social system and long-standing association of royalty with divinity. An interesting series of books that uses this is the underappreciated and overlooked The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox by Barry Hughart. Spanning three books - Bridge of Birds, The Story of the Stone, and Eight Skilled Gentleman - Hughart tells of the adventures of the titular protagonists through a world inspired by Chinese myth. Another author who uses Oriental myth is Roberta Ann MacAvoy, the most notable of these being Tea with the Black Dragon. Japanese myth is something that's a bit more difficult to pin down, principally because the country was isolated for so long and it has its own burgeoning and imaginative media. There are a few, I'm sure, but none that have really stood out for me (yet).

Other mythologies have likewise been used, although not as clearly or prominently. A very interesting take on the confusing mass of religions with multiple deities is Neil Gaiman's American Gods. Each deity encountered is a manifestation of humanity's belief in them, comparable to the Thoughtform element of Tulpa mysticism. The main drive of the plot is how different deities of varying age strive to reconnect with humans, particularly Odin (Mr Wednesday). Some of my own early story ideas were based around this, and inspired me to push forward.

Now pantheon systems are more than useful as they're nowhere near as controversial to work with when compared to what has become the world's most widespread monotheistic systems. Many authors have also combined mythologies within their works, sometimes even playing out as a war between pantheons. A lot of the time, these systems are used as the background to a rip-roaring adventure that can carry people along, which is all well and good. Despite any faults there might be, which will be addressed later, pantheon systems are far, far more open to adaption into fictional literature, and thus don't have nearly so much baggage accompanying them. In most parts of the world.

Tomorrow, for the next part of this subdivided second post, it's Monotheism and the conclusion!

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