Using Myth in Storytelling: an ArmadilloCon 2004 panel

Synopsis, according to the ArmadilloCon program: Myths as springboard for worlds and plot ideas in fantasy and science fiction. Mythic elements in science fiction. The Hero’s Journey reconsidered. This panel explores myth as inspiration and diagnostic.

My summary: How do the writers on the panel use myth in their own work? If a story is inspired by myth, is it necessarily predictable? Is that a bad thing, or is predictability exactly what SF readers want?… Do the limitations in our understanding of how the modern world works give rise to new myths? For example, does average person’s erroneous understanding of how the Internet works morphs into a myth? Or does science leave no room for myth? What would it take for a myth to arise in our “rational” times?

Panelists: Kay Kenyon (moderator), Louise Marley, Neal Barrett Jr., Jayme Lynn Blaschke

There was one other panelist that wasn’t listed in the program. I think it may have been Mikal Trimm.

Kay Kenyon. Have you all read Christofer Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey”, which is useful advice how to integrate myth into storytelling?

Louise Marley. Myth is interesting in terms of understanding the cultural paradigm that we grew up in, whether you write SF or fantasy. Myth is often for us a subconscious jump-off point, but not
necessarily a model. Nobody reads Joseph Campbell and decides: this is how the story goes, therefore that’s what I’ll write, but it’s unconsciously there.

Kay Kenyon. I’ve only written science fiction, and my take is that myth is more applicable to fantasy, which tends to be quest stories. But if you write a quest story in SF, then myth can be helpful in deepening your story. Rather than use myth as a kind of hidden template, I use myth as a diagnostic.

Louise Marley, who used to be a classical musician before becoming a writer, was amazed how in her “rather complicated career life” certain myths crop up again and again in different art forms. Having performed in an opera “Rusalka”, which is based on a Russian fairy tale, Marley notes that fantasy writers often retell the same stories. The material goes way, way back.

Jayme Lynn Blaschke. When you’re discussing entire industry that’s built around high fantasy, the biggest complain is that it’s a second generation Tolkien xerox. But a lot of that source material (Norse myths, etc.) that Tolkien used has its own source material behind it. For example, Catholic church incorporated pagan myths into their own theology. They incorporated things that people needed.

Louise Marley Speaking of religious myths, every culture that I know of has a creation myth. In science fiction we often retell creation myths, about creation of new worlds and so on. But I can tell it only looking back. As a writer, it would upset me if I knew that from the beginning I was using myth as a creative tool.

A story infused by myth is often predictable. Is that bad, or is that what readers want?

Kay Kenyon. If you are overly impressed with myth, the danger is it becomes a template. And when a reader sees a template, then guess what? They know how it’s going to end.

MT. Now, they are readers, this is exactly what they want.

Louise Marley. Somebody asked Nora Roberts (or some other really big woman writer — E.), what’s the appeal of romance? The writer said, it’s because the ending is always known, it’s always “Yes”. The reader is comforted that no matter what path the characters go down, they’ll always arrive at the “right” ending.

Kay Kenyon. In science fiction you set up a structure called “initiating incident”, the moment that sets things in motion, and you know that the climax will be a confrontation over this problem. And it’s fulfilling for the reader to know it. So the most interesting question is “how”? How will we resolve this mystery and how will we get to the “Yes” answer?

Louise Marley notes that a certain Kay Kenyon novel was not predictable at all. Marley couldn’t tell what the ending was going to be. It was a surprise after a surprise.

Does science fiction create its own myths?

MT It begs a question, does genre fiction create its own myths? It has to, not because it’s a cliche, but because it won’t work any other way.

Kay Kenyon. It’s been said that the high myth of science fiction is the optimistic belief in the future of the humankind, the faith in technology. And then there was the countermyth: too much technology not informed by ethics.

Jayme Lynn Blaschke. The myth in fiction can grow and extend the boundaries of the genre itself. An example is Star Wars. It has gone beyond its boundaries and became a part of popculture.

Kay Kenyon. A myth is when a story cumulatively answers deep questions about culture. The questions like “why are we here” and “what it’s all about”? So just because everyone knows Star Wars details, I wouldn’t say it’s become a myth.

MT talks about a rejection he got of one of his stories: it was rejected because it broke the 3 laws of robotics. He wanted to shout: “It’s fiction!” He found this incident horrible.

Jayme Lynn Blaschke I guess I’m using it two ways: the myth, I mean it in the sense as you, but mythology is more superficial, is the mass of the details ingrained in our minds.

The panelists also mention William Gibson and cyberpunk, how it created its own myths that penetrated culture: Black Ice firewall software, terms like “download”.

Kay Kenyon. But when Gibson created this cyberpunk mythology, he wasn’t trying to create something meaningful, that would answer those big questions.

When we don’t have religion — God is dead, which is true for the modern world, though not for some us personally — we have to find a myth to make sense of it all, to find meaning in our lives. If any of us could figure out how to live in the technological future, how to find our lives valuable, it would be a myth.

A girl in the audience. That’s what Ron L. Hubbard tried to do with Scientology.

MT. I think he was trying to give meaning to his wallet. God knows his stories weren’t doing it.

Another audience girl. Do you think because of Joseph Campbell more people are aware of mythology these days?

Panelists don’t think so.

Jayme Lynn Blaschke. When fantasy publishing exploded in the 70s, many classics, like Joseph Campbell, were being pushed out. So not many people are familiar with the foundations the genre was built on, because they read China Mievilles, Greg Bears and Greg Egans.

First audience girl. I think the neat thing about the mythic structure is that it’s so ingrained in us that we don’t recognize it. If you can tell, oh, this is this, then it’s not a myth.

Kay Kenyon thinks there’s no mythic structure, there’s no one myth. There are some loose structures that you can integrate.

MT. But when you go far back, you’ll see every culture has a creation story, a flood story, it has the basic core elements that are hard to get away from.

How do the writers on the panel use myth in their own work?

Jayme Lynn Blaschke. Let’s get a little more tangible, to come up with examples of using myth and mythology in either your own or someone else’s work.

Kay Kenyon. I used an element of myth in a story I’m working on. I was very much helped by Christopher Vogler. One of his ideas was the refusal of the call. He has cool ideas that illuminate the […] of myth. When the hero is first presented with the problem, the hero refuses. So that sets up the stakes. Because if she accepted the first time, it would look too easy. I used this idea and suddenly I found myself deep in the story. Then I had to go to the next stage and ask: what brings him or her to finally say yes?

Louise Marley. I recently finished deveoping a proposal of 12th century historical fantasy. I’m very interested in the Mary Magdalene story. The historical Mary Magdalene figure is very hard to [understand?] because of all the myths that sprung up around her: reformed prostitute, etc. But when I tried to use her myths in my story, I found out they relate to earlier myths, of a goddess of underworld that’s seen as a prostitute and a teacher. The name of the goddess doesn’t come to my mind. It adds so much depth to the story, because the things the character is dealing with go back thousands of years.

Kay Kenyon. So you used a mythic element, but it wasn’t the whole template.

MT. A perfect novel for that: American Gods. The whole point of the novel is to create new myths.

Jayme Lynn Blaschke. [In his story “Cyclops in B-minor”] a woman drowning in a a very bad marriage befriends two cyclops. It’s a contemporary fantasy. At one point Kokopelli, the flute player, comes into the story. A very academic book about Kokopelli says he’s a fertility symbol, and kind of a trickster, but more of a fool character, who can come into the village and observe things without changing anything. He worked as a catalyst to get people to open their eyes to what kind of situation they were in. But we didn’t see that coming, because cyclops are a western myth, and then bad marriage is a feminist issue, which has its own mythology, but it worked really well, and that’s the feedback I got too.

Kay Kenyon. Another fun way to use mythic elements is in cast design. Have you ever consciously decided all the cast members ahead of time, whether they balance each other out, are they all the same, etc? When you’re doing cast design, it helps as a diagnostic to consider Christopher Vogler and see if you have, for example a Gatekeeper (or Dragon at the Gate) who stands there with a sword and makes it hard to walk to the door (sometimes as simply as saying “You’ll never make it”). Other archetypes are the Shapeshifter, the Trickster.

However, Kenyon warns to take Vogler’s and other books of advice with a grain of salt, to avoid adopting them as a template. “Think about it, if anyone had the answer, why would there be so many books on how to do it?”

Louise Marley. [At the Clarion SF writing workshop, where she was Marley’s teacher] Connie Willis once said, there are only 7 plots in the world, go steal one from Shakespeare.

Are new myths emerging in the modern times? Or did the rise of science put an end to myth formation?

MT. Mythology came from people trying to explain the world around them, trying to survive, because it’s scary out here. So in order for us to invent a new mythology, something extremely dramatic would have to happen out there, like aliens would have to land. I don’t know if technology alone would be enough for us to start creating myth.

Louise Marley. I was always interested in relation between myth and the historical event. For example, flood stories.

Jayme Lynn Blaschke. We know for a fact that Mediterranean basin flooded; there were some real flood events in that part of the world, and it made it into those nation’s mythologies.

Louise Marley It would be really interesting to see some huge event to change Earth’s mythology.

Jayme Lynn Blaschke. It would be interesting to see it from a distance.

Kay Kenyon. Then it would be up to a writer to come up with a new vision to show that suffering has value, all that going to the underworld and coming out with a new vision. It’s fun to imagine that in SF it could be one of us. Because that’s what we are dealing in SF. We try to step out of the boundaries.

A guy in the audience. There are so many things these days that we know, so we have to make up things we don’t know. For example, alien abduction mythology, government conspiracy mythology. So there is this new mythology that’s rising. For example, how many people in this room can say they understand how their email gets from a person to a person? I work in tech support and so many people don’t understand it, it grows into mythology. They experience so many things they don’t understand. For example, they are driving in the car, and Venus is rising on the horizon, and they have a seizure, and they’ve lost 20 minutes of time…

Kay Kenyon. I agree, but these are puny myths. The myths I’m looking for are large ones, that answer question “Why are we here?”, “Why does it matter?”

Louise Marley. The alien abduction myths are rather old. There are wood cuttings that show what happened in an England village in 1500s. They show goblins hanging from a church spire — they didn’t have aliens back then. But I agree with you, myths take on different cultural costumes.

Jayme Lynn Blaschke. People who are not-religious are not going to be open to myths. This contradicts what you said that myths are the way of explaining the world for the non-religious.

Louise Marley. Even non-religious people have things of faith they hang on to.

A woman in the audience. What about Big Bang? Isn’t it a myth?

Kay Kenyon. No, it’s a scientific theory. If anything, it doesn’t tell me why my life is worthy. If anything, it makes me feel less worthy.

Another woman in the audience. Arthur Clarke dreamed about a future society where they won’t have to ask those questions anymore…

Jayme Lynn Blaschke says he doesn’t think future society will be a monoculture that will universally have no myths and no religion. He thinks it will be fragmented in that respect, just like today’s society is.