Daring to use mythology…

GreeceOctober10 153 For the last few weeks, I’ve been lost in the ancient world, as I revise my second novel in my Girls of Troy trilogy. It’s called The Burning Towers, and it describes the siege of Troy through the eyes of Eirene, a slave girl.
Publishers were very sneery about Helen’s Daughter, the first book in the series. Mythology doesn’t sell, they said, and anyway my heroine spends too much time spinning and weaving and not enough time being ‘feisty.’ The current vogue is still for fantasy and harsh dystopian futures. Well, having written both in my time, I’ve nothing against either genre; we wouldn’t want to be without Lord of the Rings, or Game of Thrones…
And yet, there’s something you find in ‘real’ mythology that you don’t find in ‘made-up’ fantasies. After all mythology is the result of our ancient ancestors trying to work out answers to the elemental questions of being; why are we here? How did we get here? What do we have to do to stay alive? What are we all about? The first tentative explanations or rituals have become stories, the stories have been told and retold over millennia. No one person invented them – countless men and women have played a part in their creation The stories have become beautiful, elegant, unimaginably cruel, intriguing, sometimes plain bewildering. Nothing about them is easy or simple to grasp. Every generation has refined the brew, so that what we have now has a richness and energy to it that you can’t duplicate in a single narrative from a single voice.
For a modern writer to use these highly-charged and powerful narratives for their own fiction takes a bit of courag3e and a bit of chutzpah. Unless you’re just retelling them as stories, you can’t just lift them off the page and reuse them. Also you have to research the historical background of whichever myths you’re using, whether they be ancient Greek, Norse or Celtic, and you face the perpetual historical novelist’s dilemma of using that background knowledge without swamping your reading with dry facts.
Another problem with myth is how realistic you decide to make it. Do you interpret your stories in purely historical terms, as Mary Renault does in The King Must Die? Or do you include the supernatural in your narrative? In the Girls of Troy trilogy, I come to a sort of compromise – I try to make my narrative convincing in historical terms, but the gods and goddesses are there too – I just hope my readers will be able to suspend their disbelief.
With the stories of Troy, there’s another problem; Homer didn’t compose his poems until centuries after the events may have taken place, and they weren’t written down for some time after that. Other versions of the story are even later. The trouble is that the kings of Mycenae and Troy didn’t leave us their versions of events in any form. Only archaeology can help, and since both Troy and Mycenae were excavated by that old crook Schliemann, much of what we might have been able to find out has been lost. Even the famous ‘mask ‘of Agamemnon’ which I reproduce above probably wasn’t Agamemnon at all but a much eariler king. So we have to make the best of what we can deduce. I suspect that the ‘real’ Agamemnon, if he existed, was little more than a sea-pirate, looting and raiding to acquire the gold and precious objects so necessary for a king to distribute among his followers. Was there ever a Helen? Or was Troy’s gold the main attraction? And far from possessing ‘topless towers’ the real Troy seems to have been a tiny citadel.
But … I’ve dared to make my own interpretation of these stories. And from my point of view, they’ve been so pleasurable to write, I’ll find it hard to leave them. (I’m working on Electra’s story of revenge and murder just now – this is causing some problems, but I’m determined to solve them.) I do hope they work for my readers too.

The books I didn’t read…

I’ve written a good deal about the books I read as a child, and this got me thinking about those I didn’t, and the reasons why. Partly it was because in those days, parents didn’t cram culture down their children’s throats as they seem to do now, possibly believing that children were better left to find things out for themselves. Apart from one inspirational teacher when I was nine or ten, teachers didn’t bother either. Weekly visits to the wonderful local libraries were the usual way of satisfying my addiction then, though before the days of plastic wrappers, books were stripped of blurbs and jackets and bound in drab library bindings so you could find out little about them before you took them home. I don’t recall librarians as being particularly friendly or supportive, either. Once, I crept, very scared and timid, into the adult library, where I asked an unsmiling woman if I could reserve a copy of T.S. Eliot’s Book of Practical Cats. She glowered at me, and told me there was no such book. Eventually though she spoke to a few more unsmiling giants, and in the end one said scornfully, Oh what she means is Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Silly me. Luckily this didn’t put me off libraries for life.
I suppose the main series that I didn’t read was the C.S.Lewis lot. Something about that title, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, put me off, I think;it sounded a bit patronising to me. Anyway, I never made my way through those fur coats into the snowy forest. I read the series as an adult, though, not long ago, and wonder whether I would have enjoyed it as a child. I find Lewis’s voice too insistently authorial, and I don’t like Aslan and his mawkish sacrifice. As a child, I was an enthusiastic Catholic who could believe in angels and miracles while distinguishing them from fairy tales and fantasy, but I think I would have resented even then the mixture of fairy-tale stuff and Christian polemic that Lewis sneaks into his story.
Another book I thought I had never read, though I must have done at some later stage, was The Wind In The Willows. I recall that I wasn’t charmed by Ratty and Moley and all that blokeish boaty stuff. But my chief problem was Toad. My child’s logic was upset that he could change size in the course of the book – one moment a toad-sized toad, the next human-sized and dressed as a washerwomen. Sorry, Mr Grahame – it doesn’t work. But I do remember reading some pages of Dream Days, and thinking, this man has no idea how real children talk and behave! So thumbs down to Kenneth Grahame.
I loved Rudyard Kipling, though, and never minded the authorial tone in the Just-so stories. He was on my side, I felt. The best writers were those that didn’t talk down to you, but somehow swept you along in their own enthusiasm for their stories and characters – Lousia M Alcott, Noel Streatfield, Geoffrey Trease, Rosemary Sutcliff. They were writing for you and with you.
Of course there were books I didn’t read because the subject didn’t appeal – I never liked horses, so no pony tales. Biggles and his ilk were boys’ books – the divisions between girls’ books and boys’ weren’t so marked then, but there were still differences. I never read Just William, though I loved Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings stories. Arthur Ransome’s stories seemed dated, and hadn’t acquired the charm of nostalgia.
I never read The Lord Of the Rings trilogy as a teenager, though I know I would have loved it. Partly because for some reason, I though it was one of those big desert adventure sagas, and partly because when a geekish friend tried to persuade me to read The Hobbit as a starter, I could never get beyond the first few lines. Bilbo Baggins is a bit blokey too, but you somehow forgive him. I think that’s the book I most regret not having read at the right time.
There’s a whole other subject here, and one that I’m not going to tackle at the moment – that’s the subject of the books you’ve got on your shelves as an adult, and just haven’t read: Toni Morrison’s Beloved is one and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead another. They stare reproachfully at me; it’s just a stupid mental block, and one day I’ll overcome it.
There were plenty of books I did read as a child, of course. But sometimes I think about those waiting in the wings that never managed to come my way. What did I miss? I’ll never know.