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.

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