Is Borrowing from Mythology Cheating?

When I was a student at University, I took a composition course. Bashing away at the keys of a piano in a quiet practice room (it was 11pm, I had homework due the following day), the impossibility of creating anything genuinely ‘new’ suddenly struck me. There they were, 8 little keys, with black ones in between. Surely there were only a certain number of combinations you could create with this limited palate? Listening to modern pop music (yes, I’m old) it would appear I was right. When striving to create something unique, it can be disheartening to feel that your tools are limited.

I wonder if that’s why I plumped for writing. With 171,476 words in the English language in current use, you would hope that it would be possible to put them together in new ways. Every time I look at the criteria for a literary magazine, a competition, or what an agent is looking for in a new writer, they always use words like ‘original,’ ‘unique perspective,’ perhaps even ‘groundbreaking.’ So considering there are so many of us out there, how on earth do we make our individual voices, well, individual enough? In a world of hazelnut pralines, everyone wants to be a salted caramel truffle with freeze-dried raspberries.

Personally, I don’t feel like I’m very good at coming up with ideas. Very often I’ll spend weeks gazing into the middle distance, waiting for inspiration to fall in my lap like some sort of muse with a broken wing, while the deadline for whatever submission I’m hoping to make looms ever closer. But perhaps that’s the problem. With stories being part of our vernacular since we sat around campfires and tried to communicate the thrill of the hunt, maybe trying to re-invent the wheel isn’t the best way forward.

I’m currently reading a rather brilliant book called From the Beast to the Blonde. The tagline sells it as being ‘on fairy tales and their tellers,’ but it goes so much further than that. I’m only a few chapters in, and already I’m captivated by the melding of religion, fable, pagan traditions and mythology that have all been churned up into the stories we grew up with. From a feminist perspective, it explains a lot. From the linguistic origins of ‘cackle’ and ‘gossip,’ there are medieval cases of women being forced into silence by their husbands, of the words of women equaling the devil, and the general mistrust and misogyny thrown at the female sex since time immemorial. It’s depressing, but it certainly helps to put into context the ‘stereotypes’ that we have about gender, and that they are far more rooted in our culture and heritage than I realised. If someone tells you feminism is over, do hand them this book and tell them to bugger off and read it and then come back to you.

But as well as being a fascinating source of history, mythology and stories can give us something much more than that. A new voice. It might seem that re-creating an old story could be reductive, but actually I’ve found it to be very freeing. Once the basics of plot or at least the theme is taken care of, you can become so much more innovative with your use of voice and expression. In the past, I took the celtic mythology of the Selkie, and turned it into a story of a bored 50s housewife. The voice I used in this was unusual for me – far more vernacular and imitative of speech. The Selkie (a creature birthed by sexual congress with the sea) became a source of respite and escape for a woman trapped in a loveless marriage. More successfully (in terms of publication) I took the math of Arachne – where the goddess Athena is so horrified by Arachne’s boasting at weaving that she challenges her to a weaving contest. It doesn’t end well for Arachne, as she hangs herself (or is killed, depending on different versions). In a final act of pity, the goddess transforms her into a spider, so she can continue weaving forever. I took this basic premise  and transformed it into the story of a young girl working in a sweatshop, which won me a Highly Acclaimed in the Aurora Short Fiction Competition last year (you can read the story here). Reading The Beast to the Blonde is teaching me that stories are inextricably interwoven with each other, and even ideas we thought were separate have become looped in with each other. To take the nugget of a story from a myth isn’t cheating, so much as continuing the millennia-old tradition of storytelling.

At the moment, just bubbling under the surface of my next story idea is something about a silenced woman, or perhaps a seer or oracle, but displaced from her usual setting. This exposure to other stories and history will often lead to a spark of inspiration for your own work.

Has anyone else been inspired by a myth or legend to produce their own modern version?

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I'm a writer, teacher and drummer based in London. Short fiction and reviews are my main staples, along with some dabbling in novel writing.

4 thoughts on “Is Borrowing from Mythology Cheating?

  1. Great post Sarah! I love that book by Marina Warner. I think fairy stories and myths are wonderful for retelling and updating – if people know the original there are all kinds of things to play with and against too. I used to give a classroom writing exercise on voice and point of view using LIttle Red Riding Hood as a starting point and getting students to write different versions in different voices and perspectives: first person the Wolf; second person LRRH etc. In flash fiction I’ve played with Rapunzel, Cinderella, Bluebeard and in my short story collection, Pumping up Napoleon, is one called ‘The New Adventures of Andromeda’. It’s kind of fun and also a way of reflecting changes in attitudes. Most fairy stories have been told and retold – and myths too. Ted Hughes did it! And there are so many allegorical references in art. It’s a rich field.

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