Monday, February 27, 2012

Myth, History, and Belief Systems

"Ancient myths precede histories and were once thought to be histories. They were thought to be true accounts of important matters." ~Margaret Atwood, from "Burning Bushes" in In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination

I'm part of a couple reading groups on Goodreads. Unfortunately, I can never seem to keep up with the novels the groups are reading because I'm so darn distractable. *shiny!* However, these smart folks have directed me to books that I would not otherwise have read. For example, right now I've started reading a book called Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset - winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.  It's a monster of a book. I'm barely halfway through part one of the trilogy.

But I'm far enough in that I see something very interesting going on.

Brief overview of the book: Kristin takes place in 14th century Norway and it's about a girl/young woman who enters into an unwise marriage against her parent's consent.

(What on earth does this have to do with Margaret Atwood? Just hold on a second, I'll get there.)

In one of the opening sequences, Kristin is confronted by the spectre of a dwarf (a fairy in Norwegian terms). It's an interesting section in which Kristin is almost tempted away from her father and the group she's traveling with. Her father 'saves' her at the last moment, and she tells him what she saw. Dad immediately freaks out. She's not allowed to leave his side, nor is she allowed to tell her mother - a deeply religious woman who would flip if she thought her daughter was being threatened by evil sprites.

While reading this turn of events I was caught by the idea that, in the past, the myths are real. Magic is real. The reason we read fantasies and science fiction and speculative fiction (whatever you want to call it) is partly because we don't see this stuff in real life...anymore. Science has kind of ripped the mystery away, but once upon a time - and not a very long ago time either - we used to believe that magic was real. Miracles could happen.

Undset certainly caught the right historical tone - and it made the history more believeable than any description of medieval churches ever could. For the first time reading a historical piece, I felt the very real terror of the *beyond.*

In "Burning Bushes," an essay in In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood, she states there are questions that myths answer:
1. Where did the world come from?
2. Where did people come from?
3. Where did OUR people come from?
4. Why do bad things happen to good people?
5. Why do good things happen to bad people?
6. What is right behavior?
7. What do the gods/God want?
8. What are the right relationships between men and women?

And that's why myths have hung around so long.

I would add that a good story - any story - has characters who behave in accordance with a mythos. Whether you base the story's belief system on science, with its "seven step" scientific process, or if it is based more on a religious backbone or if it's based on the idea that Nothing exists past this life doesn't matter. What matters is that there is something (nothing is something too) because real human behavior revolves around the answers to the above questions. You can't write something believable without knowing what those answers are for your world.

Margaret Atwood, from what I've read, has taken great pains in order to answer these questions for herself. In Handmaid's Tale, you can see the evolution of the society via a belief system. Oryx and Crake is almost a listed, direct answer to the questions she poses in "Burning Bushes."

And so far in Kristin Lavransdatter, these questions are being addressed as well.  

Do you have answers to these questions for your stories? Have you read any books that answer these questions particularly well?

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