Fantasy and Mythology

The following is a transcription of a panel called ''Fantasy and Mythology'' held at ConFuse 93. The transcription was done by Leif Stensson. The text has been edited by Tommy Persson and Hans Persson to make it more readable. The panel was Holger Eliasson, Mary Stanton and Calle Dybedahl (moderator).

Calle: This is supposed to be a discussion about mythology and the use of it in fantasy. Perhaps you'd like to start to tell us about how you use it when you write?

Mary: Well, my two first novels used, as their background myths, the legends of the American indians in the north-eastern and north-western parts of the United States. I did some minimal research into the history of horses in the United States and began with the animals that were indigenous to the continent 3000 years before man appeared on the continent and then married the physical history of the horse to the history of the Palouse indians, which are also native Americans. So the legends that I referred to in terms of the animal universe related as much as I understood about the indian mythology. Unlike many of the mysteries, or fantasies that are being published today, Heavenly Horse from the Outermost West and Piper at the Gate were rooted in strictly North-American mythology. Now, I do know that many contemporary fantasies were based on Celtic mythology. I can't recall off-hand any contemporary fantasy that's being published that's based on the Nordic or Icelandic myths, although I'm sure if we have a discussion, we can come up with books that use the Vikings and Valhalla myths.

Calle: I think there are a few but they're not very good.

Holger: There are a few. I don't think anyone has done a really good version of that yet and also I hope that it will never come to pass actually.

Mary: Why is that?

Holger: Because I have my own view of how fantasy and myths function. I thought before the panel that we would start with defining what's fantasy and what's myth, but perhaps that's too self-evident?

Mary: Which is fantasy and which is myth?

Holger: Yeah, for the most of you. My definition goes like this: myth is something that we in Europe still have vestiges of, small traces linger on, there is still a tradition. Yesterday we had something about witchcraft and I enjoyed that program item immensely. He didn't say where this tradition came from, who it was, and it struck me that this is what our ancestors believed in. And finally he said they are German immigrants. Then it was self-evident, it fitted neatly into the patterns, so to speak,

Mary: So you're saying that there are strong beliefs that peoples have that are myth, that may not necessarily be real. Because part of the discussion yesterday was the fact that there's a very firm belief that magic is real, witches are real, warlocks are real.

Holger: A myth is a sort of belief system. It has to do with social values, social cults, and fantasy is only a recent thing. Maybe the reason why fantasy is so popular today is that we lack myths. Maybe there is a need for it again, somehow.

Calle: The definition of ''myth'' that I would use is that it is a way for a culture to explain the universe, to make it make sense. You say we in Europe still have the myths from our far past, like the Viking mythos and the Celtic mythos and so on and I don't think it's true. It's there as histories, as fairy tales, as stories, but it's not a true living myth anymore. And, if we're to talk about mythology in our society I think that as an example, you could say that our creation myth is the Big Bang theory, because it is how we think the universe works.

Mary: That's an interesting point.

Holger: True. But also, have you noticed that all the great mythologies, the Celtic one, the Roman one, the Greek one, the Norse one, the North-American indian one, is not only there to explain how the universe works, they are more or less used to explain how the social structure works.

Calle: Well, that's a part of the universe.

Holger: Even when they talk of heavenly bodies and the creation of Earth and so on, they have a big male god, or a big female goddess, and the interaction between those two. All the way, it's social values, and the social values of that society, created in the mythology. So I would say it's not so much the way of showing how the universe works, as how the social unit works, how the social structure of the tribe works. That's how I would define it.

Mary: Can you give me a specific example of a myth that represents the social values or the social beliefs or the ethical beliefs of the tribe? Because at the moment I'm kind of agreeing with Calle. I like the notion that the Big Bang theory is our current myth, it's the way we have of explaining how the universe was created. And since we can't prove it, it is a belief, as opposed to a known fact.

Holger: The main story-line, in Snorre's Edda, from the creation of the world until Ragnarök, the great cataclysm on the end, is essentially about a clan, a bunch of people called gods, led by Odin, the supreme one, the all-father. The message in the story is that power corrupts. Odin that was supposed to be the wise god does several mistakes, several things that are out of character, and eventually, the whole structure crumbles. I don't know how much you know about Norse myths.

Mary: Very little.

Holger: It is very clear to my mind that the entire myth-system there is a kind of expression of how values work.

Calle: I'd like to say one thing about the Norse myth. What we know about them is lopsided. We know the big tales, the fancy things, but we know nothing, or almost nothing, about how the religion worked in everyday life.

Holger: Wrong!

Calle: Give me sources!

Holger: I'm sorry, but you are wrong. There is a science called ''anthropology''.

Calle: Yes?

Holger: There is such a thing as folk tradition, and all the way from the introduction of Christianity up to to at least 1930s, 1940s, when the last vestiges started to die out you had a clear tradition. And you can follow certain rites. You know, for instance, how sacrifices were made, whether it was the big ones or the small ones, you know how some of the rites functioned. You know the meaning of the runic alphabet.

Calle: After this discussion I'd like to have pointers to books, because I have looked for them.

Holger: I think we've explained the difference between myth and fantasy. To return to your books, I was surprised that you say your first two novels were written based on the mythology of the North-American indians. I thought they were suspiciously Christian!

Calle: I got the same impression.

Mary: You did?

Holger: Yes, because in that book you have a very remote, very shadowy creator, who created the universe, basically. And then you have avatars of that god for each angel.

Mary: Yes, that's true.

Holger: Okay, that's not very catholic, but it's still Christian, you could say. You even have hell for horses, heaven for horses, horse angels, horse devils, everything except catholic mass for horses, perhaps. I think it's a marvelous book, I love it, but I wouldn't let my grandchildren read it if I had any, because it's too steeped in Christianity.

Calle: What I thought was most obviously Christian, or at least Western culturish, in Heavenly Horse was this view of death as absolute evil. I've read, the last half year or so, a lot of things about primitive mythologies, which I think these horses ought to have, and death is not evil. It never is. It becomes evil in a few higher cultures, but it felt very wrong to me.

Holger: I think the main problem with modern fantasy, at least since Tolkien and onwards, is that the mythology and stuff isn't very interesting. All too often it becomes the good guys versus the bad guys, good versus evil, the swashbuckling hero versus the villain, all black versus all white, in book after book. You could see how Tolkien describes Sauron, and the orcs and the evil in his books, and they're so black, so white. To me it doesn't make sense. How did this Sauron figure become so powerful? How did he exert influence before he came to be? If you want to create a devil, the devil should have some aspects that are beguiling and fascinating. If he's going to come and offer you a contract for your soul, well, he must look good. He must be a salesman, something like Loki. In my mind, Loki is much more interesting than Satan.

Mary: Well, I just wanted to say, first of all, I didn't think anybody read my books.

Holger: I have.

Mary: Both these books were my first efforts at writing. I mean, literally, the very first things that I'd ever written in terms of fiction. And when I look back on them, I realize, of course, that it wasn't as well thought-out a fantasy universe or an ethical universe as I had hoped, and now, almost eight years later, I would have done things much differently. And so, I need to retract a little bit; this is a preface to saying I'm going to rewind the way that I introduce my novels, since if you've read them, you know that I don't have a consistent interpretation of the North-American indian myths. And yes, there is what you could call a heavily Christian ethos in terms of death being the ultimately bad thing.

Nancy Kress: I don't think you should defend your books. I think they do maintain a certain indian myth, only because they're placed where the indianess overlaps the Christian. Not because they came from the same source, but because they have parallel beliefs. There's an overall creator, which in indian belief corresponds to God and what corresponds to heaven in a Christian belief is in a sense the Spirit World, which is actually what the horses pass into in summer. It's more a Spirit World than an actual heaven. And I think that it's possible to look at it as an indian thing without necessarily saying that they're not Christian; if only because there are parallels. I don't think you should backpedal quite that far.

Mary: Oh! No, I wasn't going to backpedal that much! There is a trickster in North-American myth, called Coyote, and Coyote doesn't appear except possibly as Scant because he's the one that has the false voice, although he doesn't play as much of a part in the novel as he would have if I'd written a third one. Okay, I agree with you, there's a stronger Christian ethic than I realized, than I actually thought about. And actually, when my sister read them she saw far more of the influence of Tolkien than I had realized was there. And I think that sort of moves into the area where a lot of very bad fantasy has been written for far too many years that are rip-off of Tolkien without a real well thought-through.

Holger: First I have to agree with Nancy: of course there are some similarities between all myths, recurring themes.

To get back to you, not to attack you too heavily, I also thought there were some brilliant ideas in the books. The way you described horses, for instance, and the way you make them seem alive. They seem at the same time very horseish, and also very intelligent. You have a culture that works, you could almost believe in that sort of thing.

Calle: What struck me, also, about this horse culture, mind me, I only read the first half of Heavenly Horse because I found it fairly awful. Forgive me.

Mary: That's okay.

Calle: But the horse culture seems to me like a slave culture. The horses seemed to have rationalized their inferior position to humans. And that felt kind of right, kind of appropriate for the horses.

Mary: It's true. They're not sentient beings, of course, in real life. But, yeah, they're servants, I mean, that's what they're for, that's why man has interfered with the breeding process to increase their use.

Holger: This makes the books much more interesting. This is, I think, the beginning of what good fantasy should be. It's not just escapism, it's not just the good guys versus the bad guys and another cop chase, or another swashbuckling science fiction adventure. It tries to do something more, it tries to build up a sort of fictitious model of society, that actually could work, or could have existed.

Anders Holmström: Isn't there any significance to the fact that when you have the good guys and the bad guys, it is not so much that one side is good and the other side is evil it's more of a law versus chaos thing.

Holger: Yes! I was going to get to that. One of my favorite fantasy authors is Michael Moorcock and he's the one who's pushing this take out good versus bad, and replace it with law versus chaos. That's one way of looking at it.

I think what started it, in his mind the law and order versus chaos theory, is that law isn't always good. If you have too much law, you have a law-bound, static society that in itself becomes evil. And chaos, I think, in his novels, the way he presents it, is a good thing, always a matter of good, Elric and so on. Okay, Elric is not a clear hero. He has some mean streaks, to put it mildly. Anyway, his alternative seems to be better than the opposition's, whatever that is.

Nancy Kress: I like your distinction between myths still being living in the culture, in vestigial form at least, and fantasy being something that we invent; because I remember somebody telling me that during the darkest days of World War II, in Britain, there were still country people who expected Arthur to come back and join Mr Churchill, and lead the troops against the enemy.

Holger: Yes, that story occurred in the first World War also.

Nancy Kress: They said Arthur will return when Britain needs a great hero and it was country people that expected this. And at the same time there was a more sophisticated approach that had already regulated Arthur to fantasy and was already writing things like T. H. White's The Once and Future King which clearly treated him as a fantasy figure. So there was this kind if overlapping, a myth, and something that reproduce it as self-conscious literate fantasy at the same time.

Holger: I also think that you touched on something very interesting here: national myths, a form of that. And you could see in the imagery of that time, in everything from posters for ''Buy War Bonds'' or whatever

a return to the knightly, the knight in shining armor, the Arthur kind of thing. Of course, that occurs in other cultures also. Germans have created Barbarossa, the Danes have Holger the Dane which when the country is under threat is going to reappear. The main Danish resistance organization during the occupation by the Germans, was called Holger Danske.

Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf: I am always surprised that Arthur pop up in almost every fantasy book.

Holger: Yes, of course it becomes dreary in the end.

Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf: One book that I very much liked was Finnovar Tapestry.

Mary: Oh, yeah, Guy Gavriel Kay.

Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf: But I didn't like the part when Arthur and Lancelot occurred for no reason at all.

Holger: That's always the danger. The best way to destroy a good thing, or a strong image, is to harp on about it endlessly. But also, I think, there are other things that occur, again and again. Moorcock has Herne the Hunter, you know about the Celtic god of Cerumnus and the Hunt, that also reappear in book after book.

Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf: It is not always a good thing. You can recognize the story after a while.

Holger: This is because so many books are written by Anglo-Saxons and of course. What's close to the Anglo-Saxons? The Celtic inheritance, book of Celts, Ireland's green hills and all of that.

Calle: It's an easy thing to do for an author. If you write a rather trashy and simple fantasy you just want to churn it out and have the money pour in from the sales. It must be very easy just to pick an existing figure and put it in, because everything is there, you don't have to think very much.

Holger: It strikes me now. One of the interesting ways of treating Celtic mythology that I found in recent years is a comic called Slaine. I don't know if you all know about that one. Basically, it's about Celtic warriors and warriors women living in a matriarchy, which is what the Celts had. It's very cleverly done, it's also very relevant to sexism and so on. I thought that one was great.

Anders Holmström: Are they trying to overthrow the evil female dominance.

Holger: Well, sort of. Matriarchy can be oppressive, too, if carried to extreme limits. Perhaps women are too smart for that.

Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf: I thought about the thing mentioned earlier that in the forties people still expected Arthur to come up. In Sweden we have our stories and fairy tales. And they did an investigation and many people still believe or thought they had seen goblins and trolls. They are still existing somewhere in the minds of people, but since there are so few Swedish fantasy writers they are not coming up. Bertil Mårtensson has a bit of it and Selma Lagerlöf has very much of it.

Holger: I have never seen them myself, except maybe when being stone drunk. But I know many people who have.

Mary: Seen goblins?

Holger: Yes, one of them is a friend of mine, who's a researcher in cultural geography

and she claims that she has seem them, and I don't dispute that. To her, at least, they are real. You see such things, over and over again. Also I remember very clearly a sort of, when I was in the army, there were of course ghost stories and that but you meet people who still actually believe in this stuff. I've met them, they are out there. Folk tradition is very strong; you can't deny that.

Calle: It is less strong in cities, but up in the northern parts of the country, where there are these really huge forests, and most of the buildings are at least a few hundred years old it is quite easy to believe in goblins. I really don't know why, but it is.

Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf: I would like to see more fantasy in Sweden that puts this kind of myths in the literature.

Holger: Does anyone in here like Terry Pratchett? May I ask that? I think Terry Pratchett stinks on ice. He's the Hollywood treatment of all myths and he ruins them. Terribly.

Hans Persson: Terry Pratchett isn't fantasy, Terry Pratchett is fun.

Holger: Yes, but it's like comic authors going together. If we take Superman and put him in Batman's universe, oh, that would be innovative. And then we take the Green Lantern throwing in a little bit of this and a little bit of that, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. It's the Dungeons & Dragons thing. I think Dungeons & Dragons is the worst thing that could possibly happen to mythology since the coming of the Christian missionaries. This is the worst thing that has happened, it destroys so much.

Mary: Because it's humorous or because he mixes up the archetypes? Kind of puts the balls in a stew and throws them up in the air.

Holger: Okay, they are funny if you like funny stories. Some of the jokes he does are very good. But, I think something that fantasy should create also is the romance part, and if you want to do that, you have to limit yourself. You can't have a hundred goblins, a giant, a fire-breathing dragon, et cetera, et cetera, in one story. Limit yourself to perhaps one or two goblins. Limit yourself to a society where this is possible. Describe the world around it.

Nancy Kress: You are fighting a loosing war because all art, in every culture, follows a certain pattern. I'm taking this from somebody whose name I've unfortunately forgotten. There's three stages of art, any kind of art in a culture. First there is the heroic, where you make your creatures fantastic, beings larger than life, like the Greeks did, initially with their gods and goddesses.

And in the next stage art moves into the realistic portrayal of human beings in their everyday life. The novel moves into Jane Austen, the Greek moves into the high-classical period where you have statues of David, idealized but recognizable as human beings. And the third stage, which is inevitable, is when everybody's tired of portraying realism, they start with parody. The novel moves into parody and the Greek moves into the exaggerations of the Hellenistic period. And Terry Pratchett represents the third stage of fantasy writing, the parody of itself, turning on itself. As it gets sophisticated past straight realism you can no more stop it than you can stop the tides.

Holger: Maybe we're coming back to what you said in your guest-of-honor speech, about the development of science fiction. The layer of cake. In fantasy then, you would have these three layers co-existing. But I think the cycle should start anew. I think you shouldn't limit yourself to just this layer and I see that Pratchett layer cropping up all too often, I think.

Mary: More than that. Look at it as a healthy sign that the imitations of Tolkien are being exploded and that something new is going to emerge from the ashes and it can progress further.

Holger: Yeah, hopefully it will.

Nancy Kress: Whoever said the thing about three stages also said that any culture whose art has moved into parody is already a culture in decline. I just throw this is for what it is worth.

Holger: To return to Pratchett and my talk about it. It depends on what you're after. I enjoyed Truckers enormously. That was a funny book, in a way, goblins driving tractors and so on. It depends on what you're after. There will be a certain amount of readership that seeks more than just that. You might seek different versions of society, different ways of looking at the past, just like in reading sf, you would want different ways of looking at the future. So I think there is also room, at least somewhere on the market, for a more thoughtful approach to fantasy. And, if you're interested in folk tradition, and so on -- it's obvious that I am -- you tend to turn more towards that. Like Odin, for example, he's not a funny guy. He's not a god you make fun of for obvious reasons. If you have ever held a small vestige of half-belief in him you would know.

Mary: Oh, you know Good Omens is a tender and funny and warm and humane look at the Christian mythology, it really is. It's consistent -- you don't care for it? The nice and accurate prophecies of Agnes Nutter, witch, I thought that was a wonderful extension. No? You don't agree with me?

Holger: I do, I do.

Calle: I could say it would be nice to see more fantasy fiction with believable myths in them. And not just myths stolen from the real world somewhere, but actually created.

Mary: But I thought that was your objection, creating myths? Did I understand correctly?

Holger: Yeah, I think you did.

Mary: You'd like to see something new you haven't seen before. Based on extrapolations from existing myths, is that it?

Calle: I'd rather see a new myth, created from wholecloth because I think it would be more interesting than anything taken out of the real world. Maybe, it would naturally depend heavily on the author.

Holger: The question is: how do you go about to create this? I'm not very good as an author; I don't have the answer.

Carina: That's the question in a later panel today. The myths in science fiction, I mean, like laser beams and faster-than-light travel. Science fiction writers have managed to create a mythology that works in the fiction, that has no bearing on reality. I mean you could use faster-than-light travel, time travels.

Calle: I wouldn't call that a mythology, but if you wish.

Holger: You could perhaps call it not a mythology but a framework.

Anders Holmström: In fantasy you still have elves, but now you have elves in New York or in America driving giant sports cars and planes and just being plain cool because elves are cool. This is spreading like it's some sort of cancer.

Holger: I have an idea of Harlan Ellison as a fantasy hero. I liked goblins, I liked gremlins, I liked elves in New York. Would I like Harlan Ellison with a sword?

Calle: It's an interesting thought.

Mary: That's a very interesting thought. I'm getting a little confused here; forgive me. There are recurring icons, or recurring things in fantasy that don't have to be fully explained every time, like faster-than-light drive doesn't have to be explained every time, terra-forming doesn't have to be explained every time, except to somebody like me who doesn't know what it is, exactly. And the concept of elf, the concept of dragon, the concept of Arthur, those things recur in fantasy for ill or for good, badly executed or not badly executed so there is a coherent universe, or, there is a context for fantasy just as there is a context for science fiction. I'm kind of thinking aloud here, because I'm not quite sure what we're discussing at the moment. So, if there's a context for fantasy, then does the issue become: what's going to happen with that context, now and in the future? Who's contributing to this in a significant way to help fantasy progress forward as hard SF is progressing, in terms of breaking new ground and becoming more original. I don't read a great deal of fantasy anymore, I haven't for the past five years. I do read some of Guy Gavriel Kay, I liked Tigana very much. Have you all read Tigana? I thought that was, not a real fresh perspective on fantasy, but it was a very well-written book and it had some very interesting characters, and fantasy is usually short on interesting characters. I didn't care for The Finnovar Tapestry at all, because I saw that as re-warmed Tolkien. So who else, in modern fantasy, is contributing, Robert Holdstock is contributing a fresh voice, Guy Gavriel Kay a bit, Charles de Lint some.

Holger: I don't really know, I haven't really read that much so I can pick out any names, but I think you're right there. You hinted that, first of all you have the framework so to speak.

Mary: The context.

Holger: The context. You have the sort of things you have to put in the book whether they're from Celtic, Nordic or American indian mythology. You take the elf, the dragon, et cetera and then you have to start to think of something to do with them, plus characterization as you said. We've been into that on other program points earlier. Science fiction has always been a bit bad on characterization. And of course fantasy as you said is also bad.

Mary: Okay, I just want to say one thing, which is that a part of moving fantasy forward has to do with reinterpreting social context. You know, the values of a society and perhaps contributing to a new interpretation of how society creates it's own myths. If that's a kind of summary of what you said, and I did do that in Heavenly Horse and you have to read the rest of it. I don't know how well or badly I did it, but I did do that, I did create a new interpretation of a society that hadn't been described before.

Holger: Well, we look forward to more books from you.

Mary: Not horse books, I'm through writing horse books. Does anybody else have any thoughts about how fantasy can get pulled out of the mire it appears to be in right now?

Calle: Personally, I think that fantasy as a whole would take a huge step forward if a majority of those who writes it started to think before they wrote. Maybe that's a bit cynic.

Mary: This is a good one. No, it's true, I think you're right.

Anders Holmström: Maybe shoot everybody at TSR.

Mary: Yeah.

Holger: At least in this country there are very few fantasy authors. There are very few authors period.

Mary: Look at the great myths, the great cultures that haven't been tapped. Who's written Indian, you know, who's written fantasy based on the Hindu or the Brahmin.

Holger: Or Finnish?

Calle: Yes, or Aztec.

Mary: I think, there are a few that come from the oriental tradition.

Holger: Japanese.

Calle: Actually, I don't think we're going to see very much good fantasy, or science fiction, based on the oriental mythologies or cultures, because the vast majority of writers are Anglo-Saxon or at least from the Western cultures. And the oriental culture is very alien to our culture.

Mary: That's true.

Carina: We don't know about science fiction or fantasy authors in India, because they don't get translated into English or Swedish.

Mary: That's true too.

Hans Persson: Isn't there probably an existing body of fantasy written with this Indian or whatever myths as a base, but we don't see it.

Calle: It's possible.

Carina Björklind: There was an Indian author at Fantastika last year.

Anders Holmström: He mentioned this. He said that fantasy seems to be more or less of an unknown genre in India. Okay, there are books that draw on Indian mythology, but they are usually just mainstream novels.

Calle: Nancy, you wanted to say something? I think we'll let you end this thing, because our time is up and you're the guest of honor.

Nancy Kress: I just wanted to say that I know there aren't very many east oriental myths in fantasy and science fiction. But one author that does use them is Somtow Sucharitkul. He is related to the royal family in Thailand and he grew up in Thailand so he has access to those East-Asia myths in a way lots of us of course don't and he's educated in England, so he translates them well into ways that are more accessible to us. If any of you wants to see how they can be used in fantasy and science fiction I recommend Somtow Sucharitkul.

Calle: Thank you and that ends this panel.

LSFF:s hemsida