World Building Month: More on mythology

August 15, 2008 at 8:38 pm (fiction, Inspiration, Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

It may become apparent as I continue to post about world building that religion is a fascinating subject for me. I am especially fascinated by mythologies of various cultures, and just reading ancient stories is sometimes enough to generate hundreds of novels’ worth of ideas, I think. Norse mythology has a special draw, I think, and I’m obviously not the only one who feels that way; Tolkien based the elves we see in the Lord of the Rings books on Norse Light-elves (Ljósálfar). He had dark elves (Svartálfar), too. And nearly anyone who’s played an RPG or read Tolkien’s books or even seen the movies based on them knows about dwarves, who are generally pretty well the opposite of elves. Dwarves, of course, live underground, and build things with stone, and make lots of things involving metal and forges. Troggs, night elves, Ragnarok, world trees, Norse mythology’s got it all. Even Gandalf — an elf with a wand.

All of this borrowing from Norse mythology makes me feel a little better about my realization today. Of course I realize “there’s nothing new under heaven” and truly original ideas are, well, rare, but I kind of thought my world was shaping up as a nice combination of ideas. Then I looked up some information about timekeeping (in Asgil, it’s always light, so solar days make no sense), and being easily distracted got to reading about Norse gods. I realized how many of the ideas I have for this story ultimately derive from these stories. But I’m not alone, and it’s not bad company to keep.

It’s my opinion that the seemingly universal appeal of these old stories tells us something about the human condition. And while there have been many flat-out copies of both the myths and, of course, Tolkien’s work, there are also plenty of authors who have taken themes and ideas and put them together in new and interesting ways. It feels like we’re just continuing a tradition, really; changing things a little, and writing the result down for the entertainment and edification of others. In many cases the original stories are pretty light on details, which leaves them wide open to interpretation. And since I’m not writing as someone who believes the mythology to be true, I can pick and choose what I adopt from many cultures. The diversity of belief amongst humans is amazing, but so are the similarities. The parallels from one region to another make it easy to see when we’ve all imagined something similar to explain almost any given idea.

It seems that many times fantasy is dismissed as a sort of throw-away genre, but really, we’ve been telling these stories for thousands of years; I doubt they’re likely to vanish anytime soon. Sometimes it’s not a bad idea to look at the world through different eyes and try to explain things through magic and crazy gods acting up rather than through the scientific method. Then again, things like quantum mechanics sound pretty zany, too. Naturally, others have covered that ground, and I don’t think I could say it better than Arthur C. Clarke did:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

We fantasy writers have centuries of work to build on. Exploring old ideas with new knowledge is a lot of fun, no two ways about it. I’d like to express my thoughts on this more eloquently, but I’ve got some elves waiting for me to figure out what time it is on Asgildir.

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