'All we can do is keep telling the stories, hoping that someone will hear. Hoping that in the noisy echoing nightmare of endlessly breaking news and celebrity gossip, other voices might be heard, speaking of the life of the mind and the soul's journey.'
Jeanette Winterson, Weight
In previous posts I have discussed the ways in which myth enables us to reconnect with a different form of knowing, one that is more intuitive and that embraces mystery rather than fact. Using mythic tools/elements in our writing helps us to create timeless and universal stories, living stories that are steeped in authenticity and that encourage us to grow into individuals. In this post I want to look more specifically at ways myth might be used in story, by rewriting old stories, taking specific elements from myth or even simply using the themes that are predominant in myth.
We can use myth overtly in story by taking the structure and storyline of ancient myth and translating it into a contemporary setting or even a different point of view. In the Myth series Margaret Atwood wrote Penelopoid, the story of Odysseus from the perspective of Penelope and her maids, Alexander McCall Smith rewrote a Celtic myth in Dream Angus and Jeanette Winterson wrote Weight, her own version of the Atlas myth. In the introduction, Winterson wrote, 'the Myth series is a marvelous way of telling stories, re-telling stories for their own sakes, and finding in them permanent truths about human nature.' Winterson wrote Weight from her own situation, stating that 'there is no other way'. So Weight became a 'personal story broken against the bigger story of the myth we know'. When we rewrite myth in this way, we inevitably make it ours and we also see how easily any story can carry the timeless themes of myth. The ancient stories of the battles amongst the Norse Gods might be translated into contemporary stories about the battles between the heads of powerful corporations, or the story of Theseus entering the labyrinth to kill the minotaur can be written as a modern day story set in war torn Vietnam where Captain Willard is given the assignment to journey deep into the jungle (psyche) and capture Kurtz (a renegade Colonel). This is of course, Apocalypse Now, a story that was drawn from Conrad's, earlier novel, Heart of Darkness, but whose themes reflect the mythic journey of Theseus to kill the beast.
While Flight is not based on a single myth, it does contain a number of mythic references: to Theseus slaying the Minotaur in the labyrinth; to Orpheus returning from the underworld with Eurydice but unable to resist looking back; to the Babylonian myth of Gilgamesh and Enkidu; to the Greek myth of Cassandra. . . The characters Cassie and Hector represent Cassandra and her twin brother Helenus who as children were left overnight at Apollo's temple, where serpents licked their ears, endowing them with the power of prophecy. Cursed by Apollo for not returning his love, Cassandra found that although her prophecies were true, they were not believed. Cassandra and Helenus share the power of prophecy, but their skills and methods are different. For Cassandra the prophecy is received intuitively, while Helenus reads signs and portents in the things around him in the natural world, for example, the shape of clouds or the flight of a bird. In Flight, Cassie (like her namesake) is overcome by the knowledge she receives intuitively and is disbelieved by others, whilst Hector is a meteorologist, using computers and satellites to forecast the weather. In a sense, Cassie and Hector represent the extremes of the right and left brain modes, or intuitive and intellectual thought. Together they maintain a vital balance.
Curses, or inherited patterns of behaviour are themes that appear in all three of my novels, and again and again in ancient myth. In Nowhere Man, Ivan is psychologically trapped within patterns that he unconsciously repeats over and over. In Gathering Storm, four generations of women have been trapped by a Romany curse, though in actual terms they are trapped in inherited patterns of behaviour. In Flight, the idea of the curse is explored in mythic terms, in relation to the classic pattern of heroic myths, identified by Otto Rank (see Writing Myth). I did not set out with the idea of writing about a curse, instead it arose about halfway through the novel when I stopped what I was writing and wrote the prologue in a different voice and with an explanation of Fern's origins. Fern is born to a powerful man, her birth is accompanied by a prophecy, she is abandoned and brought up by strangers, unaware of her identity. Myths such as Oedipus and Perseus explore the journey of the child to the father. This is generally an arduous journey, involving great dangers, but the greatest danger lies in the meeting with the father, who may or may not deem the child fit to accept. In myth, the child, if ready for the confrontation, generally brings about the death of the father, often without being aware of their father's identity. This is retribution for the father's unnatural desire to halt change. It is only natural for the child to step into the father's shoes in adulthood, or on a cultural scale, for a new king to step into the shoes of the old king. When this potential is denied by the father then the cycles of life have been denied and stagnation sets in. It is the child's role to force change.
For the most part, Flight follows Ranks pattern of heroic myth. In the opening pages, Simple Simon, a gardener in the Botanical Gardens, utters a prophecy, saying that Fern would cause the death of her father. The prophecy quickly becomes a curse as Fern's father, Eric, responds by trying unsuccessfully to kill his unborn daughter, the prophecy 'eating away at him, turning him into its slave'. Although the curse is delivered to Fern and her mother, it is directed at the father. Fern is the arrow, charged with delivering the curse. Eric is a powerful man, born with great gifts, but he has abused these gifts and this is a crime for which he must pay. There is no humility in Eric, no respect for life, no compassion and no humanity. But there is pride. As always it is hubris which activates the curse.
Psychologist, Liz Greene identifies a number of features that appear consistently in myths about family curses. According to her, the curse is usually linked with the abuse of children in a pattern that repeats itself through generations. 'Each generation has the opportunity to reverse or transform the curse by perceiving and acknowledging the pattern of destructiveness and transcending it, but fails to do so because the individual cannot resist indulging in fear, greed, anger, or the desire for personal vengeance'. Instead, the individual responds instinctively, refusing to acknowledge the pattern or take responsibility and transform it. So, as Greene states, a curse can run its patterns through generations, both inherited genetically and taught through the behaviour of the parents. This is something I had already explored in Gathering Storm, but in Flight I looked at patterns of behaviour that have been repeated through many lives, ideas that are expounded by Jungian psychotherapist, Roger Woolger, who suggests that childbirth triggers karmic residue and the choice of parents reinforces the patterns from one life to the next until the person is finally able to break free of that pattern.. This is exactly what happens to Fern who finds herself abandoned at birth, threatened fundamentally by her birth father and psychologically abused by her adopted father, so that she carries a heavy burden of guilt and grief that parallels the burdens she carries from past lives.
Woolger wrote of 'patterns in remembered lives', explaining that they can become compounded into a repetitive cycle of hatred and revenge, the players 'drawn to each other karmicly' in roles from which they cannot escape'. Fern and Eric are caught in a destructive pattern that has persisted for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, and which always involves an abuse of power and some form of injury to a child. In this life, Fern is once again given the opportunity to break free of that pattern. Through the course of the story, Fern is forced to face memories from a number of lives, but it is not the stories of these lives that are important for Fern's transformation. As the Bear Handler tells her, 'only the patterns matter, for it is in those that you will see the places that you are caught, repeating yourself, lifetime after lifetime'.
A good friend and editor, Teresita White, surprised me by pointing out the parallels between Greene's analysis of the family curse and the events in Flight. 'Paradoxically,' she wrote, 'any attempt to cheat the prophecy usually results in its fulfilment'. Eric tries to destroy his own daughter, which results in her mother hiding Fern from him, by having her adopted and not putting his name on her birth certificate. His violent attempt to kill Fern, results in the shutting down of her psyche, so she does not know who she really is. When Eric seeks Fern out he unwittingly awakens her spirit and bit by bit, her memory. When he attempts to frighten her, he awakens her courage. When he draws Fern to himself he unwittingly invites destruction into what he believes is impregnable. When Eric shows contempt for Adam and his qualities, he sabotages his seduction of Fern. And when he causes another's death, believing he can sabotage the prophecy, he provokes the final confrontation in which he is destroyed. Although Eric does not die, he is left hovering on the border of life and death and his power is spent. In the end, following Ranks patterns of heroic myth, Eric is crushed and Fern is liberated.
Myths remind us that life is all about change, that the wheel of fortune turns and we must flow with it. For Eric the prophecy is a warning. He has become corrupted by power and he must let go of it in order to restore the natural flow of life. Instead, he holds onto his power and the result is a living death. For Fern, the prophecy is a blessing as it gives her an opportunity to free herself from a pattern of behaviour she has become enmeshed in, to find the courage to become a fully conscious individual and rediscover the gifts she had turned away from. But myths also remind us that there are no 'happy ever after endings'. Whatever position we find ourselves in, it is wise to remember that 'this too shall pass', that at any moment the wheel may turn and we will be called yet again, to adventure.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Rosie Dub. All rights reserved. You may translate, link to or quote this article, in its entirety, as long as you include the author name and a working link back to this website:http://writeonthefringes.blogspot.co.uk/