I’m taking a mythology class this semester, and while I’ve only gotten through six chapters in the textbook so far (one of which was devoted to analyzing Firefly as a modern myth, which was cool) I can’t help but notice the fact that some stories just seem to keep repeating themselves. Nearly every Creation story involves a divine Creator who generally acts with affection for humankind. Nearly every story of destruction is caused by someone’s actions rather than just “nature”, and the destruction is generally brought down on that same someone’s head.
More than that, the themes of the stories, like “conflict between child and parents” keep repeating themselves.
We’re currently discussing what exactly a myth is. My current understanding is that, among other things, a myth is a story that parallels the experiences of the people of the culture and time who tell it. It would have to be. People don’t pass along stories that don’t mean something to them.
My point? We’re doing the same thing today in our stories. Greek myths centered around things like glory in combat, the struggle of resisting one’s fate, and the essential values of their time. But the stories we tell revolve around our own experiences. There are war stories, because we still have war, but many of our stories have nothing to do with war. We tell stories about isolation, the awkward dance of two people who think they might like each other, the frustration of sudden deaths of loved ones, among other things. We look at stories like Oedipus Rex and don’t understand them the same way we understand Harry Potter. I’m sure Homer would have some troubles understanding why we bother to tell our tales, too.
When we read ancient myths, we read them from our own perspectives, not the perspective of the person who told them. Our definition of a satisfying ending is different. Still, we can learn from them. The best myths, the ones that lasted–like the story of Achilles choosing a short, glorious life that ended in violence instead of a long, uneventful life that no one would remember–captured a piece of the experience of their tellers, some of which still matter to us today. That’s because the stories did what every good story does. They tried to pin down what it means to be human.
The best stories of our time do that, too. Whether it’s Captain America choosing the hatred of the people he wants to protect over compromising his values, or cancer patients trying to understand oblivion, or Ender Wiggin speaking for the dead, the stories we tell now reflect the things that matter most to us, that make us human
–even the comedic ones, like the Discworld novels.
Those things that matter to us drive our stories. So when you decide to tell your story, think: what matters most to you? And how will it shape your fiction?