The Scorpion in the Sky

This is an old story. A brash hunter. An infuriated deity. And a monster.
What the crime was and which deity was infuriated, depends on who’s telling the story.

The hunter, Orion, stays the same, though. As does the monster–Scorpius.

Supposedly, their final battle was so destructive that the gods feared putting them both in the Underworld, where they might keep fighting. Instead, they were placed in the sky, as constellations, on opposite sides of the heavenly sphere. You will never see Orion and Scorpio in the sky at the same time. That was deliberate, so they cannot fight anymore.
Watching Scorpius’s heart flicker as he rises in the evenings, I wonder about him. Was he created just to kill Orion? Did he start out as one of the many monsters wandering about Greek myths? How did Artemis (or Apollo, or Gaea) get him to cooperate? Did he have some specific grudge against Orion to begin with?

This is an old story. It’s been told and retold thousands of times, the details altered or faded or lost to living memory. If Scorpius was ever anything other than the weapon that killed Orion, we have no way of knowing. He got the short end of the narrative–no characterization, no motivations, just a capacity for violence and a target. Like the Winter Soldier, sans tragic backstory.

Writing protip: figure out what drives your villains. You don’t have to reference it specifically, you don’t have to make it a sympathetic drive, but figuring out why a bad guy acts as they do is the first step towards believable characterization.

Scorpius doesn’t have that, right now. But, myths don’t have a copyright. We can fill in the details ourselves, if we think to.

Say the deity was Artemis, and that Orion’s crime was more than boasting. Say she turned to an old friend for aid-perhaps she had slain a greater monster than Scorpius, saving his life. He would have gladly hunted Orion, to right a wrong and repay a debt.

Or say it was Apollo, envious of Orion’s rising star (pun completely intended) and his friendship with Artemis, who turned up in his lair and took Scorpius’s mate or hatchlings hostage. He would have fought fiercely then, if it was in hopes of saving a loved one.

Or Gaea, Earth Mother, seeking to protect her creatures from the mighty hunter, went to Scorpius for help. As one of her creatures, he gave it.

Or say Scorpius was a monster, and did what monsters do, and it was only because someone whispered a suggestion to him, or claimed Orion had insulted him, that he became so focused on the hunter.

All or none of these backgrounds may be applied to the myths, with varying degrees of effectiveness.

This is an old story. We can’t know what its original tellers intended for it, or for Scorpius, to mean. We can only know what it means for us, now.

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Strength and weakness

During Stan Lee’s time writing the Avengers comics, Thor shared a body with a Doctor Donald Blake. Nothing out of the ordinary, in a universe that featured super soldiers, radioactive superpowers, a creepy-eyed guy who showed up to watch big events, and of course magical space Vikings, but looking back over those comics that detail catches my eye. See, without Mjolnir, Thor would revert back to Donald Blake, and so whenever something separated him from his hammer during a fight he panicked. He didn’t want his teammates to find out that, when he wasn’t being Thor, he was a small man who used a cane and looked utterly un-godlike.

Angst like that was common in the Avengers at the time–Iron Man didn’t want the team to find out about his heart condition, for instance. But the characters evolved, and Thor and Donald Blake parted ways, so it wouldn’t be relevant if the hammer and title of Thor were not currently being carried by Jane Foster–as of the last time I caught up with the series, anyway. It’s been a few months.

When Jane holds Mjolnir, as far as anyone cares, she’s Thor. Maybe not the same Thor as the other superheroes have worked with in years past, and definitely not the Thor that Odin wants, but she has the same powers and does the same work to protect people, so there isn’t much to be concerned with. The biggest difference seems to be that Iron Man tried to flirt with her. She’s physically imposing, wears almost practical armor, and looks really really cool, like every good superhero-deity should.

Separate her from the hammer, though, and not only is dear Jane a small, frail, human, she is also dying of cancer. And the transformation between Thor and her own body is just making her more sick.

I have mixed feelings about the incorporation of cancer into Jane’s story. On the one hand, cancer is real and it’s not going away soon, and reflecting that in the stories we tell is only reasonable. Stories may contain fantastic, unbelievable elements, especially superhero stories, but they also have aspects of the things their storytellers see in real life.

On the other hand, cancer is real and it keeps interfering in far too many of the lives of people I care about, and I’d like it to stay out of my fiction if possible. Along with tarantula hawks, most forms of paperwork, and broken guitar strings. But if this were a dissertation on the representation of cancer in fiction, I wouldn’t be starting with the Thor comics.

Despite my misgivings, showing the dual nature of Jane’s strengths and weaknesses in such an overt way in these comics is effective in raising the questions it’s meant to, I think. What are your strengths? It asks readers. How do your strengths make the impact of your weaknesses more dangerous, in a twist of cruel irony? In the case of Jane Foster, the questions refer to literal strength, but it can also be applied to other types of strength–strength of courage or or endurance or integrity or character as a whole, and weakness of the same.

Tony Stark’s strength and weakness stem from the same place: he is highly intelligent, and unfortunately, he knows it. Percy Jackson’s strength is his loyalty to his loved ones, but it also puts him in danger all the time. Luke Skywalker’s strength is in his love, but his love for and faith in his father nearly gets him killed. Actually, I think he inherited that strength-weakness from Anakin to begin with.

But the weaknesses can come from a place completely different from the strengths. Kaladin Stormblessed’s strength is in his magic and his protective nature, but the betrayals and failures of his past threaten to take away both. Frodo’s strength is his endurance, which is tested and broken by the One Ring.

Of course, most characters and all people have more than one strength or weakness. Reading stories like these Thor comics encourage me to try to identify all, which is looking to be a lifetime’s work. Hopefully, it will be worthwhile.

Icarus

Icarus  flew

too close to the sun, and

fell,

A stream of

melted wax

breaking wings

a father’s love.

Did someone,

one of Poseidon’s people,

anyone,

find him?

Did they wonder

at all the things

around him?

The story doesn’t say.

Icarus

was a boy.

They turned him

to a lesson.

They forget–

Icarus flew.

Icarus flew.

It’s more

than most can claim.

The Snow Queen

Watching winter through a window, it is easy to see a certain majesty to the scene. Snow drifts through the air, shining brightly under the street lamps. Clouds hunch above. Breath turns to mist. Jack Frost paints ice on car windows. It’s a time for stories and stillness, and dropping ice down the back of your brother’s coat.

One of the stories my family reads most winters is the Hans Christian Anderson tale “The Snow Queen.” You likely know the story–a boy is stolen away by the queen of winter, and his best friend takes a long journey to get him back. The story has existed for more than a century and a half, and in all that time no one has been able to explain the Snow Queen’s motivations to my satisfaction. That’s never stopped me from loving her tale.

When I was eleven, I wrote a story about the Snow Queen while I was supposed to be cleaning my room. In it, snowflakes were faeries who served the Snow Queen. They fell to earth to watch the children and collect their wishes.

My tendency to write stories while I’m supposed to be doing something else has not changed in the slightest, but the stories themselves have evolved, and so has my attitude about the Snow Queen.

The ideas she represents-the power and majesty of winter, and the danger–are still wonderful, but my personal idea of her has an element of petty trickery that wasn’t there before.

Snow falls, and mounds onto car windows that were scraped clean yesterday. Ice forms in thin, nearly invisible layers positioned just so in order to make people slip. Snow plows scrape the ice to the side of the road, and the mound of grimy snow that forms stays there far longer than is fair–even after the rest of the ice has melted, and it is spring. The snow on sidewalks turns to icy sludge that will take the slightest weakness in your boots as a chance to soak your socks. If we anthropomorphize winter so that the Snow Queen is responsible for all of its pretty elements, surely we can picture her as being responsible for these.

Or maybe I’m just missing summer.

The Young Wizards

Story time.

When my little brother and I were kids, we were part of the library’s summer reading program every year. At the end of the program, if we’d done all the eating hours we were supposed to, the library would give us a book. There were all kinds of books on the shelf to choose from: Lord of the Rings, picture books, Percy Jackson, I even grabbed the Odyssey one summer during high school.

One summer, not long after we had moved into the area,  my brother got the the bookshelf before me, and naturally grabbed the biggest thing on the shelf. The librarians all cooed at the sight of such a little kid with such a big book. I’ve seen bigger books since then, but at the time it looked huge: the spine was maybe three inches wide, and the inside was all print. No pictures. It was called The Young Wizards.

I don’t think my brother has ever actually read it, or at least not all the way through. I did, several times.

That book held the first five books in the Young Wizards series by Diane Duane, and at the time I thought that was all there was. It was enough. The gist of the story is that some kids, twelve or thirteen years old when they first start, find books on wizardry, and befriend one another over the shared interest. The books work, and they get pulled along on  various adventures to slow down entropy.

Adventure is a sort of tame word for it. Their first “adventure,” for instance, gets them pulled into a nightmare parallel-universe Manhattan where the cars are predators and the fire hydrants eat pigeons, created by a being known as the Lone Power, the one who created death.

Cheerful, right?

After books like  Fablehaven and The  Dark is Rising, this was one of my favorite books. The kids’ wizardry is all done through words,  and  one of the recurring themes of the series is how powerful words are to shape the universe. For a writer-to-be like myself, this was great.

The series was also one of the first things to spark my interest in Irish mythology and folklore, since  one of the kids gets sent to Ireland by her parents and  spends some time fighting off monsters straight from the myths. And there’s a scene with a cat going up a chimney that’s exactly like one of the folktales.

The reason I’m thinking about this right now is that I found out there are more books in the series than just the five books in that volume my brother had. Naturally, I have to reread everything. You know, when I’m not doing homework and other responsible adult things. I’ve already started.

It’s reminding me of the reasons I love storytelling so much, and why I’m trying to make telling stories my life’s occupation. There were plenty of frightening things in those books, but I never really got scared. I  was too busy feeling wonder at how a world so real could be conjured up with print on a page, and how the kids fighting the war against the corruption of good felt like something that had always been happening.

I was too young to have the story properly change my life, but it certainly had a hand in shaping it.

A touch of poetry

I’m six years old.

I spin around

and around

under a light fixture,

looking

at how the glass

makes  the light dance.

An adult says,

“Get out of the way.”

I don’t have words to ask

why they haven’t taken a moment

to look where I’m looking.

*

I’m thirteen years old.

I’ll tell anyone

even if they aren’t listening

all about

Scorpio and Orion

Perseus

The Pleiades

and every star I have a name for.

All the stories

that shape the world

because

they shape how we perceive it.

Is anyone listening?

I can’t tell.

*

I’m nineteen years old.

My little brother’s convertible

yanks itself down the highway

top down.

I’m in the back seat.

Warm summer air

pushes

on my face and arms

tugs at my hair.

I’m happier and calmer than I’ve ever been.

I’m still smiling

after the ride’s done

for a while.

*

Is there a point

to the tale?

Does there need to be?

This is what I remember.

This is what made me

me.

Stories for children?

Yesterday I finally finished and submitted my application to the university’s illustration program, complete with a digitally colored portfolio piece, drawings of people in their underwear (they’re big on figure drawing, go figure), a filled sketchbook, and something called a “letter of intent.”

I found it absurdly difficult to write the letter of intent without using my ironic version of the formal voice.  I think my sass got loose and ate my non-ironic formal voice sometime in high school.

Anyways.

I didn’t do much yesterday, or most of the past week for that matter, besides work on that application and the occasional homework assignment.  So, no blog post on Friday.  But now I have a bit of time to think, even around the knot of tension at the base of my skull.

So let’s talk about fairy tales.

In one of my classes, I’m working on the dreaded Group Project, working on showing movement through a sequence of twelve images.  Above, you can see the first one I completed.  Mostly completed, anyway.  The sunlight could use some work.

Being art students, none of us could do that simply, so we decided to retell the story of the little mermaid.  The Hans Christian Anderson version, not the Disney one, so it actually resembles a traditional fairy tale–gore and all.

Though no one gets to draw her losing her tongue.

With that going on, the utter ridiculousness of traditional fairy tales has come to my attention.

Cutting people out of a wolf’s stomach.  Lifting someone up a tower using hair.  Trying to get an immortal soul.  A shard of glass that freezes the heart.  Ghost women who will dance a man to death.  Who looked at these and decided they were bedtime stories?  They’re bizarre and impossible and insanely creepy.

As a child, of course, those were all of my favorite things about fairy tales.  I was a weird kid.  Or maybe children in general are just weird.

The great thing about fairy tales, though, is the same thing that’s great about Star Wars, or any other expression of speculative fiction:  It is impossible, and a bit ridiculous, and often creepy, but it reflects life.  Through a distorted mirror, mind you, but mirror it it does.  And since it’s so distorted, it shows us things that we wouldn’t normally notice.

Back to the mermaid.  She wants the prince and an eternal soul.  She doesn’t get the prince, but she does get another chance at getting an eternal soul.  I personally would have asked for a name and an eternal soul, but that’s just me.

The mermaid’s mixed success is important–it reminds us that we don’t always get the things we want or need, even when we sacrifice for them, but that it’s possible to be happy anyway.

And perhaps it is the ridiculous qualities, the nightmarish aspects, of the story that makes it so memorable, so that it sticks in people’s minds and the message gets passed on.  The messages aren’t always about happy things.  All my favorite Irish fairy tales end with everyone dead.  Then again, this planet isn’t always a happy place.  Might as well reflect that bit accurately.

I think that’s why so many good modern stories use the old fairy tales.  They might alter the messages to suit the needs of the storyteller or the times, they might change the setting, but the core of the story is still a fairy tale.  Not because the writers couldn’t think of an original plot, not because fairy tales are popular these days, but because fairy tales are good.  They’re memorable.  They remind us of aspects of the world that we don’t always pay attention to.

At the very least, the fact that so many of the most retold fairy tales are dark helps me feel a bit less awkward about loving dark stories so much.