Mythology has always fascinated me.
The array of characters, the exotic settings, the distinct cultural flavours of the various tales, be they Greek/Roman, Egyptian, Arabic, Celtic, Hindu, Chinese, Norse... the way that the heroes always triumphed against incredible odds, no matter what the evil king, malicious witch, not-so benevolent god(dess) or simple unfortunate chance threw at them...
In short, I've always been a sucker for a good saga.
As both I and my literary tastes matured, however, I noticed in some specific areas, particularly the older, more popularised tales, there were inconsistencies. The most obvious of these was a distinct lack of strong female characters. This was not, however, necessarily a reflection of gender relations in the various cultures. In fact, more in-depth study on my part produced a vast array of tales in which the goddess/heroine/lady love did not play the Disney-fied "damsel-in-distress", and in many cases were individuals that one would avoid displeasing at all costs1.
In spite of this, in the vast majority of available anthologies, the emphasis on particular myths, and the ways that they were all interpreted continued to be alarmingly similar in the ways they faltered. It was through the study of the context of nineteenth century literature for the "Individual in Society" module, that the main reason behind such censure first became apparent.
"The century before last was particularly appalling that way- every old tale passed through the filter of a dusty bourgeois penny-pincher of a middle-aged male editor before it was allowed to be published2"
In my story, (for what better form could be used to tell the story of stories?) the character of Saraswati, a Hindu Goddess states in blunt terms something I noticed when doing my background reading. The majority of stories that had made it into the "new" anthologies were ones that suited the personal philosophies of the type of men who were generally in the post of editor in the nineteenth century- patriarchal, sensible to the hierarchy, stirring, and with an emphasis on morality. Indeed, research involving reading some of the more traditional, unexpurgated versions of particular myths, (e.g. in almost any Greek tale involving a nymph, satyr, Aphrodite or Zeus,) proved to be a significantly different experience to reading the versions that commonly crop up in the more widely available media.
Kathleen Ragan, in the introduction of "Fearless Girls3", an anthology compiled to move against the trend she observed of predominantly male protagonists in children's books, states a reason for particular folktales' survival.
"My studies of folklore had indicated that in most oral traditions folk and fairy tales naturally contain heroines as well as heroes. However, the tales we read in anthologies are not simply literal transcriptions of every tale told in a culture's oral tradition. First someone collects tales, collecting and transliterating those perceived as the best. Then an editor selects… translates and possibly edits these tales. It seems that male editors have simply- and understandably- picked their favourite stories."
Cross referencing of other contemporary anthologies, including (not exclusively) Thomas Bulfinch's Mythology of Greece and Rome4, the DK Illustrated Dictionary of Mythology5, and RD Press' World Mythology-The Illustrated Guide6, showed this trend and others, for example, within the "World" anthologies there was a definitive tendency towards Imperialistic Euro-centrism- 204 of the 307 pages of the latter devoted to European mythology alone, with the Illustrated Dictionary dedicating 38 pages, compared to the paltry 10 covering the myths of the Australasia and Africa combined.
My Major Work is aimed specifically at open-minded readers of fantasy/scifi who are relatively familiar with mythology, and who have a sense of humour. This piece has been written with the purpose of entertaining the reader whilst provoking thought on philosophical subjects, specifically, how there can be different interpretations of the truth and what effects these might have. The open mind criterion is important, as some of the jokes I make are somewhat irreverent, and so may offend more fundamentalist mentalities, as the sci/fi fantasy readership will be better practised at maintaining the suspension of disbelief that is required for this story to be enjoyed, and are more likely to recognize the references.
The basis for this work was greatly influenced by my background study upon the paradigms of the nineteenth century mindset (as related to my Extension 1 English module- Individual in Society) and my Advanced English Course topics Telling the Truth, the Critical study of King Lear, and the Module Comparative Study of Texts and Contexts as applicable to Brave New World and Bladerunner.
In the case of the nineteenth century study area, the areas of feminism, Social Darwinism and stereotyping were highlighted, and in conjuction with my studies of Telling the Truth and the Comparative Study, the issues of how interpretations of "facts" can be altered or reshaped depending on perspective, and the dimensions that compose the aspects of the human psyche and experience. The idea that Truth is a metaphysical contruct that is both mutable and emphemeral in nature, depending upon who tells it, who is listening, and the prior experiences and belief systems of both parties is one that formed a significant basis for the views raised in the various dialogues that make up this Work.The Comparative Study and King Lear both explored the framework of paradigms that describe what it is to be human, and through this, the various examples of cultural and ideological clashes (be they between the Savage and the Brave New Worldians, Replicants and Humans, or between Edmund the Bastard and his family,) drew my attention to issues of spirituality and values pertaining to both the social and personal context, which influenced amny of the points I attempted to incorporate into my Major Work.
An example of this can be found in the reference to "...that new God, Science, who as usual, sends his regrets, and by his own dictates, cannot, or at least should not, exist7"
My major work was largely focussed upon these concepts, and the decision to use the fiction convention scenario was made chiefly in order to produce a credible situation in which a great deal of dialogue might be generated, and to provide a likewise credible reason for the various mythological archetypes to congregate. This conversation-rich format was partially inspired by my related material text, A short story called In the Bedroom by nineteenth century French writer Maupassant8.
The structure involving the alternating sections of text with the Programme (distinguished by normal and bold type respectively,) was selected, as the programme proved to be a good tool both for setting the overall tone for the piece, and for framing the different sections9. An example of this is where the convention dissolves into argument, whereupon a fragment of programme declaring a recess is included, before the segment where Eve and Tiny converse.
Present tense was used throughout the vast majority of this piece to give a sense of immediacy, but also to invoke a sense that this story is current, and is definitively not composed of issues that are past in relevancy. This also caused the juxta-posed retelling of the portion of the Illiad by the Harpy Celaeno to be more distinctive in its separation from the rest of the Major Work.
The character Eve, the only human voice of significance in this Major Work is used partially as a sign poster, to better lend understanding to readers unfamiliar with mythology, and partially as a voice of reason in amongst the suspension of disbelief that is demanded by the majority of this piece. Eve's scepticism and general bafflement about events is designed to reflect that of the potential reader's, as the conversation between immortals becomes more and more esoteric, Eve anchors the piece somewhat- although, as the convention truly gets underway, Eve is soon relegated to the background, and eventually fades from view, not to be mentioned by name again, as like the Fool in King Lear, she is no longer required, and so drifts from the storyline.
Originally, this story was about Icarus, the figure in Greek mythology who escaped with his father Daedalus from Crete upon wings contructed from feathers and wax, only to fly too close to the sun and drown when the wax melted and the wings collapsed. It was going to be a reinterpretation of events, as I have always despised the "moral" assigned to this story- that those who attempt to reach the clouds shall be condemned by the gods, or alternatively (and in worse taste in my opinion,) that striving beyond the boundaries set by one's elders will only lead to misery. In the course of my research, however, I came across the character of the Harpy. The Harpy is one of few strong female characters in Greek Mythology, who is featured as a side-act in most surviving Greek sagas- Homer's Odyssey, Hesiod's Argonautica, and Virgils' Aeneid. It was through re-reading these myths that certain inconsistencies began to appear, and in the research that I conducted to attempt to rationalise these inconsistencies, I came to a conclusion.
The Harpies had been gypped.
They featured quite popularly in the older texts, but the newer the retelling, the less importance was laid upon them- newer texts suggested that harpies were mindless monsters, whereas older texts gave the Harpies personalities and motives. The focus was generally more on what the Harpies' actions were, as opposed to the underlying justification.
1Observe the character of the Harpy in Major Work for details.
3Kathleen Ragan, "Fearless Girls", Bantam Books, 1998
4Thomas Bulfinch, Mythology of Greece and Rome,Viking Penguin Inc.,1979.
5Philip Wilkinson, DK Illustrated Dictionary of Mythology, Dorling Kindersley, 1998.
6Roy Willis et.al., World Mythology-The Illustrated Guide, Duncan Baird Publishers, 1993.
8Guy de Maupassant, Maupassant- Selected Short Stories, Penguin, 1971
9In order to best capture the tone of a conventional programme, I loosely based the text on the programme for the 2004 North London Bee Keeper's Association Annual General Meeting,