Mixing Mythologies for Fun and Profit: Writing Outside the Box

Are you kidding me?

In this article:

  • It is possible for our literature to be more than one thing at a time.
  • People like keeping things–and ideas–in boxes.
  • Done right, mixing mythologies and genres can be both creative and worthwhile.
  • Some applications for homeschool exercises.

I remember seeing an article on Fox News when the first Narnia movie was released.  It asked the “provocative” question of whether the Chronicles of Narnia were “Christian literature” or just “good literature.”  It apparently never occurred to the author that Narnia might just manage to be both at the same time.  It was something that put me to thinking about how people dislike mixing different categories, and how often that can get in the way of creativity and our ability to appreciate good literature.

People like boxes.  It’s that simple.  They help us to keep things organized around the house, at work, and, perhaps even better, in our own tiny minds.  We divide work thoughts from home thoughts; political conversation from personal conversation; religion from life; etc. etc. etc.  Literature is no different for most of us.  We have boxes for fantasy, for science fiction, for mystery, for political thrillers, for paranormal, for classics, and so on and so forth.  We like to keep them all separate and stories that don’t seem to fit well in any one cubby hole sometimes bother us.

Pegacorns, Ho!

A somewhat funny example presents itself in a story told by my friend M. B. Weston, author of the Elysian Chronicles.  An early cover for her book, A Prophecy Forgotten, showed one of her “cherubian” heroes riding a unicorn.  Due to the angle of the picture, it looked like the cherubian’s wings were really springing from the back of the unicorn, making what appeared to be, for lack of a better description, a “pegacorn.”  One would-be purchaser at a book signing picked up the book and derisively remarked that such a mixture was “impossible” because “everyone knows they don’t exist.”  Apparently armored angels with wings and horned horses are each fine in their own way, but putting them together is somehow out of bounds!

It doesn’t help that many publishing houses further ingrain this tendency, as they are often unwilling to accept or promote works that don’t fall into a clear-cut category.  Of course their problem is mainly financial–why pay for a book you’re afraid you can’t market?  Who wants to buy stories that can cause cognitive dissonance?

In short, we like things to line up in our imaginary worlds just as much as we do anywhere else, and woe to the besotted author who mixes things too freely.   Even the suggestion of mixed genres brings to mind apocalyptic battlefields filled with lumbering dinosaurs outfitted with absurdly large laser cannon batteries ridden by gray-bearded wizards calling down magical destruction from above on regiments of smurfs in powered armor wielding grenade launchers, supported by deftly swooping pegacorns.   Of course, “everyone knows” that’s just “silly.”

Indeed it is.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  It can be done right.  In fact in a world becoming increasingly swamped with mediocrity, borrowing ideas from other genres and mixing up mythologies might provide the first real dose of fresh material some sectors of literature have seen in many a long year.

There are some very obvious examples of how this has worked on occasion.  The most obvious for a hard-core Lewisian is C. S. Lewis himself.  If you never have taken the time before, sit down and look at the sheer number of mixed genres and mythologies represented in the Chronicles of Narnia.  All sorts of creatures that “don’t belong” co-exist quite well together there, from Greek, Roman, and Norse backgrounds to Aslan, a God-lion with an Arabic name.  If we look  at types, we see Lewis import several, from standard quests (The Silver Chair and The Horse and His Boy) to a sea adventure (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) to coming of age stories (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian) to apocalyptic literature (The Last Battle) and more.  A purist might find it annoying, but most of us devour it without a second thought simply because Lewis is that good.

In my own work, I’ve written straight fantasy (the world of the Naia), but my current project (The Gallery of Worlds) intentionally mixes all sorts of ideas in a hopefully interesting way.  The basic mechanic of the multiverse–the system of portals linking different worlds and universes together across space and time–is a mystical combination of science fiction elements and magic.  It brings together sidhe-like, spiritual beings with the idea of multiple dimensions and does so in a way that is intentionally never fully explained (I find that explaining a thing too completely destroys its ability to inspire awe in humans).  “Science fantasy” is perhaps the best way to put it.  Since Meg and Reep can visit multiple worlds at all stages of development and subject to varying kinds of natural laws, I leave the door open to pursuing completely different styles of writing.  The first book deals with a world of high technology, Relois, but who knows where Meg will end up in book two?

It should be our goal to write good literature, whatever genre we choose, whichever mythology we pull from.  If we do, our readers won’t mind if our stories just refuse to stay in anyone’s little boxes!

Suggestions for the Homeschool Community: Why not list three different genres or mythologies that you’ve been studying, and then write a single short story using all three?  Try to be as subtle as possible and put as much in as you can!  Read your stories to your parents and friends and have a  contest to see who can pick up the most references.

3 thoughts on “Mixing Mythologies for Fun and Profit: Writing Outside the Box

  1. Yes, Tolkien disliked Narnia for precisely that reason, because it mixed mythologies. But I think he missed the point. The Wood Between the Worlds provides a mechanism for such elements to be present together in Narnia without contradiction, much as Brian does in his Gallery stories. If you’re going to do such mixing, you have to create a world in which it is possible.

    1. You know, that’s an interesting idea–does that mean that perhaps dozens of worlds have their own Chronicles of Narnia, telling the tale of how Aslan took their own kind into a melting pot type world? After all, all of the mythical creatures had to end up there somehow.

      Come to think of it, I don’t remember any mythic creatures among the talking beasts in MN. Are they just slipping my mind? I don’t have time to check at the moment.

      Something to think about….

  2. Good post, Brian.

    It seems to be a common human failing, this desire to put things into their own little boxes and categories. It’s one of my pet peeves with historians, actually. I get tired of people who want to claim that one issue was solely responsible for starting WWII, or that Eisenhower was one particular type of military leader, or that Napoleon’s success was the result of one strategy . . . history is a process, with multiple factors, multiple stimuli, and very few easy answers. People are not single-celled organisms; they’re complex! So are their decisions, their actions, and their creations. Naturally, books do not always fit flawlessly into only one genre, sub-genre, etc.

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