How I Got Here
Once upon a time…. Isn’t that the way stories begin? At some point something happens that moves us to tell a story. So let me tell you how this book came about.
I’ve always had a love of mythic stories. Something about them caught at my imagination, giving me joy. I was never sure what it was, for I was still young then, and uninfected by the rational thinking that fills our educational process. I read a story about the Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele, and some corner of me responded to her passionate violence. I read the tale of Odysseus and his desire to get home, and admired his wit and wily nature.
Years later, as a college student I studied literature, in order to learn how to write. Along the way, my love of mythology also prompted me to an even more serious study of that field. Those studies helped me find the key that explained my early love of mythic stories. Myth is the language of the human psyche. The stories of myth capture the drama of our inner soul searching, our journeys to understand ourselves and our world. As much as science details the mechanics of the universe and existence, it cannot answer a question like “what does this mean to me?” We may try as much as we can to be objective about human nature and how it functions, but we cannot escape the fact that our lives are subjective. We are not impersonal collectors of information, we are gatherers of interconnected experience. Things happen to us, which we give significance one way or another. I may know that objectively the sun is a star many, many times the size of our planet, burning basic gases and throwing out radiation and light. But some days, when the sky above me shines bright blue, ornamented with high piled clouds and the sun’s glory gets captured in those rolls of white, I can easily imagine an awesome, powerful being sitting up there, fabulous and wonderful, just out of my sight. I can’t help but think mythically. We all do it.
Given these human impulses, it helps a writer to become familiar with myths. The mythic significance of the world around us, and of our own actions, has not really changed down the eons of human existence. The story of Gilgamesh, the earliest known epic, can be read in translation today, and still be understood, because it is about being human. And yet, like all languages, myth does have its grammar.
So how do we, as storytellers, learn that grammar? For we really should learn it. Does it lie in becoming familiar with the multitude of stories from all the different cultures? Not really. Although such a knowledge will give us access to many story plots and their endless variations, unless we understand the heart of the myth we are no better off than if we only knew one story. Until you know what is mythically hidden in the cloak of night, night will only be darkness in your tale, and it will tell your audience nothing deeper than the fact that the lights are out.
Through the years, I had begun collecting notes from many sources about the significances of myths and images. I would turn to these notes from time to time to check myself in my writing, to see if I was on the right track with a particular tale. But my notes were never all in one place, never organized in a fashion that would let me find just what I wanted when I wanted it. As knowledgeable as I was about myths and what many of them meant, some days when I was hashing over a rewrite, I longed for a road map through the land of myth. “I have this scene happening at night, but where the heck are my notes about what night can mean?” How I longed for a reference book that pulled these concepts together in such a way that I could easy find them. Volumes of mythology and encyclopedias and dictionaries of myth and folklore, though valuable, were not quite what I needed in molding my stories into even better shapes. What was needed, I felt, was a single volume which gathered things together in a way to help and inspire storytellers. The result of these considerations is in your hands.
Why You Need This Book
As I said, myth is the language of the human psyche. As storytellers, we want our work to touch the hearts of our audience. We want our stories to encourage, or alarm, or scare. We want our stories to challenge or inspire. We want, for whatever end, to reach that subjective core within the people receiving our story. To do that, we need to be grounded in the language of the subjective.
Many others have produced books about myth and psychology, about writers and myth. Many of them deal with the internal connection between the heart of the writer and the journey the story’s hero ventures out upon. This is very true: every story is a reflection of the author’s heart, in some fashion or other. If you, as a writer, do not understand that, you will probably miss many important elements in your own story. However, this book is not about the psychology of the writer and the writer’s experience. It is about the experience you want to create in your audience.
This book is designed to give you the grammar of myth. It is designed to show you the variations in structure and significance. The more we know about the significance of an image or an action, the more we as writers will be able to make our stories touch the awesome power of myth. When a story resonates with a mythic tune, it stays with the audience longer. Is that not what we want to happen? This book will help you deepen the mythic significance of your stories.
How To Use This Book
The book has been ordered along the model of a travel guide. It was in part inspired by the fact that the first section was going to have to deal with the hero’s journey motifs. But after starting out that way, it quickly became clear to me that this was exactly the sort of structure for the book that would be most useful.
For issues dealing with plot, explore the GOING ON THE JOURNEY section. Here you will find an examination of the elements of several journey motifs. The fact that there are several journey motifs will surprise many. In no way am I trying to imply that one motif is better than another. Indeed, in order to avoid the idea of outline-as-blueprint, the motifs from the different outlines have been gathered into one generalized form. There is some apparent repetition, but each discussion adds more to the understanding of a motif and how it can be used in a story. The reason the variations are included is because sometimes, when a writer is stuck, finding out that there is an alternative to a pattern can open whole new prospects, new landscapes. By comparing the different terminology used in the various outlines of the Hero’s journey, we will broaden our awareness of possible story choices.
In the TRANSPORTATION section, we will look at the traditional divisions of drama. There is the Upturn of Comedy (meaning stories that move toward happy endings, not just stories that are funny), the Downturn of Tragedy, and what I call the Straight Through trip of Drama (where the story usually contains elements of both comedy and tragedy).
TIME OF TRAVEL considers the implications of the daily cycle as well as the yearly cycle. The significance of weather is also included in this section.
LOCAL RESIDENTS deals with character archetypes, not just in how they function in the plot, but what they are as people, in their relations to the hero and the rest of the characters in the story. Let me state at this point that aside from the sub-section that deals with imagery that is specific to males or females, the rest of the archetypes can be applied to either sex. In point of fact, a hero in a story may be either male or female. But I will use the term Hero to refer to the main character that you are sending out on a journey. Additionally, some of the character discussions have supplementary units, such as the exploration of Special Objects under the character heading of the Holy Ones.
From the character archetypes we then travel into LANDSCAPE. Here you will find contrasting elements grouped together: sky vs. earth, towers vs. caves, sea vs. land. Also under this heading, we will look at some other physical elements, such as fire and vegetation.
The last section, THEME PARKS, deals with what I call popular mythologies. By this I mean constructs which will sustain multiple visits, whether it is in the context of a television series, movie franchise, or on-going literary character.
In the text, to flesh out the concepts we will be looking at, you will find two things. The first is brief descriptions of myths that represent the element under consideration. These descriptions will be set off by indentations, and will appear in a different typeface.
This combination of indentation and typeface will be used throughout for the description of the myth that applies at that point. After the myth itself has been described, the appearance of the text will be returned to normal.
The second item for fleshing out the discussion will be the inclusion of examples of the mythic elements as used in films. The use of film examples was chosen because movies (and television) have become the most powerful emotive medium available to storytellers. Although I will not assume that you have seen all of the films, or remember all of the plot points, I will not be giving you complete descriptions of the plots. I plan only to describe the context of the particular mythic element under consideration. But I do hope the discussion will inspire you to check out the example. I want to assure you at this time that every single film that is cited has been specifically reviewed for this book. I have read some screenwriting books recently where it became obvious to me that the writer, in referring to a film, had not re-watched the film before writing about it, but instead commented on it only from memory. Reviewing the films has been a fascinating experience. I did not want to give you a catalogue of all the mythic elements in every film I mention, but it was fun to find other mythic elements at work in addition to the ones I planned to cite.
The text can be read straight through, or you can jump from point to point, whichever suits your purpose at the time. In the appendices, the various journey motifs and hierarchies will be listed for speedy reference.
Are you ready to set out on this journey? If so, then Bon Voyage!