Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Legendary Overlays

Let me state by way of introductory remarks that if I had even the slightest whit of wit, the tiniest modicum of common sense, the merest morsel of foresight, I'd have kept day three's post until now. That was the big easy cool mythology post to do. Now I have to think. I do not care for having to think. It stinks. I need a drink.

Poor poetry aside, I'm going to expand on what I wrote that day and talk about characters that have a feeling of resonance with particular mythic archetypes. It is, after all, one of my favourite things. I love virtually all fantasy but my heart belongs, first and foremost, with those that do not retell mythology or pay lip service but take its heart and spirit and place it on a story that makes sense to us. Having characters with a layer of the legendary, that feel human but echo with the supernatural and divine, is the best way to do it. That is, at least, my truth.

One caveat before I continue - this will be very Indo-European-centric. I simply don't have the knowledge to draw conclusions there. I also suspect that for most authors I am aware of (i.e. products of the majority white Anglosphere), signs of influence there would be mostly accidental. Which isn't to say it wouldn't be interesting! Maybe more interesting. But I can't do it. If anyone wants to leave me some advice on where to find good collections of other mythologies, or even better academic texts on the meanings behind them and links between related ones, or best of all run with this ball and do your own article and leave me a link.

The Disguised Wanderer

That said, I will start with something with at least a degree of universality; the supernaturally powerful figure who wanders in disguise. In fantasy the most prominent example is the Odin-inspired Gandalf, and the various hooded wanderers who followed in his wake, fearsome yet benevolent, but there are no shortage of other examples in mythology or religious texts. Their purpose in myth tends to be similar be they angel, Odin, the mysterious stranger carrying the alchemist's stone, or Morrigan; they test the unsuspecting, then reward or harm. It fits neatly with their role as mentor in fantasy literature but as we can see from the source material, it leaves some fun stuff on the table; how often do we see these characters really unload as maliciously as their mythic counterparts did?

It's part of why Gandalf is such a memorable example still as he did just that when he appeared in disguise at Meduseld and Orthanac. He's not just a foundational figure, he's one of the truest to what many of us subconsciously expect. I'm also very fond of Moraine for the way she evokes the mystery, the menace and the wisdom expected of this sort of figure, while also feeling very different in her approach to do so. Finally, an odd example of another loose retelling might be Waylander in Hero of the Shadows. He has no supernatural power but what power he has is indeed disguised and in terms of reward, punishment, and mentorship, he metes out all three fairly liberally. And, of course, he is called Waylander; a wanderer by name no less.

The Demonic Kinslayer

Okay, I might have described this one a bit dramatically. But there is a fine tradition in myth of warrior-like figures with 'demonic' attributes and/or heritage who make life a major pain for the bad side of the family. I coulda called this white sheep, but come on, who would? It's a common godly trait; Lug and Odin are just two that fit the bill. The Rigvedic Rudra doesn't have the same descent from the dark side, but traits sure fit the terrifying demonic bill. Somewhat different, and one of my favourite mythological figures, is Fergus Mac Roich. A gigantic, boisterous figure of a man, he was one of Ulster's foremost champions until he took exception with the king killing a man under his protection and joined the host of Connacht, at which point he became a major pain in Ulster's arse.

Fictionally, it's there in some places, but not that much. It's a very common theme in David Gemmell's books, with Nogusta in Winter Warriors probably my favourite version, although he rarely goes into detail. I guess there's every Dark Elf who's betrayed his kin ever, which are probably more numerous than the fish in the sea but somehow I've avoided most of them other Gorath in Feist's books. You could argue for Harry Potter having elements here thanks to the parseltongue connection. However, I think the best example is a not particularly literal one, and that is Baru Cormorant, a monster deep inside who's been turned against her family by their conquerors... and who presumably in turn will turn against her adopted nation.

The Healer and Killer

This is an odd one as it only pops up in its fullest form in two Indo-European mythologies, that of Greece and India. Both Apollo and Rudra are known for their ability to shoot plague at their enemies, but also for their ability to heal. It is a strange combination and almost certainly linked given their associations with rodents. There are hints of it elsewhere mind. Odin knows a charm of healing, yet it is his power to get men killed that is better known. Lugh too could be a healer, while the Dagda brought a son back to life.

This feels like something of a villain quality; you could argue for Semirhage having an echo of this. It is also a pure hero trait; not only is it classic D&D paladin territory, but it's arguably a huge part of Aragorn's true kingship. In Gemmell's Dark Moon, Duvodas swings between the two, although never embodies both. But to get a more neutral, all the time healer-killer? I'd have a damn good think about this and not got anything. Maybe we don't think someone can have such contrasting traits without being a very remarkable person? I'm not sure we'd be wrong to think it either.

Anyway, those are my little witterings, let me know if there's any requests on stuff to look at, be it mythologies or books, or other stuff like this, or if you just want me to shut up already.

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