“Most attribute the foundations of Western story structure to Aristotle. His simple idea that stories should have a beginning, a middle, and an end has long served as the template for how narratives have been communicated. Joseph Campbell, by contrast, wisely popularized the idea that the narrative journey was actually a cycle — that every ending brought forth new beginnings, that every death brought forth resurrection and new life.”
I like this Joseph Campbell Foundation essay about the cyclical nature of stories and how they interact with the nature of our lives. You’ll find this in Campbell’s writings about The Hero’s Journey, the idea–as the author puts it–that the beginnings we discover in the new year don’t arise from a blank slate. As Frank Herbert mentioned in his novel Dune, the intuitive can look backward in time and see–like footprints across the sand–the steps one has taken to arrive where they are in life at any given moment.
Put this in a novel, and you call those steps “the plot” or “foreshadowing.” Story helps us identify these kinds of patterns in “real life” just as “real life” suggests to us the stories we tell, both fiction and memoir.
I suppose I was probably destroyed <g> at an early age by the originals of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Or maybe the vicissitudes of magic led me into a mythic approach to understanding “the big picture” and the storytelling surrounding it. Be that as it may, I enjoy deepening my understanding (or further brainwashing myself) about myths and legends by constantly looking for new resources and re-reading old resources.
This past weekend, it was King Arthur and the Holy Grail. I can’t count the number of variations of this story I’ve read since childhood. Early on, I liked T. H. White’s Once and Future King, Mary Stewart’s trilogy, and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s alternative approach in The Mists of Avalon. The approach of these and other authors is as varied as the approach of those credited with the early versions of the stories. This weekend’s reading was Joseph Campbell’s The Romance of the Grail.
Campbell, best known for The Hero with a Thousand Faces, spent a lifetime studying the Grail stories. In reading his book, we see immediately that there are two major approaches. One comes from Celtic sources and is probably indigenous to Ireland. This approach sees the Grail stories as a pagan manifestation of tales about fertility gods. The other major approach shows the stories as Christianized, that is to say, in which the Grail was considered to be the chalice from the Last Supper and the lance was said to be the one brought to Britain by Joseph of Arimathea. I see this second approach as a “cleaning up” of older stories so that they were acceptable to the church. Yet another theme, further “touches up” the stories with mythic stories and practices from mysteries out of ancient Greece.
Joseph Campbell died in 1987, a few years after Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1982) was published, advancing the theory that Mary Magdalene was, in fact, the Grail, had been Jesus’ wife, and carried his bloodline. I wonder if Campbell was aware of this theory before he died.
I tend to like the original sources of myths rather than the glosses painted over them by subsequent poets. So, I see the Christianized versions of the Grail stories as deviant. Yet, those are the versions most people know and accept as part of the entire King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table storyline. It’s too late to change that, I suppose. Yet, paradoxically, I do wonder about the realities of Mary Magdalene even though she’s outside the Grail romances.
One issue that arises when the myths are retold properly (Elliott’s The Waste Land) or badly (Tennyson’s “Balin and Balan” in Idylls of the King) is that modern authors may or may not understand the deeper meanings of the original myths. So, those stories become–to put it crudely–writing prompts that can be spun out into all kinds of fiction that–due to egotism or ignorance–distort the intent of the basic story.
Writers of local and regional myths and legends from their own countries face the same problem. We want to base our stories to one extent or another on the legends surrounding the place, but may not have the time or resources to fully explore where those legends came from or why they were passed down through the ages. As writers, we do the best we can because, unlike Joseph Campbell and the Grail stories, we don’t have a lifetime’s worth of scholarship with which to shore up our stories.
Authors like me who infuse local color–legends, myths, ghost stories, oral history–into their stories are always on the lookout for books and sites that lead them to more good stuff
Historian Dale Cox who lives in the Florida Panhandle has done more than his fair share of capturing local history and local color in books and websites. This book Two Egg, Florida: A Collection of Ghost Stories, Legends and Unusual Facts is a good example of the kind of resource I look for.
I grew up near Two Egg, saw it numerous times, and knew about half the tales and facts in this book before I bought it. But Cox’s research helps nail everything down, providing new wrinkles I wasn’t aware of as well as tales I hadn’t heard.
Since I write magical realism, I see the location and its legends almost like one of the characters. Of course, my human characters treat the myths and legends as real because that’s how magical realism works.
They really believe Bellamy Bridge has a ghost, that there might be some truth in the notion that the bluffs along the Apalachicola north of Bristol might have been the Biblical Garden of Eden, and that Two-Toed Tom and the Swamp Booger are out there in the dark waiting for an ignorant person to stumble into their clutches.
My library includes many books like this one by Dale Cox, and for the realism side of my novels, books about north Florida’s flora and fauna and history. Sometimes the research is even more fun than the writing.
When the magic within a story is accepted as usual within an otherwise realistic setting, you’re probably reading or writing magical realism. It requires a light touch: if the magic becomes too overt or too over-the-top in terms of Hollywood special effects, then you’re out of the magical realism genre realm into fantasy, occult or science fiction.
Here’s an example
In her novel Garden Spells, Sarah Addison Allen tells a story about a woman named Claire Waverly living alone in the family’s old house in a small town. Her family has always been viewed by others as odd or unusual in some way. She runs a catering business that’s in high demand because she’s not only a great cook, but uses the products of her own garden to enhance her dishes in ways that seem to help those who need to be helped: their luck or their emotions improve, they feel better, find their lives improving. She doesn’t advertise this: if she did, it would sound like an unbelievable health food scam and would no longer be magical realism. Each member of the Waverly family has a special gift that causes others to see them as slightly odd and/or highly talented.
The novel works on many levels as magical realism because: (1) We’re not seeing Harry Potter magic, (2) The small town setting lends itself to local legends and gossip that create an eerie overlay of maybe and perhaps that’s never quite analyzed in the light of day, (3) The magic is low key, not the kind that in other novels would turn into a thriller, witchcraft hysteria, (4) Her characters do what they do without overtly using “magical techniques” that require practice, meditations, or the stuff of either fantasy or dark arts novels.
If you want to write magical realism, it helps if you’ve read a lot of it and have a feeling for the genre as well of being comfortable leaving a lot of things unsaid or hinted at rather than approaching the unusual in your story with a full-bore emphasis on “creepy stuff” as Stephen King might approach similar material. Here are a few suggestions
Tips for Writing Magical Realism
Unlike fantasy, magical realism has strong plots and characters that would draw readers through the story if there were no magic at all. It’s hard to imagine the Harry Potter books without wizards and their magic. Garden Spells might work as a story in a small town even if the Waverly family didn’t have unusual talents.
Choose a setting that lends itself to magic, unanswered questions and unusual events without attracting the attention of, say, the news media or the police or others who might shine a strong light on it. Small towns and rural settings both have legends and myths (whether you make them up or do a riff on those of the real place where you set your story). Since a lot of people in today’s society get spooked by swamps, remote mountains, piney woods in the moonlight–along with the real or imagined creatures that might be there–going off the beaten track for your story gives you a lot of opportunities for implying that, say, the land is conscious or that birds and animals have unusual motives, or that keeping on the “right side” of folk beliefs is the healthy thing to do.
The people who create the magic seldom talk about their magic; if they do, they don’t see what they do as any different from the way anyone else uses the tools of his/her trade to do or to create what most people cannot do or create. If you borrow from a real magical tradition such as Voodoo, witchcraft or hoodoo, research (or your own knowledge) will bring you a lot of ideas about ways of living a magical without turning the practitioner into a caricature. As the author of a magical realism story, you never ever demean the myths, legends, beliefs, spells and practices of your magical characters or the enchanted landscape in which they live.
If you use a real wilderness or other remote setting, your book will be more believable if you research the flora, fauna, weather and people who live there now–or lived there in the past. For one thing, you need realism to play off against the magic. For another, it’s hard to show characters moving around in an area if you don’t know what it looks like. And finally, natural magic uses things from the land that witches and conjurers grow, harvest or find. Don’t make this up: it will kill your story. Find out what kind of leaves are used for the spell you want, research what the plants look like and whether they grow in the area where your story is set, and make that a natural part of your narrative.
Refer to an area’s legends and myths. For real settings, you’ll find these from folklore societies, books with titles such as “The Ghosts of Quincy” or “Florida Legends” and “Creation Myths of the Sunshine State.” Your job is usually not to retell any of these stories, rather to refer to them the way people in a city might mention in passing the day the trolley car first came by the house or the fact that some accident happened years ago in a certain place. For example, in my novel in progress, one character tells another not to eat gopher tortoises because they were created by the devil. The legend about that is longer than this post, but in a magical realism book I can simply refer to that as a fact and move on. I always prefer to use nuggets out of the real myths and legends from a place rather than making them up from scratch. For one thing, they fit the place well. For another, they convey a folklore truth that many people living there have heard before and/or a bit of folklore I want to help keep alive.
Certain events/feelings that are told as metaphors in a mainstream realism novel can be told as though they actually happened. Be careful with this, or it won’t seem believable within the story’s context and the character’s beliefs. For example, in realism, a character who needs to apologize to another might say, “I felt as though I was so small, I could hide under the dining room chairs until my parents left for work.” In magical realism, you don’t include the words “as though” or “as if.” You state it like it’s temporarily the case. Interior monologue and/or lyrical propose are two ways you can do this so that a typically unrealistic event suddenly seems plausible within the magic of the moment. For example: “When my conjure woman is angry, she is taller; she doesn’t look smaller when she walks down to the far end of the beach.”
There’s no recipe here. In a sense, you have to feel it and sense it before you can do it. Once you practice the genre a lot, you don’t have to consciously think about the components any more than a person with years of experience thinks about what s/he does to make a bicycle work. It also helps if you have an open mind and a sense of wonderment or even magic about people and the natural world.
At any rate, I toss off these suggestions as ideas that might work. Or might not.
“Endrezze is adept at making her settings and landscape reflective of what is happening in the psyches of her characters and the situations of their lives. She captures her reader with vivid language and some very unique and startling images.” – M. Miriam Herrera
“When I first found Anita Endrezze’s poems, I felt I had come home. Here was the passion, the eloquence, the originality, the insistent song, that I longed to find. But how could I feel so at home? Endrezze is half-West European, half-Yaqui, her origins, her culture, so far from mine.” – Leah Shelleda
What we are drawn to, in part when landscapes and psyches are merged, in part when there is a persistent original song, are ideas and images that speak truth to us even though we’re on vastly different temporal world paths than the authors of the poems and stories.
When a read the selection of Endrezze’s poems included in Shelleda’s deep-ecology friendly collection, The Book of Now: Poetry for the Rising Tide, I, too, felt at home within Endrezze’s words. I looked for more of them because they seemed essential. I’m pleased to say that I found them in multiple places, and for a lover of myths and folktales, best of all in her Butterfly Mooncollection of short stories.
The world turns, for some of us, where myth and landscape meet, where worlds merge and where tricksters often command the seasons. Trena Machado put this well in her New Pages review of Butterfly Moon:
“In the mythic way of seeing, there is the archaic layer of our anthropomorphizing nature and the earth that we have lost in our Western culture of commerce and science as we strain the limits of the earth’s balance. Nature has its-own-life-to-itself for which we were once more attuned, held reverence and enlivened by: ‘The house was a forest remembering itself. The pine trees that held up the walls dreamed of stars dwelling in their needles. Jointed, branched, rooted, the trees still listened to the wind.’”
The University of Arizona Press blurb is right when it says that Anita Endrezze’s stories are “Enjoyably disturbing, these stories linger—deep in our memory.” This 160-page book was published last September at a time when industrial excesses and environmental concerns occupied much of our attention, if not our overt commitment. No, this is not a Sierra Club tract; it’s pure storytelling at a time when, in addition to the joys of reading, we need to be disturbed and otherwise shaken up.
In Part 1, I suggested that magical animals in fantasy, magical realism and folktales should start out on your imaginary drawing board as factually accurate as possible. Real-world facts make your animal believable.
Whether your animal can perform overt acts of magic, such as my flying horse Sikimi in The Sun Singer and Sarabande, or mysteriously appears on the scene when important things happen to the characters, such as the crows in Verlyn Flieger’s The Inn at Corbies’ Caw, you can add great depth by linking it to traditional myths and superstitions, American Indian creation myths and real or imaginary local stories and beliefs. When you do this, you are building either on what the reader already believes (ravens hang out in grave yards and bring bad luck) or you are layering the story with information that, while probably new to the reader, helps make your magical animal three dimensional.
In a recent short story about the rare Florida panther, I noted that according to Seminole myth, the creator placed all the animals into a birthing shell from which they emerged when the time was right. The first animal to come into the world was the panther, and she had certain qualities that made her special. Since my story is set in a long-ago time period before humans arrived, the animals view the birthing shell as real. They mention it in an off hand way because my short story is not retelling the myth; the mythic backstory gives my panther a larger than life ambiance.
Many writers turn to Nature-Speak and/or to Animal-Speak: The Spiritual and Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small by Ted Andrews for a comprehensive introduction to a large number of animals as they are seen in myth and folklore. The books are especially valid for stories set in the United States since they have an American Indian flavor. I prefer to find out about my prospective magical animals before I start writing so I can build their characterizations and actions around the myths and superstitions rather than pasting a “surface-level” set of qualities on top of an otherwise realistic creature.
The Internet is an amazing resource as long as one double checks everything from multiple sources to: (a) insure the myth or legend is widely known rather than being one writer’s imaginary story or religious belief, (b) locate enough detail to keep your account (including the adjectives and phrases you use) from sounding too much like the one source you located. When setting a story in a real location, a you can start with such online searches as creation myths of the Seminoles (insert appropriate tribe for the region) , panther (insert appropriate animal) myths and legends, and Florida (insert state, city, park, forest or resort) animal legends.
How Magic Do You Want Your Animal to Be?
Magic has to be used carefully, for if you make your main character (human or animal) all powerful, then you won’t have a way to build an exciting story. When your animal is all powerful, then you can build in understood “rules” that keep it from solving all the challenges in the story the minute it arrives. My flying horse, for example, is on the scene to transport my human characters from place to place. But he allows them to decide where they’re going and what they’re going to do when they get there. While he occasionally takes strong action, he generally doesn’t interfere in the fate, destiny or logical plan of the humans.
You can, of course, make all of the magic indirect. That is, if an character’s totem animal is the raven, the raven need not have Superman-like powers to play a role. He can appear in dreams and visions with cryptic messages, can be seen flying in a certain direction as a hint to the characters to go that way, and can be placed in trees or in flight overhead when things are beginning to get frightening. This approach works well in contemporary fantasy and magical realism where your magical animals generally don’t have the capabilities of science fiction and fantasy animals in other worlds where the rules are different.
In “real life,” an overtly magical animal would attract attention. Of course, if that attention and how the human and animal deal with it, is important to your story, then hiding the animal’s abilities wouldn’t be an issue. Otherwise, magical animals tend to be more overt when they appear in parallel worlds, spooky uncertain regions, and deserted places. You can also blur the level of reality by opening up the possibility that the magical things a character saw and/or took part in, might have been the stuff of his imagination and dreams. You will see when you do your research into animal superstitions and tales, that magic tends to happen in places where the whole world cannot see it. This not only makes the magic potentially more frightening (it happens at midnight where two roads cross, for example), but keeps it from getting out of control in your story.
If your protagonist is a human, the rules of storytelling (depending on the genre) generally call for him or her to have more control over the direction of the plot than the animal. When placed within a dangerous situation, you character—knowing or not knowing the magic that’s “available”— will make choices to run, to hide, to fight, to be heroic, to find hidden strengths, or perhaps to fail. The magical animal cannot run in out of nowhere and “fix” all of the character’s problems. If so, the story become very anticlimactic.
In most fantasy, there are various “rules in place” in the parallel universe and in adjoining or overlay worlds that contain or restrict all the magic. This also makes stories more suspenseful and mysterious and keeps them from ending on the first page. Even Superman can’t do everything and be everywhere at once: the fact that he can’t, is what makes the story a story. The same is true for your magical animals.
“Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.” – Joseph Campbell
A new book by Dennis Patrick Slattery, a long-time researcher, teacher and author of mythology, depth and archetypal psychology, will help those interested in their own journeys and personal myths take a few more steps down the path.
New from Fisher King Press, Riting Myth, Mythic Writing: Plotting Your Personal Story uses 80 writing meditations to draw readers directly into the process rather than presenting facts and ideas in a lecture-style format. Those of us who write full time already know the power the writing itself has on the author during every writing moment. The book is the next best thing to a workshop in a sacred place with an experienced facilitator and other students of like mind.
In his introduction to the book, Michael Conforti writes, “Imagine sitting in an Irish pub, drinking ale and listening to the bard weave stories about so many different things, or perhaps captivated by the glow of an outdoor fire while listening to an elder telling stories about history, traditions, and ways to navigate the different life portals that each and every one of us will have to enter at some time. And then—there are stories about destiny, that illusive, mercurial something that catches hold of us at the beginning of life and never seems to want to let go. La forza di destino!! These are the experiences one has in knowing and working with Dr. Dennis Slattery. Whether sharing a pizza and beer or having the luxury of attending one of his lectures or classes, one is privileged to experience an authentic ‘elder’ who, in the tradition of all those wise ones who came before him, has the gift of bringing the world of myth and imagination to life and showing us that indeed these are as real as anything we can touch and hold in our hands.”