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Manipulating the Mythos

There is an ongoing argument among fantasy lovers as to whether or not you can take a long-standing myth and manipulate it into something different. We all know that things change over time. Life is about adaptation. The theory of evolution, the passage of the seasons, and the journey from infancy to maturity, all are forms of manipulating what already exists into another form.

The same is true for mythology and, by extension, fantasy. All fantastical beings and places stem from some kind of myth or folklore that has been passed down, either through written stories or word of mouth, through generations and generations. Dragons, vampires, mermaids and sirens, werewolves and zombies, and many other fantasy tropes, have existed in the minds of humans for thousands of years, created from partial truths, their shape ever growing and changing, molded by the unique perceptions of the human brain.

Dragons and Wyverns

Hobsyllwin, The White Guardian by Ciruelo CabralFor example, Dragons date back to about 4000 B.C. and exist in different forms in nearly every culture. The Tatsu dragon in Japanese culture is typically portrayed as a large, wingless, serpentine creature with clawed feet. They are generally considered to be water deities and are associated with rainfall and bodies of water. Whereas the dragon mythology in Western European culture generally portrays dragons as evil, fire breathing, treasure hording monsters; Asian cultures consider them to be benevolent creatures who symbolize goodness.

Japanese Dragon by HokusaiSo many stories have been written about dragons. European fairytales tend to contain the “slay the dragon” motif, in which a hero kills the dragon that guards a cave of treasure, or a castle in which a beautiful maiden is imprisoned. The dragon is arguably the single most popular creature in fantasy, and hasn’t varied much in its portrayal throughout the years, at least not in any popularized way. Seraphina (cover)However, during my senior year of high school, I read a series of novels called the Aisling Gray, Guardian series by Katie MaCalister, a paranormal romance saga which portrayed Wyverns as shape-shifting creatures who could become human at will, and therefore become romantically involved with humans.

Recently, the novel Seraphina by Rachel Hartman was released, sporting intelligent dragons that could take on human shape and intermingle with humans and human politics. These are new manipulations to the dragon mythos, and some may say that they beg the question of what it truly means to be a dragon.

Vampires

VampireVampires are another popular mythical creature that has undergone drastic changes over recent years. In the past, if someone were to mention reading or writing about vampires, it could be assumed that they were talking about the immortal, ravenous, bloodsucking demons who spontaneously combusted at the touch of sunlight, and saw humans as nothing more than a means of satisfying their thirst.

Louis de Pointe du LacAnne Rice was one of the first to popularize and manipulate the vampire mythos into a brooding, sexy, compassionate Louis (played by actor Brad Pitt in the film adaptation of the novel, Interview with a Vampire), who feels love and questions that a vampire’s only way to live is to feed on the blood of humans. This kind of manipulation paved the way for authors such as L. J. Smith and Stephenie Meyer to further skew the preconceived notions about what it meant to be a child of the night.

Vampire DiariesSmith has created brothers Damon and Stefan Salvator, 146 year old nobility forever encased in adolescent bodies. Damon embraces the life of a vampire while his brother, Stefan, further personifies the brooding, self-deprecating creature who longs to be human again, choosing instead, as Louis did, to feed on the blood of animals. Meyer has taken it a step further.

Where Damon and Stefan are still in danger of combustion during the day without their bewitched rings, Edward and the other vampires of the Twilight world merely sparkle and have the ability to procreate with humans. The idea of the vampire has become so convoluted throughout the past few years that one has to ask, when everything a vampire is has been stripped away or manipulated, how can we still call it a vampire?

Twilight

Mermaids and Sirens

Siren (cover)Once creatures that existed merely to tempt men to their watery deaths, now have trepidation about killing, even going so far as to fall in love with the men that they are bent on murdering. Such YA novels as Siren by Tricia Rayburn, and Ripple by Mandy Hubbard, take the perspective of Sirens who wish they weren’t. And the newest Pirates of the Caribbean movie includes a blossoming relationship between man and mermaid.

Werewolves

Werewolf Concept by aaronsimscompanyThese animalistic beasts have now become more realistic. The days of the Wolfman—a hairy creature with the head, tail and claws of a wolf, but the body of a man—seem to be numbered, taken over by men, women, and children who can shift into the sleek frame of your average looking wolf, unable to be differentiated from the natural animal except, perhaps, by their still human eyes that stare out of their doglike faces.

Zombies or “The Living Dead”

Breathers (cover)Long ago, a zombie was created by magical spells, often Voodoo, performed on corpses and causing them to rise from the grave. George A. Romero introduced the zombie we know today, who feeds on human flesh and craves the squishy texture of brains, however, there rarely is a cause given for this reanimation. Popular video game series, Resident Evil, introduced a biological weapon, created by The Umbrella Corporation, called the T-Virus, that has infected the residents of Raccoon City and turned them into flesh-eating zombies. The Walking Dead on AMC has further popularized the disease infected zombie. However, a few years ago, I encountered a “romzomcom” novel called Breathers: A Zombie’s Lament by S. G. Browne. It is from a zombie’s perspective—a young man who died and reanimated, and lives in his parent’s basement. He attends Undead Anonymous and falls in love with another zombie and finds a way to reverse decomposition—something unheard of in zombie fiction.

Warm BodiesAnd, coming in 2013, a new movie called Warm Bodies is to be released the 1st of February. The main character, a zombie called R who is infected with “the plague”, falls in love with a human girl, and through this romance begins to become human again. The metamorphosis of the zombie is nearly as startling as the transformation of the vampire.

Fantasy fundamentalists shudder at this change. They believe that you take away everything good about a vampire by making it sparkle, or care about humans in a way other than for self-preservation. To a fundamentalist, the myths exist for a reason and ought to be adhered to; otherwise the whole idea fractures and becomes a mere shadow of its former self. Progressive fantasy fans argue differently, that the creatures are not real to begin with, and that to change them is acceptable and creative, and reflects the creator’s own unique perspective, to which they are entitled.

So, what makes a mythological creature a mythological creature? Can such changes take place without creating an entirely new entity, and if new entities emerge, what would we call them if not vampires, dragons, mermaids, sirens, werewolves or zombies—or whatever else? Does it detract from something to manipulate it in these ways, or are the new forms still valid?

Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Title image by ferez.

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4 Comments

  1. Sam Morris says:

    I don’t mind people messing with the mythical.
    I think that’s the lifeblood of fantasy – hacking legends and rewiring them as modern psycho-social tools…

    I do however dislike when authors take the mythic and make it boring as sin. Such as Twilight.
    There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with doing so. But just because you *can* do something that doesn’t ipso facto mean it’s a good thing to do.

    Sparkly vampires are a crime against good taste, not Fantasy dogma 😛

  2. drack says:

    Hmm, I’m inclined to say that it’s fine to play with myths, and to change them to a degree so long as the initial myth is still there. You see myths have already been reshaped and retold millions of times before even our earliest written records of them, an this sort of change is natural. Let us take the most controversial myth, the vampire. Vampires could range from a myth akin to the Voodoo zombie to the bloodsucking European creature that must sleep in it’s crypt with grave soil, never rotting, and growing more powerful with the consumption of blood. These have changed and been used, and new types of vampires such as the one in crocodile tears in which the “vampire” is slowly poisoned by all the doubt, slowly bleeding to death while searching for one who loves him without reserve to heal him. Nowadays there are also plenty of empathetic vampire that feed off feelings and thoughts. would say that these are just modern retelling and revisions of the classic myths. Vampires such as seen in twilight differ in that they bear virtually none of the classic vampiric traits, and only hold sway over the myth through popularity. Personally I object more to those that think of twilight as the first thing when they hear vampire more then to the book it’s self, though calling them something new like namhum, or devit’clare, or some other made up name (for a new creature) that would begin to sound normal after a bit of use.

    And +10 points for you if you noticed that namhum is human with the first three characters to the back, and the back three mirrored to the front.

  3. Aura says:


    Being creative doesn’t means that you can warp a myth to your own liking, myths are myths, they’re traditions and memories of long lost times, changing them to the point of no recognition is abominable, and Authors with that mentality is the thing that is causing the genre to becoming garbage. Anyway, fantasy is no longer fantasy anymore, and for more dragons, princess or shapeshifters it contains, it will never be again.

    • Dan J. says:

      While I strongly respect your right to your own opinion, I could not possibly disagree with you more. Warping and twisting myths is what fantasy author’s have been doing since George MacDonald and William Morris and J. R. R. Tolkien first set pen to paper. Myths and legends are constantly changed and adapted. They morph throughout the history of humanity and to take one particular moment in time and freeze it as the definitive version of some particular myth is both unjustified and arbitrary.

      Furthermore, the genre is far from garbage. Some of the best fantasy ever written is being published as I write this. The genre has grown and branched and flowered. It has more diversity and variation than ever before. Yes, there are some sub-genres that I don’t particularly care for, but that doesn’t make them “garbage.” It just makes them not suited to my particular tastes.

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