Writing With a Toddler II: Mythology, Fear, and Love

Posted: April 22, 2015 in Dark Art Cafe
Tags: , , ,

crow in flight

I’ve always been intrigued by myths, particularly ancient Norse myths, probably because when I first started hearing and reading Norse mythology, I’d already read The Lord of the Rings, and so stories of Odin and Thor were like Gandalf and Aragorn fan fiction. Except, of course, that those fan fictions, collected in The Poetic Edda (12th or 13th c.), pre-dated Tolkien by roughly 7 or 8 centuries. But, for a kid who thought Rich Mullins (a contemporary Christian singer/songwriter) wrote the Apostles’ Creed because I’d memorized Mullins’ ’93 hit “Creed” before I ever stepped foot in Anglo-Catholic church, making these backwards discoveries, slowly discovering my own modern blind spots, was kind of mind-blowing.

I grew up a first wave Mellenial (b. 1983), raised Pentecostal, which is a modern, evangelical form of Christianity, which is itself an ancient faith. So growing up in such a religious tradition always involved discovering the ancient roots of our contemporary practices. And, as I grew up and went to college and learned more and more history, this involved (painfully) realizing that some connections to ancient practices were more tenuous than others. Even from a young age, however, I was interested in ancient stories in which the characters seemed, well, modern: at least in their desires and scheming, their betrayals and hatred, their bravery and love.

When I started reading Tolkien and, later, Norse myths, I was enchanted by characters who seemed legitimately old and of another world, but also recognizable and human. Even the elves, like Legolas, whose banter with Gimli during the siege of Helm’s Deep showed me an early image of friendship between two people of different ages, from different races, and with profoundly different worldviews. So, I’ve found it odd recently, with the HBO-hyped Game of Thrones fever, that critics often shorthand the difference been George R. R. Martin and J. R. R. Tolkien as Martin writing “real human characters” and Tolkien writing “mythic archetypes,” as if these are two different things instead of unique artistic ways of writing the same thing.

I’m ultimately not at all interested in a Marvel/D.C.-esque throw-down debate between GOT vs. LOTR. I’m an eager reader of both writers’ worlds. I find both worlds populated by human characters with human motivations, including elves and dwarves, as I’ve said. As a writer, and not a fantasy writer but a so-called “realist” (cue Ursula K. Le Guin’s rhetorical eye-roll at that term), I am interested in what myths might look like in modern stories: realist fictions, not urban fantasies or Potter-esque tales or even works of magical realism. This is not because I’m opposed to or even disinterested in these genres; I read them all widely and teach them all in my lit. and writing classes. But each writer needs to know their area: that kind of writing, that genre, to which they are most drawn. Some writers are multi-genre masters (think Le Guin, Atwood, Ishiguro), others find their field and work only it, trying to coax their own creative seeds to take root and produce fruit: new stories.

My particular field is realism, but a realism that wrestles with old myths: that finds in old myths new ways in which to understand the contemporary world I find myself in. As I point out above, this interest comes from my religious upbringing, a heritage I cannot nor wish to shrug off, any more than I wish to live unthinkingly within it. My own journey involves trying to understand my world as it is now, and ancient stories, both of my faith and not of my faith, are as much a part of that lived whirlwind as are contemporary stories: stories of my faith, other faiths, those on the fringes of faith, and those who profess no faith or who are opposed to faith.

These stories are the clashing, conjoining, and changing weather patterns of my world.

So what’s the relation back to old Norse myths?

The “Voluspo,” one of the tales collected in The Poetic Edda, tells how Odin foresaw Ragnarok, the destruction of the gods, beginning with his beloved son Baldr’s death. Though the dating of this tale is contested by scholars, Henry Adam Bellows has proposed a 10th c. authorship by “a pagan Icelander with knowledge of Christianity.” In other words, a poet or writer living in a clash of tales who set about both telling and re-telling the stories that shaped his or her contemporary world.

What happens when you live in the midst of competing mythologies that in their uniqueness and difference shape the way you see yourself and your world?

That question will have varying answers depending on the creative project. My new novel Odin’s Eyes (no yet published), has specific answers to this question, dealing with a mesh of various mythologies.

One of those myths, though – one of the stories that shaped the book – was becoming a father partway through drafting it. And, as I was living, thinking, and imagining my way into fatherhood (which involved changing diapers, thinking about changing diapers, and dreaming about changing diapers), I was struck, as I’m sure most parents are, by how my love for my son (despite and because of all that diaper changing) germinated, grew, and bloomed in new and surprising ways.

And this strange, shape-shifting, evolving love made me wonder about stories I knew, ancient stories about fathers who loved their sons: God the Father loving Christ, the cosmic story at the heart of Christianity; Odin loving his beautiful son Baldr, whose death begins the apocalypse of the gods. In the “Voluspo” that story goes like this:

32. I saw for Baldr, | the bleeding god,
The son of Odin, | his destiny set:
Famous and fair | in the lofty fields,
Full grown in strength | the mistletoe stood.

Fuller versions of the tale say that Frigg, Baldr’s mother, had demanded that all created things, save mistletoe, not harm her son. Being a god, I guess creation listened up. She left mistletoe out, though, because it was a wimpy plant, not a possible threat. But then it became a sport to hurl things at Baldr, who could not be hurt by anything, and Loki, out of spite, handed Baldr’s blind brother Hoth a sprig of mistletoe, which Hoth hurled at his brother, killing him and bringing grief on all the gods. That’s the fuller version, told by Snorri, writer of The Prose Edda. But the “Voluspo” is told as a story, a vision, related to Odin by a seer. Odin, the allfather, in that version, has to imagine his own son’s death.

And we don’t know Odin’s emotional response to the tale, his fear. Unless you read into his rage his great fear of losing his son and see in that fear itself an incarnation of love. (There’s also the frustrating question of why the frig Frigg’s love for her son isn’t mentioned. What does that look and feel like?)

As I wrote this newest novel, I thought a lot about this story, and wondered, if my child was ever in danger, what extremes would I go to in order to keep him from harm, from a Baldr-like demise, whatever that might look like in our modern world? That question drove the story line involving Gerry Malone, who first appeared in A Blessed Snarl.

Seeing my son play everyday in the room where I wrote made me realize that college campus apartment in Sioux City, for all it’s strange smells and scuzziness, was a kind of paradise. And outside it, the world – filled with mistletoe and other dangers. And I realized, as all parents do, that my son will have to live in that world, flooded with competing mythologies. And, when he enters that world, I want him to know that I love him, and fear for him, and hope the best for him. Always.

And so the book, dark as it is, became a kind of love letter to my son.

  1. Irene Martin says:

    The love of a father, your love for your son will always be there. It transcends all boundaries and may even be painful at times, but it is worth while and powerful.

  2. The Mariner King says:

    Touching dude…

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