Funny how some images are so iconic that they become part of our vocabulary. For most of us, this silhouette brings up a whole story of Batman as the tortured antihero. Batman itself draws from a number of older stories, or myths. For the record, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a myth is:
A purely fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions, or events, and embodying some popular idea concerning natural or historical phenomena.
The word comes out of Latin and Greek and, for those cultures, usually applied to tales of the gods. I took a course in Greek Mythology in college, as part of the religious studies side of my double major. Does that take you aback a little? The course opened my ideas to the understanding that the mythology of the Greeks and Romans were not the cute stories I'd thought, but a religious tradition. The interactions of the gods represent deep spiritual ideals and principles of nature.
A few weeks back, we had a lively discussion on Fan Fiction, including on my post, and a couple of commenters brought up the point that using old stories, like fairy tales and myths, is similar. This is part of why I don't agree with that take. Myths (including fairy tales) are iconic embodiments of our understanding of the world - both natural and supernatural. They are symbolic methods for describing our subconscious ideas. To me, at least, this is totally different than riffing off of someone else's characters or world.
So, this week's question is, in essence, how far will you twist myths to fit your world?
My answer - anything goes, as long as it works.
See, those mythologies are there as part of a common language between me and the reader, both conscious and subconscious. I can take that myth anywhere I like, as long as I don't exceed the reader's understanding. Being able to identify that point is part of the craft and the art of storytelling.
I have a couple of examples of this. In Stephenie Meyers' Twilight books, the vampires "sparkle." They don't go out in daylight because it becomes so very obvious that they're not human. This particular twist is unique in vampire mythology - and a lot of readers cite it as a transgression. However, this idea came from the core inspiration for the books. She had an image of a man lying in a field, sparkling in the sunlight. The story she spun from there swept up millions of readers.
In Neil Gaiman's American Gods, all sorts of old gods, spirits and mythologies crop up. I've followed an interesting discussion on Gaiman's Tumblr started by a reader asking why Jesus Christ isn't in the book. Gaiman said he is. This prompted a lot of readers to guess which god was really Jesus. Did he leave the readers behind? I would say the very fact that the question engaged such spirited debate says no - he wrote a brilliant book.
As long as it works.