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The Wonders of Greek Myth

With my collaborative book with Cath Mayo, Athena’s Champion (Book One of Olympus), now released, I thought I’d talk a little about how I came to be writing in Greek Mythology, why it’s so great, and the problems Cath and I encountered in doing so.

First encounters…

When I was young, I read avidly, voraciously, compulsively: I was that kid with the light on under the blankets, reading after light’s out. Among those books were mythology collections written for young people – especially Arthurian legend, Norse and Greek myth. I was fascinated by them, especially the bestiary of Greek mythology – Minotaur and Medusa and the like. Outlandish magic and transfigurations, jealous and vindictive gods, epic journeys and vivid landscapes – I loved them.

Returning to Greek myth as a student…

When I set off to Victoria University (Wellington), it was with the intention of getting a business degree, so my initial papers were in politics, economics and accounting… but I hated the latter two (POLS was quite interesting). Eventually it was either quit varsity or change tack. So I switched to a BA, concentrating on history and classical studies (which if you selected your papers carefully, was mostly Greek and Roman history).

One of those papers was “Uses of Greek Mythology”, which was about mythology itself; what it is, what it’s really trying to impart, etcetera. In summary, it came down to four things: (1) mythology can be (distorted) oral history; (2) mythology can explain the unknown; (3) mythology can teach through example; and (4) mythology can explore human psychology through symbolism. A myth might be any or all of these things. That got me thinking about the stories in different ways, as well as re-acquainting me with the material.

And again as a writer…

Jump forward a few years, and I’m writing fantasy for a living. Naturally Greek Myth is part of my thinking, and I spoke in the last blog about how I came to working on the Olympus series with Cath Mayo. The project has been great fun, but it’s got its own set of problems for writers.

Primarily, Greek (or any other) mythology is a mess of inconsistencies: every story can have a dozen or more different versions, often massively contradictory. Also the morality of the stories are often (at least to our modern values) ambiguous: killing people while in a fit of rage or just piqued was just what proper heroes did. Women were either trophies, temptresses, victims or witches, and the gods were cruel and merciless to any that slighted them, however innocently.

Constructing a story in such a mythos is tricky, to say the least; especially as I believe writers must know the exact rules by which the supernatural works in their stories: there have to be rules or else it all becomes arbitrary and senseless – a bit like a Greek god ;-). For example, once you’ve decided that Zeus can thunderbolt his enemies, it doesn’t leave you a lot of wriggle room when someone offends Zeus!

So solving that riddle – how to make the powers of the myriad gods, demigods, supernatural beings and monsters explicable and consistent – became the first priority for Cath and I when we put our heads together to nut out the story of Odysseus and Olympus.

Other books in this mythos that I’ve read have had one of two approaches – they’ve either (1) made a decision to live with the lack of a defined “magic system” and hoped the readers wouldn’t notice that Zeus can thunderbolt anyone, but chooses not to thunderbolt our hero for plot reasons; or (2) treated the gods as super-humans rather than divinities, with quite limited powers, or (3) ignored the gods entirely, treating them as superstitions and essentially writing historical fiction.

None of those was going to work for us, so we have done something different. Without giving away spoilers, we’ve gone back to primary sources and treated the gods as actual gods – i.e., beings worshipped by powerful religious cults – but also real as real beings, not omnipotent and subject to specific forces, whose cults are powerful entities in an Aegean world under siege from powerful eastern kingdoms and empires. In that struggle, Odysseus emerges as a man ahead of his time, championing Reason, as propounded by his patron Athena, in an age of superstition and chaos.

Intrigued? I hope so… now go and order the books online!

Athena’s Champion (Canelo UK) is now out in ebook and Print-On-Demand formats, through all good online retailers.

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