Sunday, May 29, 2011

mythic energies enhance fiction


My sketch is just a lead-in to our theme of immortality--and seeking a presence of eternal, youthful beauty.

Mythic energy in fiction may be hard to define in words, but we usually recognize its presence when we engage it in a work of fiction, whether as a reader, or a writer. When a fiction writer recognizes his story has mythic undercurrents, he would probably do well to sharpen the plot to exploit such material. Fiction that gets published and lasts generally touches on universal themes, stuff that excites emotional resonance in our DNA, and the stuff of myths typically does this for everyone.

Take a classic in YA literature, Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt. The story tells of the Tuck family, in rural, early America, where family members share the secret of a spring that contributes to their immortality. Another myth of the fountain of youth, tells of a search for it in Florida by an earlier, Spanish explorer, Ponce de Leon. Tuck Everlasting is beautifully written, with wonderful pastoral scenes, but it was the mythical undercurrents of immortality, aging, and related secrets, that gave the story its power.

I recently finished a contemporary best-seller that exploits the same theme: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell. In this story of Dutch traders in 1700s Japan, a Japanese woman, a midwife, whom Jacob has fallen in love with, is abducted by a powerful noble, and is forcibly confined in a secluded temple under his control. Ostensibly, the temple mission is to rescue destitute, often disfigured, women, and provide a place of refuge for them. (Spoiler Alert on reading following!) However, under the trappings of goddess worship, the women are made to bear children for the monks. The children are soon removed from the women, presumably to be given to good families on the outside, but actually the children suffer a terrible fate in the quest for the immortality of the noble and his monks. Again, an interesting background story of the Dutch East India Trading Co. activities and its people in early post-Edo era Japan, but with a bizarrely fascinating overlay of a search for immortality.

The yearning for immortality also comes to mind as a theme in Wagner's cycle of The Ring, a series of four operas based on Norse mythology. Our small town enjoyed live, closed-circuit video transmittal from the Metropolitan Opera in New York to our local movie-house for the first two operas of the cycle: Das Rhinegold, and Die Walkure. In the cycle, Wotan seeks to avert the twilight of the gods and preserve their immortality within a newer, and more resplendent Valhalla. In doing so he inadvertently entwines the fate of the gods with the heroic deeds of mortals. The music, staging, and drama has been superlative.

In conclusion, a universal, mythological underpinning has potential for breathing life into a work of fiction.

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