My young nieces and nephews generally like to play by throwing things at each other—or at me. When indoors, I’m usually ducking everything from food to Legos. Outdoors, acorns and algae are their favorite projectiles. I, however, have always preferred pursuits of a more sedate—and less physically injurious—nature. So, whenever possible, I cajole them away from the slime-slinging and into a storytelling game instead.
Sometimes, we create adventures with action figures (I knew I held onto my 1980s Star Wars figures for a reason), or we don cardboard armor and act them out ourselves. When props aren’t available, we build stories together, taking turns adding one sentence at a time. The stories usually start with “Once upon a time…” and end with “…and then they got eaten.” But somewhere in between, a wild, postmodernist tale unfolds, full of logical holes, repetitions, reincarnations, and violence. When the story comes round to me, I usually try to nudge it back onto the plot rails, only to watch my niecephews launch it immediately back into the ether as soon as they can.
Occasionally, when the tale veers into a particularly senseless digression, I wonder how long I’ll have to wait until the kids can appreciate the plot fundamentals that novelists like me work so hard to craft. So imagine my surprise recently when I recognized similarities between the Greek and Roman myths that inspire my own Artemis-in-Manhattan novel, The Immortals, and my niecephews’ creations.
Take the myth of Hercules and his Labors. Twelve times, our hero faces impossible tasks, usually involving imaginary monsters, only to emerge unscathed. Even the most bloated action movie wouldn’t wade through a dozen repetitive villains (I’m just waiting for Marvel to prove me wrong on this one), but children certainly would. Or consider the story of Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt, and her companion Orion, which forms the foundation of so much of my own novel. As an adult, I once found it exasperating that so many different versions of the myth exist. Does Artemis kill Orion by sending a scorpion to sting him, or does she fire her own arrow? Is he punished for boasting of his own hunting skills or for raping one of the goddess’s nymphs? Yet when I first learned the myths as a child, such inconsistencies never bothered me, just as my niece doesn’t care whether or not her evil giant reindeer actually killed her groundhog hero, because he’s about come back to life and be killed again by a witch any second.
Now I don’t mean to imply that I think the ancient myths were written for—much less by—children. The stories, after all, taught profound lessons about human behavior and societal mores to an advanced civilization. Rather, I suspect the similarities I noticed between myths and the children’s inventions stem from the fact that both are products of an oral culture. We know the ancient Greek stories from texts written down long after the myths had already spread through oral transmission. They aren’t the products of one man’s imagination, but rather the cumulative creation of many poets over many years—a more sophisticated version of my own storytelling games.
The myths may not have been told for children, yet young people certainly find them fascinating. Perhaps this is due to timing: Many of us first encountered mythology in elementary school. But I propose that young minds also possess a special affinity for stories full of monsters and magic, heroes and battles, and they find such tales perfectly satisfying even when they lack cohesive internal logic.
Does that mean we should give up our love for the Olympians when we grow up? Many people hear that The Immortals is about Greek gods in the modern day and assume it must be written for young adults. I would argue that if mythology underlay the achievements of Golden Age Athens, we shouldn’t dismiss it so lightly. Besides, any story that has survived for over three thousand years must be pretty darn good. Thus, The Immortals is written for a mature audience: It melds all the things we love about myths as children—divine weapons, troubled heroes, grand adventures—with the deeper mythological themes of identity, sexuality, mortality, family, and revenge that we appreciate as adults.
So go ahead, grown-ups, and dive back into myths. They not only make for thrilling reading, but they allow for a certain flexibility of mind—and not just because of their scattered plot structure. The myths’ oral nature permitted ancient poets to revise and amend them to accommodate changes in their society. As new lands were conquered and new peoples Hellenized, the Greeks simply added more gods and heroes to their pantheon. Compare that adaptability to our own somewhat hidebound conception of religious “truth.” The Greeks would laugh at the idea of a “literal” interpretation of the Bible. Not only did they not have a scripture to study, but they didn’t believe in the “literal” truth of most myths in the first place. Did they really think Hercules existed? Probably. Did they think he performed all twelve of those labors? Perhaps. But more likely, it wasn’t a question they even asked themselves. Their heroes and gods were both real and symbolic at the same time. Could Zeus punish you for not honoring him? Sure. But that didn’t mean all the stories of his amorous pursuits or his battles with the Titans actually happened. The Greeks saw no contradiction in the idea that myths could be both true and false at the same time.
We, on the other hand, spend countless hours debating the nature of the historical Jesus, as if whether he existed and what he actually said have a direct bearing on the authenticity of his teachings. I may sound heretical for proposing it, but I often wonder if the Greeks’ more flexible understanding of their deities allowed them to form a society in many ways more creative than our own. After all, they invented democracy, theater, and philosophy in less than a century. We could learn a thing or two.
So next time it’s my turn to add a sentence to my niecephews’ story, I will try to forget my job as a novelist, ignore any semblance of logic, and allow the story to build itself, layer upon bizarre layer. Rather than a chance for me to teach the kids about plot structure, it can be a way for them to teach me to venture deep into the realm of the weird and the wonderful, just as the ancients did. And then, as soon as the last child throws up his hands and shouts, “The End,” they can go back to hurling things at each other. Which, honestly, is sort of what the Greeks did anyway.
The Immortals by Jordanna Max Brodsky
Series: Olympus Bound (Book 1)
Hardcover: 464 pages
Publisher: Orbit (February 16, 2016)