I’m currently reading Alan Gratz’s book, Something’s Rotten. It’s a blatant take-off on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Every character is named after a Hamlet character, the main character named Hamilton. The plot echoes Hamlet: Hamilton’s father was murdered and he suspects his uncle, who has married his mother. And the book works! Why? It’s the power of myth.
Think of the movie, “O, Brother, Where Art Thou?”, which is a retelling of the Odyssey, the famous epic poem by the Greek Homer.
Or, look at the series, The Grimm Sisters. Sabrina and Daphne are the last living descendants of the Grimm Brothers, the famous collectors of folk and fairy tales in the 18th century. The sisters discover that the Grimms tales are based on true crimes. The sisters take on the “grim” responsibility of being detectives. The Author Michael Buckley says, “It’s what happens AFTER the happily ever after.”
3 Reasons to Borrow Mythic Power
Why would these two authors draw on tales that are woven into the warp and woof of our culture?
- High Interest. Because readers already know the basic tale, the fun is in how this author gives it a twist. Gratz sets Hamlet in Tennessee, where the Prince family owns a paper mill.
- Easily Plotted. Maybe. Again, the readers already know the basic plot. Or do they? The fun and challenge of basing a novel on a familiar myth is in adding twists and contemporary updates. In some ways, it’s simple, the plot is a given. But if all you do it repeat the old plot, it’s not going to gain wide acceptance.
- Emotional Power: Think about why these stories have lasted for hundreds of years. It’s the emotional power inherent in the story of a brother poisoning a brother and seizing his family and fortune. The Grimms fairy tales are boiled down to their essence by years of oral transmission until what is left shines brightly in our imagination. These authors are borrowing the power of myth, but then bending it to their own wills as they transform the story into a contemporary novel. You can do it, too.
For more reading:
- Any of Donna Jo Napoli’s books: she takes a familiar fairy tale and sets it in a specific country and specific time period. She spends lots of time doing the research on the historical setting.
- Winners of the Mythopoeic Award. This organization awards prizes each year to adult novels which exemplify “the spirit of the Inklings”, a call out to Tolkein’s work. For children’s literature, it is awarded to books “in the tradition of The Hobbit or The Chronicles of Narnia.”