Myths and Legends and their Place in Modern Literature and Film

Since I was a kid I’ve loved the mythic world of ancient legend, from the Greek myths to the Norse, to stories of great wars and great quests, regardless of the cultures of origin. In fact these stories and the mindsets they displayed provided me a doorway into other cultures and peoples, helped me understand how others think and imagine and so, I believe, broadened my own thought and imaginings. But especially, I loved the Norse thing, the dark, stoic expression of courage and resignation in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds that informed the Norse heroes (Germanic really, since Norse legendry is a subset of the larger Teutonic culture we first encounter through the ancient Romans’ contact with them).

As a boy I gravitated to science fiction and the sub-genre (or is it the other way round?) called sword & sorcery (in which heroic warriors battle against dark magic and magicians with dark intent, often in the service of barely clad, beauteous damsels torn from the safety of their castles or families). But so many of those tales were cheesy and fit only for kids that even I swiftly grew out of them . . . at least until Tolkien came along. Tapping into the mythic archetypes of heroic fantasy, Tolkien wrote his Lord of the Rings books to create a multi-layered cycle of many parts which elevated sword & sorcery fantasy to a whole new level, one fit for the big boys and girls among us.

Imbued with the Nordic AND Celtic ethos which makes up so much of the British heritage, Tolkien wrote a vast tale, set in an even vaster imagined world of humans, elves, dwarves, goblins (orcs) and dragons (among other fantastical creatures). And ignited an industry. With the surprise success of his Lord of the Rings trilogy, and its prequel, The Hobbit, Tolkien kicked off a sea change in sword and sorcery, adding depth and resonance to the motifs of what had, until his advent, been a marginal genre mostly for boys and those who stayed boys.

Tolkien’s world was limited in many ways, reflecting his own cultural background with males playing the central role, but for a few powerful and, of course, mysterious females on the sidelines, generally beautiful beyond imagining to the guys in the game. (Of course this doesn’t apply to the bad guys and bad females where the occasional female monsters appear, see Shelob the giant spider, or to those in the background, the ordinary folk always needed to provide a background against which the heroes’ stories unfold . . . but that’s a different issue.)

Even when I first read the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I detected the cultural prejudices inherent in the story. Its underlying motifs are Christian, though set in a non-Christian world of magical forces but one which resonates with the Manichean traditions of medieval European Christianity. The bad guys in these stories are generally dark-skinned, sometimes with slanted eyes and high cheekbones; the good generally described as “fair” (white, often blonde), derived from the myths of the Northern European world that allowed the folk who heard and told these kinds of stories to see themselves through them. Still, I loved the type of story anyway, even if it wasn’t my particular cultural heritage. Well, in a sense I guess it was, because America, in my day and even today, looks back to its English roots. And Tolkien’s novels, grounded in those very Anglo-Saxon roots epitomized that and, in so doing, kicked off a fictional revolution.

He made myth and legend, cobbled together as High Fantasy, popular AND respectable in literature where once it had been looked down upon as fit only for juveniles. You could feel the depth of his characters’ struggles, the contest in their souls, their human weaknesses and aspirations striving against one another, the dark against the better inclinations. Even if Tolkien’s characters were cut from the cloth of fairy tales (because Tolkien’s heroes and villains are part Homeric and part creatures out of children’s stories), the matters at issue are portentous, the fate of their world and, by extension, of our own, hanging on their deeds.

Tolkien, an Oxford don, had fought in the trenches of the First World War, witnessed the horrors of the battlefield and devastated landscapes first hand on the fields of France. And he had seen heroism and death. Many think his trilogy is a parable of sorts, an expression of that first vast global struggle he lived through until returning to the quiet, homey English countryside, his “shire,” to take up the non-heroic, peaceful life of an Oxford don. His books succeeded because he fused real human concerns with the fanciful, the fantastic and he did it all with consummate craft and artistry and rich knowledge of the lore he built his story from. For many of us, he made the mythic motifs we loved to lose ourselves in respectable. And so he spawned a new love of adventure, however fantastic, in readers, and inspired a powerful new genre in literature, in fiction: the epic fantasy. Homer meets the Brothers Grimm.

And from that came seemingly endless Tolkien knock-offs galore but also other original material in the Tolkien vein. One of the most successful has been George R. R. Martin’s even vaster and quite a bit more gritty Song of Ice and Fire series which eventually became HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones (the title of Martin’s initial book in the series). Here magic and heroism are no longer clearly divided between good and evil, a la Tolkien’s more fairy taleish motif but within the humans who play with the magic themselves. They are both good and evil in varying mixes, and magic, a staple of their world, is a tool to be wielded, the purpose and result driven by the dominant aspect in each person who would wield it.

Other stories, too, were spawned to meet the hunger for such tales including Star Wars, an epic myth cycle itself set in a far away galaxy in a distant time and, closer to home, historical epics such as Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom series which puts the epic back into historical, albeit fictional, context. Or James Clavell’s Shogun, grounded in the culture of medieval Japan.

Humans hunger for stories don’t we? And many of us for stories of great conflict and achievements and, as in many of these, great destruction. We lose ourselves in tales like these but find ourselves in them, too. And yet can there not be too many, a surfeit of riches or of just the same old same old?

Now we’re faced with nothing less than a face-off, or so this article has it, of two spin-offs to previously successful epic tales. The Rings of Power affects to tell the background story that informed Tolkien’s novels of Middle Earth (itself the name of the world of mankind in Norse legend, set between the domain of the gods and those of the underworld) while The House of the Dragon opens the story of Westeros before the coming of “Winter” that drives Game of Thrones. Those of us who found so much enjoyment in the escapism offered by both those tales in the original must now try to relive that again in these “prequels.”

But can it be done? Can the new match the original works which birthed them? I have to admit I have my doubts. Having been disappointed in the way Game of Thrones ended (the HBO series), I am less keen to relive the experience with House of the Dragon. Indeed much of the mystery that made Game of Thrones work so well (until the end, anyway) lay in the shadowy mythic “past” that drove the plot of the original, events and causes that lay behind the challenges and choices of the characters in THEIR fictional present. The same can be said of Lord of the Rings, though in that case the books set the measure for me more than the later films which affected, however imperfectly, to bring Tolkien’s great tale to the silver screen.

Much of what makes any story work is, as Hemingway once noted, what is not said, the background, the stuff of reference which makes the stuff in the foreground, the unfolding story, seem more than just a story to us but a reality in its own right, part of its own unfolding history. But what happens when writers set out to reprise past successes and turn to telling the stories behind the stories? Don’t they need stories behind the prequel stories, too, if they’re to work as the originals did? To make them “feel” real?

It cannot be enough to just tell, in more detail, what happened before which enabled the later story to unfold convincingly enough to keep our rapt attention, because then the later prequels end up being but faint echoes of the originals they are trying to build on, nothing really new on offer — stories too thin to stand on their own. And so I have found it in the case of the recent sequels. Having loved Lord of the Rings and HBO’s Game of Thrones (I never read Martin’s original books!), despite their own flaws, I find I am unable to feel the same about their prequels. Or, for that matter, the sequels of Netflix’s Vikings (an original historical tale of the Norse world in viking times that made mincemeat of the original history for fiction’s sake . . . but still had its moments!), or The final season of The Last Kingdom (adapted from Bernard Cornwell’s series about the clash of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and the Norse invaders who vanquished them for a time).

Stories sometimes run out their time, exhaust themselves, leaving readers and viewers eager to move on to new material. Can’t there can be too much of a good thing and way too much of the bad seeking to reprise it? These streaming companies need to find new material. Some of us have had enough of the same old same old, even if we still love myths and epics, Norse and otherwise.