Taking From the World Tree: Mythology and Cultural Appropriation
Mythology has long been a source of inspiration, and indeed material, for those writing fantasy fiction. One of the gold standard examples I always use is J. R. R. Tolkien, whose Lord of the Rings universe was influenced by Norse mythology. Tolkien’s creation took a much different form, but there are echoes of these myths in Middle-Earth and beyond.
A case could be made for mythology being the original fantasy fiction. Tales of gods and heroes, magic objects and world-shattering powers. The Labors of Hercules read like a fantasy story. So, too, the story of Gilgamesh. The Ramayana is ancient epic fantasy.
So it’s no wonder that these stories, rife with the fantastic, would become the basis for some of our modern fantasy fiction. This is seen often with fantasy creatures -- dragons, pegasi, trolls, ogres, satyrs, fauns, and even elves are all co-opted from mythology to populate fantasy stories. Only it doesn’t stop there -- characters, gods, storylines, structures -- all of these things are adopted from myth.
So elements of myths make their way into fantasy, with or without the serial numbers filed off, just the way that fantasy sometimes borrows from folk tales or legends. But there are some authors who are more direct in their borrowing.
Roger Zelazny is someone who I’ve spoken of before here. He is the first writer who comes to mind when thinking of this phenomenon. The Chronicles of Amber, covered here, draws on the dysfunctional families of various pantheons and also pulls from Celtic myth and the Arthurian legends. In Lord of Light, mentioned in this previous column, he draws on Hinduism and Buddhism. In Creatures of Light and Darkness he tackles Egyptian mythology. He branches out into Native American myths in Eye of Cat.
Zelazny might be one of the most overt, but many fantasy writers do this. Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series modernizes Greek myths. My last column mentioned Tad Williams’s The Dirty Streets of Heaven, which draws on Christian mythology. Neil Gaiman drew on a multitude of myths in both his Sandman comics and novels like American Gods and Anansi Boys. Janni Lee Simner draws on Iceland’s Sagas in her Thief Eyes. Kij Johnson’s Fox Woman riffs on the Japanese kitsune myths. C. S. Lewis, in his Christian Narnia stories, uses Silenus and Bacchus, characters from Greek mythology. Even Marvel Comics has drawn on various mythologies, perhaps most famously with the Avengers’ Thor. And all of this before we even think about delving into local legends or folk tales.
But is this use of mythology acceptable? I love Zelazny and his work, but he took freely from these mythologies for his own purposes. I felt that he honored the original stories, but is it even up to me? When does taking from these myths cross the line into cultural appropriation?
Cultural Appropriation is just that, when one culture appropriates elements of another culture. Mythology and folklore certainly count. But defining the boundaries of cultural appropriation is a difficult matter. I’ll direct you to this post at The Angry Black Woman where they collect ideas and discussions in the comment section about this very topic.
I’m not here to tell you what falls under the umbrella of cultural appropriation or not. It’s clear, though, that playing with the toys and tools of another culture is a risky proposition and is capable of doing some damage. One of the threats of cultural appropriation comes with modifying the original source, often a simplification of the ideas present in the original culture. Something quite subtle and nuanced and beautiful can become homogenous and blunt and cliched.
The issue becomes even more charged when talking about minority or colonized cultures. In these cases, power and privilege become issues. And no matter how well-meaning or how researched such stories may be, there’s still the danger of not honoring where these stories came from. Of trivializing the source.
Then there’s the idea of taking these elements and transposing them to a different people, divorcing them from their origins. Retelling The Ramayana in rural America might sound like a really cool idea, but by cutting out the people whose culture created this story, aren’t you doing them a disservice? Aren't you devaluing that culture and the very story you're borrowing?
And where, specifically, are the lines when it comes to mythology? Surely Greek mythology is safe since there aren’t any current practitioners of that religion, right? Well, it appears that there are. And once you delve into Asian cultures and spiritual practices, the separation between myth and religious practice is more difficult to discern. Hinduism, for example, is incredibly complex, with layers and layers of accumulated beliefs and colonial influences leaving their stamp on it.
What to do about all this? Some might say that it’s best, then, to avoid appropriation altogether. Stick to your own culture. Stick to what you know. Yet, isn’t fantasy inherently a speculative genre? Fantasy writers write about other cultures all the time, many of them made up in part if not in whole.
Author N. K. Jemisin argues, also on The Angry Black Woman, that pulling back is the wrong approach, and I agree with her. Her post is worth reading simply to illustrate all the ways that not writing about other cultures can be damaging.
“This kind of thinking sounds good until you examine it more closely and notice the underlying assumptions. Namely:
- That the responsibility for incorporating PoC into white-dominated media — and stopping racism in same — lies solely with PoC.
- That all of us creator-types, despite being, y’know, creative, are incapable of understanding the experiences of people different from ourselves, so we shouldn’t even try.
- That there’s no need for consumers to see complete, multicultural worlds. Unless they’re designed by committee, anyway.
Here’s one big problem with insisting that it’s never OK to appropriate: the result is segregation. And here’s another: it’s a cop-out. The anti-appropriation argument applies a simplistic solution to a complex and nuanced problem — doing a good job of depicting The Other in fictional representation. It can be done, but it requires hard work. Research, self-examination, strategy. Rather than come up with this strategy, however, the anti-appropriation argument is a punt. Let the PoC handle PoC, while the white people stick to white people. Problem solved, the Jim Crow way."
So what should writers do? It may sound trite,but one approach is to treat these other cultures, in this case other mythologies, with respect. Do your homework. Research these stories. Understand how they are part of the culture. Look at what they really mean. Look at what you want to do with these ideas. When the story’s written, talk to people in the culture, if you can. Get their opinion. And -- this is important-- listen very carefully to the feedback. Many people will say upon hearing negative feedback that it wasn’t their intent to offend, or that they had the best intentions. This doesn’t really matter. Damage is done regardless of intention. Ignorance is not an excuse.
I love mythology, of all kinds, and I’ve enjoyed many of the works I mentioned earlier precisely because of their mythological elements. I’d love to see this continue. I’ve done it myself and intend to do it in the future. I hope to do it with care.
I put it you once again, where do you think the lines are drawn? What do you think are good examples of adapting other mythologies? What do you think are egregious examples of cultural appropriation? What solutions have you seen, if any, that work? I'd love to hear what you have to say.
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