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Worlds Apart February 2007

February 2007 Issue

Myths, Legends and Stories

Part Two

By Charles Mossop


Last month we discussed the nature of myths and folk tales from the point of view of how they are used to explain the world, society and social interaction.  We noted that the word myth, which today connotes something that isn’t true, is not a good name for the legends and folk tales of many societies, because, for the people themselves, the stories are entirely true. In fact, taken as a body of knowledge, understanding them makes one wise. In one African society, for example, the eldest male is always given the honorific designation he who knows the stories.


As writers of historical fiction, we can use these folk tales not only to enliven our stories, but also to provide our characters and their world with a story-telling history of their own. Their legends, both supernatural and otherwise, help explain their behavior and the nature of the world they live in.


Many of the stories which were once known only in an oral tradition have now been written down, but this is a fairly recent development. Previously, the only stories that were recorded were those of the very few cultures that developed a written language. Egypt, Babylonia, China, Japan and India provide us with the earliest examples of sweeping epic adventures of super-heroes, kings and great warriors. Later, the Mediterranean cultures rose to prominence and, with the flowering of Greek civilization, the foundations of Western culture were laid down. In fact, for many people, the word myth means the legends and stories of ancient Greek gods and all the troubles they made for each other and for the poor mortals who had to contend with them.


Now that so many stories are written down, they provide for us as writers a veritable treasure house of inspiration and instruction. Recently transcribed stories are fascinating, but as a writer of historical fiction, I’d like to encourage you to delve into the ancient stories, the earliest known writings. And remember that those very ancient writings were not considered to be fiction, because they were understood to be the record of things that actually happened. We are not completely sure when fiction, as we understand the term today, began to appear.


“But wait,” I hear you say. “Before those stories were written down they had been re-told orally for generations. They were embellished, modified and changed through time. How could they be considered accurate or true?”


Good point, and all one can say in response is that in spite of those innumerable alterations, the tales were still regarded as true. Once written down, however, they attained an even greater permanence and authenticity. And why were they written down? Because they were important; because they answered people’s questions.  Because they were true.


Take some time and read a few of those ancient stories. They are all available in translation, and in them you’ll find some of the finest high adventure, romance, intrigue and suspense. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.


The Epic of Gilgamesh- Perhaps the oldest written story in the world. provides a good overview, and offers a translation of the entire work, organized according to the 12 clay tablets on which it was originally written.


The Doomed Prince – A tale from ancient Egypt


The Treasure Thief – Also from Egypt, this is the story of the man who stole the royal treasure of Ramses III


The Ramayana – The great epic poem recounting the struggles of good against evil. Written first in Sanskrit and probably originating in what is now northern India, variations of the story are known in many parts of Asia.


The Mahabharata India’s second great epic story in Sanskrit. provides a good introduction. The story is extremely long, many times longer than the combined length of the Iliad and the Odyssey (both of which a well worth a read as well). offers a very good summary.


Ancient China offers a wealth of folk tales and stories. will give you an idea of early morality fables. Not so old, but well worth reading is The Dream of the Red Chamber and The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.


The Tale of Genji – Known to be a work of fiction, this book was written in Japan about the year 1000 and is still considered a classic example of the novelist’s art. provides a good overview.


If these works aren’t exactly your cup of tea, then a little research on the Internet will bring you to the Norse Sagas, Homeric epics and the vast collections of Celtic folklore; not to mention the rich heritage of stories from the New World.  There’s the Old Testament as well. As a writer of historical fiction, I believe you will benefit from reading these ancient and vividly told stories. They are inspiring, instructive and entertaining, and above all, durable. They have withstood the test of time.


Whatever you choose to read, remember to look beyond the words and plots themselves. Ask yourself what the story is trying to communicate. Does it explain something? Does it offer advice on proper behavior? Does it foretell am event or illuminate history? As you get used to reading and dissecting these tales (but remember to enjoy them as well) you will soon come to realize how powerful they are for those who believe in them, and you will see how they can help you in your world building as well as inspire your creativity.


Enjoy the read,




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