Now that we’ve established the importance of mystery in building a world, we must acknowledge that no world is complete with out at least one major compelling myth. Before we get into the nitty-gritty of this part of world-building, we need to establish something that is very important.
Your world myths are not the same as your world religions
Now, before you get up in arms on either side of this issue, I am NOT talking about religion as myth. I’ll explain later in another post dealing with the subject.
In my opinion, writing a religion for stories is only something seasoned writers should attempt, as there are many, many examples of how a religion can be horribly written. Most attempts to write religion in fiction come across as one of the following:
1. The author’s bad experiences with real-life religions and their need to work things out
2. A religion without any form or structure that only serves to push plot and has no depth
3. The author’s poorly-veiled attempt at attacking formal or organized religion
Despite what some writers think, their personal views are readily apparent in their work. Some authors are aware of this, but many don’t seem to be. Again, this is my opinion.
Whenever I tweet about religion, I inevitably get responses from people who believe, somehow, it is their duty to attack formal or organized religion at every turn.
That comes across, at the very least, as unprofessional. Don’t do this. Don’t let personal grudges against others poison your work. People can see right through your work, regardless of what many fans may say.
There are some sci fi shows that I love, despite the writers constant jabs at the formal religion of that country. In some ways, it seems as if the characters stop to make an ill-education snap at a religion (of which I am not a member) and then goes on. It always reads as an interruption to the plot, and not a relevant or crucial plot point.
That said, it is fully appropriate and with historical precedent for your Compelling Myth to work adjacent to, or be derived from your world religions. We’ll see this plainly down the page when we discuss Beowulf.
Now that we’ve established what your Compelling Myth is not, we can look at what it *is*
Your Compelling Myth: Of Gilgamesh, Beowulf and Boudica
In the ancient world, compelling myths were usually bards, stories or epics retold to strangers and natives of a country, solidifying or defying the laws and values of the land as well as creating a popular culture of sorts.
Today, we have social media and the news to tell us our common stories. These common stories produced by mass media put us all on the same page in regards to the way we view the world and the people in it.
When a new planet is discovered, a major earthquake or disaster hits, we are all on the same page and can shre in our expressions and reactions to the event. This is an accelerated, Warp 9 version of what existed in the ancient world in the form of the compelling myth.
These myths served to solidify the values and viewpoints of the culture in question.
The earliest-known epic, the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, is a multiplanar, intertwining hero’s journey through heaven, hell and earth by a larger-than-life protagonist who wars against everyone. He suffers loss, meets the amazing and unexplained, and seeks the higher plane of existence via immortality, the conquering of the ultimate barrier of man.
Gilgamesh was both a commentary on the socio-political structure of the ancient world, as well as an observation on the religion and religious structures of the time. Although the protagonist is larger-than-life, what happens to him is reflective of the sufferings, joys and frustrations of life in the Mesopotamian world. It served as a compelling myth for the peoples who heard it, and affected their lives through the parabolic references and lessons contained therein.
(Remember what I said about creating religions as a satire on real-life religions earlier? This is the best place to put that content: as a compelling myth. It gives you free reign in terms of commentary on all aspects of a civilization.)
The Old English poem (with 3182 alliterative long lines, mind you) is the tale of a great warrior who defeated the evil monster Grendel, who terrorized the area and was only stopped from approaching the kings throne by God because he was of the lineage of Cain. Beowulf however, tore off the evil monsters arm in a wrestling match, and then later defeated Grendel’s mother in a more epic battle.
The poem is very long, and takes some historical context to understand. However the poem was well-known, and passed down in oral tradition (how much it changed is debatable, but scholars believe the main points stayed the same) until it was written down somewhere from the 8th to 11th century by an anonymous poet.
The elements of Beowulf’s downfall is similar to many other bigger-than-life hero stories. They all contain lessons and cultural observations within their texts, and in reading them, we get a mirror (however distorted) of the culture it was observing.
The tragic death (spoilers) of Beowulf is not because of his own weakness, but the weakness of his friends. This sad ending is a vanitas lesson on choosing your friends wisely. It also works adjacent to the dominant spiritual beliefs of the area (Christianity), with references to Cain (from the Book of Genesis) and the concept of the Godly warrior carrying out his will on Earth by defeating evil as well as other pagan ideals represented as well.
I may write a blog post with a play-by-play of Beowulf, or I might choose a section for a demonstration of these points.
But that day is not this day. 😉
Boudica, and the embodiment of corporate sentiment
Now we’re getting into some muddy territory, because Boudica is a real historical figure. However her inclusion adds the needed facet to this post about the compelling myth.
Boudica was a Celtic warrior who, upon roman sacking of her village and her daughters’ rape, went into a frenzy and led the Celts in a massively successful mini-war on the Roman Empire, before her defeat at their hands. (Cassius Dio and Tacitus do not agree on how she died, but she perished when Roman control was re-established over Britain.)
Though Boudica, like other Compelling Myth figures, died tragically, the lives they lived served as inspiration for the furthering of national and cultural identity both for the individual and corporate groups of the region in which it existed.
Boudica’s story is unique in that it was the beginning of the real-life hero and Compelling Myth with the content being largely historical, without monsters, gods or other classical sources of the supernatural.
Though she was real and her story actual history, most scholars and historians agree that there was probably a Gilgamesh and Beowulf, but at the time other elements were added to their stories to make them larger-than-life and a somewhat popular-culture version of these people became their own myth and reflection of an entire culture.
Boudica as a historical figure directly reflected the sentiments of the barbarian world against the invading Romans (and therefore all of Rome’s enemies), and she along with William Wallace, Erik the Red, Richard the Lionhearted, Hannibal, Cleopatra, Julius Caeser, Nero, Plato, Alexander the Great, Constantine, Martin Luther, Pocahontas, Lewis and Clark, Geronimo, Winston Churchill, etc became figures whose beliefs and life experiences affected us in the same way that King Arthur, Beowulf, Gilgamesh and more affected the ancient peoples on this planet.
There is not difference, because in seeing someone else fight for something or someone, it ignites passion in the hearers to accomplish what they have set to do.
It is hearing the defeats and victories of others that helps and compels us to not give up, and to be warned of life’s dangers. To use wisdom, walk wisely, and take note of others, knowing our barriers can be broken and some things in life are to be embraced while others avoided.
Your world and the Compelling Myth
In your story writing, make sure to create an appropriate Compelling Myth that the people of your world can relate to, because the Compelling Myth will have been birthed by the inhabitants of your world, not the other way around.
The Myth may be seen in decorations, in sayings of the inhabitants, in song or joke, in art and story.
When people read or see this in your world, they will instantly recognize it as such, and your world just got a whole lot bigger to them.
Let’s build the big worlds, the ones with great depth.