Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Making Men of Myths – Part 3

Welcome back from Making Men of Myths – Part 2. This is a direct follow on from the previous post, which was split due to length. If you’re interested in the Fairy Queen and her tragic, tragic life, then go back and read that post if you haven’t already!

Ch.14 Making Men of Myths - Part 3

The Three Brothers

One of my initial biggest problems when I was creating characters was that I had three characters who were very similar in some things. They were all representative of nature-based mythos, they were all so old it’s hard to find the start of their stories and they tended be depicted as looking very similar.

The solution was obvious; make them into brothers and then the similarities are a natural product of their relationship, and only serve to make them more interesting as a group. Families are always interesting and having a set of three brothers is just one of those ancient concepts that keeps cropping up so often that it’s like a trope of folklore before ‘tropes’ were even a thing. So many stories begin with ‘Once upon a time there were three brothers’ that you could build an entire sub-genre by this point.

The Erlking

The Erlking very much takes on the persona of the Eldest Brother from the trope; he is the proudest, he’s focused on persona gain rather than the good of others, but is cunning and unscrupulous in how he achieves those goals. If this were a traditional fairy tale, he’d be undone by these faults, but let’s face it, folklore is not only about teaching small children good morals, and the ‘good people’ don’t always win.

Moritz_von_Schwind,_Erlkönig
Erlkönig, Moritz von Schwind

In terms of anything concrete, the Erlking has basically one source for me; in 1782, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a poem called “Erlkönig” in which a little boy dies as a result of being chased down by the Erlking who steals his … soul? Life force? It’s not really clear to me. All the while his father tells him that there’s nothing chasing their horse through the woods, it’s all just the fog, although he seems less convinced as the journey continues, and when they arrive at their home, the boy is dead. Like all of the really simple horror stories, it’s absolutely horrifying if you read it for yourself, because for a long time the reader’s not sure what’s real either.

“My father, my father, he’s touching me now!
The Elf-king has done me harm!”

It horrifies the father; he swiftly rides on,
He holds the moaning child in his arms,
Reaches the farm with great difficulty;
In his arms, the child was dead.

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Der Erlkönig, Carl Gustav Carus

The Erlking’s name literally means ‘Elf-king’ and once again we’re looking at the Power of Names here, because I decided to just leave his name at that. No first name, or any kind of moniker outside of that title. Giving something a name humanises it; I name all my computer equipment for that exact reason (I feel less stupid while I swear at the printer if I’ve named it) and a character who genuinely does not have a name, only a title to identify himself by is intrinsically unsettling. Especially if he chooses that for himself.

The poem shows the Erlking killing a little boy, and references that he has daughters accompanying him on this hunt, although he promises the boy that the daughters will play games with him, and dance and sing with him. He wears a crown and a cloak, and seems to be pretty scary to look at because having caught sight of him, the boy hides his face in fear. And that’s it.

“My father, my father, and do you not hear
What the Elf-king quietly promises me?”
“Be calm, stay calm, my child;
Through dry leaves the wind is sighing.”

“Do you, fine boy, want to go with me?
My daughters shall wait on you finely;
My daughters lead the nightly dance,
And rock and dance and sing to bring you in.”

“My father, my father, and don’t you see there
The Elf-king’s daughters in the gloomy place?”
“My son, my son, I see it clearly:
There shimmer the old willows so grey.”

It might not be a lot, but like keeping his title as his name, I liked the idea that the Erlking is always seen wearing the marks of his authority, a crown and a cloak of gold (in the poem, there’s a reference to the Erlking’s mother giving out golden robes). It seemed fitting because the Erlking’s name translates as ‘Elf king’ the ruler of the Unseelie Court of Fairies (the ones who will not only steal your soul, but will almost certainly eat you, and/or make you suffer for all enternity.) It also further helps to distance the Erlking from the reader; wealthy and powerful, yet scary to look at.

“My son, why do you hide your face in fear?”
“Father, do you not see the Elf-king?
The Elf-king with crown and cape?”
“My son, it’s a streak of fog.”

Goethe_erlkonigThe sort of character who hunts down and kills little boys while they hide in their fathers’ arms is totally consistent with the kind of man who would leave his wife broken-hearted after stealing her children away from her. Combined with his title of ‘Elf King’, it seemed completely natural to make him Maeve’s Fairy King, which also raises the uncomfortable question of the Erlking’s daughters. Did the Erlking turn them into the child-killing monsters they are in the poem, or were they like that already? I decided to bring up the idea in the stories, but leave the answer very much unclear – there’s something far more unsettling about both Maeve and the Erlking if you aren’t completely clear whether their children were changed by the Erlking or if they’d always prayed on the souls of innocents.

Jack O’Green, the Oak/Holly King

Jack has struggled as a character for me, for the longest time he had ‘Second Brother’ from Three Brothers Stories written all over him; he makes the same mistakes as Eldest Brother, is just as proud, but not as inventive. Which is a bit of a shame, but then I realised that he was based off such a vague concept, of course he was dull!

There are three main figures I pulled from with Jack and they are all short on details.

Green_Man_ceiling_boss_at_St_Helen_Witton_Church,_Northwich,_Cheshire
A roof boss in 16th century ceiling of St Helen Witton Church, Northwich, Cheshire

He started out purely as The Green Man, a figure carved into buildings, especially churches, since before the Roman times. He’s usually recognised as a representation of fertility, rebirth (hence the church-thing) and Nature as a whole. The problem here is that ‘Nature spirit’ doesn’t tell us very much; it’s not a legend with a story that you can get a sense of character out of. When he’s connected with vegetation deities (what with being made out of foliage) he’s usually associated with ones patronising forests, ‘wild fields’ and groves, so I took a strong sense of ‘Wildness’ for his character – still broad, but at least it was a start.

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Green man in Norwich Cathedral, East Anglia

He got his name from the tradition of the Jack O’Green, also known as Jack-in-the-Green, a figure of the older more … bawdy… May Day celebrations and, for reasons I’m not completely clear on yet but still looking into, chimney sweeps. This figure is a man dressed completely in foliage who often leads the processions, and dancing, and he dates back to the mid-sixteenth century in some parts of England. I’ll be honest, the most I got from this was his name and a love of parties and drinking in a kind-of Bacchic tradition of wildness and unrestrained behaviour – dangerous, sure (see the legend of the first Bacchanalia and shudder), but mostly fun.

Whitefield_Green_Man_by_Paul_Sivell
Whitefield Green Man by Paul Sivell

The biggest part of his make-up came from the legend of the Holly King and the Oak King. For those who love themselves some gruesome legends, the story goes that every year in autumn, the Holly King battles and slaughters the Oak King so he can reign over the world in Winter (the Oak King being dismembered is why the leaves turn red in Autumn; they’ve been stained so by the Oak King’s blood). The Oak King is reborn and rejuvenated in Spring, however, and battles the Holly King and defeats him, so he reigns over Summer. There are a lot of folk traditions surrounding this myth and some of them are more bloody than others, but the general theme of most vegetation deities’ legends is that they are horribly killed and sacrificed for winter, and then regrow in spring. This is far more appealing to my gory taste than Demeter being sad that her daughter ran off with Hades.

This probably tells you something terrible about me… Oops.

Anyway, I tried out the idea of making Jack into two people, maybe having Four Brothers, maybe taking Jack out of the group altogether (deciding against that option as I really liked the Three Brothers story idea, by the way) and then I came to a solution.

Now I recognise that this only really works because Jack is a very mythological character and therefore the rules of what is normal are very different. But the best solution I could find, which would also give me plenty to work with on making Jack interesting in his own right and not simply as an extension of his brothers, would be to have two personalities for Jack, a summer-time Oak King and a winter-time Holly King. I could make the Oak King a fun, mostly benevolent thrower of parties, and the Holly King a pricklier, sharper (pun!) figure who’s very practical and pragmatic, interested in getting his people through this time of hardship. They’d both be rulers over all the nature-based spirits in Fey, and interested in their well-being, but the Oak King could be all ‘buck up, there’s free food and good music, things will be fine and there probably won’t be a drunken brawl later’ and the Holly King could be more ‘my people are more defenceless than ever and you will harm them over my cold and rotted corpse’.

Success! It took a lot of very different myths to make Jack into a whole person, but it was definitely worth the effort, and shows how tiny fragments can be stitched together into something new and yet not totally unrelated.

Herne the Hunter

Herne the Hunter has one very distinct starting point – Shakespeare. And as is often the way with Shakespeare, we don’t really know where he picked the idea up from, or how much he changed it. Anyway, in The Merry Wives of Windsor there’s this little bit of dialogue:

Sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest,
Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;
And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,
And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner.
You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know
The superstitious idle-headed eld
Receiv’d, and did deliver to our age,
This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.

 

So Herne is written as a ghostly figure, he’s got chains and appears at midnight and in the winter, which is pretty normal for a ghost. But he’s also a little weird in that ghosts of this time don’t tend to cause cows to produce blood rather than milk (lovely) and there definitely aren’t any ghostly stags.

Herne_the_Hunter (2)
Illustration by George Cruikshank, scanned by Steven J Plunkett

The things that interested me in Herne the hunter however, are (of course) the horns, but also the way “he blasts the tree” which suggests lightning to me. And the reason this is interesting is that I naturally connected this to the Wild Hunt.

256px-Wodan's_wilde_Jagd_by_F._W._Heine
Wodan’s Wilde Jagd, Friedrich Wilhelm Heine

The Wild Hunt has a lot of variations; it’s a staple right across European folklore, wherever you go, the Wild Hunt will be there somewhere. Its general tale goes like this: there’s a ghostly hunt of men, horses and hounds, that rides through the night in a wild bloodlust. There’s usually a terrible storm when the Wild Hunt rides by, and even over the awful sounds of the wind and rain and thunder, you can still hear the dogs baying and the horns of the huntsmen. The riders are sometimes elves or demons or the dead, and the leader is always named; it can be Odin, but it also could be led by any number of biblical figures.

In England the legend goes that an Anglo-Saxon king, Herla, along with his hunting companions, chase a stag through the Underworld for a day and a night and when he returned he found that it was now three hundred years later. He and his hunt are cursed that they must always keep riding until a special white hound jumps down from Herla’s horse. One huntsman panics, tries to dismount before this happens and he crumbles to dust as those three centuries catch up to him all at once. The Hunt still rides on to this day, all the time getting further and further from the time they have known, which makes me wonder if by now they ever want to stop riding…

Over time these legends have been conflated a little, and one version I was told said that Herle was a Huntsman to Richard III (?) and was grievously wounded by a stag while out hunting. He passed out but came around to see a mysterious figure standing over him offering to heal him in return for working for a new master. Herle accepts (presumably because he didn’t listen to his mother’s fireside stories) and the figure heals him but is revealed to be the devil (because of course he was). The devil fixes the stags horns onto Herle’s head as a reminder of his bargain and sets him to work as the Devil’s Huntsman, doomed to chase down and catch the souls of the damned and drag them into Hell.

Wow.

256px-Gundestrup_Cernunnos
Gundestrup Cernunnos

Anyway, there are also a lot of horned gods who share appearances with the description of Herle, Cernunnos being the most notable, and so he’s also acquired a reputation as a god or spirit of the wild forests and nature as well, which is why he and Jack being brothers works so well. And his hunting down of people ties him to the Erlking, so you can see why it was easier to put the three of them into a group rather than work to distance each from the other. Bonding them together with their similarities was much more compelling, but making them all different was necessary too.

Herne is very much the Youngest Brother out of the trope, although I’d be the first to admit not on first impression. Like his brothers, he’s proud and brash and has a potential for danger even in advance of the world he lives in. Herne, very much like his brothers, essentially exudes a constant impression that you would not like to run into him in a dark alleyway, he’s the embodiment of ‘Wild’, an untamed being who’s unpredictable and cunning.

The thing that is interesting and distinct (to me) about the Youngest Brother from the Three Brothers Story tradition is how his completely different approach to his older brothers is what wins him through. He is unconventional from the environment he’s been set up in. Traditionally the Youngest Brother is kindly and honourable, but also very straight-forward in his outlook. He therefore either defeats or totally evades the traps laid out on the adventure, which his brothers fall into because of their pride or greed. And yes, I know that this trait is over-used, but well-done versions of this story usually build up this dynamic in interesting ways with good set-up and punch-line beats. For example, if the Younger Brother is starved by his older brothers, then he will later share his food with a starving waif out of empathy and understanding. The Younger Brother has not triumphed from an innate special goodness, but from learning from the actions of his brothers that his actions affect other people.

CordesWildeJagd (1)
Die Wilde Jagd, Johann Wilhelm Cordes

So what could make Herne different and contrast him with his brothers, the Erlking and the Oak King? I suppose I could have made him this kindly, Santa Claus-like figure who rescues orphaned children or something, but … Well, I thought that this wouldn’t sit well with the tone of the stories I was plotting, nor would it gel very well with the kind of world that Fey is. Fey is a world where literally everyone in it is inherently deadly, and an honourable, kindly person still holding a prominent place in the world just isn’t believable.

In the end I made Herne disinterested in power and responsibility. I find Poseidon to be the more intimidating of The Big Three in Percy Jackson because he’s clearly so secure in his own power that he has no need to show any of it, contrasting with Hades and Zeus who can’t stop showing off how powerful they are. Similarly, Herne could be more frightening than his brothers because, despite having a lot of power, he would far rather run around with his Wild Hunt and chase people. Herne’s Hunt would be thirty people strong at most, and the fact that he would still garner as much attention in Fey as the Erlking ruling the Unseelie court and the Oak King with all his nature spirits says a lot more than words can.

So there we have it, a set of mythical brothers to clash and come together and scare the pants off everyone else! And it only took somewhere in the region of twenty different stories and myths and one Shakespearean play to get us here, too!

Thanks for staying with me for all three parts of this piece! If you enjoyed this and found it useful, check out the rest of the series here.

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Making Men of Myths – Part 2 (The Fairy Queen)

Last week we looked in some detail about Rick Riordan’s take on the Greek Gods in the Percy Jackson series. This time I’m going to take the curious among you through the creation of the four characters in my stories that are unequivocally based in British and Irish folklore. I’m focussing on four main characters; Maeve, the Queen of the Fairies; the Erlking, the King of the Fairies; Jack O’Green, the Oak King; and Herne the Hunter.

Ch.14 Making Men of Myths - Part 2

Something Old, Something New

Before we dive into all that is exciting about looking for ideas in mythology, I wanted to get the really obvious-but-easy-to-forget thing over and done with now. Copy-and-paste is quick and that’s all that can be said about it. No one will like it, no matter how much work you put into digging it out.

Yes, Rick Riordan took a lot of inspiration from Greek myths in writing Percy Jackson and the Olympians but that’s not what I remember when I think about those books. When a friend who’d struggled with the books asked me what I’d liked about them, I swear I talked way more about Poseidon’s Neptune’s Lucky Fishing Hat and his folding chair throne more than I did about Zeus’s … Zeusness (and yes, I am indeed making that into a word!)

Now I would say that British and Irish folklore is a chronically under-used resource of awesomeness, and I think what scares people away from it is what I like best about it: there’s no canon. The folklore of the British Isles is one big collection of oral traditions, of which only a very small selection were ever written down. The rest stuck around in fireside stories that continued to be told and changed and shared around firesides right up until … well, today really, but the rise of television has definitely put a damper on the tradition. There’s no one source of information and there’s rarely ever anything that even remotely reaches a consensus about the characters for various figures, if fact only very rarely is there even enough overlap to call two figures in two tales related to each other. That’s true for a lot of myth and legend, but British and Irish folklore has some of the biggest gaps that I’ve ever come across.

Not to mention some of the craziest ideas, of which my favourite is the multiple, Ch.14 Making Men of Myths - Part 3unrelated instances of men spontaneously turning into salmon. Yes, that happened. I mean, yes Saint Patrick managed to chase an especially fierce storm away from the Irish coast by reciting poetry at it too, that’s a close second, but really? Multiple men without previous magical abilities just turned into salmon? And we’re still not making this into a children’s animated series yet? I am disappointed in you, BBC…

… Anyway…

These stories are amazing to work with because you can find the ideas that you like and just roll with them. Everything’s so fragmented anyway that you are simply forced to find and put together different snippets to make a bigger picture. But unlike with real-life jigsaws, there’s no one right answer!

On a personal note, I tended to look for recurring ideas and patterns that span different stories, especially from different areas and times, but that’s because, as I’ve discussed before in Defence of Doing Nothing; strong ideas will last, and be used over and over again and weak ideas disappear quickly.

Old Gods and Godliness

So, I don’t know if this is something that’s been going on for decades, or if I’m right and it really has popped up as a recurring idea mostly in the last few years. But has anyone else seen this trend of stories focussed on ‘The Return of The Old Gods’?

Thor's_Battle_Against_the_Jötnar_(1872)_by_Mårten_Eskil_Winge
Thor’s battle with the Ettins, Mårten Eskil Winge

The general idea goes that the Old Gods who were forgotten by mankind return to stop a danger too big for the humans to defeat on their own. I’ve seen it as flash-fiction on Tumblr (coupled with alien invasions no less!), as fanfiction related to other works, as longer internet-based fiction. I don’t necessarily know that I’ve seen it as published fiction – has anyone seen this?
The reason I have taken to this trend is that it requires a very different approach to writing ‘godhood’ than in older works. Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman and, yes you again Rick Riordan, all wrote of gods who were effectively powered and sustained by human belief. If people stop believing in a god then that god diminishes and may essentially die out. You also see this idea in the Rise of the Guardians film, where children no longer believing in Santa, or the Tooth Fairy means that they can’t do their jobs properly and again become small and powerless.

And this is a really solid idea with plenty of plot-potential. You’ve got a good, well-established and relatable risk factor, you can explore the nature of belief, or the relationship between believers and their deities, there’s lots to talk about.

The thing is… creating such a direct relationship between gods and mankind puts the humans in the position of having leverage over these powerful characters. The whole climax of Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods is a human bargaining with his god for better godhood in return for sustainable belief.

In Percy Jackson, the gods often look down on their half-human offspring because they aren’t gods, or because they are reminders of spousal infidelity. However ultimately we learn that they have to put up with the demi-gods because as heroes they accomplish feats that remind humans on a subconscious level of the gods’ existence.

“I will deny I ever said this, of course, but the gods need heroes. They always have. Otherwise we would not keep you annoying little brats around.”

“I feel so wanted. Thanks.”

And that’s a great idea and all, but what terrifies me more as a human is the idea of powerful Old Gods who are not at all diminished by us forgetting them. Who owe us nothing and will not be affected if we were wiped off the map. Who are, if you will, strong independent powerful entities who don’t need no humans at all. It’s this mentality which makes Lovecraftian fiction so terrifying too. The idea that the universe does not care one iota if you exist or not is deeply unsettling to us.

As a writer, I like this idea because the resulting lack of importance being placed on humans as a group allows for more importance to be placed on individual humans as characters. If an Old God chose to favour a character, it has to be because of something that character has personally done, because an Old God has no need to feel like all human life is sacred or something. So it’s on me as a writer to give that character objective worth, which is more of a challenge.

The Fairy Queen

TheQuarrelOfOberonandTitania
‘The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania’, Joseph Noel Paton

We’re starting with the Fairy Queen, Maeve, (made famous under the name of Titania by Shakespeare) because she’s definitely the character with the closest thing to an established archetype of anyone. In preparation for this post, I went through all the books of fairy tales, folktales, and legends and tried to look up all the times there was a fairy queen in the story as a major character. After spending the whole of Sunday happily sitting on my bedroom floor surrounded by several small, tottering mountains of books, I gave the attempt up as lost. Suffice to say that if I was going to write stories taking place in a world built on folklore? There was going to need to be a fairy queen. Thankfully I really liked and needed her anyway.

Maeve

If you read my post on The Power of Names, you’ll already be aware of the reasoning behind Maeve’s name, so I won’t repeat myself.

Henry_Meynell_Rheam_-_La_Belle_Dame_sans_Merci
La Belle Dame sans Merci, Henry Meynell Rheam

In terms of some common things with Maeve, she always has a husband, the Fairy King as it were, and that husband is rarely if ever even close to being as interesting or dynamic. I couldn’t get away with that in a series of stories, of course, but I compensated by suggesting the notion that Maeve had, in some distant past, thrown her husband out of her court and home. There is some evidence for this in Irish myth, with the division of the Seelie and Unseelie courts, essentially the ‘good’ fairies and the ‘bad’ fairies if one were to use very loose definitions of ‘good’ to include ‘probably won’t actually eat you, still will steal your soul’… Most people don’t.

Maeve is always ‘beautiful’, which is an indistinct concept, and ‘charming’, which is less so. Even the people who know for sure that they are trapped by her and are going to meet a horrible end are still unable to not be swept up in her charisma when she’s around. This is usually played in stories like Tam Lin as being due to magic, but I decided that Maeve could simply be very charming and charismatic on her own merits, which is both more interesting and more sinister than some ‘glamour spell’ which could be neutralised with a talisman.

Oberon_and_Titania_by_Henry_Howard
‘Oberon and Titania’, Henry Howard

The Fairy Queen is interesting because she is always, always shown as being a woman of great power. She rules the Seelie court, or the land of the fairies, depending on what story you tell, she has an army at her command. She passes out judgements and curses and blessings. She’s always pretty dynamic and intelligent in her stories, and even when she’s not, she usually seems to need to be drugged into submission (see A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon you ass.)

She’s also one of those unfortunate characters who always seems to have things stolen away from her; her legendarily beautiful white bull, her jewellery, her clothes, her children, her lovers. In the story of Tam Lin, Tam Lin explains that the Fairy Queen ‘pays a tithe to hell’ with her young lovers, but in some older stories, her husband is said to kill them or curse them in anger for his wife replacing him in her bed.

The image of Maeve having her children stolen from her by her vengeful husband was such a striking image I knew I had to include it, especially as it went so well with the many, many iterations of stories about fairies stealing children away to play with them forever. If you had a beautiful, grieving queen you loved (and no morals) wouldn’t you try to repair the damage by bringing her children to raise that her husband has no claim on? If you were starved of loving relationships, wouldn’t you lie to yourself with lovers, even if you knew they couldn’t last?

At the end of seven years
She pays a tithe to Hell
I so fair and full of flesh
I fear it be myself

—Tam Lin (Child Ballards 39)

John_William_Waterhouse_-_La_Belle_Dame_sans_Merci_(1893)
La Belle Dame sans Merci, John William Waterhouse

Maeve became one of those powerful, yet tragic figures in my head. A woman with a lot of power, but no ability to guard her heart from getting hurt over and over again. And with an internal vindictive streak which is made more dangerous by that power and pain combination. You know that everything she does is wrong, but you also know that it’s coming from a place of pain. Her marriage is almost always a complete disaster, with a husband who hurts her, steals her children from her, and yet she’s very romantically inclined, and very nurturing to her stolen children.

I like to think that Maeve was the first of a long line of women who fell in love with the absolute worst of men, and despite suffering for it, seems to still cling onto the idea that True Love exists for her to find.

One of my earliest notes on Maeve’s character says this; “Maeve was the first woman to coin the phrase ‘living happily ever after’ which is extra sad because she never did and never will.”

I know, I depress myself too sometimes…

On that note, join me again over in Making Men of Myths – Part 3 to talk about the theme of ‘The Three Brothers’ and the characters who fill those roles…

 

Posted in Chronicles in Creation

Making Men of Myths – Part 1

Author’s Note: this post contains extracts from Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson & The Olympians series and some big spoilers, especially for the first book; Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, so read with caution if you are planning on trying these books out and don’t want to be spoiled.

If I had to sum up my original idea for starting to write this book, I would have gone for this: ‘What if British Folklore was based on real events?’ Folklore’s been a long-time fascination and is sadly under-explored in modern fiction.

Anyway, if I wanted this to work at all, there was something that I had to get right instantly: Gods. I suppose since this is fantasy, I should say The Old Gods?

If these characters didn’t feel both real and other-worldly at one and the same time, the whole idea would fall apart. Fortunately, there’s a really good example of the many ways you can go about achieving this out there: The Percy Jackson & The Olympians series.

Ch.14 Making Men of Myths - Part 1

If you haven’t read Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series … just … treat yourself and go do that! Like, right now. It’s January, people, what else do you have to look forward to until The Thaw comes?

I myself found the series through what I have dubbed ‘reverse marketing’ in which the film is such a  bad adaptation that people’s complaints over how much better the books are actively caused me to seek the books out. I had a couple of friends get so upset and vocal about how good the books were and how badly the films had mishandled what was great about them that I just had to find out what the fuss was about.

And, oh boy! I was so glad I did. They are funny, they are exciting, they are full of little quirky nods to the original Greek mythology that’ll make you smile if you’re all nerdy and into that. (Who me?) But they don’t assume you know everything about everything and set everything up properly, so you won’t get lost if Greeks and their beliefs was, say, twenty years ago for you.

More importantly for this post, Rick Riordan does an excellent job of making the Greek gods feel both completely alien, and also strangely human. They are clearly powerful, immortal beings, but they also embody everything good and bad about humanity too.

Author’s Note: I did think about looking at Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but there the old gods are weakened and diminished from their old forms and strength and facing off against new ones, and that’s a very different topic!

OK, so you need to establish characters who are god; they need to feel real enough that the readers buy into their existence, but they also need to be consistent with their legends that you are drawing from. For anyone playing the home-game with this series, this ties into a previous post I wrote about Why Villains need Rules to be terrifying.

It’s all about combining the human and the alien, relatable and unknowable. And there are many ways to communicate this balance in your character;

How do they look? Like us or like something you could picture being painted on the Sistine Chapel surrounded by thunder bolts?

How do they behave? Like an animal? Like a human? Like a force of nature? (Whatever that may conjure in your imagination)

What is their history? Many gods are described as being immortal, or at least as being far, far older than any human could ever be. They’ve watched over humanity for hundreds or thousands of years, so what kind of history have they built up and how does that affect them?

Now, the Percy Jackson series has loads of gods and goddesses in it, far too many for me to talk about in this post, so we’re looking at what Riordan calls The Big Three, Zeus, Hades and Poseidon, who helpfully illustrate three main approaches.

Appearance

In the series, Rick Riordan did something very interesting; he updated the appearance of the gods to modern fashions, but often had their clothes reflect their roles and thus personalities. For example Ares is dressed like a Hell’s Angels biker, reflecting his status as the God of War.

Hades is the first of The Big Three to appear in person however and he is immediately set apart from the other gods we’ve encountered already:

He was the third god I’d met, but the first who really struck me as godlike.

He was at least three metres tall, for one thing, and dressed in black silk robes and a crown of braided gold. His skin was albino white, his hair shoulder-length and jet black. He wasn’t bulked up like Ares, but he radiated power. He lounged on his throne of fused human bones, looking lithe, graceful and dangerous as a panther.

… When he sat forward in his throne, shadowy faces appeared in the folds of his black robes, faces of torment, as if the garment were stitched of trapped souls from the Fields of Punishment, trying to get out. The ADHD part of me wondered, off-task, whether the rest of his clothes were made the same way. What horrible things would you have to do in your life to get woven into Hades’s underwear?

So Hades is immediately more imposing than anything we’ve seen before, and we’ve seen beings who have empty eye-sockets that fill with fire so far in this book, so that’s really saying something! He’s not changed his appearance like everyone else, suggesting that either he’s had no need to change, probably because Death is consistent in the human existence? Certainly he stands out and there is absolutely no way to mistake him as anything other than the god he is.

He’s also shown as being a very menacing presence; there are souls of the damned woven into his clothing, his throne is made of human bone. Many people find death and the afterlife a frightening concept and Hades really reflects this too. Hades at this point has always been spoken of as a pretty evil figure, semi-Satan-like if you will, and his appearance really reinforces this.

We meet Poseidon and Zeus right at the end of the first book, The Lightning Thief, and they have followed the trend of changing with the times, appearance-wise. However, they both have very different takes on this. Zeus, as the Lord of the Gods, has really taken to power dressing:

Zeus, the Lord of the Gods, wore a dark blue, pinstriped suit. He sat on a simple throne of solid platinum. He had a well-trimmed beard, marbled grey and black like a storm cloud. His face was proud and handsome and grim, his eyes rainy grey.

As I got nearer to him, the air crackled and smelled of ozone.

So Zeus dresses like most world-leaders, successful business-men and crime-bosses; sharp suit and well-groomed. Everything about him reinforces his status as the God of Thunder, and as the God In Charge. It’s hard to show in short quotes, but Zeus as a character is incredibly touchy, even for a god in this series, and he flaunts and reinforces his power at every possible moment. Zeus is in charge and he doesn’t want anyone to forget it for even a moment. He is always listening out for people being disrespectful:

“But I’ve never even been to Olympus! Zeus is crazy!”

Chiron and Glover glanced nervously at the sky. The clouds didn’t seem to be partly around us, as Grover had promised. They were rolling straight over our valley, sealing us in like a coffin lid.

“Er, Percy…?” Grover said. “We don’t use the c-word to describe the Lord of the Sky.”

“Perhaps paranoid,” Chiron suggested.

 The interesting thing about Poseidon is how he sits at the opposite end to Hades on the ‘How Much Do I Look Like A God?’ range:

The god sitting next to him was his brother, without a doubt, but he was dressed very differently. He reminded me of a beachcomber from Key West. He wore leather sandals, khaki Bermuda shorts, and a Tommy Bahama shirt with coconuts and parrots all over it. His skin was deeply tanned, his hands scarred like an old-time fisherman’s. His hair was black, like mine. His face had that same brooding look that had always got me branded a rebel. But his eyes, sea-green like mine, were surrounded by sun-crinkles that told me he smiled a lot, too.

His throne was a deep-sea fisherman’s chair. It was the simple swivelling kind, with a black leather seat and a built-in holster for a fishing pole. Instead of a pole, the holster held a bronze trident, flickering with green light around the tips.

Poseidon couldn’t possibly look less like a god if he tried for a century, which he very possibly has. His throne’s a folding chair, he’s wearing Bermuda shorts, I mean in a later book he even comes with this:

He wore a battered cap decorated with fishing lures. It said, Neptune’s Lucky Fishing Hat.

I am not making this up. And the strange thing is that, at least to me, the effect is that Poseidon is actually the most intimidating of The Big Three. Zeus and Hades have had this huge rivalry for hundreds of years and flaunt their power as much as they can, albeit in very different ways. But Poseidon gives the impression of a god who is so powerful that he doesn’t need to remind everyone.

It makes sense in a way: Hades is the Lord of the Dead and Zeus rules the gods and thunder, but Poseidon is the god of storms, earth-quakes, the sea and horses. That’s all the seas in the world, and a portion of the land and air under his control. Poseidon effectively knows that he has ‘It’ in spades and can afford not to flaunt it, which considering the company he keeps is kind of terrifying.

And speaking of terrifying…

Interactions with Percy

(Percy is our point-of-view character throughout the books. How much he relates to the characters he encounters therefore shapes how much we, the readers, can relate to them too.)

So a lot of the gods Percy encounters for the first time need to identify themselves to him as gods. Usually this is because they are cloaking their powers to blend in and it works. Percy could easily mistake them for other magical beings or totally normal humans.

The Big Three, however, have no such first-impression reveal; they are immediately identifiable as gods, giving off a god-like aura of power and menace:

I immediately felt like [Hades] should be giving the orders. He knew more than I did. He should be my master. Then I told myself to snap out of it. … The Lord of the Dead resembled pictures I’d seen of Adolph Hitler, or Napoleon, or the terrorist leaders who direct suicide bombers. Hades had the same intense eyes, the same kind of mesmerizing, evil charisma.

And then the other two:

The gods were in giant human form, as Hades had been, but I could barely look at them without feeling a tingle, as if my body were starting to burn.

So the Big Three are united in the aura of power they emit, which links them together when they are distinguished by their appearances. Makes sense as they are very much presented as three brothers, and for all their differences they need something in common.

So that’s first impressions done, but then they start talking and once more the differences between them are stark.

Percy is talking to Hades in an effort to convince him not to start a war with his brothers. We’ve already had the price of failure presented to us at the start of the quest:

“And do you know what a full-fledged war would look like, Percy?”

“Bad?” I guessed.

“Imagine the world in chaos. Nature at war with itself. Olympians forced to choose sides between Zeus and Poseidon. Destruction. Carnage. Millions dead. Western civilisation turned into a battleground so big it will make the Trojan War look like a water-balloon fight.”

“Bad,” I repeated.

So there’s a lot on the line and everything in the book has been pointing to Hades starting this mess while framing his brother Poseidon for it, to anger his other brother Zeus. And we all need to appreciate that this feels exactly like to original Greek myths, right here. It’s all egos and pulling ridiculous stunts over absolute nonsense because Greek gods apparently cannot be trusted to talk to each other…

Anyway, Hades so far has been totally alien in appearance and presence and then Percy suggests that the war would benefit Hades because people will die and he’ll have more subjects to rule over and this happens:

“Have you any idea how much my kingdom has swollen in this past century alone, how many subdivisions I’ve had to open?”

I opened my mouth to respond, but Hades was on a roll now.

“More security ghouls,” he moaned. “Traffic problems at the judgement pavilion. Double overtime for all the staff. I used to be a rich god, Percy Jackson. I control all the precious metals under the earth. But my expenses!”

“Charon wants a pay raise,” I blurted, just remembering the fact. As soon as I said it, I wished I could sew up my mouth.

“Don’t get me started on Charon!” Hades yelled. “He’s been impossible ever since he discovered Italian suits! Problems everywhere, and I’ve got to handle all of them personally. The commute time alone from the palace to the gates is enough to drive me insane! And the dead just keep arriving. No, godling. I need no help getting subjects! I did not ask for this war.”

I have never related to a character so fast in my life! I mean, yes, Hades is talking about ruling the world of the dead, which I cannot say I have any experience in at all, but c’mon… We have all had commuting issues and trouble at work, right? Hades suddenly became so relatable, I totally forgot for a minute that he’s dressed in woven souls and sitting on bones!

Now contrast this with Zeus, who continues his desperate efforts to be the most commanding and intimidating thing ever and therefore can barely say ‘thank you’ properly:

[Zeus] rose and looked at me. His expression softened just a fraction of a degree. “You have done me a service, boy. Few heroes could have accomplished as much.”

“I had help, sir,” I said. “Grover Underwood and Annabeth Chase –“

“To show you my thanks, I shall spare your life. I do not trust you, Perseus Jackson. I do not like what your arrival means for the future of Olympus. But for the sake of peace in the family, I shall let you live.”

“Um … thank you, sir.”

“Do not presume to fly again. Do not let me find you here when I return. Otherwise you shall taste this bolt. And it shall be your last sensation.”

Thunder shook the palace. With a blinding flash of lightening, Zeus was gone.

Oh Zeus…

To be fair, I don’t think we’re ever meant to relate to Zeus especially, except insofar as we all know at least one person who’s just trying so hard. I always loved Poseidon’s take on the same moment:

“Your uncle,” Poseidon sighed, “has always had a flair for dramatic exits. I think he would’ve done well as the god of theatre.”

See, Poseidon totally knows what’s up…

Anyway, then again there’s Poseidon, who on first impression is the most relatable and normal-looking of the three, and as a character therefore compensates by being the most removed from human understanding of the three. And this is Percy’s own father here, so that’s really saying something:

“Perseus,” Poseidon said. “Look at me.”

I did, and I wasn’t sure what I saw in his face. There was no clear sign of love or approval. Nothing to encourage me. It was like looking at the ocean: some days, you could tell what mood it was in. Most days, though, it was unreadable, mysterious.

I got the feeling Poseidon really didn’t know what to think of me. He didn’t know whether he was happy to have me as a son or not. In a strange way, I was glad that Poseidon was so distant. If he’d tried to apologize, or told me he love me, or even smiled. It would’ve felt fake. Like human dad, making some lame excuse for not being around. I could live with that. After all, I wasn’t sure about him yet, either.

And there’s the way that Poseidon actually relates to his own child:

“Your mother is a queen among women,” Poseidon said wistfully. “I had not met such a woman in a thousand years. Still … I am sorry you were born, child. I have brought you a hero’s fate, and a hero’s fate is never happy. It is never anything but tragic.”

I tried not to feel hurt. Here was my own dad, telling me he was sorry I’d been born. “I don’t mind, Father.”

“Not yet, perhaps,” he said. “Not yet. But it was an unforgivable mistake on my part.”

“I’ll leave you then.” I bowed awkwardly. “I – I won’t bother you again.”

Although I do have to say that, in this series, Poseidon is actually one of the best parent-gods in the whole cast, which says terrible things about everyone else… And Poseidon actually does tend to make an effort with Percy, by which I mean that he does clearly care and he tries to show his son affection as best he can. The fact that he’s so weird and stilted about it, however, continues to highlight how very not-human he is too.

Like, this is Poseidon telling Percy he’s proud of him:

I was five steps away when he called, “Perseus.”
I turned.
There was a different light in his eyes, a fiery kind of pride. “You did well, Perseus. Do not misunderstand me. Whatever else you do, know that you are mine. You are a true son of the Sea God.”

And this is Poseidon relating to Percy having a birthday several books later:

“I couldn’t miss Percy’s fifteenth birthday,” Poseidon said. “Why, if this were Sparta, Percy would be a man today!”
“That’s true,” Paul said. “I used to teach ancient history.”
Poseidon’s eyes twinkled. “That’s me. Ancient history.”

And speaking of ancient history…

History with Fellow Gods

So, I would argue that the main difference character-structure-wise between gods and, say, super-heroes is their age. Superheroes grow old and die (Maybe. Technically. Theoretically. If the comic books will let them.) Gods go on and on and have been around essentially for forever. And the challenge for writers is in how to showcase that longevity without constantly having to outright say These characters are immortal and really old, guys!

Rick Riordan is very good at making use of the original Greek myths to give a sense of the gods having lived and interacted, both with each other and with heroes, for hundreds of years. They speak of ancient myths as if they happened recently, and that helps us as readers get a real sense of how long they’ve spent developing rivalries and grievances and grudges.

“Husband, we talked about this,” Persephone chided. “You can’t go around incinerating every hero. Besides, he’s brave. I like that.”
Hades rolled his eyes. “You liked that Orpheus fellow too. Look how well that turned out.”

And those long-past interactions also directly affect the plot as it is happening in the present too. Remember that war in the first book that we were worrying about? Well, it’s not just Zeus being all paranoid:

“Then again, Poseidon has tried to unseat Zeus before. I believe that was question thirty-eight on your final exam…” He looked at me as if he actually expected me to remember question thirty-eight…

“Something about a golden net?” I guessed. “Poseidon and Hera and a few other gods … they, like, trapped Zeus and wouldn’t let him out until he promised to be a better ruler, right?”

“Correct,” Chiron said. “And Zeus has never trusted Poseidon since. Of course, Poseidon denies stealing the master bolt. He took great offence at the accusation. The two have been arguing back and forth for months, threatening war.”

In fact throughout the whole series, the whole pantheon of gods are mostly at each other’s throats far more than they ever can manage to work together. They’ve all stood on each other’s toes and made life difficult for each other, and clearly relished doing so. Even in the face of a bigger threat they can’t work together for a long time. They’ve spent centuries falling out and hurting each other and it’s nearly impossible for them to put all that aside. As we saw in A Very Potter Case Study 2, in a well-written plot, the consequence of an argument is that the next argument is worse and the characters less likely to give each other the benefit of the doubt.

So by establishing a long history between ancient beings, we can relate as an audience to the many layers of challenge throughout the series, with enemies attacking from without and rivalries weakening the group from within. And because we can relate so well, we also feel more tension; in the same position, could we put our differences aside for someone else?

In Part 2, we’ll be looking at how I converted some figures of folklore into living, breathing characters; where I drew inspiration from for their appearances, their personalities and their powers.

If this was helpful, let me know and as always, if you’re new then check out the rest of the series here. See you next week!