I’m pleased to welcome Per Holbo to my blog today. I hope you enjoy his blog about rewriting classic fairy stories. Welcome, Per! -S
Not as easy as you might think
Have you ever read a re-writing? You know, those books where the Author hasn´t invented the story, but just sort of ’stole’ it from history, folklore or mythology? If you have, you may have wondered, what kind of madness the said author was struck by to go about such an endeavor. Come on! Being a writer is about inventing new stories, isn´t it? Man, you must have been so ’writer´s blocked’ your eyebrows are bleeding from banging your head into the wall, if you´re sliding so low as to write something already written.
The writer you may so bluntly be dissing (or rather ’I am dissing’) could very well be me, because this is exactly what I´ve done. My latest book, ”Asgard Saga – Odin the Creator,” is the first part of a series of stories from Norse Mythology and thus belongs in the ill perceived category of ’stolen goods being tampered with.’
I didn´t do it to get around inventing a new story, but I must admit, that I thought it to be like a walk in the park. After all, I didn´t have to worry about the plot, the characters or even trying to get the whole story to be internally consistent. Boy, was I wrong!
The thought of re-writing these stories came to me as I was watching an episode of Star Gate SG-1. The Star Gate series´ are among my favorite TV-shows and I love the idea of bringing myths into a Science Fiction story. And I did enjoy watching this episode. However, one thing really annoyed me: they kept using the term ’The Asgards’ about that advanced race, who had been friends with ’The Ancients’ and for every time they used that term, my eyes twitched. Why? Well, because Asgard is the place, where the Aseir gods live, so ’The Asgards’ is like calling people living in the states ’The USAs’ or using the term ’Englands’ about the English. So, I decided to bring the Norse Mythology to life for an English speaking audience.
And I really believed it to be easy. All I had to do was read the stories and write a narrative in English. How hard could it be? Well, as it turned out, very hard indeed! I faced several challenges:
Challenge #1: Flat character description
See, in most mythology and folklore, the characters are flat, meaning that they are described in a very simple way. Mainly by not describing them at all, but only telling about their actions. Like: ’Thor threw his hammer and all enemies were vanquished.’ No reason to go into Thor´s thoughts and considerations. Just going right for the action packed pee wee and you´re done…
But this doesn´t work in this day and age. To make the story come to life, you need to blow some spirit into your characters and make them come to life. Dead characters equals a dead story, lively characters is a basic requirement to have a lively story.
Challenge #2: Complexity
The second challenge was that Norse Mythology is much more complicated than I remembered. The creational myth alone is like an Italian instruction manual translated to German and from German to English. So many details mixed together in the strangest ways. And as I wasn´t sure, where the entire story would lead in the end, I had quite a few gray cells in my brain sent on over time to decide which of these details were too important to leave out and which ones could be described in a more simple manner and which of them were so important, that I needed to elaborate them, so it would make sense to the general public.
Challenge #3: Cultural differences
This challenge is perhaps the most difficult to work with. First of all, there are differences between contemporary Danish culture and the culture of the Viking nation. This means that some of the issues in the Norse Myths are either hidden or just eludes our understanding, although they are mentioned in the way that the characters react to certain events in the stories. Let me give you an example. In the ’Speech of the tall one’ supposedly attributed Odin, the speaker folds out wise words for living well. In one of the paragraphs, Odin says this:
Taciturn and sedate
should the prince’s child
and battle ready be known;
every man should go
to the day he dies
It wasn´t till I presented this to Ed Drury, who has been a tremendous help to me revising and editing the book, that I realized the potential misunderstanding of the last sentence. ’To’ could be understood as ’until’ but hits is probably not the correct understanding of the phrase. Much rather ’to’ should be understood as ’towards’ and this is not apparent, not even in the original Old Nordic text. But with a basic understanding of Viking culture, it´s clear as crystal that the latter understanding is the correct one.
How did I meet these challenges?
The obvious next step in this guest is to answer the above question, which is rather simple. But as always, the simplest of questions calls for complicated answers and this is by no means an exception.
The challenges mentioned are intertwined and though I cannot answer for one of them without answering for the other two, I will try to provide you with an answer for one challenge at a time. I know, you won´t have any problem understanding my answers, if I didn´t do it this way, but I need to have structure, so there you go… let´s begin:
Behind door #1: Meeting the challenge of flat character description
If you are one of those kinds of authors who like to keep updated on good writing techniques (and of course you are, otherwise you wouldn´t have read this far) you may have stumbled upon this simple rule: show it, don´t tell it.
What this rule means is rather simple: instead of telling your reader that your character is, say rude, you might want to provide your reader with an example of your character´s rudeness. In my short story “The mysterious disappearance of McGrath” I did just that. Instead of describing McGrath as rude, I told the following story:
“He had moved out of town a couple of years ago, because his landlord had raised his rent $10. “Ten bucks more!” he had yelled when the landlord presented him with the news, “Every single month I have to give you ten more? Are you insane? You think money grows on trees? ´Cause if they do, you better go get me some of them trees!” He slammed the door shut with such a bang that all the neighbors stuck their heads out to see what was going on.
His landlord stood there by the door for a few seconds building up his nerve, which granted McGrath just enough time to get himself seated in his well used armchair before he heard the reluctant tapping on solid wood. He almost thrust the chair through the wall in anger.
“Hmmf…” the frightened man said loosening his tie and gasped, “I…well…it got stuck.” McGrath didn’t re-enter his home, but instead almost flew past his landlord while complaining loudly about all the vultures the world was populated with.”
The same technique I used in “Asgard Saga,” but this was a challenge in itself. I wanted to keep a balance between telling the story in a lively and modern way, but still keeping the story true to the original myths. In any other kind of story I would just have invented a scene or two to describe my characters´ personalities, but in this case, I decided that to keep true to the myths, I needed to be sure that the scenes in the book were either from the myths themselves or at least could´ve happened as I described them. To do this, only one option was useful: I had to dig down in the myths to get a more accurate description of the characters´ personalities. After doing that, I knew, which of the scenes I had to invent as a ‘might-have-happened-this-way” and which ones I could just tell the way they were already available in the myths.
In Odin’s case, this proved rather difficult, because Odin is not very thoroughly described in the myths (though Odin is the main Aseir, he wasn´t worshipped much by the common Viking. Thor had a more popular appeal, while Odin was more of a ‘posh’ figure to be worshipped by Chieftains and other ‘top of the pop’ people)
The solution was to make Odin the mysterious laid-back kind of type. He doesn´t make much of himself in “Asgard Saga” but is instead the silent leader, who only takes the stand, when it´s expected of him. And when he does, he does in such a manner, that there is no doubt of his leadership.
Behind door #2: Narrowing down complexity
As I started writing, I was taken by surprise at the complexity in the Norse Mythology. Being a Dane and having a Norse heritage, I have been told these myths at school and I really thought I knew more than enough about the mythology to just write the stories. But the complexity of the whole thing overwhelmed me. Especially the creational myth was a bugger. I remembered from my classes at school (and the extensive personal reading when I was a nerdy kid with ugly glasses) that the creational myth told of the world being created, when Odin and his brothers killed the primal Yetten, Ymir, and used his dead body to create everything, but what I´d missed was the prequel to that story. Embrace yourself for complication: take a deep, deep breath with your mouth… Yes, that´s it… Then breathe out through your nose… Good, you´re doing just fine… Ready? Then read on:
It all began with the cold freeze from Niflheim meeting the heat from Muspelheim in the empty space of Ginnungagab making blocks of ice that started melting and from the dripping water, Ymir emerged. Audhumla, the primal cow, also came from these ice blocks and from its udder, Ymir could eat. When he fell asleep after dinner, his feet had a son with each other and from his armpits two other offspring emerged. Then Bure sort of leaped out of him and he had a son called Borr (with no female present, mind you!) and from then on it really started being complicated! (yes, that´s what I wrote: if you think it was complicated before this… ? phew…)
Luckily this is one of my greatest strengths: to present the important from the complex. So the only passable way was to narrow down. What was important to the story? What was unimportant? What was important, but not detail calling? In other words: What was need-to-have and what was nice-to-have? The first was ‘in’ and the latter ‘out.’ Hopefully my readers think I did a good job with this…
Behind door #3: Connecting cultures
Among these three challenges, this is by far the most difficult to overcome. First of all, because most cultural truth is implicit in such a way that we don´t notice it ourselves. For instance, belching after a meal is widely considered as being rude, but in some countries, like China, it´s a message saying ‘I really enjoy this meal’ and thus is considered a compliment to the chef. In the case of “Asgard Saga” there are at least two potential conflicts: one is between Scandinavian and American/English cultures and the other is between the Viking age and modern day. How to discover potential misunderstandings is almost impossible, unless you have at least an above average understand of both cultures involved. In the case of “Asgard Saga” I have such a level of understanding on both Scandinavian vs. English cultures and Viking age vs. modern day cultures, but when it comes to American culture, there is an extra layer of challenge, as American culture in itself is a merged culture of various different old European cultures fused in the melting pot of American history. The only way to meet this challenge is to ask Americans, how they perceive the formulations, I´ve used. So this was exactly what I did. I shamelessly asked Americans about their perception of the words and phrases I used in the book. Using connections on Twitter, Facebook and Google+ and using my American friends in real life as well as a Canadian or two I made an effort to get an insight to this challenge and to edit. Did I succeed? Well, I certainly hope so, but only time, sales and review will tell.
And now I´ve come to the very end of this already way too long post. If you´ve made it this far, congratulations! If you can find any leftover energy after this rather exhausting read, please feel free to comment underneath. I´ll be looking forward to answer questions or elaborate (though I very much doubt you would wish for elaboration after this reading marathon…)
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