Writing as a form of dialogue with mythological traditions: What is white culture anyway?

Overture

This month, I read Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and the End of Time, a middle grade novel about an Indian preteen who has to come into her power as a “soul-daughter” of a Hindu god of the heavens in order to stop an ancient, world-destroying evil that she, herself, accidentally summoned. The book is good. The book is good in a way that makes me screw up my eyes and puff out my cheeks and become a red-faced jealousy goblin. And so, in my jealous goblin ways, I retreated to the darkest corner of my cave and shuffled about angrily, scratching at the ground and snuffling the air in irritation.

“How does one write such a novel? RurrrÜrrrrr,” I said in my goblin voice.

I got a fiendish glimmer in my goblin eyes and I decided to figure that out.

Rick Riordan Presents: A Primer

If you’re not in the loop on middle grade fiction, Rick Riordan is a prominent writer known for the book Percy Jackson and the Olympians (as well as its spin-off novels). The series follows young Percy Jackson on assorted Greek pantheon adventures after he finds out he is the son of Poseidon. After Percy Jackson, Riordan followed up with more books utilizing other pantheons, specifically those of Ancient Egyptian theology and the Norse gods.

But Riordan’s fans wanted more. They wanted the stories of other pantheons: Hindu, ancient Chinese, Indigenous peoples of the Americas… In 2016, the Rick Riordan Presents imprint was made with the purpose of, in Riordan’s words, “finding and promoting other authors who write engaging middle grade fiction, supporting them in exploring the many fascinating mythologies of the world, and helping to broaden the spectrum of representation in publishing.” (It was also made, I’m sure, to make Disney Hyperion lots and lots of money—but it is a nice imprint, nonetheless.)

With the advent of Rick Riordan Presents, authors with more personal knowledge, experience, and cultural finesse than Riordan have been given the podium to retell these stories. By growing up among these respective mythologies, they are able to write a fuller, more authentic story than Riordan would have been able to, presumably even if he’d had the time to dedicate significant research to the subject. (Which he did not. He is a busy guy.) Released in 2018, Aru Shah and the End of Time was the first book under the Rick Riordan Presents imprint. There are now more than twenty books in the series, with a dozen more upcoming.

On the appropriation of Public Domain goods for the furtherment of capitalism

My heading here is a bit of a joke, but also not a joke at all. Any story elements—such as character, setting, archetype, or legend—that are in the public domain are completely up for grabs for you to use in your stories. As a writer, you don’t have to ask permission or pay money to use those elements. You can literally print a 19th century novel in its full text and make money off it and you won’t be breaking any laws. It’s not considered theft if the intellectual property is in the public domain. 

The Rick Riordan Presents imprint makes heavy use of pantheons that are in the public domain. By basing the meat of the world building in a pantheon that exists outside the world of the book, their works make use of “name brand recognition,” which assists in marketing as well as allowing children to decide to further research and learn about those pantheons if they so choose.

That name brand recognition is a powerful thing. My grabby goblin hands really wanted to cash in on that. But howwwww?

Following a template to improve your craft

As a nascent writer, I thought it would be educational to write a book using the Rick Riordan Presents books as a sort of guide. Trying out the structure of a pre-existing book is good practice for writers attempting to learn structure of plot and pacing for specific genres. Since middle grade fantasy is the genre I want to write, it is important for me to study the books that are succeeding in that arena.

The only question was, what would I write about? If I had to have my protagonist find out they were of xyz lineage, what would that lineage be? What, in my lived experience as well as my literary experience, do I have the depth of knowledge to write about without doing a mind-numbing amount of research?

So I began to ask—what “pantheon” did I grow up with?

What the hell is white people culture, anyway?

There have been a lot of discussions on white people “writing the other“, the other referring to any lived experience that is not white. But as a white person, I’ve been mulling over the question of what is white—specifically in fantasy. What are the creatures, tropes, settings, and legends in which white people are immersed?

The oddest thing was that I had to ask. Don’t people just… know their culture? Perhaps because white culture is dominant, whites don’t have to fight for the preservation of their culture and therefore have the privilege of apathy.

((As a caveat, every white person is different, and there are different groups of white people, such as people who pass as white, people who self-identify as white, people who identify as other races and white, and others. “White” covers a lot, and also covers different things depending on who you ask. I will be discussing my personal experience.))

I grew up in Massachusetts, so as someone from the Commonwealth (and as someone who had a fundamentalist Christian friend growing up) I grew up with Christianity hanging over me like an ugly shroud. But I have always rejected religion, and my family is third-generation atheist (a rare feat), so I don’t feel impassioned to write a story where, for example, a kid finds out they are the child of the angel Gabriel, etc. If I did work with the Christian mythos at all, it would be very vague notions of angels or demons—not specific characters.

I love me some biblically accurate angels.

I didn’t grow up hearing stories (in full detail) from the Bible, nor did I learn the traditions of the Wampanoag, the indigenous group of the area I grew up in. When it came to a religious pantheon, it didn’t seem like I had much of one. Unless you count Santa Claus. He’s definitely there. But not exactly a whole pantheon worth. (If only his elves had as many names as his reindeer…)

So I thought about ethnicity. Most of my heritage (as it has been relayed to me) is Scottish, Irish, and Anglo-Saxon. Those places do have their own folklore and legends. There are selkies, fairies, changelings, and legendary figures from poetry like Lady Godiva and Tam Lin. But I didn’t really grow up with those stories. I know names of ancient Celtic deities like Cernunnos and Morrigan, but no one ever told me their stories. They are not part of my oral storytelling tradition. And I’m not very knowledgeable about more modern stories such as the Shakespeare or Camelot oeuvre either.

So what the hell could I write about with any depth of experience?

Back in my filthy hovel, I stormed around, growling at the cave walls and scuttling about in the dirt. I frowned in the darkness, gobbling beetles without tasting their tasty innards and tossing their wings into the shadows. What was a filthy goblin like myself to do?

And then it hit me—the answer:

Harry Goddamned Potter

This asshole.

Now, you must be saying, “Really, Chelsea? Really?”

Yes, really. I don’t mean in the sense of “Harry Potter is the mythological source, like a Bible, and the characters are the pantheon.” I’m not going to write a story where some lass finds out she’s the daughter of The Boy Who Lived. I mean that the elements of Harry Potter are a fairly comprehensive list of Western European fantasy culture.

Harry Potter, at its roots, is a British magical world. The first elements of the Wizarding World that Rowling chooses to magicify are the post office and the bank. What’s more British than that? And she dips heavily into European sources of fantasy for her inspiration throughout the series.

I happened to visit the exhibit on J. K. Rowling when it was touring in NYC in 2018, and (although the curators of the exhibit definitely fluffed it up in order to make it more comprehensive and interesting by adding physical articles from European magical lore), it gave me a clearer view into the kinds of thought exercises that J. K. Rowling undertook in order to flesh out the world of Harry Potter from her original idea. Harry Potter wasn’t something that sprung fully formed from Rowling’s head; it was a world she built by curating sources that existed historically in her region and modifying them at will to meet her needs.

Think of the philosopher’s stone—the titular artifact of the first book. “The earliest known written mention of the philosophers’ stone is in the Cheirokmeta by Zosimos of Panopolis (c. 300 CE).” (That is so old. Do you even understand how old that is? J. K. Rowling is pulling from sources older than the English language.) Nicolas Flamel is also a historical figure. The places she nabbed inspiration from cross countries, empires, and time, and the exhibit reflected this, hosting medieval illustrations, old apothecary items, and false unicorn horns.

It is easy to make a list of Western European mythology from Harry Potter because Rowling so heavily utilizes extant creatures to flesh out her world. Appearances are made by:

  • Unicorns
  • Giants
  • Centaurs
  • Wizards/Witches
  • Werewolves
  • Merpeople
  • Goblins (my people)
  • The Grim
  • Pixies
  • Gnomes
  • Ghosts
  • Hippogryphs
  • And moooooore

All of these creatures were not invented by Rowling. Instead, they are creatures that have dominated the storytelling traditions of Western Europe. The creatures found in Harry Potter offer a good starting point for part of the “pantheon” of that region. 

If I had been born twenty years earlier, I might have thought of The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia before I thought of Harry Potter. Both stories have crossover of many of these creatures, as they are also written by British white people. (It might be worth noting that white writers born in my father’s time, 1945, would have a significantly different culture than that of mine, b. 1991).

Regardless, centering the database that is Harry Potter really sparked my memory in terms of mythological creatures I grew up learning about. From werewolves, it was easy to extrapolate to vampires, banshees, sirens, demons, ghouls—basically any of the monsters-of-the-week you might see on Scooby Doo, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Supernatural. I was hugely fascinated with the occult as a child, so alchemists, shapeshifters, witches, and demons were my bread and butter.

And though some of these creatures don’t include, for example, named legendary figures. (There are no famous centaurs.) There are definitely some in the public domain with names, such as Dracula the vampire or Beezelbub the demon. (And Santa Claus. Never forget.)

Much of “culture” involves the stories we experience as children. Nursery rhymes, playground clapping games, lullabies, and cartoons are some of the first stories that children encounter. The Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Germanic in origin, as well as the Disney retellings, are a large part of my cultural database. I can retell Little Red Riding Hood or Cinderella with as much ease as I can remember my childhood phone number.

These are the kinds of early introduction that give authors the depth of experience needed to work with and write about extent mythologies. Without these establishing experiences, an author must not only read the texts of a culture, but also the context around those texts, in order to better understand it.

Is it possible to fully understand a culture you weren’t immersed in?

I once took a Russian Literature class in which we were studying the historical and literary significance of the book The Master and Margarita. The book is a 20th century work of fantasy literature that bases much of its trappings upon other extant texts within Russian culture. To better understand the book, we read passages from Revelations, short stories by Gogol, Sofia Petrovna, and passages of Faust. These stories provided depth that allowed us to better understand the broader religious and literary context of the book. But reading these works didn’t magically make me Russian. They didn’t make me a Russian scholar, either. To mimic the authenticity of growing up enmeshed in a culture, the amount of study and passion you have to have requires the depth equivalent to living your life positioned in that culture, which many white people just simply aren’t willing to do, myself included.

Even though a person could write about anything, elements outside one’s culture involve significant research to provide a meaningfully authentic voice. Having been positioned in white culture, I feel more confident writing in dialogue with that oeuvre than stepping into a culture of literature I don’t understand. When writing in a literary tradition you’re already steeped in, you have a deeper cultural understanding of the stories and all the details they contain. If you want to write good stories, context is key. For that, you need to understand the body of literature you’re writing within.


If you read this far, I send you many blessings. I’ve been mulling over what the heck my culture is for a while now (to cultivate an identity as an author) and apparently I have a lot to say.

In the future (a goal for 2022), I would like to make my craft posts more regular, as in the past they have been… erratic and sparser than I’d like. I currently have something like ten topics on the back-burner, with a few posts nearly completed, but just needing that good ol’ once-over… and then another once over just in case.

I wanted to share with you some working titles of the in-progress pieces! Some I’m particularly excited about include:

  • Showing vs. Telling: When is it appropriate to tell rather than show?
  • Jargon: The World Building of Words
  • What is Possible?: Creating a Speculative Economy and
  • Advice on Writing: When to Take it and When to Let it Go

Thanks again for stopping by, and I hope to see you soon! ^^

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