A Life Of Fiction XXXVIII

For those of you new to this WordPress site, this site is about me and my writing – and a little about my role-playing, as well. It gives readers a chance to sample my work before purchasing it on the Kindle store; and gives me the chance to say a little about the genesis of each novel, or about the process of writing in general.

Inspired by classics of the past: I take inspiration where I can find it. I have said, in the past, that prospective writers should read more than they write: and, again, I will quote the great Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who said that ‘input should exceed output’. I just about follow that maxim, although, with my problems of concentration, I don’t read half as much as I would like.

I think that, among what you read, that you should make room for what we call the Classics. To those I would add the legends of Ancient Greece, as well. You need a good translation, however, or retelling of the tales, to stop them from appearing stuffy. But I think that writers should be familiar with the tales of:

The Odyssey

The Iliad

Jason and the Argonauts

The Seven Against Thebes

Theseus and the Minotaur

…and so on.

Homer was responsible for writing both the Odyssey and the Iliad, if there ever was an individual by that name. People are unsure whether he was a person, or a name given to more than one writer. We don’t really know anything about Homer. We are not sure exactly when he flourished – it may have been the ninth century BC, but it could have been the eighth. He may have lived in Ionia. He may have lived elsewhere.

What I do know is how those tales – especially the Odyssey – have come to be regarded as among the greatest of all the classic tales. It is a status which they definitely deserve. I urge people to read Homer’s Odyssey. Just make sure that you have a good translation, as that makes all the difference.

I have already done one re-imagining (as the cinema people say) of The Seven Against Thebes, moving the action from Ancient Greece to a post-apocalyptic world. I liked the idea of seven protagonists drawn against an entire city. But I saw little point in simply retelling the original story. So I took just the original idea and moved it to a new setting. If you are going to go back to those old tales, then I think that you should make sure that you tell them in fresh and interesting ways.

You could easily take some of the other tales and change the setting – and the names of the characters – to make the story new. The story of Jason and the Argonauts springs to mind. That could easily be set in the far future, with the Argo being a spaceship rather than one which sailed on the Black Sea.

The Odyssey, of course, is a story which has been told many times, in both books and films. The Coen brothers retold the tale as Brother, Where Art Thou? There has been a sci fi anime version of the Odyssey, as well.

I suppose that you could claim that the flawed film Troy, with Brad Pitt, is an adaptation of the Iliad, as it covers the events of the Trojan War. It covers more material than in the Iliad, though. The Iliad is not something of which I have done an adaptation. Perhaps I should, some time. But I would only do so if I felt that I could do it in an interesting way, to add something interesting to the story. There is no point in writing an inferior version of something which has already been done; and I have read literary accounts of the Trojan War other than that by Homer.

Jason and the Argonauts has been filmed more than once. But the best version is still the Ray Harryhausen one. He was able to give charisma to the stop motion skeletons.

I haven’t done anything involving Jason and the Argonauts. But the tale still has influenced writers. It is one of the first quests to be told – a collection of great heroes going on a long and dangerous journey to get their hands on the Maguffin. There are many such stories.

The Lord of the Rings can even be considered to be the same plot, but in reverse. In that tale the Fellowship aren’t on a quest to capture the Maguffin, but to dispose of it – and there is only one place where it can successfully be got rid of.

You could easily move the action of Jason and the Argonauts to the far future. Instead of sailing across the oceans the heroes would be sailing across the seas of space. Or would that be too obvious?

While I have not adapted Theseus and the Minotaur I freely admit that the tale has been an influence on my writing. In the novella Memories the Labyrinth plays a big part, and there is a monster in there, as well. There is a labyrinth in one of my Briggs and Prenderghast short stories, with something which may or may not be a Minotaur in there, as well.

There are classic tales of literature other than those of the Graeco-Roman world, of course. Here I am thinking of the Far East – the classic tales of China and Japan, such as Journey To The West and the Water Margin.

Those of a certain age (and British) will recall a Japanese TV series from years ago called Monkey, which played out on our early evening television screens. It featured the adventures of Tripitaka, Monkey, Pigsy, Sandy, and others, as they went to India in search of Buddhist scrolls of wisdom. It was, of course, an adaptation of Journey To The west, by Wu Cheng En.

The Chinese classic The Water Margin is another thing which I am re-imagining. There is no point in setting that in the past, as I doubt if I could improve on the original. So I am taking the basic idea – of nine dozen heroes – and transferring it to a distant planet, following an interstellar war which has caused a collapse in civilisation. I’m not sending things back to the Stone Age. But I don’t want people using laser pistols or energy sword.

In a novel which I am calling All The Stars In Heaven there was a Great Collapse following the war. A lot of knowledge was lost; and nearly all technology was destroyed, along with most of the people. Now, generations later, society has recovered to such an extent that the main weapon is the musket and matchlock pistol. I want single shot weapons so that the story is dominated by the heroes, not by the weaponry.

There have been good and direct retellings of the classic tales in the past, ones which people should check out. I seem to recall an author by the name of Rosemary Sutcliffe who did several. I think that she did one on the Trojan War, although I may be confusing her with somebody else, as I don’t possess that book any more.

If any prospective writers out there want to re-imagine some of these classic tales, putting them in a distinctive, new setting, then my advice is to go for it. Just make sure that you bring something new to the story, and don’t simply recycle a classic of the past. Of course if you are familiar enough with the classic you can do a Rosemary Sutcliffe on the story, and present these legends in a form easy to read for new readers, perhaps unfamiliar with the tale. But I think it is far more interesting to transplant the kernel of the tale to some new and fantastical milieu.

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