“Myth” Placement: How and Why Popular Culture Monkeys with Mythology – Part 1

I think about classical mythology frequently.  Like Sayf Bowlin (thanks again for the super guest post!),  I was fascinated with the stories when I was a child, and I find that the literature I enjoy for myself and assign for my students has a definite theme of Greco-Roman deities.  Recently, as I was teaching William Butler Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan,” a powerful but distinctly unpleasant little gem, I was thinking about how Yeats used the story of Leda, usually captured by artists as a nice opportunity to pose a pretty girl with a pretty bird, as a vivid reminder of the way those in power use and discard others with no regard for either long- or short-term consequences.

Myths, despite their seemingly fixed narratives and characters, have always been in flux, changing, developing, rather than remaining as static artifacts.  Sometimes it is easy, particularly for those of us who are familiar with the classics, to stomp out of a movie or throw down a book and exclaim, “Well, that isn’t how that myth goes,” and certainly, there has been some mythological tinkering that is  just appalling in its disregard for any of the accepted elements of the stories as we know them. But rather than wringing our hands over kids these days who don’t know Tartarus from Tartar sauce, it might be more interesting to examine why writers, artists, and movie makers alter mythology. Sometimes, as we’ll see, there is not much depth or thought put behind the decision to change a traditionally accepted version of a classical myth, but often, those changes are done for very complex and thought-provoking reasons. In order to make this easier going, I’ll post this part, and later one(s) to follow.

  1. Trying to keep a PG rating

In classic mythology, it’s a pretty safe bet that anyone going along with a hero on a quest had better have his affairs in order before he leaves town, as his chances of survival are slim.  But staying at home doesn’t guarantee safety, either, particularly if one is a  pretty girl who catches the wandering eye of a lustful deity. Mythology is loaded with danger, death, and more other unpleasant elements than even Stephen King has dreamed up, and yet, we read it to children. Of course, the versions we share with children are edited, explaining only enough about Zeus’ girlfriends to clarify how the moons of Jupiter got those names. Though elementary school children may be able to cheerfully name the Olympians and their areas of influence, Oedipus usually stays safely up on the shelf until high school. This editing, making mythology “safe,”  often accounts for the changes made when mythology is used in movies and books today.  Sometimes this is done very badly, as with Disney’s animated Hercules. Obviously, a Disney movie can’t have a hero who is the illegitimate son of philandering Zeus, so instead baby Hercules is given a concoction that “un-gods” him and sets him on the course to be a hero and prove himself, singing, dancing, and trampling underfoot every possible connection with the story of Hercules in Greek mythology along the way.

Sometimes the clean-up act is done with a far defter hand. Rick Riordian smoothly skates over  the fact that his Percy Jackson is one of  a large group of illegitimate children produced by the irresponsible gods. When Percy notes that Aphrodite, Ares’ girlfriend, is in fact married to someone else, he gets a silencing glare, and the subject is dropped. Riordan also makes some clever  “adjustments” with the character of Dionysus, or Mr. D, who is a recovering alcoholic swilling down Diet Cokes and trying to straighten up his act by serving as a camp director rather than the sometimes frightening god of wine from mythology. C.S. Lewis also famously tames down some of the rowdier characters from the oldest soap opera, Greek mythology. His Prince Caspian Bacchus is wild but not terrifying, reined in by the presence of Aslan, his Maenads spirits of liberation, celebration, and freedom rather than sexual abandon and madness.

In fact, one of Lewis’s most beloved characters is a cleaned-up mythological creature. In classical mythology, satyrs are nearly always rapacious, untrustworthy characters, and they are frequently synonymous with fauns. Narnian fauns and satyrs, however, are different creatures. While satyrs are generally (though not always) allied with the forces of evil (like Wraggle in The Last Battle), fauns are generally urbane, civilized folks.  Thus, Mr. Tumnus graciously invites Lucy to tea and later risks his own freedom and life to secure hers. Were he a traditional goat-man from Greek mythology, he would have very different designs on a little girl lost in the woods, rather like the Big Bad Wolf from Into the Woods and his leering croon of “Hello, Little Girl” to Red Riding Hood. Thankfully, Lewis chose to create Tumnus as a complex individual struggling with his orders and the reality of humans, a change to mythological guidelines that gives us one of the most beloved characters in children’s literature, instead of just another beard-twirling cardboard satyr from mythology.

2. Or Not….

On the other hand, popular media, particularly film, frequently ramps up the violence, sex, or other elements that would have been ob skene (offstage) in the classical Greek theater.  Thus the over-the top monsters in movies like Clash of the Titans. This sort of thing rakes in the moviegoers and their money, especially when it’s in 3-D or done with amazing visual elements like 300.

Even when writers take a fairly discreet path with their use of mythology, the folks who adapt that book often do so with  a thicker brush. Instead of one minotaur, the CGI department gets to make a horde of them for the film of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardobe. Instead of making Grover the satyr the mild-mannered nature spirit of the book The Lightning Thief, moviemakers remold him as a hip player with an eye for the ladies. Strangely enough, that actually makes him more like a traditional satyr.  Riordan’s whimsical take on the Underworld is also scrapped in the film for a more “traditional” but far scarier vision. A well-dressed Charon who wants a pay raise gets replaced by the old hooded skeleton ferryman.  The mysterious but not terribly scary Sphinx of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is removed and a terrifying living labyrinth takes her place.

Modern audiences seem to enjoy a steady diet of bigger, badder, and more intense action, so these changes are clearly meant to cater to these perceived expectations, particularly with movies. Some writers clearly enjoy teaching a little historical mythology in their stories, hence Rowling’s fun mention of Hagrid buying Fluffy (aka Cerebus) off a Greek chappie (changed to Irish in the movie for no apparent reason) or Riordan’s many fun touches with his mythological cast of characters that will make them more memorable to young readers. Film makers, on the other hand, show less enthusiasm for educational efforts, especially if they can make the mythological elements look really nifty on the screen.

3. Three-Dimensional Characters

Just as authors and movie makers tinker with the boundaries of mythology to clean the stories up a bit or sell more tickets, they also make these choices to create more interesting and compelling characters.  Myth, by its very nature, dictates characters who lack depth and who often function like robots, traveling the same prescribed paths over and over: Zeus meets girl, Hera gets jealous, Zeus gets creative, girl gets pregnant, interesting children are produced, etc, etc. A modern author may fill in the blanks, perhaps with a bit of artistic license, to make the story more interesting and characters more believable.  Hence, the folks behind the new version of Clash of the Titans shifted Perseus’ love interest from Andromeda, whom he has only met in passing and is rescuing from principle, not passion, to the enchanting lady who has helped him along his arduous journey. It just seems more logical, more human, for him to fall for a girl he actually knows. These decisions abound in Riordan’s series,  as he playfully brings his Olympians to a modern era where Poseidon wears Tommy Bahama shirts. Thus, Cerebus is grouchy not “just because” but because he doesn’t get enough exercise and play time with rubber balls.

This process of changing the myths to deepen them is perhaps never done better than by C. S. Lewis in his masterful Till we Have Faces, in which the story of Cupid and Psyche is told by the usually uninteresting stock character of Psyche’s sister, re-invented as a powerful allegorical figure for the often obstinate spiritual seeker. At the same time that Lewis’s Orual tells her own very compelling story, however, the basic outlines of the myth never actually change. It is just the point of view switch that alters the story and turns it into a Christian, rather than pagan, one. Plenty of other novelists, notably Mary Renault with her Theseus adventures, have taken on the basic outlines of the myths and colored them in to create people who seem to be more real. Interestingly, as authors do coloring-in, they use paints from the boxes of their own experiences and backgrounds. Thus Lewis’s Orual could probably never have existed before his marriage to the strong-willed, brilliant,  but sometimes prickly Joy Gresham; and The Clash of the Titans features a Perseus with some very post-modern ideas about his fate and destiny. But more about that to follow….


  1. I can’t wait for the next installment!

    I hope in it (or in a separate post?) that you will explore Northrup Frye’s take in Anatomy of Criticism on myth as story-with-transcendent-meaning, on realist fiction, even the psychological sort, as things-as-they-are, and Romance as the mean of the other two, just realist enough to foster/allow reader entree and suspension of disbelief, and laden with allegorical transparencies through which the reader gets his or fix of greater-than-ego-self meaning. I think that Frysien critical spectrum helps explain the adaptations of myth we’re seeing, i.e., introducing enough ‘realist’ touches that the other-worldly referents, counter-intuitively, are more accessible to readers and movie-goers.

    I look forward to more of this discussion which I think goes right to the heart of what makes books with mythic elements so popular in an empiricist culture.

  2. I can’t wait either! I’m just catching up on old posts, so I won’t have to wait quite as long as everyone else will. 😉

  3. Also catching up on old posts!

    Fascinating thoughts, Elizabeth. As someone who rather enjoys the tinkering with myth, especially Lewis’s, I read this with great interest and am looking forward to the next installment.

    I need to check the library for Percy Jackson. The books sound like fun.

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