The Key: How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth

The Key: How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth

by James N. Frey

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Myths, says James N. Frey, are the basis of all storytelling, and their structures and motifs are as powerful for contemporary writers as they were for Homer.

In The Key, novelist and fiction-writing coach Frey applies his popular "Damn Good" approach to Joseph Campbell's insights into the universal structure of myths, providing a practical guide for fiction writers and screenwriters who want to shape their ideas into a powerful mythic story.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312300524
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 08/03/2002
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.62(d)

About the Author

James N. Frey is the author of the internationally bestselling How to Write a Damn Good Novel and How to Write a Damn Good Novel, II, as well as nine novels. He has taught and lectured on creative writing at several different schools and conferences throughout the U.S. and Europe.

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The Key


The Awesome Power of Myth

The Storyteller's Magic

As a storyteller, you practice a kind of magic, the most powerful magic on earth. You are a mythopoet, a maker of myth, and it is myth that consciously and subconsciously guides every human being on this planet, for good or ill.

Bunk, you say. Myths are old and dead and have no meaning to modern man.

Better think again.

Think about communism and its mythology. One-fourth of the people on earth still live under communism, despite the recent changes in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The communists constructed a mythology that they called "scientific." But as Martin Day in The Many Meanings of Myth (1984) points out, "The blissful perfection of its ultimate goal, anarchy, follows the party line of Elysium Islands of the Blest, Valhalla, Utopia, New Atlantis, Erewhon, and the Big Rock Candy Mountain."

Millions of people are being imprisoned and put to deathin the name of the communist myth in Cuba, Serbia, China, and Tibet. And many more will die in its name before the myth is dead and buried.

We in the West, too, have our mythologies. The Free Man, as an example. Think you're a "free" American? Tell it to the IRS.

Happiness is a new Buick, the ad men tell us. Smoking will make you good-looking and bristling with health, they told us for years, and look how many millions believed it! Thousands of deaths a year are caused by smoking in the United States, a catastrophe of epic proportions—yet the Marlboro Man ropes in scores of new smokers every hour. Martin Day concludes that modern man, "shorn of his rhetoric and his pretense," is governed by his mythical dreams just as much as are the "Trobriand Islanders and the Kwakiutl Indians."

Be careful when you say something is "just a myth."

The hundreds of Spanish conquistadors who gave their lives looking for the Fountain of Youth are ample testament to the power of myth. So were the Nirvana-seeking Buddhist monks in Saigon during the Vietnam War who poured gasoline on themselves and set themselves on fire while sitting in the lotus position. So are the screaming teenage girls at a rock concert. All have been swallowed up by mythic images.

Aping the mythic figures of John Wayne, Randolph Scott, and Hopalong Cassidy, young Americans a generation ago headed off to Vietnam to "kick a little ass." The myth of the all-powerful American cowboy hero ran into the brick wall of reality. It's no coincidence that as America came to the realization that the ass-kicking image of itself was false,the popularity of Western films and books collapsed. The myth of the invincible Western hero was dead.

Remember the story of Pandora from Greek mythology? She's the young woman who, out of curiosity, disobeyed a rule from On High and opened a box (some say a jar) she wasn't supposed to open, and in so doing let loose all the evils of the world.

You could search the wide world over, and you wouldn't find a single individual who thinks that the evils of the world can be blamed on poor, maligned Pandora. The old gal is dead now and is dismissed as "just a myth" by every single human being on the planet.

But you will have no trouble at all finding people who believe it is manifestly true that the evils of the world can be blamed on a young woman named Eve, who disobeyed a rule from On High and ate an apple she shouldn't have, and that brought evil into the world. To hundreds of millions of true believers, the Adam and Eve myth is absolutely, historically true. Millions of faithful believe it is as true as the fact that the sun shines in the daytime. For them, the Adam and Eve myth is a working myth.

In fact, the church to which I belong teaches that the Adam and Eve story happened to real people, just the way it's set down in the Good Book. In my church, if you dared suggest that the Adam and Eve business in the Garden of Eden was "just a myth" made up to explain the mysterious workings of nature to a primitive people, as is the case with Pandora, you would be hooted down, jeered, and branded a blasphemer; you might even be stoned in the parking lot.

When a myth is believed as true, it's a powerful force.People have been killing each other over myths and their interpretation since, well, who knows? Probably since before Pandora opened the box and before Eve tasted that juicy red pippin, which, by the way, many scholars now believe was actually a pomegranate.

Hundreds of millions of people in the world believe Muhammad leaped into Heaven, leaving behind a hole in the ground in the shape of a foot where he launched himself. They also believe that if you die in a jihad, a holy war, you go right to Heaven. In fact, millions of eager young men proved the force of the myth by charging machine guns while screaming, "God is great!" in one of the bloodiest wars in human history, the Iranian-Iraqi war of 1980 to 1988, which had 2.7 million casualties, including over a million deaths. To the soldiers who so gleefully martyred themselves, there was no question about it: the Muhammadan myth is manifestly true; Muhammad leaped into Heaven, and you can go there too if you die in a jihad.

Just a myth, you say?

Because of the power of men to create myth, Percy Shelley, the nineteenth-century poet, called poets and fiction writers "the unacknowledged legislators of the world."

When Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther came out in 1814, it was an instant success. It was the story of a young man so obsessed by an unrequited love that he kills himself—a monomythic story of a hero transformed (albeit in a negative way) by love. Over the next few decades, hundreds of young men were found dead with a pistol in one hand, a love note in the other, and a copy of Young Werther in their back pockets.

Just a myth, you say?

When Secretary of the Interior Seward met Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), he said, "So this is the young lady who started it all." He meant the War Between the States, of course. Her story, a monomythic masterpiece, was largely a product of her imagination; it depicted slavery as hell on earth and gave impetus to the abolitionist movement and the already-growing war fever.

So would you say her fantastic creation, which led to one of the bloodiest wars in history, was just a myth?

To say the pen is mightier than the sword is to trivialize the pen. The pen is far mightier than a sword; it's mightier than an atom bomb. Mightier than all the atom bombs ever created.

See Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will (1935), and you can see the effect of the Nazi myth on its followers. Myth indeed is a potent force.

You, as a fiction writer, have the pen in your hand. What you create may have an enormous impact on individuals, communities, nations, the world—and world history.

The ancient peoples of the world knew the power of the word. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, God created the heavens and the earth not by waving a magic wand, but by speaking words. The ancients believed that your soul was your breath; that words, created by breath, came from your soul, from the immortal part of your being; hence, they were sacred. And powerful.

The Gospel of John in the New Testament begins: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

And the Word ... was God.

Indeed it was. And still is.

The Evolution of Storytelling

Reflect for a moment on the first storytellers.

Human beings first began to bury objects with their dead—jewelry, weapons, pottery, and so on—around a hundred thousand years ago, the archaeologists tell us. These people must have had some notion of life after death—otherwise, what's the point of throwing perfectly good jewelry, weapons, and cooking pots into a hole in the ground?

No one knows when humans began to speak. Language perhaps started out with nothing more than grunts. It must have developed slowly over untold millennia. But certainly by the beginning of the Stone Age—when people were cooperating in hunting large beasts, making villages, and trading with other tribes or clans—language was probably developed enough for hunters to return from the hunt to tell of the excitement of almost killing the huge, woolly mammoth that got away.

Storytelling perhaps began as tales of hunters and gatherers. It is likely that, as with the hunting and fishing and golfing tales today, things had a tendency to get exaggerated. The imagination begins to take over, and the woolly mammoth starts to breathe fire, and, before you know it, you have dragons, giants, and flying horses. The imagination is indeed a curious and powerful thing.

Try putting a dish towel over your hand, pulling it tight,and tucking it in under you thumb. Tell a three-year-old that this is "Igor," who's looking for magic apples, and the kid will quickly join in the search. For the child there's not much difference between Igor and the magic of the TV, which brings Bugs Bunny into the living room at the push of a button.

The depth of feeling a child may have toward a character in a story is truly astounding. I've seen my own children cover their ears when I—as the wolf in the story—said, "Little pig, little pig, let me come in, or I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll bloooooooooooow your house in!"

Mythologist Leo Frobenius once related the story of a professor friend of his who, being bugged by his four-year-old daughter, gave her three burned matches to play with, calling them Hansel, Gretel, and the witch, and went back to his scholarly pursuits. A while later, the little girl ran to him, terrified, screaming, "Daddy! Daddy! Take the witch away!"

The primitive storyteller sitting at the campfire at night was creating many scary images for his or her audience. Primitive storytellers, looking into the eyes of their audience, could see them grow large, could see their listeners fall into a trance state as the story was being told. They had a distinct advantage over modern storytellers, who can only see the words on the computer screen and must imagine their effect on the reader.

The power of the storyteller to put a reader into a trance state is the source of the storyteller's magic.

If you were to put electrodes on the head of your reader, you would find that as the reader becomes more and moreabsorbed into the story world—the fictive dream—the brain waves would actually change, resulting, in effect, in a trance state.

Science has discovered that readers of romance novels produce endorphins in their brains. Endorphins are chemically identical to morphine, an extremely addictive drug. Astonishing as it sounds, the romance reader, in fact, becomes physically addicted to romances.

A dope pusher may get hundreds of people addicted. A fiction writer can get them addicted by the millions. The storyteller's magic power is truly immense.

Once upon a time a young lad of my acquaintance was madly in love with a comely lass who had moved from the San Francisco Bay area to Seattle to study the art of dentistry. He stayed behind to pursue his career as a magazine editor. At Christmastime, the lad booked a flight to Seattle to visit the lass. Eager was he to be reunited with his true love. On the way to the plane he stopped to buy a book to read on his journey. He chose Stephen King's The Different Seasons. He arrived at the departure gate a little early (being anxious to get his journey under way) and took a seat near the counter to await being called to board. He began reading the novel.

Although but a few feet from the counter, and wideawake, he did not hear his flight announced, did not notice the throngs of people tramping past him to get onto the plane, did not hear his name being called repeatedly. He missed all this, because Stephen King had cast a spell on him. The lad had become so absorbed into the story world that the real world went away.

Such is the power of storytelling.

Clearly, the early storytellers used the phenomena of the natural world as material for their stories. Why is it, the early Greeks must have wondered, that the laurel tree didn't lose its leaves in winter? The storytellers explained it with a story: Daphne was a fair maid, first love of Apollo, but alas, Cupid had shot her with a negative love arrow, and therefore she could love no man—or god. Apollo pursued her with all his will (a sexual harassment case if ever there was one), and, in her desperation, Daphne prayed to Peneus, the river god, to help her. Peneus changed her into a laurel tree. Since she couldn't be Apollo's wife, he made his crown of her leaves, and decreed her leaves would always be green.

You see, the story explains the phenomenon.

Where do frogs come from? According to Greek myth, Latona was cursed by the goddess Juno and went on the run. Thirsty, she asked some people for water, but she was refused. Latona asked Heaven for help, and the people who denied her water were changed into frogs.

Where does lightning come from? Zeus throwing thunderbolts. Storms at sea? Neptune's wrath. The wind? The enormous snores of a god sleeping in a cave.

To the ancients, stories explained all natural phenomena, from the sun's course in the sky to the genesis of disease. Storytellers had become theologians, priests, and priestesses. In the process, they created not only myths but culture.

And the process has continued to this very day.

The Constancy of Myth from Place to Place, Age to Age

Here's a story you might have heard:

A poor widow sends her young son, Jack, to town to sell their cow. Jack is bamboozled by a stranger into selling the cow for five bean seeds. When he gets home, his mother calls him a fool and tosses the seeds out the window. The next morning there's a gigantic stalk grown into the sky. The lad climbs the stalk and finds a mystical land in the sky. Here Jack meets a fairy who tells him yon castle is really his inheritance from his long-lost father, but is now inhabited by a child-eating giant and his one-eyed wife. Jack goes to the castle and encounters the wife, who shields him from the giant. Jack steals a bag of gold and returns home.

After he and his mother spend the gold (in riotous living in some versions, doing good works in others), Jack, dead broke, returns to the magic land in the clouds and steals a hen that lays golden eggs from the giant and escapes back down the bean stalk. Jack and his mother return to prosperity, but when the hen stops laying, Jack goes back again to snatch a magic harp that plays all by itself. Chased by the giant, Jack scoots down the bean stalk and, to cut off pursuit, chops it down. The giant falls to his death. The music of the magic harp soothes the hen, and it begins laying once again, and everyone lives happily every after.

"The Greeks have this tale," Andrew Lang tells us in Customand Myth (1941), "the people of Madagascar have it, the Lowland Scotch, the Celts, the Russians, the Italians, the Algonquins, the Finns, the Samoans have it, the Zulus, the Bushmen, Japanese, Eskimos ... . It is not merely the main features that are the same in most remote parts of the world, but even the details."

Some mythologists claim that a recognizable version of "Jack and the Bean Stalk" appears in every culture on earth.

One of the most interesting aspects of the storyteller's art is that it became the rule that the story be told the same each time. Hence, eons passed with very little change in the stories. If you tell the same story over and over again to children, "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," for instance, you might tire of the same ending. Try changing it. Your young listeners will turn on you. The same, no doubt, was true for the ancients. Stories untold millennia old are repeated today exactly as they've been passed down.

Other myths, legends, and folktales (all of which are the products of storytellers) bear remarkable similarities despite the fact that they appear in different cultures, places, and times.

In fact, they sound like copies of each other. Psychologist Otto Rank noted that "even though widely separated by space and entirely independent of each other," myths "present a baffling similarity or, in part, a literal correspondence." Mythologist Martin Day has found some rather striking similarities in the mythologies of various religions from around the world: "The Meru of Kenya state that their culture hero Mugive led the Meru people out of bondage acrossa sea that parted for them and eventually brought them to a promised land. Mugive possessed a magic staff and transmitted to the Meru seven commandments vouchsafed to him by God ... ."

This account almost perfectly matches the account in the Bible where Moses leads his people, the ancient Israelites, out of bondage in Egypt across the Red Sea, which parts for them and brings them to the promised land. He gives them ten commandments vouchsafed to him by God.

Martin Day also observed: "Tahiti myth states that Ta'aroa, the creator-god, put the first man to sleep and then extracted from his body a bone from which Ta'aroa formed the first woman ... ."

In Genesis, Adam is created by God, who then creates Eve from Adam's rib. Truly amazing, isn't it? Coincidence? Mythologists believe that it is possibly a coincidence, even though the similarities are hard to explain.

Cultural borrowing could explain it, of course. Cultural borrowing is common enough.

Let's take, as an example, the Robin Hood legend.

Tradition has it, mythologist Lord Raglan claimed, that Robin Hood's exploits occurred during the twelfth century. It's usually assumed he was a Saxon who fought against the invading Normans. As we all know, and Lord Raglan in The Hero (1936) said, he lived with fellows named William, George, Allen, Gilbert, Little John, and Friar Tuck. None of these names, Lord Raglan claimed, are Saxon, and little then meant "mean" or "nasty," and friars did not even arrive in England until 1224. And "Robin" is a form of "Robert," which was not a Saxon name either. Hood and wood, LordRaglan pointed out, are the same word in many English dialects.

And then there's the problem with the longbow, with which, supposedly, Robin and his fellows of Sherwood were proficient. It didn't come to England until the battle at Falkirk in 1298.

So who was Robin Hood in history? Most probably, Lord Raglan said, "he was a holdover pagan god, the star of a May Day celebration called 'Robin Hood's Festival.'" Robin Hood was likely an English version of the French cultural hero Robin des Bois, who was the star of French May Day festivals along with Maid Marian, who was "Queen of May."

An even earlier version of Robin Hood may be that of another legendary character, William Tell, who is credited with feats very similar to Robin Hood's.

An astounding example of the similarity of myths from culture to culture is the myth of the hero king. The broad outline of the common "functions" (as mythologists call the significant parts of a myth, legend, or folktale) compiled by Lord Raglan follows:

1. The hero's mother is a royal virgin;

2. his father is a king, and

3. often a near relative of his mother, but

4. the circumstances of his conception are unusual, and

5. he is also reputed to be the son of a god.

6. At birth an attempt is made, usually by his father or his maternal grandfather, to kill him, but

7. he is spirited away, and

8. reared by foster parents in a far country.

9. We are told nothing of his childhood, but

10. on reaching manhood he returns or goes to his future kingdom.

11. After a victory over the king and/or a giant, dragon, or wild beast,

12. he marries a princess, often the daughter of his predecessor, and

13. becomes king.

14. For a time he reigns uneventfully, and

15. prescribes laws, but

16. later he loses favor with the gods and/or his subjects, and

17. is driven from his throne and city, after which

18. he meets with a mysterious death,

19. often at the top of a hill.

20. His children, if any, do not succeed him.

21. His body is not buried, but nevertheless

22. he has one or more holy sepulchres.

Lord Raglan then goes on to see the points of correspondence between this and actual myths. The winner is Oedipus with 22. Theseus scores 20, Romulus 18, Hercules 17, Perseus 18, Jason 15, Bellerophon 16, Pelops 13, Asclepios 12, Dionysus 19, Apollo 11, Zeus 15. Lord Raglan then compares these to the broad outlines of the biblical heroes. Joseph receives 12 points, Moses 20, and Elijah 9.

Moses, as an example, would be scored like this:

His parents (1 and 2) were of the principal family of the Levites and (3) near relatives; he is (5) also reputed to be theson of Pharaoh's daughter (pharaohs were gods, remember). Pharaoh (6) attempts to kill him at birth, but (7) he's wafted away and (8) reared secretly. We are told (9) nothing of his childhood, but on reaching manhood he (11) kills a man and (10) goes to Midian, where (12) he marries the ruler's daughter. Returning (10) to Egypt he (11) gains a series of magical victories over Pharaoh and (13) becomes a ruler. His rule lasts a long time, and then (15) he flees from leadership and (18) dies on a mountain. His children do not succeed him (20).

The correspondence with the myth of the hero king and the gospel accounts of Jesus Christ is also rather striking. When this fact was first noticed by the Europeans who were colonizing the New World in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it threw them into a panic. How could this be, that the myths of these pagan savages were so close in form and function to the story of Christ? Instead of seeing the similarity as speaking to the universal brotherhood of mankind, these European dimwits went full speed ahead burning books and records and smashing temples and icons, committing the biggest cultural genocide in history.

The Adventures of Mythic Heroes in Modern Times

Here's a familiar story:

A jaded loner of a detective—tough on the outside, soft on the inside—who lives in a trailer, a boat, his office—any place but a house in the suburbs with a wife and kids—is hired by a young woman whose father, uncle, sister, brother,boss, cousin, friend—anyone but a husband—is in mortal danger. The detective reluctantly takes the case, and after a while he finds a body, follows suspects, interviews people who don't seem to know much, is bumped on the head, gets chased; the young woman client is kidnapped, the detective finds the killer, rescues the client, recovers the diamonds, gold, or whatever the bad guys are really after, and in the end the detective brings the bad guys to justice. Oh yes, the detective drives a beat-up Caddy, a Ferrari, a vintage Porsche—anything but a Chevy two-door sedan. In the TV show Murder She Wrote, a female version of the same story, the detective hero rides a bike. (For the purposes of this book, a "hero" is not a sex-specific term, so a hero can be either a man or a woman. Fastidious grammarians, please forgive us our trespasses.)

In the male version, the detective is often named after manly things, usually a gun. Peter Gun. Canon. Winchester. Magnum. Have you ever in your life met anyone named "Magnum"? Check the phone book. You won't find a single one.

Anyway, the woman-in-trouble detective story has been told on American television fifty times a week now for fifty years. With reruns, it's up there into the millions of showings to countless billions of people if you count all the stations around the world. You'd think audiences would tie of it. You'd think they'd scream for something different, something fresh, anything. But they don't, and they won't.

The reason is that the TV detective story is mythic, and because it is mythic, the retelling of it confirms its mythic power.

A myth confirms and reconfirms our most deeply held cultural beliefs. The TV detective story confirms our deeply held cultural belief that the individual can bring justice to a situation of injustice. We believe deeply in individualism.

There's another oft-told story in America.

An attractive young woman, usually fair-skinned and fair-haired (let's call her Sydney), meets a darker-complected man (let's call him Dirk) a few years older, wiser, and richer, though nowadays she has a career and is usually quite successful, so the attraction isn't purely financial. She finds herself irresistibly (let us say, biologically) attracted to him. The pull is incredibly strong, yet both resist because of objections from the family, society, or whatever. Meanwhile, another character (let's call him Philip) is pursuing the young woman. Philip is perfect: went to all the right schools, has money in the bank, and so on. Sydney's mother thinks he's swell. Meanwhile, Sydney has to deal with Dirk over some problem—his race car is disturbing her bird sanctuary, say—and while they shout over the noise of his throbbing engines, they're becoming more and more irresistibly and profoundly attracted to each other. It's maddening, really. Finally, as Philip gets closer and closer to winning the fair maid, the attraction between Dirk and Sydney becomes so powerful it can no longer be contained. It erupts, and the two lovers throw themselves at each other in a titanic collision of love and sex and all that, and they end up happily in a committed relationship.

This story has been told in romance novels thousands of times. In fact, over half of the novels sold in America (measured in units sold, not dollars) are sold by a singlepublisher—Harlequin Books of Toronto, Canada—and all of them are a variation on this single theme: love wins out.

Such is the power of myth.

The romance is simply another version of mediaeval romances such as Eloise and Abelard, and more ancient stories, such as Samson and Delilah. Before that there was The Iliad, a great love story, which is no doubt a retelling of older myths that go back to the Stone Age. For how many more millennia will the romance formula continue to attract readers? As long as there are men, women, and biology, no doubt.

The myth of the lone detective is an urban version of an older myth, the lone gunman of the Old West, which was an incarnation of the lone gunman on the frontier, and the lone knight errant, who was an incarnation of Ajax and Achilles and Ulysses. This hero is centuries old. In fact, the tough guy-private eye-frontiersman-knight-errant-Greek warrior is older than writing itself. Far older. Uncounted millennia older. Who is this hero? He is a fighter for justice. He has a quick gun or a quick sword, a big fist, a big mouth, and a soft heart.

Two Heroes

Let us consider an ancient hero, Hercules—the Roman name for the Greek hero Heracles. Hercules was the son of the god Zeus and his mistress, the human wife of a Theban general. Hera, Zeus's wife and a goddess, sent two great snakes to kill Hercules while he was yet a child, but the lad was so strong he killed the serpents. As a young man, hekilled a lion with his bare hands. Later, he was to complete twelve labors, including killing another lion, a twelve-headed Hydra, and savage birds with bronze beaks. No problem.

Hercules is courageous, tremendously strong, and ferocious in battle. And he acts for his people.

Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, says of Hercules:

He has our sympathy because he performs his heroic deeds for the people ... . Secondly in performing his labors served a master. Thirdly [he has] a second in command who stands by his side and occasionally even saves his life ... . Fourthly, and most importantly, there is a feature of inherent superiority that sets the hero apart from ordinary mortals ... this superiority is so impressive that the cause he represents becomes automatically right and our total sympathy is immediately captured by him ... . Herein, precisely, lies the basic psychological significance of the [Hercules] myth ... [such heroes] enable us, in fact almost compel us, not only to identify with their heroes, but to derive deep emotional-moral satisfaction from the feats they—and through them, we—perform ... the more familiar the hero, the more often we have watched him overcome ever-increasing dangers and challenges, the more we know what to expect of him, the more we identify with him ... the hero gains immeasurably from repetition.

Hercules has immense strength, resourcefulness, ingenuity, stick- to-itiveness, and he is, at times, slightly buffoonish. He also has an insatiable sexual appetite.

Many centuries later, a former British intelligence officer, Ian Fleming, invented the character of James Bond. Bond has immense strength, resourcefulness, ingenuity, stick-to-itiveness, and he is, at times, slightly buffoonish. And he has an insatiable sexual appetite.

It's obvious Bond is not just a hero, but a mythic hero. For one thing, he's surrounded by mythological characters (whom we'll be discussing at length later) such as the "Herald" named M, who brings Bond his mission, and a "Magical Helper," Q, who gives him his magic. Magic, you say? Certainly: a briefcase full of magic in From Russia with Love (1957). In later stories he uses folding helicopters, a pen that fires rockets, a personal submarine, and so on.

It's usually a tip-off that a story is myth based when the characters have names like M and Q or numbers, such as "007." Bond is just as much a mythic hero as Hercules, except that he has modern magic: technology. He has his souped-up Astin Martin that fires rockets, he has the exploding briefcase, he has hideaway sniper rifles, and he can call on his Magical Helper Felix of the CIA to give him more magic any time he wants it.

Another way you can tell he's a mythic hero is that he is on the side of good fighting evil. There are no redeeming qualities in James Bond's enemies, such as Dr. No or Gold-finger or any other villains in the Bondiad. They are as evil as Grendel, the monster in Beowulf; as evil as Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham are to Robin Hood; as evilas Circe, the witch, is to Ulysses; as evil as Satan in the Garden of Eden.

Reading about a mythic hero such as James Bond is a confirmation of an article of faith on the part of the reader. Ian Fleming's Goldfinger (1959) is just as much a fable as Jason and the Argonauts. A fable in modern dress. Most modern mythic heroes are easily recognized as mythic. Dirty Harry, the cops on NYPD Blue, all the tough-guy cops from Sam Spade and Mike Hammer to Spenser are little changed from when their names were Sir Lancelot, Ulysses, Samson. The stories about them are incarnations of legends and myths as old as human speech.

It is the thesis of this book that the fundamental mythic storytelling techniques have survived and developed through the millennia and are with us today just as much as they were with ancient man. The hero of popular fiction is the legitimate heir of stories going back untold millennia, and the forms of stories and the cultural ideas that they illustrate are unchanged. If the modern writer is made aware of these forms and the cultural role of myth in the lives of modern man, he or she will be able to use them as a powerful tool that speaks to the reader at the deepest levels of the unconscious mind.

But what if you don't want to write James Bond-type shoot-'em-ups? Can you still use this mythic form if you want to write more-mainstream or even literary fiction?

Of course you can.

A member of my Berkeley workshop, Tess Collins, patterned her hero's journey after the mythic hero, and sold her novel The Law of Revenge (1997) for a healthy advance. Inthe novel, Alma Bashears is a thoroughly modern, successful, and classy San Francisco lawyer who goes home to the hills of Kentucky, where she never intended to return, to defend her brother, accused of murder. Her own childhood hometown has become the Mythological Woods. There she will go through an initiation and be transformed.

Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea (1952) is a mythic masterpiece. The hero, the old man Santiago, is possessed of great courage and special skills and takes great risks to bring food to his people and to serve as a model and example. He is just as much a hero as Hercules or James Bond. The Nobel Prize committee singled out The Old Man and the Sea for specific praise as having lasting literary merit when Hemingway was awarded the prize. In Avery Corman's Kramer vs. Kramer (1977), the hero, Mr. Kramer, suddenly finds himself deserted by his wife. He enters the Mythological Woods, where he is given trials, symbolically dies, and is reborn as a responsible father.

One of the biggest commercial hits of the past decade was John Grisham's The Firm (1991). In it, the clever and resourceful ambitious yuppie hero, Mitch McDeere, enters the Mythological Woods—he goes to work for a Mafia-owned law firm in Memphis and in the end is transformed, reborn as an island-hopping beach bum in the Caribbean.

Myth and Its Importance to the Fiction Writer

Many theories have been advanced to account for the similarities in myths from around the world. The various theories can be classed as "spread" theories, naturalistic theories, psychoanalytical and mass dream theories (Freudian), and inherited engram theories (Jungian).

The spread theories say it all came about through cultural borrowing, that human culture started in one place, usually someplace in Africa, and spread throughout the world. Others claim it all started in the Garden of Eden. Whichever theory is correct, the point is, as mankind spread from some place of beginning, myths spread as part of cultural baggage. Even though language changed, the myths stayed constant. Such is the power of myth.

Myths also spread through trade and conquest, often with a change of names for the heroes.

The naturalistic theory of why myths are so similar proposes that myths are symbolic representations of natural events. The first to advance this idea was perhaps Max Muller in an essay titled "Comparative Mythology" (1897) and published in book form in 1909. He maintained that myths tell about natural phenomena such as dawn, day, night, and the seasons. Take, as an example, the Oedipus myth. It was foretold by an oracle that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother.

Okay, to prevent that from happening, Oedipus leaves Corinth and bumps into his father, whom he doesn't recognize,and they quarrel, and Oedipus kills him. Later, he meets his mother and marries her without recognizing her, quite by accident. But when he finds out what he has done, Oedipus is overcome with remorse and puts out his own eyes, and his mother/wife kills herself. A naturalist would say that Oedipus is the sun, who kills his own father, the darkness; marries his mother, the sky; and dies blinded as the setting sun.

Maybe this does account for some of the similarities. But it certainly is not the full story.

The psychoanalytical school of Sigmund Freud sees myth as a sort of public dream, which reflects an underlying truth about the pyschosexual life of the individual. As an example, the myth of the birth of the hero (a common element of myth is that heroes have a special birth) is a retelling of the birth trauma of every individual, the memory of which is supposedly buried in the subconscious. The pattern of the monomyth is simply a retelling (in the Freudians' view) of the individual's break with the parents and learning to adjust to the demands of the adult world. In other words, every story is a coming-of-age story.

Psychiatrist Carl Jung had a different theory of mythic origins and a different view of the subconscious (which he called "the unconscious") mind from that of Freud. Jung claimed the unconscious was split in two. One half he called the "individual" unconscious, which was pretty much like Freud's, consisting of hidden or repressed memories of bad times, impulses suppressed, and the like. The other half was the "collective" unconscious. In Jung's theory, myth takes a central place. Mythical motifs are structural elements of thepsyche, he claimed. He used the term archetype to describe the commonly found components of myth.

Jung thought that the components of myth were actually biological structures of the brain—that they are, so to speak, hardwired into a mental computer. Myths, Jung proposed, were automatically responded to upon an individual's hearing them. The individual uses these structures and the myths themselves to help in his or her own transformations. They are patterns of behavior, stored away for future use. When a young woman becomes a bride, a wife, and a mother, she must transform herself. The mythological models in her mind show her the way to accomplish this. Say she decides later to go to medical school. What ordinary person can slice open the skin of another human being and start unfolding the guts inside? One must first be psychologically prepared by going through the initiation rite, the mythic journey of transformation called medical school.

To accomplish any kind of personal change, you will find yourself following the path of the hero of a monomyth.

In the old days, say of the Vietnam era, a young man lounging around his parents' home is suddenly drafted (the call to adventure). He leaves home (crossing the threshold); he gets his hair cut and puts on a uniform (changing his appearance); he learns to fire a rifle, to march, to say, "Yes, sir" (learning the new rules); he must go on long marches and fight (being tested); and somewhere along the line he starts to think of himself as no longer a civilian: he is now a soldier (death and resurrection—the birth of a new individual consciousness), and so on.

The pattern is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow in the lives of our heroes and our lives as well.

No matter which theory or combination of theories one might believe accounts for the similarity of myths around the world, it doesn't really matter. The fact is, these similarities exist. Somehow, mythic forms resonate in every individual human being on this planet. When a human being encounters some version of a myth, the individual responds at a very deep level, subconsciously, and is powerfully drawn to it as by magic. The force of myth is irresistible. Mythic forms and mythic structures are the foundation on which all good stories are built; these forms and structures are the key a modern fiction writer can use to create powerful fiction.

Mankind's Greatest Achievement

It is often said that the taming of fire is mankind's greatest achievement. Others say it's the invention of the wheel. Both are wrong. Mankind's greatest achievement is the invention of the mythic hero. How exactly this miracle came about no one is sure, but the impact of the hero on society has been momentous.

Let's go back for a moment to the nightly campfire of a primitive tribe in Europe.

The storyteller is telling of the adventures of Beowulf, who, after fighting a monster named Grendel, becomes king, and later fights a dragon to the death.

Beowulf is brave, resourceful, noble, self-sacrificing, performshis deeds for the people, and so on. He's an incarnation of the hero with a thousand faces.

Of course, as the members of a tribe listen to this tale, they become transfixed. They experience what the hero is experiencing and succumb to all the usual sympathetic magic tricks storytellers perform for their listeners. The storyteller is the tribe's entertainment and creates the mythic pattern of change for the individuals of the tribe.

The storyteller's stories have become the myths of the tribe by this time. Beowulf is not just showing us the way to change, he is a model of behavior. The hero's deeds convey to members of the tribe how they must act. They, like Beowulf, must be self-sacrificing and brave, fight evil, and so on. Heroes are our models: their stories convey to each succeeding generation the cultural values of the tribe.

Samson was a cultural hero to the ancient Israelites. Samson, like Beowulf, is an incarnation of the hero with a thousand faces. He is brave, self-sacrificing, and fights the evil Philistines. In addition, he has religious significance. He is a "judge" of Israel. He was dedicated to God when he was a child, and God has in return given him superhuman strength.

The story of Samson and Delilah in chapter 16 of the Book of Judges in the Old Testament of the Bible is the story of betrayal. First Samson betrays God by becoming an egomaniac; then he falls in love with Delilah, who betrays him by cutting off his hair, thus causing him to lose his strength. He is blinded, chained to a wheel, and mocked, and then, through facing up to his sins and asking for mercy, is redeemed by God. Samson is the perfect hero for theIsraelites—not only does he have the usual heroic qualities, but he has a spiritual death and rebirth as well.

So do, of course, many of the Greek heroes. Whereas Israel's heroes must be true to their God and their God alone, and they must obey the Torah, the Greeks, whose religion was a religion of fate, must accept theirs or incur the wrath of the gods.

Today, in America, the God of obedience has become the God of freedom. Our heroes don't follow the law; they can only succeed if they disobey it. Our cultural values are individualist, not tribal. The modern private investigator from Hammet's Sam Spade and Chandler's Philip Marlow to Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski and Grafton's Kinsey Millhone are loners who must break the law—commit break-ins, lie, make forgeries, co-opt other identities, and so on—to bring lawbreakers to justice.

The male hero of the modern romance is very much the same outlaw type, living by his own code at the fringes of society. The modern mystery and the modern romance make up a huge percentage of the fiction sold in America today, perhaps 80 to 85 percent. The millennia-old hero marches on, dressed in a new suit.

Our modern heroes have all the classic qualities of the mythic hero: great strength (mental or physical), great courage, great skill; they're loyal and have sexual magnetism, unrelenting determination to conquer evil, and the assistance of magic or a Magical Helper.

The ancient mythic female hero often took the form of innocence personified. In ancient tales she was in need of rescue by the knight. Later she was the star of the gothic romance, where her innocence was in peril fromdark, vaguely evil men with seemingly base desires. In modern times, she's still with us, and though still often somewhat innocent or naive, she is no longer virginal and helpless.

At times, a male hero, too, may be the innocent in peril, as in Bram Stoker's Dracula.

The purpose of fiction in general is still, today, essentially religious. What! you say. Religious? That's right, religious. Literature proves there is order in the universe. It says that, in life, moral choices lead to outcomes. In fiction there is meaning in human events. If life is chaos, and literature mirrors this chaos, there's no point to reading. If "stuff happens," but events, choices, and conflict resolution do not lead anywhere, there would be no reason for a reader to read fiction at all. Readers read to be reassured that life does have meaning and there is order behind all the chaos. These are essentially religious sentiments.

There is comfort in reading literature primarily because it proves to us that life matters, that what we do matters. Love can conquer all. Justice will prevail.

Now that we've covered myth in general, it's time to get down to the actual monomyth itself, and how one goes about creating a modern version from the ground up.

THE KEY. Copyright © 2000 by James N. Frey. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Introduction: Why Every Fiction Writer in America Should Read This Book,
1: The Awesome Power of Myth,
2: What It's All About Is Who,
3: The Twin Pillars of the Myth-Based Story: The Hero and the Evil One,
4: The Home of the Brave: The Hero in the World of the Common Day,
5: The Woods Are Full of Fascinating Characters,
6: Fasten Your Seat Belt, the Journey Begins,
7: Death, Rebirth, and the Confrontation with the Evil One,
8: Welcome Home, Sailor, or, The Hero Returns to the Community,
9: Of Tragic Heroes and Comic Heroes and Other Stuff,
Copyright Page,

Customer Reviews

Key: How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
ablueidol on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
workaday rather than inspiring
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This book really blew me away it's very well written, and the author certainly knows what he's talking about. I was very impressed. The Key uses a lot of examples and backs up every statement with empiracal evidence and sets up every writer to author a damn good novel. If you write at all, you should read this book.