Mark Neumayer

author of the Valda & the Valkyries series

Tag: myths

Comics and Myths

I like comics and I like mythology. That is not a surprising combo since both of them can feature stories about bigger than life heroes. We even have a number of gods and goddesses who have crossed over from myth into the world of superheroes: Thor, Hercules, Isis and many more. So if there is a new Superman movie out – I’m going to be seeing it, right? Not exactly.

I know there is a lot of online debate about the current Man of Steel movie. People seem to love it or hate it. One of my best friends saw the movie and loved it. He considers it not just a great Superman movie, but a great superhero movie. None of what I am about to say is intended to disparage his opinion or that of anyone else. We just happened to get into an interesting email discussion about it and it inspired some thoughts I wanted to share on here.

Right off the bat let me say that I have not seen the movie. I’ve read a number of reviews and read most of the spoilers. I don’t normally do that. I did it in this case because I wanted to know how they were going to handle the story. Superman has been around for 75 years and he has leapt from the pages of the comic into the collective subconscious. In my mind he has attained mythic stature. That becomes a problem for modern story tellers. In the old days everyone sat around the fire and heard the same stories repeated again and again over the years. Sure, every bard had their own sense of flair, maybe they accented one part of a story or one aspect of a hero over the others, but they did not change the heart of the story. Modern writers seem to feel compelled to do that. It goes beyond adding their personal style and instead of retelling something they are remaking it.

We can blame Batman for a lot of this current version of Superman. Not the character so much as the recent wildly successful movie trilogy. These movies retold the story of Batman but brought it into the modern world and grounded it in reality. They postulated a realistic version of the character that you could readily believe existed. That works for Batman because he is just like us, except, you know, cranked up to the nth degree.

Christopher Nolan, the director of those Batman movies, was the producer of Man of Steel and is also credited with the story of the film. There was a lot of hype about how he was going to brings us a more realistic Superman. The problem, for me, is that Superman doesn’t need to be told realistically. He wasn’t grounded in reality to start with. From the beginning his character shared more with the legendary gods than the common man. We are also starting out with a guy in tights who wears a cape, an alien from clear across the galaxy who happens to look like us, someone nearly invulnerable who can fly and has other amazing powers.The grounding is unnecessary. We are already willing to suspend our disbelief. When you take a larger than life character like this and try to explain and justify everything about them you too often end up with nothing but a steaming jar of midichlorians. (I’m referring here to the explanation for how the Force works in the Star Wars prequels. That is a classic example because we didn’t need to have the Force explained -we already bought into it from the first films.) The Christopher Reeves Superman film had a tagline that said “You’ll believe a man can fly.” Yet they didn’t try to explain it all. They just ran with the story and we were swept up in their wake.

You have to stay true to the essence of the original story. When I wrote my first novel I looked at Norse mythology and some of the gaps in the stories that have been handed down to us and tried to write something that could fit within those spaces. Yes, there are things in my book that you won’t find in the Eddas, but I tried really hard to maintain the spirit of the original tales. I don’t think Man of Steel is doing that and that is why I will not be going to see this movie.

I like getting comments in general but for this particular post I would love to hear back from you with your thoughts on this topic. Drop me a line.

Fast Facts About the Elves

Most people who follow fantasy know about the elves. Ask almost anyone and you’ll hear something like:  “Elves? Graceful fairy-type folk. Awful good with a bow. Pointy-eared, close to nature folks.” That is what we know but there is still a lot that we don’t know.

Norse Saga Elves
The Norse sagas provide us with the earliest recorded description of the elves or álfr. The elves seem to be a bit closer to the gods than mortals. Their home of Alfheim is described as being in the heavens. (It is also listed as one of the Nine Worlds of Norse mythology.) We are told that humans are sometimes raised up into the ranks of the  álfr. Human and elf are even able to cross-breed. King Alf of Alfheim and his line are said to be more handsome than most men due to the presence of Elf in their bloodlines. Elves even seem above the physical restraints of the body, being able to walk through walls and doors. This magical nature extended to their ability to wield witchcraft. The half-elf woman Skuld was so skilled that she could raise the fallen members of her army almost as soon as they were killed. Elves could even become Nornir, going to a child when it was first born and helping to shape its life – pretty much along the lines of the later idea of guardian angels.
The thing that was missing for me was stories about Alfheim, we hardly know anything about it at all. It is named as one of the Nine Worlds but we don’t have any stories that tell us what it is like. We have no adventures that happen there. All of the legends and folktales revolve around elves or half-elves in the world of the humans. This struck me as being so odd that I even worked it into my first novel, Valda & the Valkyries, where I have this odd blind spot accounted for by a convoluted plan set into motion by Loki.

Shakespeare’s Elves
The bard used elves most famously in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but these elves are more a blending of elf and fairy than a pure descendant of the Norse sagas. They do exhibit more of the mischievous nature that elves of folklore possessed.  While they are at time referred to as fairies we find the terms almost interchangeable in the poetic sense. We still have elf and fairy exhibiting that great, other-worldly beauty, but they are smaller creatures and their grace is tempered with a truly playful nature. He made them somewhat silly, which is something our next entry never forgave him for.

Tolkien’s Elves
It is fair to say that JRR has done more to influence the popular conception of elves than anyone else. His version of the elf is the one that springs to mind for most people. For Tolkien, elves were majestic, larger-than-life creatures “admired by every race.”  JRR has them as the eldest and noblest of the speaking races. He follows the Norse tradition of elves not being that much different in appearance from humans but nonetheless being of a somewhat higher race. While he wasn’t a full on Luddite Tolkien did care much more for the pastoral countryside and the elves of his stories are the guardians and the very embodiment of nature. He hated what he thought Shakespeare had done to elves, writing:
“I now deeply regret having used Elves, though this is a word in ancestry and original meaning suitable enough. But the disastrous debasement of this word, in which Shakespeare played an unforgivable part, has really overloaded it with regrettable tones, which are too much to overcome.”

Rowling’s Elves
We’ll close this off with the elves from the Harry Potter series. These strike me more as elves in name only. Their apperance is more like gnomes or some other sort of fairy creature, to be honest. They are short in stature, fairly ugly, with bat ears and bulging eyes. Their connection to the original source material seems to consist mainly with their magical nature. House elves can perform magic, mostly in the service of their master but are bound by numerous limitations to what they can do. The house-elves are  a subservient slave class, certainly nothing like the demi-gods of the sagas.

If you want to read more about elves I’d like to suggest the following pages for you:
Lord of the Rings wiki page on Elves
Elves from the Lord of the Rings to Shakespeare
Elves page on Wikipedia

Posted by Mark Neumayer

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