Female Dwarves and Dumb Minotaurs: Making Fantasy Your Own (Ellen Jensen Abbott)

I was one of those kids who read fantasy novel after fantasy novel. I was obsessed with the Chronicles of Narnia and read my favorite, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, thirteen times. (I have since read it to both of my children—so now I am up to fifteen!) As a fantasy writer today, I owe a debt to CS Lewis and to JRR Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, another of my favorites.

But Lewis and Tolkien would be the first to acknowledge their debt to much earlier sources, such as Norse mythology and biblical stories. As I wrote Watersmeet and The Centaur’s Daughter, and now, as I’m working on the third in the trilogy, I have also drawn on earlier sources: folktales, hero quests, mythology, legend. After all, what are these tales but fantasy stories? Odysseus making his way back to Ithaca—fighting the Cyclopes, Scylla, Charybdis, and the Lotus Eaters? Fantasy! Uncle Remus and the Br’er Rabbit stories? Talking animals are definitely fantasy. Scheherazade and the One Thousand and One Nights? Still more fantasy.

It seems almost as if from the moment language was invented, people were gathering to tell stories about monsters, magic, heroes and power beyond what we could understand. Even today, when our society is so rational, so technological, so scientific, fantasy sells—and bookstores can be open at midnight for the launch of the seventh Harry Potter book and people or the latest in the Twilight series. In fact, I think the call of fantasy is stronger now because so much mystery and magic is gone from our daily lives. It’s no wonder kids and adults are flocking to the genre!

And the wonderful thing about these stories is that each generation, each story-teller, makes the stories his or her own. I doubt Tolkien or Lewis would have considered female dwarves or centaurs. But in the 21st Century, this fantasy writer insisted on females! (Peter Jackson does the same thing in The Two Towers, including a conversation between Gimli and Aragorn about female dwarves.) The Minotaur was a specifically Greek character who lived in the labyrinth and was born of King Minos’ wife and this bull from the sea (ok—yuck).

(This is a picture of Minos’ wife dandling the cute little infant minotaur on her knee!)

As Wikipedia points out: “Minotaur was originally a proper noun in reference to this mythical figure. The use of minotaur as a common noun to refer to members of a generic race of bull-headed creatures developed much later, in 20th-century fantasy genre fiction.” (My emphasis.) These fantasy writers changed the image of the Minotaur to suit their needs, their time, and their place. In my novels, I’ve done the same thing. I created minotaurs controlled by hags and more dull-witted than monstrous. I invented new creatures, borrowing a tail here, a claw there, from other mythological sources. I spent a lot of time developing the dwarf diet. These folk live underground and their diet should be influenced by that. (See my recipe for Hoysta’s Dirt Brownies on my blog: www.ellenjensenabbott.com. Don’t worry: highly edible, even if you don’t use quail eggs or milk your badgers.)

Apparently Tolkien didn’t really like Narnia; he thought it was too much of a hodge-podge of mythological images from too many traditions. (You can’t mix Norse and Greek!) But we live in a world that’s a patchwork of traditions from all parts of the globe. Our fantasy today reflects that.

When I started sending out my first novel, the Harry Potter phenomenon was just starting. An editor read my book and had nice things to say about it, but offered no contract. (Yes, I got what we know in the writing business as a “good rejection.”) One of her comments stuck with me: “Fantasy always sells.” In fact, fantasy has been “selling” for thousands of years. As a fantasy writer today, I feel like I’m adding my own, individual voice to an ancient and ongoing conversation.

***

Thanks to Ellen Jensen Abbott for this wonderful blog post. Come meet her this August at PAYA. See the complete list of authors here.

Bio: Ellen Jensen Abbott lives in West Chester, PA and teaches at the Westtown School. Her debut novel, Watersmeet was an IRA Young Adult Award Notable Book, and was nominated for YALSA’s Teen Top Ten. The sequel to Watersmeet, The Centaur’s Daughter, will be released on September 1, 2011.

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