Friday, 28 May 2010

Mythic Interview Friday: Number 9 - Katherine Langrish

When I was a child, I adored Henry Treece's books, and in particular his Viking trilogy, Viking's Dawn, The Road to Miklagard and Viking's Sunset.  I first met Leif Erikson though Treece's Vinland the Good, and after that was always rather contemptous of Columbus's claim to have discovered America.  The other author I loved back then was Alan Garner, whose deep love of British myth and folktale nurtured and fed the same love in me. These are two of the things I have in common with Katherine Langrish, another lover of Vikings and British myth. But I have not (sadly for me) been mentioned in the same breath as Garner, which Katherine has, for The Sunday Telegraph says that her "power to locate her story in the reader's imagination is reminiscent of Alan Garner."  I've read Katherine's Troll Trilogy, (and enjoyed them all immensely for their mix of Norse derring-do, myth, magic and Viking saga)--but the latest, Dark Angels, set in the Welsh Marches of the 12th century, is her most powerful book yet, and the one which, once I'd read it, I couldn't stop thinking about. It does definitely have that Garner feel about it.  Her excellent blog, Seven Miles of Steel Thistles, (aptly named after a line in an Irish folk-tale), has much thoughtful wisdom and knowledge about myth, legend and fairytale, and I enjoy reading that too, and joining in with the invariably lively comments.  Katherine knows her mythology, and without further ado I shall welcome her to Scribble City Central and hand you over to her for another set of fantastic and fabulous Mythic Interview Friday answers.  Thanks for coming to visit, Katherine!

1. Do you think that the retelling of Greek and other myths is important or relevant for the children of today? Why should they care about some “dry old stories” which come from ancient cultures they might never even have heard of?
For a start, myths and fairytales speak to the deep subconscious in a symbolic and poetic language which it’s important to learn at an early age. Otherwise a child may grow up to miss many nuances and expect only literal and obvious meanings in books such as the Bible which were never intended to be read in that way. Growing up ‘myth-blind’ can be as much of a disadvantage as growing up colour-blind. Myths are old, handed down over hundreds of generations – and anything kept alive for so long by people down the ages has undergone a sort of natural selection – only the best stories and those that really fulfill some deep emotional needs will have survived. Furthermore, without some knowledge of Classical mythology in particular, children will have difficulty fully appreciating some of the world’s most wonderful paintings, poems and music, much of which has been inspired by Greek and Roman myths and legends. In psychology too, mythological references are everywhere. But on top of all of that, these stories are fun. Flying horses, heroes with swords, snake-haired monsters, sea serpents, trees covered in golden apples – what’s not to like?

2. What age were you when you came across your first myth or myths? Tell us how you felt then about the myths you first discovered. Did you love them or hate them? Did they scare you, excite you—or were you indifferent? What kind of myths were they? Greek? Norse? Native American? Celtic? Or from another culture entirely? Were they in a book you read? Or did you hear them as oral storytelling from someone else?
I must have been quite young. I’d personally include fairytales in the general ‘myth’ category: but I was certainly reading a version of the Odyssey before I was ten. And I absolutely mopped up Roger Lancelyn Green’s retellings of the Greek and Norse legends. I loved them! They didn’t scare me: I found them exciting and wonderful. I remember trying to make lists of gods and goddesses and line them up. Mars = Ares = Tyr, for example, and Venus = Aphrodite = Freya – but there were always the odd men out, like Loki in the Norse canon, whose role might be compared with Mercury/Hermes, but whose character seems quite different. I even wrote about them. I composed a long story when I was about 12, of a a boy who goes on holiday to Greece (a country I’d never visited) and meets the Medusa in a sea cave.

I read as many as I could find from all over the world. Egyptian, Greek, Norse – Celtic legends I came to later, in my teens. And Native American legends I have only recently begun to explore as I researched for my book ‘Troll Blood’ which deals with the 10th century Norse settlements in Vinland (Nova Scotia and New Brunswick). Continent-wide and extraordinarily diverse, Native American cultural stories have often been misrepresented in European retellings, and I went right back to some of the earliest written records of the Mi’kmaq tales of the north-east and learned to distinguish between those which had been straightforwardly transcribed, and others which had been warped to suit European preconceptions. Myths and legends often have a political dimension which should never be ignored: far from being dead and dusty, they may be of immense importance to living people as proud symbols of an oppressed culture.

3. Looking back, what is your favourite myth of all time, from any culture? And why would you choose it?
This is really too hard. I think some of the most moving myths are those which deal head on with our own mortality. Orpheus in the underworld, trying to rescue his dead wife Eurydice. Achilles in Hades telling Odysseus ‘do not try to console me for dying. I would rather be a peasant and follow my master’s plough than be king over all the perished dead.’ And Baldur from the Norse myths, who cannot be brought back to life even though all the world wept for him (save Loki).

4. Who is your most hated mythical hero or heroine, and what made you feel that way about them?
I can’t say I’ve hated many heroes or heroines – after all, they are usually the ones we identify with! I suppose I wasn’t too thrilled about Theseus abandoning Ariadne – but I still like Theseus. It’s hard, I must say, to feel any great fondness for Zeus – if a god counts as a hero?

5. Is there a mythical beast you are particularly fond of? If so, which one?
I should love to see the Phoenix building its nest in the ‘sole Arabian tree’ and singing its song as it burns itself away.

6. How have myths had an influence on your writing, if at all?
Certainly myths and legends have had a strong influence on my books. The Troll trilogy was based on Norse folklore rather than myths about the gods; still, the memory of all those tales of Asgard was there at the back of my mind, and I doubt if I could have possibly written the books without it. ‘Troll Blood’ of course also took in folklore and tales of the Mi’kmaq, on whom I based the Native Americans my Norse characters encounter. And ‘Dark Angels’ (‘The Shadow Hunt’ in the USA) is rooted in the folklore and legends of Wales and Shropshire – and, interestingly, figures a genuinely medieval version of the myth of Orpheus, ‘Sir Orfeo’. For myths and legends cross-pollinate, and it’s hard to find a story which has not been brushed by the wings of some other story in the course of the years.

7. Finally, if you could choose to be the demigod child of any one mythical god or goddess, which one would it be? Which power would you like to inherit from them—and what would you do with it?: I’m not sure that being the child of a god or a goddess would be such a great thing. There is usually some catch. And imagine trying to live up to your parent’s expectations! I think I might pass.

More about Katherine:
Katherine grew up in the Yorkshire Dales, and can’t remember a time when she wasn’t writing stories. She loved reading, too, and when she was ten her favourite books were the seven Narnia stories by C.S. Lewis. When she’d finished them she was desperate to read more – so she started writing her own Narnia book. She thinks this was the moment she decided to be an author. She studied English at university, got a job, got married, had children and went to live in France and then in America. During this time she was almost too busy to write – so she began visiting libraries and schools, telling stories aloud. This turned out to be excellent practice for being an author! When she moved back to England she started writing the stories that turned into the Troll Trilogy, 'Troll Fell', 'Troll Mill' - and 'Troll Blood' (HarperCollins) which was recommended in the ‘Top 160 Books for Boys’ compiled by the School Library Association. So far 'Troll Fell' has been published in nine languages. Her latest book is ‘Dark Angels’ (published in the US as 'The Shadow Hunt'). Katherine blogs at Seven Miles Of Steel Thistles, her website is HERE, and she tweets at @KathLangrish


Talli Roland said...

What an interesting interview! Thanks, Lucy and Katherine.

Mary Hoffman's Newsletter said...

At last an interview where I don't have to thank you for telling me about books I need to read!

Because I HAVE read all of Kath Langrish's books so far and fully expect to read all she writes in future.

Kath, we must have a word about Theseus some time - I'm not as forgiving as you are. Great interview, both of you.

Katherine Langrish said...

Mary, how lovely! What a wonderful compliment. And I must thank Lucy for asking me to appear on this very exciting and lively blog.

Lucy Coats said...

Welcome to SCC, Talli. Thanks for commenting--it's always appreciated.
Mary and Kath--I shall look forward to seeing that debate about Theseus. I'm a bit ambivalent about him, myself. Was he wet not to have fought harder for Ariadne? Or is it pointless to fight a god? And why didn't Ariadne herself fight? She was pretty feisty about getting Theseus out of the Minotaur maze. There's a story in there...hmmn! *thinks*

Lucy Coats said...

From Amanda Craig:
"Gorgeous interview - fascinating as ever. We can't have enough of the heirs to Garner."

Katherine Langrish said...

Now I come to think about it, I'm probably heavily influenced by Mary Renault's Theseus in'The King Must Die': hero of the bull-leaping court of Knossos. Wonderful book! It's hard to get back to the mythic Theseus from there!

Nicky S (Absolute Vanilla) said...

Fascinating interview, so enjoyed Katherine's answers, and particularly to the first question. I can think of too many people who are obviously 'myth blind'.
Thanks to both of you!

Charlotte said...

Thanks from me too! I so agree about the importance of mythological literacy!

Lucy Coats said...

This comment is from Cassandra Golds in Australia (author of the amazing 'Museum of Mary Child'). For some reason Blogger was being weird and wouldn't let her write it herself:

I too found this a fascinating interview. "Otherwise a child may grow up to miss many nuances and expect only literal and obvious meanings in books such as the Bible which were never intended to be read in that way. Growing up ‘myth-blind' can be as much of a disadvantage as growing up colour-blind." I totally agree! In fact I think our society is beset with problems that arise from a kind of blindly literal mindset

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