The Blue Hawk (for which he won the Guardian Award in 1977). Meeting Tron the Goat-chosen again made me feel the soul of the hot desert sand under my feet, made me tremble at the terrible, inexorable chanting of the priests of O and Aa, caught me entirely in the soaring webs of godpower and magic and sheer tale-telling mastery Peter wove over 30 years ago. Reader, I was entranced! But perhaps YOU might think I should have chosen Tulku, or The Kin, or Changes or The Tears of the Salamander or Angel Isle or the Ropemaker--the latter two quite newly-discovered loves of mine? I'm sure lots of you will have your own favourites, and I'd very much like to hear about what you'd choose of Peter's oeuvre--and why--in the comments underneath.
The most recent of Peter's books is Fire: Tales of Elemental Spirits--a collection of short stories he has written jointly with his wife, the marvellous Robin McKinley (who will, I hope, be sharing her own mythic musings with us later in the series). As with the previous book, Water, I enjoyed both their contributions immensely. There's a story in there--one of Peter's--called Phoenix. It is set, mostly, in a wood. Now I have spent a lot of time in woods and this particular one is perfectly and carefully observed. The way Peter has woven the myth of the phoenix right into the deep heart of the English landscape so that it seems entirely natural there, is quite remarkable. It's a story I keep thinking about, over and over, because often, when someone else writes about a thing you love greatly and know well (as I do woods), it is disappointing. In this case, I am left with the comfortable and comforting sense that 'my' woods (or at least my heart's ideas about and memories of what woods should be) are safe--are preserved forever--in Peter's exquisitely imagined words. I can pay him no greater compliment than that. And now, I want to hand you over to Peter himself. I am so glad and honoured that (despite being very unwell earlier in the year) he is here with us all at Scribble City Central--and I am sure you will agree that his mythic answers are admirably informative, succinct and to the point. I quite agree with him about the dragons, by the way. Dragons are tricky, intelligent and dangerous beasts--which should always be treated with respect. His answer to question 7 made me laugh a lot. He's quite right, of course. Who'd be a demigod, given their track records? Here he is:
1. Do you think that the retelling of myths is important or relevant for the children of today? Why should they care about some “dry old stories” which come from ancient or forgotten cultures they might never even have heard of?
If a myth is retold as a dry old story it will die. If it is told because it seems to embody, however remotely, some truth or belief that is important to our society, or simply to us as humans, it will survive. When someone talks about “the Dunkirk spirit” they are treating the event as myth, helping to keep alive a part of an unformulated belief of what it means to be British. “When Pearse summoned Cuchulain to his side/ What stalked through the Post Office?” Same sort of thing.
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 don’t think I distinguished myth from story much until somebody told me about the death of Baldur, and presumably told me what it was about. I don’t think I actually hated anything because it was a myth. I remember liking Perseus and Andromeda because I thought winged sandals were really cool, and using them to swoop down and slay the dragon and rescue the girl (I don’t think she was wearing much in the illustration) excited the young male mind. But really it’s just a story. It’s lost its function as a myth if it ever had one.
3. Looking back, what is your favourite myth of all time, from any culture? And why would you choose it?
Oedipus. Terrific story about the sheer inexorability of fate
4. Who is the mythical hero, heroine or being you most dislike, and what made you feel that way about them?
Achilles, Siegfried, all those ultra-masculine bully-boys.
5. Is there a mythical beast you are particularly fond of? If so, which one?
No, but I particularly dislike cute dragons.
6. How have myths had an influence on your writing life, if at all?
Of course they have, but too vaguely to discuss. They’re just part of the mix, along with King James’s Bible and trashy adventure stories and SF magazines, etc
7. 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?
No thanks. Nightmare scenario. Do you know of any divine by-blow who had a good time? Mostly they ended up as shrubs or rivers or constellations or something.
More about Peter:
Born 1927 in what is now Zambia. Father, British colonial civil servant; mother from South African farming family. Three brothers – he’s the second. Family returned to England when he was 7, but his father died the same year. Very little money, but he was privately educated at boarding schools, thanks to generosity of relatives. Scholarship to Eton. Briefly conscript in British army just after World War 2. Then Cambridge University, then 17 years working for the British humour magazine, Punch. Published his first two books, an adult detective story and a children’s SF adventure, in 1968, and from then on has been a full-time writer. Has been nine times on the Carnegie Medal short list and won it twice, as well as other major prizes. In l952 married his first wife, and they had two daughters and two sons. He now has six grandchildren. His first wife died in 1988, and two years later he married Robin McKinley. They live in a small Hampshire town with a couple of lurchers.