A Little Mythology Goes a Long Way, by Dan Rabarts

Please welcome author Dan Rabarts to the blog today! He is going to tell us a little about using mythology in our fiction, and why mythology continues to resonate with us even in this age of science. Be sure to check out the new book Teeth of the Wolf, which he co-authored with Lee Murray! It the second book in the Path of Ra series, which started with Hounds of the Underworld.

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Down here in New Zealand, we live on an unlikely strip of land between an ocean and a sea, on a planet which exists in a tiny fraction of a void between eternal heat and eternal cold, where life has taken hold and refuses to let go. It is little wonder that our ancestors looked up at the stars, the sun, the moon, and wove the mystery of those lights in the sky into folklore. They put names and stories to the celestial faces, just as they named the rage of the ocean, the howl of the wind, and the black embrace of the beyond. 

Ra, the sun. Marama, the moon. 

Tangaroa, god of the sea. Tāwhirimātea, god of the winds. 

Hine-nui-te-pō, goddess of night and death.  

Mythology predates science by thousands of years. It has been with us since we first heard the rumble of thunder and imagined gods roaring at each other among the clouds. Fear of the unknown has been part of our collective subconscious for longer than civilisation has stood, and will be with us long after it has fallen.

 So even when science, that inevitable and inexorable juggernaut, continues to reveal the workings of the universe one quark at a time, we cling to our myths like we cling to life in this fragile strip of the solar system. Our mythologies were our explanations for all the forces at work around us which we did not understand. Now, as we learn how vast the universe truly is and how alone we are in it, those mythologies remain our security blankets, the persisting hope that something greater watches over us. That the fact of our existence is not so unlikely, and that we are not so very, very alone in the dark. 

This idea, the persistence of mythology and how humanity has an innate power to give a sort of life to that in which we are willing to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, is a key element in The Path of Ra, a supernatural crime-noir thriller series co-authored by myself and Lee Murray. In Hounds of the Underworld, scientific consult Penny Yee refuses to buy into her brother Matiu’s insistence that there is a dark force at work behind the murders she is investigating. As long as she can explain the bodies piling up as the doings of a criminal mind, she can accept any atrocity with scientific clarity. But in Teeth of the Wolf, the second book in the series, when the evidence starts to mount that not everything can be rationalised away, and that the shadows Matiu is always jumping at may indeed be something that all Penny’s science and logic cannot explain, Penny tastes doubt for the first time.

In the writing of The Path of Ra series, I’m very lucky to work with Lee Murray, who brings a sense of rationale and reason to the story through Penny Yee. Lee works hard to drive the science in our science fiction/dark fantasy/crime-noir mash-up, while Matiu insists that the things scratching at the inside of the walls are not rats, nothing that can be so easily explained away. This conflict between the logical and the weight of the mythological lends the books a constant tension, between the need to make sense of the madness the world is falling into, and the need to hold back the faceless, inexplicable dark. It’s a powerful dynamic, and a testament to the success of the co-author relationship that this tension sustains both the story and the characters. Matiu brings the monsters; Penny explains why they simply can’t actually be there.

Science will keep on solving the riddles of our existence. It will continue to drive the changes we are making to this world, for better or worse. Science has given us, in equal measures,  space travel and space junk. Global travel and global pollution. A knowledge economy and the age of internet trolling. Nuclear energy and nuclear weaponry. Climate change and the means to combat it, if we have the will. 

Science will, in time, become our new mythology, the making and the breaking of civilisation. 

But as long as we hear voices in the dark when there is no-one there to speak, we will cling to our deeply-ingrained beliefs in the unknown, the unknowable. As long as we can cast a light into the shadows and the shadows swallow that light, we will continue to fear and revere our gods and monsters.

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Dan Rabarts is a New Zealand author, editor and podcast narrator, winner of four Sir Julius Vogel Awards and two Australian Shadows Awards, occasional sailor of sailing things, part-time metalhead and father of two wee miracles in a house on a hill under the southern sun. His science fiction, dark fantasy and horror short stories have been published in venues such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies and The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk. Together with Lee Murray, he co-edited the award-winning anthologies Baby Teeth - Bite-sized Tales of Terror and At The Edge, and co-writes the Path of Ra series. His first solo novel, Brothers of the Knife, kicks off the grimdark-yet-madcap Children of Bane fantasy series (Omnium Gatherum). Find out more at dan.rabarts.com.