Myths, folklore and fairy tales are a huge inspiration to my writing.
I’m going to talk about why retelling these old stories is so important in queer fiction.
Even in the present day, there’s still a dearth of queer media representation, especially in stories for younger people. I’ve found looking back for inspiration isn’t only a rich source but a way to explore my identity and to appreciate the queer pulse that runs back through human culture, all the way to ancient times. Doing so is tremendously affirming against a backdrop of claims that people like me are merely a fad and a trend.
It’s also helped me to view nebulous cultural concepts like masculinity and femininity in a new light. I type this on a week when my Medium feed has been bombarding me with articles about trans related issues, complete with comment sections dripping with bile and disdain. There couldn’t be a better time to talk about queer healing and cultural self-care.
At seven and eight, I played Robin Hood in the school playground and I was always Robin. When Robin of Sherwood, the 80s TV show that was such a big inspiration to me, changed the actor playing Robin to someone with blond hair, I flipped. It didn’t occur to me at the time there was any other reason I couldn’t be Robin. But Robin was the last time I identified with a hero.
Over the years that followed, I learned from various media that people like me were not the heroes of stories. People who were gender non-conforming or otherwise queer, kinky, chronically ill, physically weak, (or British — thanks Hollywood), were not the heroes; they were the villains. These were often not conscious lessons, but part of my struggle to find myself reflected back in the media around me as a slow drip, drip of negative associations.
One thing I loved about working on a Robin Hood story recently was the feedback from other queer guys of varying ages. It seems every generation has a favourite Robin Hood from TV or film. He’s a folk figure who a lot of guys have connected with in their youth and used as a way to explore their sense of self and their values. It also felt like a love letter to my 8-year old self, a way of healing the hurts that had happened between then and now.
One of our defining traits as a species is the desire to make meaning out of our experiences. We’re natural story tellers. Myths, folklore and fairy tales are key jigsaw pieces in our culture. It’s impossible to understand huge swathes of art and media without some knowledge of these old stories that have influenced so many. As we’re growing up, they’re often the first stories we learn, the way we make sense of good and evil, of the world around us and our place in it. They fire our imaginations, too, and creep inside them, colouring the way we interpret the world.
Queering these old stories, or retelling for a modern audience already queer tales, puts ourselves back in the world. We can make new jigsaw pieces with which we may build a picture that doesn’t portray us on the dark side, or take the old pieces and file off the edges until they do what we want them to. It’s also an act of healing and self-affirmation: remembering the last hero you identified with and making that possible again with the complexity of experience, remembering a story you couldn’t find yourself in, and putting yourself there, finding old stories of same-sex love, or of gender bending and shape-shifting that didn’t make it into your childhood mythology books. It may require critical engagement with the original, it may require subversion — old stories are sometimes guilty of old crimes — but that’s all part of the act of retelling.
History’s Missing Pieces
The other reason it’s important to reclaim these stories is that other story tellers can use these old tales as a retrograde force, erasing not just the existence of diverse people in the past but also in the present. Their apparent “timelessness” acts as a confirmation that this is how it is and how it has always been, even if this mythical reality has never really existed. Queering these stories and shining a new spotlight on already queer tales rejects this act of cultural straightwashing and draws all the people back in who have existed throughout our cultural history and are still here, right now.
Digging into history and mythology, there are so many rich seams of queer experience. There’s a real joy in researching medieval culture for a Robin Hood story and finding that, before the Church clamped down on same-sex relationships (because the monks were all at it), two men could undergo a ceremony of union similar to a wedding in a church. Or researching an ancient Mesopotamian goddess and finding that her priests were thought to have been gender non-conforming. Or researching Norse mythology and revelling in Loki’s gleeful fluidity, as he switches gender and shape at will.
We tend to think in the modern world that cultural progress moves in a straight line, but the truth is far more complex and knotty, especially where gender and sexuality is concerned.
Among the heroes, the gods and goddesses and even the magical creatures of the mythic world, we can find ourselves reflected back in a way that’s seriously lacking in the output of modern mainstream media outlets like Disney, with their risk averse conservatism, who have come to eclipse the entertainment world. Because the truth is that the stories we’ve told about ourselves throughout history reflect the huge variety of human experience and expression, which exists and which has always existed. Writing and reading these stories is an act of self-love and self-affirmation.