Wednesday, December 9, 2009

the power of what if

In thinking about the types of books I most enjoy reading, I realize that many of them are based upon "what if?" What if the stories from an ancient mythology were true? What if local legends were based on reality?

In today's world of science, we think we know everything, and those mythologies, which helped people cope with the mysteries presented by their world, no longer seem relevant. In her book, A History of God, Karen Armstrong (who provided the inspiration for the Charter for Compassion) describes the importance of God (or gods) in helping people cope with the trials and tribulations of life. As science has broadened our understanding of things like weather and natural disasters, our need for mythological stories to help us grapple with the great unknowns that change our fortunes has diminished.

But if we think about the vast number of cultural beliefs regarding mythical creatures (gods or otherwise), we find a fascinating array of ideas that can become the basis for new stories. All we need to do is ask, "What if?"

Stephanie Meyer did this with tremendous success in her Twilight stories (which I am still reading, hence their frequent appearance in my thoughts). What if there really were vampires and werewolves? What if the legends were true? She based the werewolf part of her books on the existing legends of the Quileute tribe. J.K. Rowling did the same in her Harry Potter series by asking, What if there really were witches and wizards, existing right along side us (or at least in some kind of parallel world)? Diana Gabaldon, in her historical Outlander novels, examines what would happen if someone really could go "through the stones" and travel through time.

"What if?" does not need to be limited to mythology. It can apply just as well to current scientific hypotheses. Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials is based upon the idea of multiple parallel universes, as is The Man Who Turned Into Himself, by David Ambrose. The concept of parallel universes is a difficult one to wrap one's mind around (I certainly have difficulty with it!), but when someone assumes it is a reality and uses it as a basis for their stories, the potential for new and exciting adventures multiplies.

Personally, I have always been fascinated by Native American Indian mythology. So now it's time for me to ask, "what if?" What if the stories and legends were true? What would that mean for someone in the present (or the future), if they were suddenly to discover this alternate reality? I'm not thinking about werewolves, but of other, more widespread beliefs shared by many native peoples.

What other kinds of things are out there, on the fringes, just waiting for someone to ask "what if?"

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