Sources of Modern Fiction: Myths, Traditional Stories & Religious Works

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  • 00:00 Shared Heritage
  • 00:55 Myths
  • 2:52 Traditional Stories
  • 4:30 Religious Works
  • 6:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we're going to see how myths, traditional stories, and religious writings serve as sources for modern fiction. We'll define each of these and look at examples of modern interpretations.

Shared Heritage

Writers are some of the most creative people ever, but not everything they write is original. It's not that they deliberately copy anyone else's work, but they do very often draw ideas, themes, patterns, storylines, and even character types from many different sources. Everything they've ever read, heard, and seen is part of their mental landscape, spinning around in their imaginations, getting remixed, influencing creative process, and showing up in interesting ways in their final products.

Important elements in this mix are three sources that are part of the shared heritage of Western culture and civilization: myths, traditional stories, and religious works, especially the Bible. In this lesson, we're going to define each of these elements of our shared heritage and learn how modern fiction writers draw on them as influences and reinvent them in their own works.


Myths are ancient stories that feature the fantastic adventures of pagan gods and human heroes. People created myths to help them better understand the world and their place in it, to learn about human nature, and to explore human relationships. Nearly every culture has myths. We're most familiar with the myths of the Greeks and Romans that contain tales of gods and goddesses, like Zeus, Venus, Apollo, and Mars; stories of the hero Hercules and his great tasks; the accounts of the Trojan War and Ulysses' adventures as he tried to get home afterward; and the story of the founding of Rome by the brothers Romulus and Remus.

Other cultures also have interesting myths. Ancient Egyptians told stories about pyramids, mummies, and the great Sphinx. Native Americans enjoy tales about the natural world and the creatures in it. The people of Scandinavia share the tales of the gods Odin and Thor and the great world tree that holds the cosmos together.

Modern authors make good use of these myths, retelling their stories, adapting characters, and incorporating elements. In Rick Riordan's series Percy Jackson and the Olympians, for instance, the main character, Percy Jackson, discovers that he is the son of the Greek god Poseidon. He is suddenly plunged into the world of ancient mythology, which becomes all too real, and he must solve many exciting mysteries. J.K. Rowling, in the Harry Potter series, incorporates all kinds of elements drawn from myths. The Sphinx shows up, as do other mythological beasts, like dragons and the phoenix Fawkes. Harry is thrust into mythological-style quests and must learn how to be the kind of hero who also fights for good. J.R.R. Tolkien also uses mythology in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. He draws heavily from Scandinavian mythology, naming his dwarves after mythological characters and perhaps even basing his ring partly on the tale of the god Odin's magical ring.

Traditional Stories

Along with using myths, writers also turn to traditional stories for inspiration. These include fairy tales and fables. Fairy tales, which are common all over the world, tell of kings and princesses, tricksters, wizards and witches, fantastic creatures, and underdog heroes who rise to become great leaders. These stories help people see the world from new perspectives and understand human nature better. They are also quite entertaining. Most modern people are familiar with the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm.

Fables, on the other hand, are usually very short stories, often with animals as the main characters, that teach a moral lesson about right and wrong. Aesop's Fables were written in ancient Greece, probably in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE, but they are still very popular.

Modern writers often take old fairy tales and fables and turn them into something new. Disney's adaptations of Snow White, the Little Mermaid, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty are prime examples. The Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer uses fairy tale characters like vampires and werewolves but gives them a fresh spin as the human Bella falls in love with vampire Edward much to the dismay of werewolf Jacob. J.K. Rowling creates a whole new set of wizarding world fairy tales and fables in her book Tales of Beedle the Bard. One of these tales even helps Harry, Ron, and Hermoine understand and achieve their quest in The Deathly Hallows. Other books, including The Princess Bride, Ella Enchanted, and Beastly, also remix old fairy tales in new and creative ways.

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