Creative writing: Using mythology in fiction


07 June 2024
Irish novelist Leeanne O'Donnell describes how ancient myths made sense of the book she was writing

I had all but finished writing Sparks of Bright Matter, an unconventional take on historical fiction set in 18th century London and Ireland, when an Irish myth gave me a crucial insight into what I had been trying to understand all along.

Throughout the 8 years of writing Sparks, I often had sense of living between two worlds. This world - the world of driving cars and emptying dishwashers and making dinner - and another less tangible world that was just outside my range of vision. My sense was that this other world was magical and mysterious; a place where (spirits roam) anything could happen, where time and space and even matter might obey very different rules.

The 18th century characters in Sparks also have this sense of another reality co-existing alongside this one. Protagonist and anti-hero Peter Woulfe spends the novel trying to produce the Elixir of Life and the Philosopher’s Stone. Based on a real-life Irishman who lived in Barnard’s Inn, Holborn, Woulfe was a member of the Royal Society, outwardly a respected scientist and secretly an obsessive Alchemist. After he died it was discovered that often wrote messages to the angels, seeking their help with his quest to find the Elixir and achieve spiritual enlightenment.

I knew I didn’t want to write fantasy fiction but I found myself writing about a cast of characters who believe in some sort of magic, who are distracted from day-to-day life by the flickers of the supernatural at the edge of their vision.

My fictional Peter Woulfe looks for ways to communicate with the angels. He lives in grimy, Georgian London and gets caught up in some very real-world violence and danger - but part of his awareness is always to drawn to another kind of reality. Another dimension  where angels dwell and the sparks of bright matter he seeks in his lab might reveal themselves as truly Divine.

Sukie, the woman he falls in love with, is a sex worker who has to navigate the very filthiest aspects of life in Georgian London, but she too lives as if the sordid day-to-day reality in front of her is only part of the story. With extremely poor eyesight she relies on scent and sound and an indefinable sense that her bare feet can guide her around London by tuning into an invisible sensory map beneath the streets.

Back in Ireland, one of the most mysterious characters, Bridey Leary, is a huge influence on Peter’s childhood. She lives on the side of a mountain with a long and complex history of human settlement, and it seems that she can negotiate with the spirits of the landscape around her.

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The challenge for me was to write about all this without slipping into fantasy fiction -where the existence of the supernatural is assumed and accepted by characters and readers alike. What interested me, what made me want to write about the characters in Sparks, was the subtlety and uncertainty surrounding their experiences. They don’t see dragons or watch people levitate, it’s not that kind of magic, part of its power lies in the fact that it is hard to fully see, hard to fully grasp and often hard to fully believe.

Alongside writing I make a podcast about Irish mythology called Into the Mythic. The idea is to look at these very ancient stories and see what they might have to offer us in today’s world. My friend Pol O Colmain tells the stories and together we muse about what they might mean and what relevance they might have for us now. The last story he told me was about the Tuatha De Danann - the people of the ancient earth Goddess Danu. In Irish mythology these magical beings were the inhabitants of Ireland before our own ancestors, the Sons of Mil, arrived. A terrible battle ensued and despite their potent magic the Tuatha De were defeated by the newcomers. The way Pol told the story gave me the shivers. The Sons of Mil slaughtered the Tuatha De in the frenzy of battle and awoke the next day horrified by what they had done. They went in guilt and sorrow to bury the dead, but they found no bodies on the battlefield.

The Tuatha De were not dead, they had ‘turned sideways to the sun.’ They were there, but they could no longer be seen by mortal eyes. They had slipped into another dimension and retreated to the mounds and hills of Ireland’s sacred places. Pol explained how these magical beings became the ‘fairies’ of Irish folklore. The ones who had pots of gold hidden beneath fairy forts and could meddle in human affairs for good or ill. Beings so magical, so potent, that you are better off not to draw their attention by talking about them - traditionally they are respectfully called ‘the Good People’ rather than ‘fairies’ or even the Tuatha De Danann. In rural Ireland belief in them was widespread until very recently and is still not taken lightly. Even now most farmers would think twice before disturbing a ring-fort or a lone hawthorn tree in case ‘the Good People’ might be angered.

This myth captures exactly the sense I had writing Sparks; that what we see is not all there is, that there are other ‘worlds’ co-existing with this one - but that trying to pin that down is about as advisable as trying to catch a ‘fairy’ with your bare hands.

Sparks of Bright Matter by Leeanne O'Donnell is published by Eriu


Intrigued by the possibilities of using mythology in your fiction? Read Thilde Kold Holdt's tips on researching Norse history and mythology.