So I was reading Elizabeth Bear’s recent story on Tor.com, The Horrid Glory of Its Wings. The plot involves a girl who finds a harpy stuck in an urban alleyway and falls to talking to her and listening to her stories. It opens, appropriately, with a quote from The Last Unicorn.
I wondered as I read whether the harpy ever told the tale of the hedge-witch who caught her sleeping, and caged her to display in a traveling carnival. I’d bet she had plenty to say about it. She’d narrate it on a bitterly chilly day, moving from the anger at being caged to the bitter satisfaction of eating Mommy Fortuna’s liver. Because Beagle had inserted the event into her history, and now she remembered Rukh’s cut-off scream and the white back of the unicorn retreating into the darkness as clearly as the taste of Phineas’ food.
You see, if these minor gods and mythical beasts live on our belief in them (even within the confines of fiction), then the stories we tell about them add to their histories—or even recreate them in a new image. Perhaps Bear’s harpy was only stuck because Beagle wrote his book, transforming her from a creature outside of human agency into something that could be caught in what we build.
Now, the modern publishing industry is a substantial force multiplier for belief; a popular writer’s take on a mythical character can live in millions of brains at once. Even a popular fanfic writer can manage hundreds or thousands of brainpowers’ leverage on the history of a given figure.
So do these creations of ours know what we do to them? Did the harpy suspect that Beagle’s book laid the foundation for her imprisonment? Do they sit around, these gods and demigods, demons and creatures, and bitch and moan about how their backstories (and indeed, their very natures) change in response to what we read and write?
INTERIOR - a bar
A morose LOKI drinks a beer he’s bummed off of ABEL. CAIN sits nearby.
The noise of conversation rises and falls in the background, drowning out any conversation at the table. But whatever they’re talking about, they’re all in agreement.
Then, into one of those sudden silences that occur in such scenes, Loki can be heard saying, “fucking Neil fucking Gaiman…”
The darkness drops. Because I say it does.