An Exhaustive Essay Exploring a Theory of Myth as Story, and How Stories Affect Us
Novelist Graham Swift wrote that, “only animals live in the Here and Now. Only nature knows neither memory nor history. But man — let me offer you a definition — is the story-telling animal. Wherever he goes he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting marker-buoys and trail-signs of stories.”1 Every human culture in all the world has a corpus of ancient myths, and every culture continues to tell stories, whatever form they might take. For millennia, scholars have tried to understand what those stories mean, and why storytelling seems to be a universal human necessity.
I begin with these grand opening statements not as a generalization to begin a narrower discussion, but because it is this very grandeur that I hope to address in this paper. What is it about myth that makes it a universal human reality? What is it about stories that keep modern audiences enthralled and allow millions of artists to work? And how are myths and modern stories connected?
As a writer myself, the mystery behind the universal power of stories fascinates me. Why might people want to read what I have to say? How and why are stories important to us as individuals and us as a society? Why do ancient myths still permeate our consciousness — and our art? Why do we have this universal appetite for narrative?2
I hope to address — if not answer — all of these questions in this paper. My proposal is that for modern humanity, myth and narrative fiction can serve the same purpose, and that this purpose is an illumination of the human experience. Stories can do many things for many people, and their power can be transformative.
To reach this conclusion, I begin with a brief overview of some common academic theories about myth. I will show what about them succeeds, what does not, and how they can relate to modern humanity, culminating with some of the theories most relevant to my case. I will then show how myth and modern stories can be equated for our common purposes today, that they have the potential to achieve the same power. Finally, I will take a much deeper look at just what it is that stories do, how they affect our lives and why they are so important that they have appeared across the world and throughout time.
I will end the discussion with something of a more personal look at myth and story — how it affects me, given the presented evidence, and how it can affect my writing.
After all, if anything defines what it is to be human, it may be — as noted by literary scholar Kath Filmer-Davies — “the ability to be both mythopoeic and mythopathic — that is, to have the ability to make myths and to respond to them — and, by extension, to the metaphysical, psychological, and imaginative truths they contain.”3 There is surely something there for us to find.
A Problem of Definitions
To present a reasoned discussion of mythology, literature, philosophy, and psychology, a few major terms need to be defined — especially in order to keep things clear, when dealing with similar concepts like myth, fiction, and story: all terms that could mean the same thing, in some circumstances. For instance, all of those words are used in some modern contexts to mean “falsehoods” — one might speak of the “myth of global warming,” that “his excuses are a fiction,” or that “children shouldn’t tell such stories.”4
For the present discussion, I use the term fiction to refer to any modern narrative — whether this take the form of novels, plays, movies, or any other medium. Note that the way I use the term for this paper is not its normal definition, because I include within it narrative non-fiction as well (which by normal definition is, of course, not fiction). I do this simply for ease of reference. In this case, that which I am directly opposing with this term is strictly expository text: information without plot or narrative, such as a textbook or, say, this paper; furthermore, fiction is limited to modern tales, to differentiate it from ancient narratives (such as, perhaps, myth — as discussed below). In sum, fiction is modern narrative, regardless of truth factor. (Ancient novels and non-mythic stories have many similarities with fiction, but I will leave them out of the present discussion for the moment.)
I use the term story as my broadest reference. Like fiction, a story is a narrative — that is, “that mode of thought about what is possible for human beings in which protagonists, on meeting vicissitudes, experience emotions.”5 In other words, it has plot and character. The difference between it and “fiction” is that story is not limited in time.
Finally, there is the word myth itself. Here we come to some trouble, for the term is much-debated among myth theorists. Indeed, it seems at times that each theorist tries to define myth simply to conform to his or her theory of myth, and the problem then becomes that the scholars cannot agree on a definition. Historian of religion Mircea Eliade identifies this problem when he writes:
It would be hard to find a definition of myth that would be acceptable to all scholars and at the same time intelligible to nonspecialists. Then, too, is it even possible to find one definition that will cover all the types and functions of myths in all traditional and archaic societies? Myth is an extremely complex cultural reality, which can be approached and interpreted from various and complementary viewpoints.6
I will try to provide as general a definition as I can for the present discussion: myths are stories, and myths have some connection to the sacred — that is, in the culture to which the myth belongs, myths have a meaning beyond the text, a connection to religion or ritual or belief, and perhaps are limited in when and where they can be retold.
Such a definition of myth says very little about it in its generalization, and yet may be tenuous in its accuracy nonetheless. Still, I shall proceed with this definition in mind — and if it becomes clear that such a definition will no longer suit our purposes, I will attempt to revise it.
1. Theories of Myth
Scholars have tried to explain myth since the time of the ancient Greeks, and a wide variety of arguments have arisen in this scholarly conversation. In the following section, I will try to give a very broad overview of some of the main theories that really started the debate.
Theories of Original Function
The first writings I will look at come from the ancient Greeks, who began examining the place of myth even as it was still used by the people. Debate ranged widely amongst them, but perhaps most vocal — and most famous to us — was the philosopher Plato, who basically writes that myths are simply falsehoods, couched in poetic language. They have no inherent truth, as many believed, and indeed have the power to manipulate. They can be useful — to children and the stupid — to teach moral lessons, but many myths tell immoral stories, and should thus be abolished.7
Another Greek writer proposes a theory that influenced writers into the Christian era, who wished to disparage pagan religion. Euhemerus seems to suggest that all the gods and the figures of myth were once living humans, whose stories became mythified and passed on.8
Jumping forward in time, we come to the Enlightenment. Looking at myths of cosmogony and origins, writer Bernard Fontenelle argues that myths were the ancients’ version of science, trying to make sense of the world around them.9 Myth and science both attempt to explain the unknown, using whatever knowledge is already possessed. The only difference is that modern science has “superior premises,” and thus is true.10
Giambattista Vico saw myths as a way ancient society tried to order itself, creating origin stories to structure their world and their morality.11 However, these origins were “incomplete, obscure, unreasonable, incredible, and without hope of reduction to scientific principles”12 — that is to say, like Fontenelle, it is a stage in human development that gets replaced by science.
Max Müller sees the origins of myth in a “disease of language” — natural forces had names, they were personified, metaphors were made, and people forgot the original meanings and just remembered the forces as personified — that is, gods.13 Andrew Lang says this came from animism, that myth just came from this personification.14
Then there are the myth-ritualists, who see an integral connection between myth and an accompanying ritual. William Robert Smith says that myths developed to explain existing ritual practices.15 Sir James Frazer essentially believes that myths explain the workings of magic that rituals sought to produce, and that they are all concerned with fertility.16 Hooke sees myth more specifically as the script for a given ritual, and that they are always necessarily linked together.17
Obviously, I have not given each of the theories so far a fair evaluation, discussed its pros and cons, nor touched on all or even most of the main theories that exist. To do so is far beyond the scope of this paper — it would, in fact, require entire textbooks just to scratch the surface. But hopefully I have given enough of an outline to see the general directions of these theories.
And ultimately, there seems to be one problem that pervades all of these theories, in my view. They may be able to explain where myths come from, and how they were used by the societies that believed in them, but they seem utterly silent on the topic of how myths can affect us today. If they were used strictly in connection with ritual, or if they were used to explain phenomena now explained by science, why are myths still around? Why do we continue to tell them — and why does it seem like they still have some power to affect us?
These questions in mind, I turn now to some other theories of myth that may shed some light on the matter.
Theories of Common Humanity
Rather than looking at explanations for nature, for the origins of the world, Arnold van Gennep instead sees the common thread running through myth as dealing with transitional phases. These are periods of life that all humans go through — like birth, adulthood, and death. Myths embody and describe rites of passage, which “cushion the disturbance” of the transitional period.18
Lord Raglan takes this further. He identifies a common story that runs through all myths — the story of the hero — and that this story has certain stages that appear and reappear throughout different myths. “The story of the hero of tradition is the story, not of real incidents in the life of a real man, but of ritual incidents in the career of a ritual personage.”19 That is to say, the story of the hero is a universal story. He goes on to corroborate Van Gennep’s declaration: “The first point that we note is that the incidents [of the hero’s story] fall definitely into three groups — those connected with the hero’s birth, those connected with his accession to the throne, and those connected with his death. They correspond, that is to say, with the principle three rites de passage, that is to say the rites at birth, initiation and death.”20
The indication here is that this story, going through these rites of passage, is a story that all humans go through. The myths are symbolic representations of that. They are stories of the human condition. The form of the myth may help forge the identity of a society, but more importantly they help forge the identity of the individual within that society.21 The importance is in its commonality to all humanity: this is argued even in the modern scientific community, where “literary Darwinists propose that stories from around the world have universal themes reflecting our common underlying biology.”22
Myth scholar Karen Armstrong sees that, “Myth tells us what we have to do if we want to become a fully human person. Every single one of us has to be a hero at some time in our lives.”23
Psychologist Carl Jung sees these patterns of common human experience in archetypes, recurring ideas and figures throughout mythology and dream, emerging from the collective unconscious of all humanity, a “brain-structure” that “tells its own story, which is the story of mankind: the unending myth of death and rebirth, and of the multitudinous figures who weave in and out of this mystery.”24
Scientist Carl Sagan tells us that it was “insights obtained from human introspection” that brought us myths, “the richest, most intricate and most profound” of these insights. “ ‘Myths,’ declared Salustius in the fourth century, ‘are things which never happened but always are.’”25
Ananda K. Coomaraswamy writes, “Myth is the penultimate truth, of which all experience is the temporal reflection. The mythical narrative is of timeless and placeless validity, true nowever and everywhere.”26
Literary scholar Northrop Frye expands, “A myth, in nearly all its senses, is a narrative that suggests two inconsistent responses: first, ‘this is what is said to have happened,’ and second, ‘this almost certainly is not what happened, at least in precisely the way described.’”27 This is precisely a metaphor, wherein, “as with the myth, we have two contradictory messages presented. There is, or seems to be, an assertion that A is B, along with an undercurrent of significance that tells us that A is obviously not B, and nobody but a fool could imagine that it was.”28 The myth is a metaphor for our own lives, our common human experience: “The mythos is not ‘following’ history at all: it includes a historical theme, but it twists it around so that it confronts us in the present.”29
If we look back on our definition of story, we can see how it connects directly to the human experience.
[I]f humans live in a world in which they choose many of their own actions, then their mental models are usually imperfect and invariably incomplete, whereas their agency is limited by the constraints of embodiment. So — necessarily — although they start with aspirations (goals) and although they contrive plans, people’s actions can have consequences they do not foresee (vicissitudes). As authors of these actions, people experience their consequences and must take responsibility for them, suffering the changed personal circumstances and their accompanying mental states (emotions). 30
This really begins to touch on something that seems to me the more important aspect of myth. There is something profound about the stories told in myth, and we are beginning to see a sense that it is their expression of a common human experience. Myths perhaps tell the story of what it is to be human.
In fact, some of the previous theorists I so quickly dismissed earlier did have some good things to say about myth, along these lines. Vico wrote that, “No reason but imagination must thus be the key to myth,”31 and though he may have said as much with scorn towards its lack of rationality, I think it rings true — it is the imagination that leads to both a construction and understanding of the metaphor that is myth. And Frye interprets Frazer’s Golden Bough as being “about what human imagination does when it tries to express itself about the greatest mysteries, the mysteries of life and death and afterlife”32 — in other words, the primary stages in all human life.
The Hero’s Journey
I turn now to Joseph Campbell, one of the most famous myth theorists thanks to his popularization of the subject. In his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Campbell demonstrates though a myriad of examples the idea that, like Raglan and Jung before him, all (or most) myths across the world share the same basic patterns. He called this the Hero’s Journey.
In the Hero’s Journey, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”33 This monomyth, as he calls it, is the structure of all mythology. Like Jung, he says that myths, as with dreams, draw on the same unconscious symbols across cultures: “Heaven, hell, the mythological age, Olympus and all the other habitations of the gods are interpreted by psychoanalysis as symbols of the unconscious.”34 More importantly, this monomythic journey is the journey of the “Everyman;” it is symbolic of the journey of humanity.35 The mythic hero’s literal external quest symbolizes an internal quest — a quest for self-knowledge, for understanding.36
Thus, we see in Campbell something of a culmination of the transcendent view of myth. It is a ubiquitous symbol of humanity, the journeys of life that we all experience. And this theory, finally, does what the earliest-mentioned theories could not: it succeeds in explaining how myth might still be important to us today — because we still face the same journey. Campbell expresses what I felt on reading those other theories: “Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed. The living images become only remote facts of a distant time or sky. Furthermore, it is never difficult to demonstrate that as science and history mythology is absurd.”37
With this in mind, our previous definition of myth (“myths are stories, and myths have some connection to the sacred — this is, to the culture to which the myth belongs, myths have a meaning beyond the text, a connection to religion or ritual or belief, and perhaps are limited in when and where they can be retold”) does not accomplish what it seems it must — as with the early theorists, referring to its sacred nature precludes any modern utility.
A Revised Definition
As mentioned in our previous discussion of definitions, actually defining “myth” is very complex. Each of the theorists I have looked at would try to give their own definitions, each to suit their own purpose. The ultimate goal, it would seem, would be to find some kind of universal definition that accounts for all aspects of myth.
But can that be done? G. S. Kirk, in fact, “rejects all universalistic theories of myth, arguing that each theoretical approach and definition… receives support from certain mythic data but that each universalistic formulation can easily be negated by citing other instances of myth that do not accord with the assigned origins, explanations, or definitions.”38
So, I am not going to try to give a universal definition. Like the other theorists, I want to try to present my own definition to suit my own purpose — but in my case, I acknowledge this bias.
The thing is, myth may once have been necessarily linked with ritual, and it certainly was once connected to ideas of the sacred — as Eliade says, “The myth is regarded as a sacred story, and hence a ‘true history,’ because it always deals with realities.”39
But the sacredness of a myth is not the aspect of it that concerns me. As I am more interested in how myth affects us today, that is where I will take the definition — a definition that does not cover all aspects of myth, but which I hope covers one. And it is still tentative — further investigation may prove it untenable — but we will see how it holds up. So, taking all the myth theory I have looked at so far, I would like to define myth, for these purposes, for this explicit context, as a story that speaks of the human condition, that symbolizes the universal life journey. Modern scholar Robert Atkinson gives much the same definition: “A myth is a metaphorical and symbolic story that conveys the deepest truth about life and that at the same time captures the universal aspects of being human.”40 (Indeed, I might agree with Eliade that it is a “true history” — not in its sacredness, but in its symbolism. It does always deal with realities, not because of what it says, but because of what it represents.)
So for our purposes, we have divorced myth from the sacred nature it held in the past. In short, I believe we have equated myth with any other story.
2. Myth as Story
So the indications of some of these latter theorists that led us to our new working definition of myth is that myth and story are one and the same. Certainly, myths are stories. Can we similarly say that all stories really follow the mythic patterns and universality I have discussed?
Story consultant Christopher Vogler certainly thinks so.
The Writer’s Journey
As a Hollywood story consultant, Vogler looked at thousands of novels and screenplays, and he began to notice common patterns that infused them all.41 When he discovered Campbell and the Hero’s Journey, he saw that the patterns were one and the same. The mythic pattern, the universality symbolizing the human condition, is precisely the same pattern that makes a good story.
“The Hero’s Journey,” he writes, “is not an invention, but an observation. It is a recognition of a beautiful design, a set of principles that govern the conduct of life and the world of storytelling the way physics and chemistry govern the physical world.”42
In his book The Writer’s Journey, Vogler explores Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and the ideas of archetypes presented by Jung, and expands on them from the point of view of writing — of storytelling. More important, he takes a huge variety of existing modern stories and movies and demonstrates with overwhelming evidence that the Hero’s Journey applies to every one.
In doing so, Vogler shows that the mythic patterns are not confined to what we have termed “myths.” They infuse all stories. All stories follow the universal patterns of humanity, explore the human condition, the experience of life.
But then, if myth has been divorced from its sacredness, leaving only its structure, and all stories follow that structure, then myth and story are as one.
Indeed, the idea that myths and stories have the same universality is seen in the thinking of a number of scholars. Oftentimes the two are simply equated, with no explanation given.
To the ancient Greeks, of course, all story — poetry, tragedy, that is, fiction — was about myths. Plato’s student Aristotle makes a distinction that history is about particulars — actual events in the past — while poetry is about universals — what can happen.43 And this, after his predecessors had begun to separate myth from its sacred meanings.
Discussing the origin of mythic stories, Fontenelle writes:
When we tell about some surprising thing, our imagination gets heated up with its subject and begins of itself to enlarge the subject and to add to it whatever may be lacking to make it altogether marvellous, as though regretting to leave a good thing imperfect. Moreover, one is flattered by the surprise and admiration one causes in his audience and is quite happy to augment it further, since something in this seems to please our vanity… It takes a considerable effort and a particular attentiveness to keep from telling things that are not strictly true.44
This seems quite right, and he gives this explanation as true of all stories, mythic or not.
Vico, too, has something good to say about story (as poetry). Though he says myth lacks reasoning power, lacks the scientific method, that is its strength:45 “Thus it was fear which created gods in the world; not fear awakened in men by other men, but fear awakened in men by themselves… That such was the origin of poetry is finally confirmed by this eternal property of it: that its proper material is the credible impossibility.”46
Jung certainly sees the same archetypal symbols in all stories: “When, for instance, one examines the world of fairytales, one can hardly avoid the impression that one is meeting certain figures again and again, albeit in altered guise.”47
Frye says that myth, “being a story… is always potentially literary, and very soon becomes actually so, or has close relatives that do.”48 They share the same structures and meanings. Atkinson points out that the stories of our lives today mirror those told in the past of the gods and goddesses. Just like myth, our personal stories tap into unconscious universal themes.49
Eliade makes it explicit. He interprets myth and literature in the same way, sees them both containing the same symbolic meanings and performing the same functions.50 He writes that he wants to show “the autonomous, glorious, irreducible dimension of narration, the formula of myth and mythology readapted to the modern consciousness. Showing that modern man, like the man of archaic societies, cannot exist without myths, without exemplary stories.”51
And Joseph Campbell goes as far as to charge modern artists with the task of continuing to explore the “Elementary Ideas” of cross-cultural myths:
In this… field the poet, the artist, and a certain type of romantic philosopher are more successful; for, since in poetry and art, beyond the learning of rhetorical and manual techniques, the whole craft is that of seizing the idea and facilitating its epiphany; the creative mind, adequately trained, is less apt that the analytic to mistake a mere trope or concept for a living, life-awakening image. Poetry and art… are simply dead unless informed by Elementary Ideas.52
For him, “dreams, art, literature, ideology and science become varieties of myth rather than alternatives to it.”53
Lord Raglan may put best the failure of theories that suggest myth is something different than other stories: “The reading of the Iliad or of the Seven Against Thebes fills [classical scholars] with emotion, but they are unwilling to admit that it is emotion of exactly the same type as that experienced by the small boy who reads Treasure Island, and therefore they conceal it under a veil of pseudohistory.”54
And so we can see an overwhelming suspicion that all stories have a mythic task to perform. Myth and story are truly one and the same in form, structure, and purpose.
Myth, Dream, and Reading
As a brief side note, the phenomenon of dreams has long had a connection to mythology. Many myths actually deal explicitly with dream — Australian aboriginal mythology talks of the Dreamtime as the sacred prehistory.
Psychologist Sigmund Freud looks at the relationship very closely. He sees that dreams are to the individual what myths are to society, the same essential psychological manifestation.55 Jung sees the same thing — that the archetypes he identified are present in dream just as they are present in myth, that therefore dream and myth are both manifestations of the symbols of the collective unconscious.56 Frye puts it thus: myth is “unconscious symbolism on its social side, and it corresponds to and complements the work that Freud and Jung and others have done in psychology on unconscious symbolism on its individual side, in dreams and the like.”57
Having opened the discussion to story in general, there seems another interesting connection. In studying the psychology of reading stories, psychologist Victor Nell finds that the state of the brain while reading is very close to that while dreaming. “Clearly, dreaming — and especially daydreaming — is in certain ways an analog of reading. The dreamer knows that even if his dreams have not come from another world, they ‘at all events carried him off into another world’ (Freud). Moreover, reading and dreaming share a cognitive passivity, because the work they do is subjectively effortless.”58
Carl Sagan agrees: “The neocortex is by no means altogether turned off in the dream state, but it certainly seems to suffer important malfunctions… There are no rules of internal consistency that dreams are required to follow. The dream is a world of magic and ritual, passion and anger, but very rarely of scepticism and reason.”59 Therefore dream and story can be seen as something deeper, something more visceral.
3. The Power of Stories
I come now to the crux of the issue. So far in the discussion, we have determined that myth has some function for us in the present day, and that myth functions as all stories do, but that still leaves us with a vital question that has only been touched on so far. Namely, what is it, exactly, that stories actually do? What do they accomplish? What is their power over us, the power we may feel every time we read a book, watch a movie, or tell someone about our day? Why are we universally storytelling creatures?
There are two steps to this investigation: the first is to look at the psychological effects of consuming a story; the second is to look at what results from it.
A surprising amount of work has been done in the last few decades — as the interdisciplinary field of cognitive science has opened up — on the psychological and neurological effects of story.
Human minds have the startling ability to look into the past and the future, to think about consequences of actions. “We have imagination, a faculty that enables us to think of something that is not immediately present, and that, when we first conceive it, has no objective existence.”60 In order to do so, according to psychologist Keith Oatley and his colleagues, the mind creates a model that “parallels the workings of the world.”61 This is how minds work in day-to-day thinking. And this is precisely the same thing that happens when experiencing a story — “Readers of fiction locate themselves within models of imaginary worlds cued by narratives they are reading.”62 The story creates the mental instructions for the model — it makes the reader construct the model in such a way as to draw attention to the things the writer of the story wishes to explore.63 Similarly, we make mental constructions of others in order to interact with them — and the same is done in fiction, with fictional characters.64
Nell has found that reading makes one “physiologically more aroused and more labile than baseline responding.”65 A novel “provokes a certain kind of dream,” seeming to transport the reader to another place.66 Freud writes that, “That strange being, the poet, is able to carry us with him in such a way and to rouse emotions in us of which we thought ourselves perhaps not even capable.”67 Bronislaw Malinowski believes that myths work on us subconsciously, eliciting emotions without our awareness of it.68 “Powerful human emotions — love, rage, or sexual passion — …seemed momentarily to lift men and women onto a different plane of existence so that they saw the world with new eyes.”69 Self-reported experience in fact changes after being exposed to story.70
Therefore, it seems that stories can actually do something to our minds that other things cannot. They open us up mentally to take in what it is the story is offering. Frye says of the power of myths that, “It is only as a myth [read: story, as opposed to strictly history] that it has the power to confront us in the present tense, and tell us that what was done then is what we are doing now.”71 From a neurological point of view, he is absolutely correct — fiction can create a much different effect on the brain than expository text, opening a more personal connection to the information.72
So stories open our minds to a very different kind of experience — but what does that impart?
A Life Experience
There seems to be a universal idea that stories can teach us; that they can allow us to look at things from a new perspective — or even show us that there is something to look at; that they can even inform and enhance our social abilities.
The ancient Greek sophist Gorgias wrote, “Tragedy [which tells mythic stories] inspires and proclaims. It is something wonderful for people to see and hear, and produces deception through its mythoi and the passions it arouses. Further, one who deceives [in this fashion] is more just than one who does not, while he who has been deceived is wiser than he who has not.”73 The fact that a story may be false is irrelevant — the lie can nevertheless teach us. It becomes a moral lie. The philosopher Nietzsche expands: “The falseness of an opinion is not for us any objection to it… The question is, how far an opinion is life-furthering, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps species-rearing; and we are fundamentally inclined to maintain that the falsest opinions… are the most indispensable to us; that without a recognition of logical fictions… man could not live.”74 The power of a story looks far beyond the “superficial thrust of the narrative.”75 They allow us to learn from experience — an experience not our own.76
On one hand, this manifests itself in social experience. “Literary narratives fundamentally deal with relationships among individuals and the navigation of conflicting desires. This reflects the fact that much of human experience is about coping with such issues.”77 It allows us to construct models of other people’s minds, enabling us to know — or at least come closer to knowing — what it is to be someone else.78 It thus gives us an experience and comprehension of “social complexes”79 and, in turn, can lead to “a gradual change of oneself toward a better understanding of others.”80 They can allow us to learn “how to behave to [our] fellows in ordinary transactions and relationships.”81 Basically, stories allow us to experience social situations beyond our own, understand how others might react, and thus understand other people better, leading to a better functioning in the social world — that is, in our own human experience.
On the other hand, stories tell us something about ourselves as well. Author Philip Pullman uses stories to “say something truthful and realistic about human nature.”82 Readers use stories as a “consciousness-heightening activity by self-exploration.”83 Since fiction is a simulation of life, “personal truths can be explored that allow readers to experience emotions — their own emotions — and understand aspects of them that are obscure.”84 Oatley finds: “Fiction allows people to find out more about the intimate implications of their emotions. They offer a laboratory space that, relative to real life, is safe and can make the relations of emotions to goals and actions easier to understand.”85 Armstrong says, “The myth of the hero was not intended to provide us with icons to admire, but was designed to tap into the vein of heroism within ourselves.”86
Atkinson reports that, in addition, putting our own lives into the form of a story can give us perspective, and allow us to come to terms with our experiences and burdens.87 It allows us to be heard by others and have our own truths validated.88
Armstrong again writes, “Mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality.”89 “And, like mythology, an important novel is transformative. If we allow it to do so, it can change us forever.”90
To summarize, stories let us understand other people, and they let us understand ourselves. By exploring the human condition, the human story, we get a new perspective on life. We see the universality of that human story. We feel better about ourselves and our fates.91 As Filmer-Davies writes, stories “break down cultural barriers, establish humanity as one family, remove our deepest fears and fill us with assurance and hope.”92
I have come a long way in this exploration of myth and story. There are but a few topics left I wish to touch on.
In Defence of Fiction
In my exploration of various themes of myth, I came across a few instances when theorists seemed specifically to fly against my attempt to equate all types of stories, especially where myth was concerned.
Malinowski writes, “Myth as it exists in a savage community, that is, in its living primitive form, is not merely a story told but a reality lived. It is not of the nature of fiction, such as we read today in a novel, but it is a living reality, believed to have once happened in primeval times, and continuing ever since to influence the world and human destinies.”93
I have two objections to this statement. First of all, as mentioned previously, I do not object to the sacred structure myth takes “in its living primitive form,” and this seems to be the main objection Malinowski is making. In its original setting — that is, in the culture that developed and believes in the myth — there is no doubt that a mythic story has more to it than other kinds of story — or for that matter, the mythic stories of other cultures. It is when the myth is divorced from that context — for instance, when I encounter it — in which I am interested.
But more than that, it seems to me that Malinowski’s statement is not fair to the power of fiction, “such as we read today.” There is an implication in his evaluation that fiction is “less than” myth in how it can affect us. I have already explored how any story can profoundly influence someone, even without a kind of sacred significance. Fiction is just as powerful as myth.
Among the myth-ritualists is a certain strain termed literary myth-ritualists. They say that myth becomes literature when divorced from ritual, and that it has something more when connected to ritual.94 This I do not disagree with, as I have explored above — at least to the extent of those who perform the rituals, the culture from which the myths originate.
But in explicating literary myth-ritualism, Robert Segal writes, “To paraphrase Marx and Engels, myth linked to ritual can change the world, where myth severed from ritual can only interpret it.”95 Ultimately, this is a strengthening of the position taken by Malinowski — but as such, it falls prey to the same arguments. We have seen how story can give people a better understanding of society, how it can give people experiences and ideas. Therefore, stories do not need a religious, ritual context to “change the world” — they can do that all by themselves.
Use of Examples
It may have been noticed that throughout this paper, I have presented no actual examples from myth and story, and I should address this.
For one thing, all of the scholars I have looked at throughout the piece use copious examples from myth. Joseph Campbell, especially, peppers The Hero With A Thousand Faces with myths from all around the world, and Christopher Vogler similarly explores the mythic arc in dozens of contemporary stories. Therefore, it only takes an investigation of my sources to find the evidence. I did not wish to inundate this piece with such repetition for reasons of space.
Furthermore, where the demonstration of the power of stories is concerned, it would be hard for me to give definitive examples. Oatley says that, “Fictional stories are polysemous. People necessarily make different interpretations of them.”96 What moves me and enhances my self-knowledge may not be what moves anyone else who reads this. Conversely, all it takes for my propositions to be realized is for my readers to find a story that does move them — and I would conjecture that anyone reading this has at some point already experienced the moving power of a story.
But, to satisfy any lingering doubts, I shall give one example of modern story. Since I have quoted him once already, I shall look at Philip Pullman’s work — the His Dark Materials trilogy of novels.97 The trilogy tells the story primarily of a girl named Lyra. She finds herself swept up in a series of adventures that leads to her discovery of a supernatural plot and the potential end of all life.
Her journey parallels Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, from the Call and Refusal of the Call to Adventure, to crossing the threshold into worlds beyond her own, normal world; coming in contact with conflicts and tests, and dealing with both her father and mother; literally travelling to the underworld and experiencing a rebirth from it; and finally returning to her normal world with a boon — the safety of existence.
In the course of her adventure, she also has a personal journey of self-discovery as she goes through the rite of passage of entering into adulthood. She ends the story a changed person.
The trilogy has the potential to do a lot. It of course explores the universal human experience of the rite of passage. It also discusses important social concerns, like organized religion, and allows its readers to gain new insights and experiences. It is also a deeply emotionally moving story, dealing with love and loss and all that entails. (Interestingly, much of what the story does is told in terms of established mythological images — angels, the underworld, creatures like harpies, and embodied souls — drawing further on these universal ideas.)
It should be clear that such a story can have tremendous power and can be directly related to any myth — even though it itself is not a sacred text. If any doubt still remains, one must only read the trilogy for oneself.
The final issue I want to explore as this paper nears its close is about writing. As a writer myself, how can this understanding of myth and story help me? How does it inform what I do?
First of all, Vogler’s analysis of writing should weigh heavily. Stories follow a certain template — I should not be forced to follow a map in my writing, but I must understand what makes a good story, and furthermore the reason that schema does make a good story — that is, the power it has to affect people.
There is also a long history of myth and story that stretches before me — from the time of the first humans. This history must inform and direct my work — much has already been done. But more than let it restrict what I write, I can draw on this history, for it is a shared history amongst humanity, universal themes that anyone can understand.
Clearly, my role as a writer comes with a lot of responsibility. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, “Poets — or at least storytellers — are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”98 My writing may influence how people think, how they see the world and their place in it. That is a lot of potential power, and I should always keep it in mind when I write.
It also means that I do have the power to make a difference. I need not balk at a desire to help people, because I have the ability to do so. C.S. Lewis wrote on his writing, “I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you… the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both.”99
Jung says, “it is the artist who can tell us most about this sacrifice of the personal man, if we are not satisfied with the message of the Gospels.”100 That is, for those who do not subscribe to the sacred aspect of myth and belief, it is up to artists, to writers, to explore and open up the human condition.
Armstrong has a lot to say on the subject as well. She writes, “It has been writers and artists, rather than religious leaders, who have stepped into the vacuum and attempted to reacquaint us with the mythological wisdom of the past.”101 Furthermore:
If it is written and read with serious attention, a novel, like a myth or any great work of art, can become an initiation that helps us to make a painful rite of passage from one phase of life, one state of mind, to another. A novel, like a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest. If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight to our lost and damaged world.102
Myths have a lot of power, power that goes far beyond its use in a sacred context, in its originating culture. Like all stories, myths draw on universals of the human condition, and can thus affect all of us, across space and time. And they do affect us — stories open our minds to possibility and experience, expanding our knowledge of each other and our knowledge of ourselves.
The power of the story has been understood for thousands of years. In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus makes this pronouncement:
How beautiful this is, to hear a minstrel
gifted as yours: a god he might be, singing!
There is no boon in life more sweet, I say,
than when a summer joy holds all the realm,
and banqueters sit listening to a harper
in a great hall, by rows of tables heaped
with bread and roast meat, while a steward goes
to dip up wine and brim your cups again.
Here is the flower of life, it seems to me!103
This is a brilliant turn of the poet praising poetry within the context of a poem. With the surrounding context. Homer suggests that poets are able to see and relate the truth of all humanity, across time. Furthermore, Homer understands that the poet has a transformative power, the ability to affect his audience in the most profound way.104
Lord Raglan writes:
The poets are not interested in historical truth. Very few people are. It is always assumed by historians that people prefer fact to fiction, but they need only go as far as the nearest lending library to find out that there is not the slightest foundation for this assumption. Homer is read, not because his readers are eager for historical accuracy, but because he wrote good stories, and he will still be read when it has come to be generally realised that these stories have not the slightest historical foundation.105
Eliade agrees. “True epic literature — that is, the novel, the story, the tale — cannot disappear… for the literary imagination is the continuation of mythological creativity and oneiric experience.”106
Above the door of his home in Kusnacht, Switzerland, Jung displayed the phrase, “vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit,” which roughly translates as “bidden or not bidden, God will be there,” a declaration of the universality of the transcendental ideas Jung studied. But with our journey in mind, perhaps more suitable would be: vocatus atque non vocatus fabula aderit.
But perhaps Pullman puts it best: “[stories are] the most important thing in the world,” without which “we wouldn’t be human beings at all.”107