The Power of Story

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.

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