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Going back to the source and drawing from the well

posted on 16 Jun 2017

Going back to the source and drawing from the well

The fashion for drawing on or even reinterpreting mythology seems to ebb and flow. Right now, if the evidence of recent and pending publications is anything to go by, we seem to be in an age that sees the ancient myths as especially relevant to our times. There are those, of course, who argue that this shouldn’t come as a surprise because ancient mythologies have always provided writers with the inspiration for, or the structure of, fictions and storylines that came along thereafter. But I can’t help but wonder whether there is something else going on in society today that has led the likes of Neil Gaiman, Rick Riorden, Stephen Fry, Simon Armitage and – before his death – Seamus Heaney to dedicate their time to adapting and reinterpreting mythology from both the Classical, Norse and Ancient British civilisations.

There are, of course, some obvious reasons why myth is always popular: myth deals with universal human emotions, the seeming arbitrariness of life and death, nature and magic – all of which provide terrific material for exciting adventures that tell us about what it means (and has always meant) to be human. And it also addresses itself to the really big questions, helping us confront some of the trickiest questions of  all – why things do or don’t happen, why the innocent suffer and the guilty prosper, why it seem that evil can sometimes prevail; whether the universe is neutral to our suffering or instrumental in it. These are fundamental speculations that will never be resolved and which make the stories we construct to explain all this permanently relevant.

And maybe this is the key to the current popularity of the ancient myths. We live in a time of social and political upheaval and uncertainty where these big questions seem to confront us more and more each day. When human authority seems to be failing us, when we need to find answers about why it is that our leaders let us down, the answers can be found in the stories we’ve been telling each other for thousands of years. We are, after all, as Terry Pratchett famously claimed, a species best described as pan narrans – the storytelling ape.

We are not the first generations of people to feel lost in an uncertain, bewildering universe. The size and nature of the problems we face often seems to dwarf our ability to solve them; atomised and alone we feel the sort of confusion that begs for answers to bring back stability. And these answers don’t seem to lie in the instrumental world of politics. Instead we need to turn to metaphor, story and poetry – to the subtlety of meaning that lies in the unspoken and in the cracks between the way we imagine the world.

What some of the great writers have found in the past is that if we are too literal or instrumental in our use of language this sometimes wraps us up in the material world, inhibiting our imaginations and preventing us from engaging with the abstract and the spiritual. Poets like Henry Vaughan and, later, T.S.Eliot desperately wanted to be able to write about the mystical experience and the abstract state and found themselves  able to to do this by the deliberate negations or inversions of the positive :

What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

(T.S.Eliot  Burnt Norton 1935)

So literature and language can open up the ways in which we can best get access to expressions of feelings that are otherwise difficult or even impossible for us to construct. Ancient myth and the stories they tell can be, I think, a better way for us to talk to each other about the way our society does or doesn’t work in times of stress than politics can offer.

Each generation grows and adds to the body of myth we have available to us and increases the ways we have of talking about things that might otherwise be too big to confront. Expect our current interest in retelling myth to continue and grow because, as the old Chinese curse would have it, we live in interesting times.

 

Terry Potter

June 2017