In the last article in this series, we attempted to examine the Norse myth of creation as a story or piece of poetry, to see what emotional and spiritual value it had for us as modern readers without devaluing it as a myth, a ‘core story’, a collection of images and ideas which were and are an effort to capture basic truths about Life.
It wasn’t easy. The World Tree Yggdrasil was just about comprehensible as an image of the mysterious, interlinked and untranslatable essence of reality, at a stretch; but once we began to look closely at the events surrounding the creation of the world - the appearance of Ymir the frost giant, the birth of the first human couple from his armpit, his destruction and the making of the physical world from his body by ‘gods’ who had murdered him - our modern credibility became strained.
But looked at poetically, the myth retained some of its power: the movement from remote images of a polar universe to the specific but strange appearances of god-like figures; the dream-like spaces and times involved; the grandeur and the glory of the natural world as an extension of poetry and mystery, these all possessed something of a coherent song about them, despite our removal from them culturally.
It’s that ‘cultural removal’ which needs to be examined more closely. What has happened to the human imagination so that it is, in modern times, often intensely difficult to grasp the real power of myth? It is much easier for us to dismiss mythologies as ‘primitive’, as humanity’s first attempts to make sense of the universe before they ‘knew better’. Some readers probably react derisively to the sudden and unexplained emergence of a creature like a giant, who engenders human beings through some mysterious process involving his armpit; some might seek for a background evolutionary heritage that ‘must exist’ to give rise to Auðumbla the cow, which, in licking blocks of ice, releases the grandfather of the Norse gods, Búri. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we have been very much educated to think in terms of material causes and effects: nothing appears without a logical prior cause going right back to first principles and the formation of matter during the Big Bang; and what’s more, those things which appeared later in Time are, we are taught, intrinsically superior to the things that existed earlier, because they evolved to survive whereas their ancestors didn’t. The notion of ‘progress’ and ‘evolution’, the idea that we are part of a timeline heading towards more and more ‘improvement’ is a subtle and powerful one: humanity is the senior life form on the planet because it has evolved to be so, says this philosophy. There can be no mysterious ‘blanks’ in this timeline; everything has to ‘make sense’, to be explained rationally. If there are strange gaps, these are temporary, so this way of thinking goes, to be filled in as soon as we can ‘find out more about them’.
So when we come to look at myths, the first thing we attribute to them is age: we call them ‘ancient’ and immediately assign them to a remote past, about which we know very little, which serves to ‘explain’ some of their strangeness. And the second thing we tend to do with regard to mythology is we try to deconstruct it, to take it apart and analyse the cultural elements in an effort which results in a devaluation, whether we intended that or not. It’s all part of the scientific quest for 'knowledge', which began focusing on the material universe around the time of the Reformation and hasn’t stopped since.
Anyone who has struggled through Owen Barfield’s ground-breaking but rather difficult book Saving the Appearances will know that there is another way entirely of looking at all this. Barfield was an exceptionally intelligent man, a friend of and major guide for C. S. Lewis, and a member of Lewis’s informal but later culturally important Inklings group. In brief (for the ideas in his book are complex and require lengthy exposition to apprehend their full meaning) Barfield argued that human beings have lost a way of perceiving the world over the last few centuries. Mentally, he outlines, they started to divide things up at around the time of the Reformation into what might be called poetic and rational ways of seeing. The truth was, he felt, that humanity used to possess a more unified way of experiencing reality, one which didn’t try to separate out the ‘scientific’ from the ‘imaginative’ and didn’t even understand that there might be a difference, but involved both before the notion of separating them had even occurred to anyone. They ‘participated’ (to borrow Barfield’s term) in the universe, implicitly recognising their part in it and of it, like a child in a womb or a person looking at the phenomenon of a rainbow, but have since come to ‘view the universe from outside’ as a piece of mechanical engineering, much as a driver looks at the motor of a car. Barfield analyses language to show how it reflects this development growing out of a unified view into a divided and divisive one.
Of course, the last few hundred years have yielded tremendous advances in our understanding of and ability to manipulate the material world around us - there is no argument with that. But these developments have been paralleled by a fairly obvious and devastating general disaffection with that world; often individuals have progressively become disassociated with their environments in one way or another, leading, amongst other things, to various crises in mental health. Most of us no longer ‘participate’ in the world in the same way: we analyse it, deconstruct it, seek to explain it, viewing it as a complex object which we are within our rights to manipulate, but we don’t engage with it in the same way anymore.
Any literature written prior to the twentieth century has traces of this earlier, unified way of thinking in it. It could be argued that literature and the broader field of fiction overall are the only ways left to us of apprehending reality in any way like a participation in it, other than some forms of mysticism and religion. In reading a piece of literature, we enter a world in which every part is an element in a unified whole (with varying degrees of success); from the words on the page, to the figures we know as ‘characters’ to the patterns of action they engage in which we know as the ‘plot’, to the emotional content and finally the overall effect of the work, everything is designed and counts for its power and life on the fact that we enter into it as readers. On completion of a novel, we place the book back on the shelf and emerge from it into a world where we have lost any sense of there being a unified whole, where the overall effect of living seems random rather than designed and where Life mostly seems to have little connection to the fact that we are present in it.
Barfield would probably argue - and this series on myth would argue - that there was a state, and maybe is an attainable state for us still, in which there would be no real difference between the experience of reading a well-constructed novel and the experience of living itself. On completion of a novel, in other words, we would emerge into a world which was ‘at one with itself’, where our experience was clearly designed and where our presence was intrinsically important to that unified whole. This is so far removed from our modern conception of reality that even contemplating it probably feels claustrophobic and even heretical to some: we are used to the ‘wide open spaces’ of an empty universe, and are accustomed to remaining detached from the things around us in order to preserve a sense of ‘who we are’. And yet, in striving to preserve that integrity, ironically we find ourselves often feeling like uninvited strangers in a series of incidents which have nothing to do with us emotionally or spiritually.
No wonder we have trouble comprehending the meaning of a Norse myth, or any kind of myth. Myths were the stories created when the teller and the tale were least distinguishable, and when the world of the fiction was most like the world in which it was being told.
And that has so much significance for us that it will probably take future articles to explore it.