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Myth and the 'Now': Part One

I’ve written elsewhere about Canadian academic Northrop Frye and his work on understanding how fiction operates. I believe this to be some of the most startling and important research into our subject of writing fiction that has ever been done, and many of his ideas either underpin or parallel what I’ve outlined in my book How Stories Really Work.

Starting from the viewpoint that works of fiction may be classified according to the power of action possessed by their protagonist, Frye developed a theory of fictional ‘modes’. Each mode is determined by the relationship of the hero or heroine both to other characters and to the natural environment. This produces five broad categories, as outlined in his ground-breaking book Anatomy of Criticism:

(1) Myth

The protagonist’s superiority is different in kind from that of other men and the environment. What we usually call ‘gods’ are engaged in acts far beyond our normal, linear experiences as human beings, in a sphere of operation which is barely recognisable.

(2) Romance

Here, the protagonist’s superiority is one of degree: superhuman deeds are done in an environment full of ‘supernatural’ elements.

(3) High Mimesis

The protagonist is a warrior or king or leader of some kind, capable of great action but in a world which we can recognise.

(4) Low Mimesis

These stories feature lead characters who are more or less equal to us as readers and not superior to their environments.

(5) Irony

The protagonist’s power of action is inferior to that of an ordinary person.

Frye makes a further distinction between tragic and comic aspects of fiction. ‘Tragedy’ includes those stories featuring the death, fall, or isolation of the protagonist; ‘Comedy’ consists of tales in which the protagonist is somehow integrated into society.

These modes are rearranged and simplified in my book, in which I was able, I think, to connect them up dynamically. But Frye’s analysis, which is incredibly scholarly and subtle, also enables us to see a historic evolution of a kind in terms of the modes of fiction which have risen to prominence through the ages: myth is usually seen as the first type of fiction, followed by the romances of the ancients and the Middle Ages, for example. With the coming of the Renaissance, high mimetic forms arose, including Shakespeare’s great tragedies and comedies; then, with the rise of the novel, we see low mimetic stories taking centre stage, featuring the adventures of characters not unlike ourselves. The late Nineteenth and the Twentieth Centuries brought the deconstruction that comes with Irony, which we see flourishing in this ‘post-modern’ age.

But in a way this historical analysis is misleading: it encourages us to think of ‘myth’ as something belonging to the distant past, for a start. The whole notion of ‘creation myths’ adds fuel to the misconception that early story-tellers were more 'primitive' than ourselves, and that what they had to say was based purely on superstition or a lack of knowledge about how the world ‘actually worked’. This is part of what C. S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’: the prevailing belief that ‘modern people know better’ than people in the past about basic truths. The idea that the ancients and the mediaevals told stories about knights and dragons because they were living in a fantasy world from which we have emerged is part of that snobbery which forms a powerful foundation of assumptions for our own culture. 'Progress' and 'evolution towards something superior' are concepts upon which modern thinking is built, but these concepts inherently devalue what has come before. Viewing things in this way leads us to evaluate past cultures inaccurately. Even the conviction that Renaissance playwrights told stories of kings and aristocrats purely because these people were their patrons risks missing central and highly significant truths.

What are those truths?

Well, one of them is that a story works because it resonates with fundamental psychological and spiritual realities that remain true, active and potent today, right now, for any reader.

In other words, a so-called ‘primitive’ creation myth has just as much psychological and spiritual value for a modern reader as it did thousands of years ago, as does a mediaeval romance or a Shakespearian drama: the fact that it was compiled in the ‘past’ is irrelevant and should not detract from the value of any work of fiction in any mode.

Thus a Norse creation myth, for example, can work for readers right now on a spiritual, mental and emotional level because it is dealing with archetypal figures and verities which are just as meaningful today as they were back in the dim past when the story was first invented.

The tales of King Arthur, as another example, are significant to us not simply because of the colourful past which they evoke but because they are conveying to us things that we still need to know about life and meaning; the great plays of the first Elizabethan period are important not just because of what they tell us about Renaissance politics or even because of their emotional studies of ‘great figures’ but because they communicate things to audiences which are crucial to understanding life and the universe now, today, for every reader.

Instead of stringing out these modes along a historical timeline, then, it might be more useful and important to picture them as concentric circles. In the heart of the circle are the most fundamental and simple authenticities about life and human nature as revealed to us through the world’s most powerful myths. One circle outward from that, fiction uses a set of images and tropes to convey those same truths, elaborating upon or exploring them in different ways using superhuman protagonists and a supernatural environment for the most part.

In the next circle, we see those themes reworked, re-examined and reinvigorated in Renaissance drama, while the circle outside that focuses on the same universal truths using the imagery and expectations of ‘ordinary people’. Finally, the outermost circle revisits those truths through the forms and patterns of Irony.

What does this mean? Why is this important?

What it means is that when we come to write a story, we are ourselves returning to the fundamental truths about the human condition. The vast opus of literature that has gone before us can be ignored with effort - or it can be treated as a fountain of wisdom from which we can draw strength and learn. That’s surely significant.

This series of articles will look closely at both the meaning and the importance of all of this.

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