Continuing our series on the power of myth…
It’s very easy to fall for the modern temptation to try to explain something from where we stand now, projecting backwards in time those concepts with which we are familiar in an effort to understand those things which came earlier or lie beneath the comfortable things that we think we know. But while that seems perfectly natural, and is certainly commonplace, it runs counter to the raw creative process itself, which appears to begin with nothing and draws forth from that void recognisable archetypes and images by degrees, eventually crafting something familiar.
In the case of myth, for example, it would be a relatively simple matter to begin with character archetypes with which we are familiar from the world of contemporary stories, and which are given in great detail in my book How Stories Really Work, and to trace their origins by visiting them first in today’s blockbuster movies, then in the twentieth century’s ironic novels, then again in the rise of the novel in the preceding hundred years, and so on, going back through Shakespearian plays to the earliest known literature. That kind of study is common for understandable reasons, and it yields valuable insights.
What we end up with, though, more often than not, is an understanding of certain kinds of stories on our terms, the terms set by the rational, intellectual thinking of the last few centuries and the most recent few decades in particular. This framework says, in a general way, that ‘things evolve from early, more primitive forms to later, more complex forms’. It asserts, knowingly or not, that the later and more complex forms have a superiority of some kind - even a moral superiority - over the earlier. Implicit within this approach - and, as I say, not without value - is the notion that rationality is senior to poetic emotivity, and that human beings ‘know better now than they used to’.
This approach makes everything an allegory of things that we know. There are no genuine external Truths, according to this view, only projected extrapolations from familiar items, ideas and objects. In C. S. Lewis’s children’s book The Silver Chair, the Green Witch convinces her captives that the world of Narnia, the Sun and the Lion Aslan himself are all merely copies of the dark caves, the hanging lamps and the pet cat in the underworld in which she has entrapped them. And so we can begin to imagine that the world revealed to us most powerfully through myths is only a coloured-in facsimile of the mundane reality around us.
Endeavouring to explain anything any other way would seem counter-intuitive: of course one should start from things that we grasp, and work backwards. An earlier attempt to examine Norse mythology, for example, showed how much the modern mind struggles with the images it presents, constantly wanting to categories them as ‘primitive’ and even brutal or incomprehensible. But I want to try to take this counter-intuitive route, as an experiment. Let’s see how far we can get by looking rawly into the darkness and seeing what emerges from it, rather than building a well-lighted bridge into it; let’s put aside allegory, and look into the void.
If we stare into Gunningagap, for example, that primal abyss from Norse mythology about which we know little other than brief references in Icelandic literature, or into the Beginning of Things as alluded to in Genesis in the Bible, the first thing that we meet is indeed a cardinal blackness or emptiness, an immense vacuum which contains the ultimate in nothings, the chaotic void before there was anything else. From that empty chasm comes a duality: two poles appear. In Norse myth, they are represented by the regions of Muspelheim and Niflheim; in Genesis we see ‘waters above and waters below’ even before we see the light and dark of Day and Night. It is between these poles that everything else grows - and I want to suggest that that is where we should begin: two poles, two separated regions, and an area of potential between them.
Without getting too scientific or electronic, it is these two poles, common in myth, that create the immense and absolute difference that in turn engenders the world between them. From the gap between Muspelheim and Niflheim comes the ice giant, Ymir; from the world of Day and Night, with the agency of God, comes all the rest of Nature. From Ymir, and from Nature, in some unfathomable way, come human beings, scarcely recognisable but familiar enough to anchor us in the created universe. Then, Story proper begins and the tale of everything that is becomes the story of a progression either away from or towards those original poles.
Let’s lay it out like this:
In the Great Void (or whatever you want to call it) are two poles:
Pole # 1
Pole # 2
Between them manifests everything that is. But that created zone is in flux: what lies in it moves either toward Pole # 1 or Pole # 2 - there is a progression closer to or further away from either Pole.
So we have:
Pole # 1
Close to Pole # 1
Equidistant from either Pole
Close to Pole # 2
Pole # 2
Already this looks too scientific, but you probably get the concept. In mythic terms, we have the cold darkness of Niflheim, occupied by Frost Giants and the like, then the rest of the Nine Worlds, edging up towards Pole # 1 and the fiery regions of Muspelheim. Christianity has its Hell and Heaven; and every other religion has a similar layout, of one kind or another. This isn’t a study of religions, though, but of stories, and of myths in particular. And the interesting thing that emerges from this, I think, is that we have the beginning of the precise universal archetypes that underlie all fiction.
Stay tuned for more soon.