Myth and the 'Now' Part Five: Looking Into The Night

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.