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Myth and the 'Now' Part Eleven: An Overview So Far

Earlier on, we looked at Northrop Frye's development of what he called fictional ‘modes’, each determined by the relationship of the hero or heroine both to other characters and to the natural environment. The five modes, as outlined in his ground-breaking book Anatomy of Criticism, were:

(1) Myth, featuring a world in which entities that we usually call ‘gods’ do barely recognisable things. As we have since seen, going beyond Frye, myths about creation involve something emerging from a void or total darkness, something that is usually bipolar in nature at first, something that takes shape as a set of personified archetypes.

(2) Romance, where superhuman deeds are done in a supernatural environment, like the world of Arthurian legend. We have noted since then that these tales feature the same set of archetypes from myth.

(3) High Mimesis, about warriors or kings or leaders, capable of great and usually tragic action in a recognisably ‘realistic’ setting.

(4) Low Mimesis, in which lead characters who seem similar to us as readers are involved in more prosaic adventures.

(5) Irony, featuring characters clearly inferior to us in some way.

Frye argued that these modes had a historical evolution, with Myth at the beginning, then Romance during ancient and mediaeval times, followed by High Mimesis during the Renaissance and Low Mimesis during the rise of the novel. Irony was, he proposed, the main form of literature in modern times. However, we have instead considered these modes outside a historical context and in terms of the above diagram.

If we accept for a moment the premise of this diagram, it would mean that every story, no matter what ‘mode’ it was written in, contained elements of the modes within it. Thus a Romance would be quite ‘myth-like’ at its heart, a High Mimetic tale would contain some of the features of both Myth and Romance, and so on. Ultimately an Irony would encompass them all in some way, retaining mythic power at its core.

This would also mean many other things, including that there was really no such thing as an original, individual story, only the operations of the imagination finding new ‘disguises’ as worn in different ways by different authors. A modern thriller would contain the seeds of myth in much the same way as a 19th century novel; a mediaeval tale would be recognisably similar to a piece of pulp fiction; a Renaissance play would have at its core the same ‘message’ as a creation myth.

And that is largely what we do find.

We have also considered that the modern reader is divorced from a particular way of viewing both fiction and the ‘real’ world because of a fundamental change of approach which also has a historical context. We postulated that, for many reasons elaborated elsewhere, human beings ‘participated’ in their environments - social, religious, natural, intellectual - in a unified way for most of recorded history, but that around the middle of the last millennium a ‘splitting off’ occurred. This took the shape of the Reformation in terms of religion, the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution in terms of philosophy, and, in fiction, saw a shift away from the epic poetry of the Romance towards stories centred first on ‘great figures’, quasi-historical kings and other leaders, and then on ‘ordinary people’ as can be seen in the rise of the novel. We can see this ‘splitting’ in language, as Owen Barfield argues: some words divide from an original unity of meaning into what we now call figurative use, as in ‘metaphor’ and ‘simile’.

Modern readers might tend to associate these changes with the growth of literacy in the population, so that as, for example, new schools opened up in the Renaissance, spreading the ability to read and write beyond the confines of the Church for the first time, so did a desire for words written about recognisable people. Furthermore, as more schools were created to cope with the societal transformation that accompanied the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, so novels came into being to satisfy a new reading public. It’s an interesting line of argument, but it doesn’t really go deep enough - we can always ask ‘Why were schools opening up more then than at any other time in human history?’ However we view that evolution, the result was that new forms of literature were spawned, including, in the 20th century, the inwardly turning and deconstructive mode of Irony.

However, this view of the decline of ‘participation’ into rational and emotional halves, like the historical perspective taken initially to do with Frye’s modes, can also fall into a trap.

Whenever we discuss something historically, we immediately push part of it into a zone called ‘the past’ and to some extent, intentionally or not, distance ourselves from it. In modic terms, for example, making Myth the historical starting point of a progression of forms of fiction through time inevitably means that we see it as remote, lost in the mists of different epochs, separated from us. Romance and legend seem closer; the great works of the Renaissance a little closer. By the time we get to the novel and its ironic forms of the last century, we mentally feel that we have ‘arrived’ into a form for which everything that was prior to it was aiming somehow, and with which we are more familiar. A converse argument, as taken in this series of articles, is that this is unhelpful and that we should look at the modes in terms of the diagram above. This also applies to what happens with ‘participation’.

By pushing the ‘original participation’ (to use Barfield’s term) back in time to before the Reformation, we can easily lose sight of the fact that this progression from a unity of viewpoint to a splitting off into halves is what tends to occur with us as human individuals in life: in childhood, all is inter-connected, everything has both a ‘logical’ and an ‘emotional’ component, the lines between which are blurred to the point of complete indistinctness. Only later, as we ‘grow up’, do we learn (partly as a result of the educational input of a society which has already assimilated the ‘split’) to look at the world around us in a divided way: some things are to do with rationality, technicality, logic and the material world, while others, so this development asserts, are to do with irrationality, poetics, emotion and the suddenly ‘inner’ or subjective world. It is not only our career choices which are separated out into the reasoned and commercially viable or the emotional and artistic - our minds, even our souls, are compartmented in a similar way. As we grow into adulthood, many of us spend our time trying to ‘bridge the gaps’ which have been largely artificially created by this progression: we seek meaning in the material, soulfulness in the scientific, passion in the purely commercial. A pre-Reformation intellect would probably not have had this problem, and may even not recognise it - just as the viewpoint of a child is impervious to it. Children don’t see the world like that, and neither did we when we were children - 'inanimate objects' did not exist: everything was animated, everything participated in a gloriously universal dance, the meaning of which we could no more separate out as a distinct component than one could split away light from the star that emanated it.

So a parallel argument to that of the role of Myth is to see the growth of ‘non-participation’ in the world not as a purely historical development which we can assign to the past but as an intimate and personal progression which happens to us all as we ‘grow up’. That something so peculiar to us as individuals is then made large and thrown across time as a historical pattern of growth is interesting in itself. But for the purposes of this series of articles, what is fascinating is that just as Myth is the seedbed of all other modes of literature, so is ‘participation’ the core of our reading of them.

Stay tuned for more soon.

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