Weighing the Odds
October 28, 2012 § 2 Comments
There is a myth about mythology: it is that a mythological story is timeless and that it has undiluted charm and relevance for people of all generations and geographies, everywhere and forever. In fact, legends frequently die – for want of people interested in reading them, thinking about them or passing them on to the next generation. Our lives and circumstances are so different from those of the heroes, heroines and gods who star in ancient mythological tales that the odds are heavily stacked against their survival.
But don’t weep yet for mythology – it has a couple of powerful things going for it. One is the number of genres it can be linked to. Of course fantasy and forms of children’s literature draw liberally from mythology, but so does serious writing. Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus and Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra use powerful myths as pivotal points of their philosophy. Robert Graves and James Frazer intensely analyzed the linkages between mythology, history and sociology. Most religions are inseparable from their mythologies. Some of the most famous pieces of art, sculpture and architecture in the world have been inspired by mythological themes; the names of the planets, the days of the week, many of the months of the year – we cannot think or speak without making mythological references, to Oedipal complexes, Herculean tasks, halcyon days, basilisk stares, scapegoats and holocausts, the writing on the wall, adam’s apples, achilles’ tendons and heels…To destroy it completely would require the complete overhaul of language and thought. There is something elemental about myth. All else is derivative.
Jeanette Winterson, for example, uses the fairly straightforward myth of Atlas and Hercules to derive a deep truth about her own childhood, and from that to derive a universal truth about life. In between, she narrates the story one more time – in her own words, investing the old, familiar characters with personalities, words and thoughts of her own choice. But then that is the other powerful weapon mythology has at its disposal: at the end of the day, a myth is a bloody good story, just the type that story-tellers instinctively enjoy re-imagining, re-interpreting and retelling in their own words.
Winterson’s effort was part of the Canongate Myth series, a series of short novels in which a set of contemporary authors – Margaret Atwood, AS Byatt, Philip Pullman, Su Tong, Natsuo Kirino, and others – were invited to each render versions of an ancient legend of their choice. And this kind of periodic revisionism, of course, is precisely how mythology lives on, against all odds, from the ashes of the dying, discarded form of the same story, phoenix-like (see how this works?) I think it is a fantastic idea, and in my dream world, some day, I would like to something similar with the rich and complex mythology of my own country, India. Until then, I will try and read the other books in this series…