Here’s a very interesting project I’ve been invited to take part in: a 3 year programme where students have the opportunity of re-dreaming the native traditions of Britain for themselves. They’re receiving applications until May 22. Please see the website for more details:
Part of a talk I gave for an online conference called ‘A Year With Our Gods‘:
So absolutes can define a sacred direction in symbolic narrative, and those absolutes will vary depending on what myth the author wishes to evoke.
To consider this quality of myth in terms of The Land, one clear path to an absolute, sacred and transcendent value is found in the Earth. As the source and container of our lives and our deaths, the cradle and grave of our evolution as a species, the Earth is perhaps an Absolute amongst human absolutes.
In a very physical sense, all that we are as a species is derived from our interaction with the planet’s diverse environments. Even our culture, our non-physical realm of meaning, evolved in response to the same drives that shaped our bodies. To this day, dance is a frequent medium for courtship, art a re-visualising of the sensual world, story a person’s journey through time.
The implication is that the Earth is not only a basis for biological life but is one of the foundations upon which human meaning is formed. Human culture derives some of it’s core meanings directly from the Earth. How could it not? The fact that we are soil-coloured to the core, even in how we create meaning, reveals us to trully be another apple on the Great Tree of Nature.
Of course, the metaphor breaks down when we consider our very modern ability as a species to either totally invigorate or anihilate all life on Earth. Apples tend not to wield such vast powers of life and death. There is absolutely no humanity without Earth, but likewise humanity now has power over the absolute destruction or survival of life as we know it. At least, that’s what all-out nuclear war means.
And here the absolute value of the Earth is accompanied by two other dimond-hard absolutes, perhaps the most powerful concerns of the modern age, Survival and Destruction. Think of any of the doomsday movies that have been released in recent decades: they all play on the nature of this human power. This is the dark side of the myth of The Land, the essential fear of apocalypse, an old anxiety re-born in the Anthropocene.
But in the modern myth of The Land, Destruction takes on a whole new meaning. In older mythic contexts, Destruction was sometimes considered a transformer, a necessary part of the life-death cycle. But this new type of Destruction is not only the death of all life on Earth, but a total break in the cycle of transformation. Neither life, nor therefore Survival can be transformed out of such an event. Survival can be a reaction to it, even when it’s just a possibility, but in every sense it will never be fed by it.
If ever a very human condition needed sanctifying through myth and symbolic narrative, then it would be this one. It is a new Destruction that gives no quarter, that lets out no light. But even so, as a result Survival inherits the totality of meaning that is derived from the Earth. Where this new Destruction is entropic silence, Survival is filled with the essence of life and, yes, even death — an intrinsic part of the greater, transforming cycle of life on Earth. Once again, our old friend Death becomes a potential source of wisdom, as many have already concluded.
The myth of The Land requires us to invite this new Destruction in, to let it cause fault lines in the georgraphy of the tale, to let it shape the narrative as the total antithesis of Survival. How can we hold this directionless direction, grown from a centre that cannot hold? The Earth can no longer contain this type of death as a part of it’s evolutionary cycles; it is solely a human problem, requiring humanity to take responsible for its greater body, for the tree of all life. If the myth of The Land is to express hope, then it must be a tale about the moment of human maturing.
So having defined an audience, where could an author begin?
When seeking to evoke any type of myth, there is one very important aspect that should be borne in mind: myths tend to express absolute values. It’s the coherence of those values that can give myth its power, its ability to shape our world-view, at least in those moments when we’re immersed in a tale.
One of the absolute values of The Four Branches is sovereignty, the indivisible power and natural right of the perfect kingdom, encompassing the land, it’s people and their rulers. Two other absolute values in the tales are honour and her reflection, shame: both motivate important events, ultimately shaping the actions of the characters. In the imagined world of the tales, such values are as hard and pervasive as any natural law.
Honour and shame compel different responses in The Four Branches: compassion in Rhiannon as she acknowledges her midwives’ shame; grief in Branwen for the tragic war that arose out of her shaming and subsequent attempts to restore her to honour. Likewise, over-sensitivity to honour and shame causes destructive fury in Efnysien, and a lack of sensitivity to the very same values causes a callous folly in Gwydion. These are all very varied responses to the constants of honour and shame.
If we take The Four Branches as our model, when creating a symbolic narrative that has the potential to evoke a myth, it should be founded upon similar absolute values. These absolutes will provide the true north of the mythic landscape, the direction by which all other directions are known. Absolutes point the way along the pilgrims path that characters either progress upon or are turned away from.
Fundamentally, these absolutes rest upon a sense of the sacred. They can only be absolute if they are treated as sacrosanct within the world-view of the tale. They can never truly be violated or undermined, only deferred or delayed. They exert a pull upon all who live in the tale’s imagined world, pervading the common understanding of the characters, their intuitions and behaviour.
Even though such absolutes are fundamentally impersonal in nature, they affect the personal lives of good and bad alike. Just as Lady Justice is blindfolded, these apparent ‘natural laws’ don’t see personal circumstance, they simply operate without discrimination. They are presented as perpetually imminent, woven into the fabric of a tale’s world, yet almost exclusively expressed through individual lives.
Appreciating how these values shape the lives of the characters offers the audience an opportunity to see how this also plays out in real life, how our fate is often determined by such seemingly immutable laws. Rhiannon’s plight in particular, submitting herself to an arbitrary law so as to protect those who betrayed her, is a powerful symbol for how such seemingly abstract values have such a powerful effect on our lives.
From that personal perspective, it’s natural to respond with empathy and compassion for this human condition, to transcend our own limited perspective by accepting the perspective of others. Such a transcendence doesn’t necessarily need to be presented as some melodramatic spiritual awakening either, but as in Rhiannon’s case, it could be a simple recognition that fear motivates even good people to do bad things. Compassionate souls will wish to honour that reality.
DISCLAIMER: Before going any further, I’d like to qualify why I’m writing about this subject. To be clear, I’m not someone who writes novels, I’ve never attempted to write a novel or even a short story. As a creative, I’m a musician who writes song lyrics; I also have a little experience in writing poetry. But, apart from a few prose articles in journals, I’ve never published a story in my life. So how come I believe I have something worth saying about creating narrative?
I’ve studied and taught courses on medieval Welsh texts for some time now, particularly the symbolic narratives of The Four Branches of the Mabinogi. In different ways, I’ve studied the mechanics of symbolic narrative and how myth works. This series of posts is simply another way of talking about myths and how we use them. Please don’t read this as advice on how to write a novel. For that, please ask a novelist, someone who’s actually done it.
But for those of you interested in how we can consciously use myths, please read on. From that viewpoint, it’s very valuable to look in detail at how a symbolic narrative is put together, something I do have an understanding of. These posts will certainly be useful to those wishing to write in a particular way, but for actual advice on the craft of novel writing, as I said, go see someone who actually knows.
So, having defined the limits of my expertise, lets move on.
The question that underlies these posts is: what does it mean to make conscious use of myth? What does that look like in practice? Although there are numerous ways into the topic, it may be best to begin with the author’s role before looking at that of the audience. Although I’ll be focussing on myths evoked through narrative here, this also applies to any kind of art that seeks to evoke myth.
How do you construct a narrative that has the potential to evoke a mythic response? Notice I’m only claiming potential here. There is no real certainty that you can evoke a mythic response in an audience, fundamentally because myth is something that happens within the audience’s experience, not within a text. The only thing an author can do is try their best to understand the audience they wish to create for, to uncover their dreams and find out what gives their lives meaning.
An author could begin by asking what is their chosen audience’s general culture? What do they believe in? For this series of posts, lets assume the chosen audience is interested in what we might call deep ecology. On a mundane level they are environmentally aware, support sustainability and respect nature. On a deeper level they believe that human consciousness should, in a perfect world, be deeply embedded in nature. Within this particular culture, these values make up a myth often referred to simply as The Land.
The Land is a myth that draws on some very old cultural strands, often pagan in orientation, and mostly delivered to our age through 19th century Romanticism. Today, this myth expresses a yearning for connection with something felt to be lost in modern culture: a nativeness, a wildness, an honouring of an ancient human perspective that sees itself as part of Sublime Nature, not above or separate from it. The Land often has an Eden-like quality. It’s the Promised Land we modern humans have left behind, yet can perhaps still return to.
But to return implies some kind of redemption, and in the myth of The Land, that redemption begins with an acknowledgment of the problem: humanity has divorced itself from the symbiotic network of natural consciousness. Our consumption-driven culture is self-destructive, creating a society that degrades the subtle psychic connection to the rest of planetary life, divorcing us from our life-supporting environment, leaving our natural souls to wither in the glare of a dead, technological light. Modern, main-stream consumer culture (which has the same traits all over the planet, East and West) drives us not only to reject our connection to this greater planetary Soul, but essentially undermines our original, natural humanity.
In that sense, The Land expresses an existential crisis, one reinforced by the environmental realities of the modern era. If climate change research shows us anything, we are fast approaching an ecological disaster that threatens life as we know it. In the myth of The Land, this ecological disaster is a symptom of our disconnection from the spiritual ground of our being, the Living Earth. This myth therefore encompasses not only a crisis in individual, but also in collective existence.
There is far more that could be said about this myth. We could even go so far as defining its variations within smaller sub-cultures. But for the time being, let’s stick with this basic outline and consider how we could create a vessel, a narrative form for this myth. At this early stage, keep in mind that for the author, the myth will be contained within the written text, interwoven with and underlying the story they create, but for the audience it will only ever be something that’s evoked within them. For all of the author’s careful intentions, the audience will always have their own understanding of the text and the myth it evokes.
What is a myth? That’s a question that rarely stays answered for long. In my own experience, I’ve rarely been able to settle on a single definition of myth that covers all of its many uses. The situation today is more complicated because myth was redefined in some scholarly circles during the 20th century, such as in the work of the French philosopher Roland Barthes (see this post).
I still have an interest in the traditional definition of myth, essentially a genre of old stories about gods, and human origins etc; that will always be a central aspect of the study of mythology. But I have increasingly found in my own work that the new definition, although by no means conclusive, offers more room for exploration. I’ve discussed this elsewhere in more detail, but for those of you new to these ideas, here’s a quick summary:
Myths grow out of our instinctive ability to use symbols, the bedrock of human culture: a marriage ceremony symbolises the promise of fidelity; a religious image symbolises a whole body of beliefs and morals; wearing shiny pieces of cut stone and worked metal symbolise wealth and status; certain letters after a name symbolise expertise and capability, and so on and so on.
Myths evoked in literature, in the modern definition at least, are essentially a symbolic use of narrative. For example, in stereotypical European hero tales, the hero is often a symbol for a traditional code of conduct: men should be brave, chivalrous, defend the weak and put personal honour before all else. This is never explicitly spelled out in the tale, but symbolically suggested by the actions of the hero.
Such tales suggest that the values they evoke are part of the natural order of things: there is a perfect type of man; dragons are always bad and should be killed; princesses are always weak and need rescuing; fighting is good and should be done well, etc, etc. All of these things that are suggested, but never literally explained in the tale, evoke a type of myth, in this case the late medieval myth of the European male hero.
As is obvious in the above description, myths can also become outdated. As culture evolves, older myths are inevitably challenged and discarded by newly arising sub-cultures. Myths are considered good or bad or anything in between depending on who you’re talking to. One thing is certain, myths can unify groups or serve to separate them just as effectively.
Most of us never question how such myths are created nor how they’re used, and using myth is rarely considered a conscious skill. We often think of myth as something that happens to us, stories that are told to us, not something we can do ourselves. That’s mainly because we’ve come to think of myth as something outside of ourselves, old stories created in ages long past. But myths aren’t separate from us, they live inside us. They arise out of our ability to use and understand symbolic meaning.
In the modern definition, myths aren’t stories. They’re certainly closely related, but only in as much as myths use stories. As with the male hero being a symbol for a code of conduct, myth is what lies below the surface of a narrative. It’s a deeper meaning that, if we accept without question the values it expresses, can influence us subliminally. That is essentially the mechanism by which both advertising and propaganda work.
But we can also approach myth consciously, particularly when we interpret a mythic story, paying attention to how the myth is evoked. Interpretation draws out the symbolic meaning, the underlying value or ideal, philosophy, spirituality or world view. So we have a choice, we can either be used by myths – become an unconscious conduit through which they are spread, or we can use myths, working with them consciously to reveal ourselves and our cultures.
The more we seek to interpret myths, the quicker we discover that not all stories are worthy of our attention. Some stories simply have more mythic potential than others. That’s because a skilled author can consciously create a story that enables an audience to tap into their own mythic understanding. Good storytellers instinctively know that a story itself doesn’t contain myth, but that myth arises out of an audience’s engagement with a story, and the storyteller’s job is to encourage that process, not hinder it.
How that’s best accomplished is the subject of this forthcoming series of posts.
At this first stage, we can define two aspects to the conscious use of myth:
- An author can consciously craft a symbolic narrative so as to stimulate the mythic response in their audience.
- An audience can consciously respond to a symbolic narrative, noticing how it evokes its myth within them. Recapitulating this mythic response is one way of reflecting on who we are, as both communities and individuals.