On Myth

This was written in the summer of 1999 as part of the Chapters book chain’s ‘Great Writers’ series of essays that ran as full page inserts in Canadian newspapers.
‘Mythology is what never was, but always is.’ It was probably Sallust, the philosopher of late antiquity, who said that. Or it might have been Stephen of Byzantium. Or someone else entirely. One of the first things learned in the study of myth is that the earliest version of a legend isn’t always the the most important. All renderings matter, and in the changes, the shiftings, we find truths about evolving worlds and societies.

In the early Celtic tellings of the Arthurian legends, Arthur’s friend and companion is Bedwyr and the stories of the king’s faithless wife Guinevere are deeply entangled in ‘pagan’ myths of summer and winter and fertility. But later, the great figure of Bedwyr recedes, becomes the marginal Sir Bedivere, and Lancelot comes into the tale, replacing and eclipsing him. The Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot story is played out against a powerfully Christian myth of the quest for the Holy Grail.

Which is better? The question is silly. We have both these renderings, and many more, old treatments, newer ones, and very recent tellings. The figures of the legends have easily enough power and weight to endure such changes and shiftings.

Does that mean the myths are anything we want them to be? Hardly. It does mean that as generations pass and cultures change the resonances of the stories will sometimes shift. The wonderful thing is that the resonances endure. Myths of the devouring flood. Prometheus bringing fire to men. The Norse god Loki roaring in pain under a mountain, causing earthquakes. Coyote the Trickster. The terrible voyage of Odysseus returning home from Troy (retold yet again by Charles Frazier in Cold Mountain as a journey home from the American Civil War). Initiation myths. Journeys towards adulthood and one’s own true identity (the voyage we all make). Isn’t Luke Skywalker’s unknowing pursuit of his father powerful precisely because it taps into the mythic power of this sort of tale?

The myths are all around us, sometimes trivialized, hugely distorted, but if they’ve endured for thousands of years they are likely to be able to survive Xena and Young Hercules and a few Mystic Knights in the Irish hills of modern childrens’ television.

What is more worth thinking about is a shift in the idea we have of myth. Consider the word itself. Myths began as an attempt to explain core elements of the world, by men and women beset and beleagured by mortality and fragility. They aspired to be – as Sallust or Stephen or whomever, said – eternal truths couched as stories. But what of today? How do we use the word? Well, consider a television newscaster. The vivid announcement: ‘When we come back, Jean Chretien, the reality and the myth.’

We use the word to mean untruths. Deception. The lie that masks reality. The shift is stunning, actually. No longer is ‘myth’ a reaching for undying truth, it is a spin doctor toying with us from the stairwell of the House of Commons or the Pentagon briefing room.

We need to shift back. To redefine. We risk losing so much when we use the word and see the tales in this trivial way. We can lose thousands of years of power and majesty and awe. And the stories that always are.

© Guy Gavriel Kay


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