Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes, in the middle of nowhere, you find yourself.
British novel: let’s go to a party and find a wife.
German novel: let’s go to the wilderness and find ourselves.
Russian novel: let’s go to the depths of despair and then find out there is an even deeper level of despair we didn’t know about and go there.
I’ve always wanted to get as far as possible from the place where I was born. Far both geographically and spiritually […] I feel that life is very short and the world is there to see […] and one should know as much of it as possible. One belongs to the whole world, not just one part of it.
— Paul Bowles, American expatriate composer, author, and translator
Myth can be considered a genre. It is the oldest genre and to this day is the most popular.
Myth is not a part of every story. Even Joseph Campbell himself said that there was no mythic structure to be found in 25% of stories.
Mythic form is enjoyed by audiences across cultures.
Myths are born of the sticky dark. That’s why the truest have survived thousands of years. They present fictional answers to primal questions: Why do tragic things happen? Which is stronger, love or death? What if death is just the beginning?
THE INFLUENCE OF GREEK MYTHOLOGY
Originally, the Greeks invented myths which are now the foundation of Western thought. Even back then these were considered allegorical and metaphorical. In Greek myths, there were always at least two levels of beings: Gods and humans. The gods represented the aspect of man which was able to gain enlightenment/excellence. The gods did not necessarily rule the humans.
Consider the Greek gods ‘psychological models’ which represent character traits.
THE SYMBOLISM OF MYTH
Myths use a clearly prescribed set of symbolic objects. Original audiences always knew that these objects stood for something else. These objects also represent something within the hero. Even today, audiences will recognise these:
- Journey = life path
- Tree = tree of life
- Underground = unexplored region of the self
- and so on.
Take The Pilgrim’s Progress as a fairly modern story making use of mythic symbols:
Although The Pilgram’s Progress is allegorical, it is impossible even for an adult to read about Christian’s journey to the Celestial City in any other way than as a story. The passages through the Slough of Despond and the Valley of Humiliation, the fight with the monster Apollyon, the loss of Christian’s comrade Faithful in Vanity Fair, the crossing of the River of Death: these are actual and vivid events, as real in their own way as the mass of detail with which Defoe built up Robinson Crusoe. It may be noted that the themes of all these three books — the dangerous journey, as in The Pilgrim’s Progress, the desert island, as in Robinson Crusoe: and the miniature or other imaginary world, as in Gulliver — have served for innumerable later books, both children’s and adult, and are by no means worn out.
– – Written for Children by John Rowe Townsend
For more on this see The Three Main Types Of Modern Mythic Structure, in which I have added an extra.
EXAMPLES OF STRONGLY MYTHIC MODERN FILMS
- Lord of the Rings
- Superman/Spiderman/Batman etc – comic book stories are modern myth forms.
- Close Encounters
- Crocodile Dundee
- Dances With Wolves
- The Lion King
- Groundhog Day
- Avatar – science fiction stories often use the myth form, not only because myth is about the journey but also because myth is the story form that explores the most fundamental human distinctions (human/robot etc.)
- Thelma and Louise – a female buddy movie. Buddy movies tend to make use of mythic structure.
- The African Queen – classic example of river as setting in a mythic story, along with Heart of Darkness
- La Strada
- Beauty and the Beast
- The Piano – myth blended with romance
- Bringing Up Baby
- Singin’ in the Rain
- Dona Flor And Her Two Husbands
- Annie Hall
- Sleepless in Seattle
- True Grit – basically a crime story, blended with mythic structure
- Harry Potter – mixture of myth, fairytale and coming-of-age in a school story. Typically for heroes of myth stories, Harry is a foundling, abandoned by his parents and brought up by horrible people.
- Le Week-end – a film written by Hanif Kureishi in which the journey takes the form of a romantic weekend away with the purpose of rekindling a failing marriage
- Locke – a road trip with one on-screen character played by Tom Hardy. Extraordinarily well scripted, we really only see Tom Hardy sitting in his car. The opponents he meets on his journey come only in form of voices through his car phone. By the end of the journey he is in a different place both physically and spiritually.
- I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore – an indie-film which provides an excellent example of modern use of mythic symbolism such as the labyrinth and the river. The backdrop is American suburbia. The main hero is a woman, though she is joined by a man. Interesting for its gender inversions.
- Wildlike – a 14 year old girl is sent to stay with her uncle in Alaska one summer as her mother is receiving treatment for an illness. She is soon faced with the task of running away from the uncle and making her way back to Seattle. She meets various helpers and opponents along the way, and contributes to a grieving man’s character arc as he grieves for his own wife’s recent death.
- Jolene – a 2008 film based on a story by E.L. Doctorow. A young orphan marries but in a Cinderella-like tragedy things don’t go well and she ends up on the road, meeting all sorts of people along the way, mostly horrible.
- Hunt For The Wilderpeople — a New Zealand comedy drama about the relationship between a cranky man and a boy, who go bush, pursued by the police for suspected child abuse.
Then there are computer games, such as Halo and Red Dead Redemption.
MYTH IN RELATION TO FOLKTALES AND FAIRY TALES
Myths and folktales are assumed to be the very first stories in the history of humankind, closely related to rites of passage. Thus, a fairytale becomes a travel instruction for a young person on the way toward adulthood, directions on exactly how to behave in various situations. […] The hero’s task in a folktale is totally impossible for an “ordinary” human being, it is always a symbolic or allegorical depiction. Allegories (like Dante’s Divina Commedia or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) are also travel instructions. But the addressee knows that you cannot die and then rise from the dead, nor be eaten by a whale and then come out again, nor descend into the realm of death, and so on. When the March sisters try to follow Bunyan’s instructions for a journey, they have to “translate” the allegory into more everyday conditions. […] The modern version of a travel instruction is formula fiction in all its forms: crime novel, science fiction, horror, romance, soap opera, and so on. The addressee of these texts also knows that the story has very little to do with life. On the contrary, the text is based on detachment, especially through its exotic settings and incredible events. Many scholars have noted the similarities between fairytales and formula fiction. As early as the 1920s Propp suggested that his model for folktale analysis could be applied to novels of chivalry and other texts with fixed narrative structures.
–Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in Children’s Literature
Nikolajeva refers to Umberto Eco’s analysis of structure of James Bond movies as an example of such analysis.
Award-winning authors such as Kate DiCamillo typically write with a mythic structure, though the list could go on:
[A] tendency to reflection is why DiCamillo’s style often echoes with the dark-light verities of Victorian or Edwardian children’s literature which, too, dwell on the private lives of playthings and speaking animals on heroic quests.
FEATURES OF THE MYTHIC STRUCTURE
There will be tests along the journey.
Most buddy stories use a mythic journey. This is based on Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu. The buddies will encounter a number of opponents on the road.
Though essentially a crime story, True Grit uses the myth structure, with its series of tests on the road, to unfold the story and play out the accounting.
Myth is blended with other genres in modern mythic stories.
This is to make a story more relevant to modern audiences.
But there’s another reason for blending myth with other genres: In an old, purely mythic story the opposition is normally broken up into a number of different characters. These opponents are generally strangers to the hero, and the hero meets and defeats these characters in succession. This is the source of the biggest flaw of the myth form, which is that it is intensely episodic. The episodic story is one where the scenes stand out but don’t connect together, so the overall story doesn’t build. That’s why we add those other genres to myth — other genres unify the mythic structure.
In a mythic story, a character goes on a journey, ultimately leading to oneself.
Key question for a hero: What is your destiny?
When the hero returns home he/she discovers what was already inside — his/her deepest capabilities.
The irony is that the hero has to go on a journey to find out what s/he already had.
The journey is one of the great story techniques of all time. It solves the biggest problem the writer is: How to express character change. That ultimately is what the audience is there to see. People undergo character changes in real life, but we probably don’t know it.
The person who invented the journey technique was brilliant, because when the character is sent on a physical journey, and every time he meets an opponent there is a mini-self-revelation. The journey is a physical manifestation of the internal change of the character. This is why the myth form has been the primary story structure for more than 2000 years.
Techniques of circular time are associated with the myth form. These stories are circular. Home-away-home. The second time the hero is home s/he realises what was already in him/her.
(For more on shapes of plots in children’s literature see here.)
The setting is often a road trip or a river.
A river is more than a path: it’s a road into or out of somewhere. (See Heart of Darkness, The African Queen.) For more on the symbolism of the river, see here.
Sometimes the main character doesn’t actually travel far in distance. For example, in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the main character visits various places around his own suburb/school arena. He ends up ‘battling’ with various different characters who were already known to him but who he gets to know better over the course of his own spiritual awakening.
The hero has a public revelation.
In myth stories, it’s not simply a ‘self’ revelation — it is a public revelation. The hero discovers that s/he is not just a regular person but also a king/superhero/great leader. This is a metaphor for a character realising s/he has to take responsibility for not just him/herself but for the community, as a leader. Sometimes these stories include a ‘cosmic’ revelation, which is where a hero gets a vision about how an entire society should act in the future: Moses on the mountain top, Jesus on the mount.
In an episode of Big Love, Nicolette is standing on the roof at one point giving a speech from the roof as the neighbours have a BBQ.
In the film Le Week-end, Nick ends up making a speech (and thereby demonstrating a self-revelation) at Morgan’s dinner party.
The hero takes his/her ‘family’ on the journey.
The family doesn’t have to be related by blood.
As in the best myth stories, the hero [of True Grit] brings her “family” – Rooster and LaBoeuf – along for the ride.
– John Truby
Myth stories have a tremendous number of story beats. A beat is a screenwriting term which refers to an event, decision, or discovery that alters the way the protagonist pursues his or her goal.
Myth stories emphasise two key structure steps: the opponent and self-revelation.
There is a small self-revelation after meeting each opponent, and a big self-revelation when the hero returns home.
Sometimes the hero has changed so much that s/he can’t return home. (e.g. Thelma & Louise, Locke)
Myth shows the widest character arc of all the genres.
Birth to death, from animal to divine.
It was originally thought that women were a part of the natural order of things whereas men were the only ones who could genuinely rise above it. This explains why original mythic stories always starred men. Women as heroes are a very new development in story.
Myths tend to take a meandering form.
The hero has a desire but it’s not intense.
He/she covers a great deal of territory in a haphazard way. In Le Week-end, the main characters are in Paris but they literally throw away any small plans they had and at one point their aimlessness is shown with them driving around in a taxi looking out at the sights with no destination in mind. In Locke, the main character knows exactly where he is going. He’s made his decisions before the film even starts. The disorder — and therefore the conflict — comes from those around him, and the dramas they tell him about on the phone. That film is interesting because he at no time changes his original plan. That, of course, is the point of the film — to paint a portrait of a man who has made a mess of his life but instead of trying to wallpaper over the hole, he is taking the decision to make it ‘right’ no matter the cost.
He/she encounters a great number of characters from different levels of society. It is particularly effective to make the rich rub up against the poor. In Le Week-end our main characters are staying in a hotel which is out of their budget, at a dinner party with a colleague who has seen great publishing success.
The hero of a myth tends to be a single unit of personality, separated cleanly from others.
The hero is searching for his/her ‘destiny’. This is what the true self was born to do. The mythic form therefore starts with the idea — hopefully shared by the audience — that people do, indeed, have a life purpose.
Classic myth stories typically have a warrior for a hero. Even today the main characters are disproportionately male.
In a traditional mythic story, the hero serves as a model for the addressee.
Originally, the addressee was meant to learn from the hero simply by modelling their behaviour on the hero’s.
This is now an old-fashioned way of creating stories. Storytelling has shifted from ‘modelling’ to ‘learning’. These days the addressee (ie. audience/reader) is meant to figure out what is happening in the story, who these characters really are and what really happened. In this way, we are meant to discover, through thinking a bit harder, what it means to live a good life.
Myth is one of the less thematic genres.
Instead of moral difficulties of the characters, myth tends to emphasise:
- the psychological and emotional states of the characters
The hero wins because he/she is essentially ‘good’.
Quite often, the hero remains good and the opponent remains bad throughout the story. The hero might have a psychological weakness but is basically good. The opponent is morally flawed or even evil. They compete for a goal. The hero makes mistakes but doesn’t act immorally. But the opponent executes a number of immoral actions. The hero wins simply because he/she is good. (See The Matrix, Forrest Gump, The Terminator, The Wizard of Oz.)
SOME PROBLEMS WITH MYTHIC STRUCTURE
For the past 3000 years, the heroes of stories with mythic structure have been almost always male, leading to the symbolic annihilation of female characters.
This is partly because in a female-led mythic story the heroine requires an extra step: She needs to break free of the constraints of home. (See Thelma and Louise.)
As John Truby says, mythic stories tend to be highly ‘episodic‘ and therefore disjointed if not blended properly with other genres.
The mythic structure is certainly popular, but has been done many times before. It’s possible that the most original stories to emerge will veer away from mythic structure altogether. However, since film audiences are already conditioned for myth, such novel stories are likely to be considered ‘fringe’ and will have less money allocated to their production and marketing. Indie studios are more likely to take such risks. However, you’re more likely to see non-mythic novels than non-mythic Hollywood films for exactly this reason. Genre in novels/short stories/indie film is evolving at a faster pace and is more open to innovation.
Since myth tends to rely on simple distinctions between ‘good vs evil’, nuance can be sacrificed. The message that ‘good doesn’t always win out’ isn’t easily conveyed by the mythic structure.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ‘MYTHIC’ AND ‘EPIC’?
Features of Epic Stories:
- The fate of a nation is determined by the actions of a single individual or family.
- In an epic story, the hero must be at the fulcrum of the nation, and therefore spearheading some big change in his/her society.
- In the story, the nation will change from one state to another.
- Generally, heroes of epics are kings or politician archetypes.
- The character change of the hero matches the change that occurs in the nation. So the kingdom has to be corrupt/failing in some way. Enter the hero. The hero will have certain weaknesses at the beginning, even though they are going to help change the nation. We need to see major flaws that are holding that character back. These flaws need to match up with the flaws in the nation.
- The story tracks the hero, who undergoes change, grows over the course of the story, in the same way and at the same way the hero grows. Mad Men is an example of an epic. The growth of Don Draper — or actually of the female characters surrounding Don Draper — mirror the changes that happened in the 1960s and early 1970s in America. (It’s more of an anti epic, see below.)
- This is a challenging form: it’s the biggest form possible (the opposite of quiet/domestic.) Yet it must be matched with family drama, because we see the epic hero’s ‘small’ life as well as his/her big one.
In short, an ‘epic’ is about the hero leading change within a society.
In the fantasy genre, ‘epic fantasy’ is commonly known as ‘high fantasy’. (Though some would argue that these subgenres are different — perhaps with ‘high fantasy’ being more about the setting — often medieval — and ‘epic fantasy’ being more about the scale — the entire world is affected.)
The features of mythic structure have been outlined above, but it’s not necessary for a story with a ‘mythic structure’ to star an ‘epic hero’. A story utilising a mythic structure can be a low-stakes, quiet story, affecting only the main character and his/her immediate family.
What makes a story an ‘anti-myth’? Basically, it’s a subversion.
- Whereas the heroes of myths have almost superhuman powers, heroes in anti-myths have real human weaknesses. See Northrop Frye.
- In an anti-myth the delineations between good and bad are blurred. The heroes are morally flawed, if not downright anti-heroes. Anti-heroes do not serve as models for the addressees.
- Myths tend to take place on roads and rivers, but the anti-myth might have the characters take a journey to nowhere significant, or nowhere particularly different from before, a la Lonesome Dove. (The typical setting of typical dime Western novels was a lush river setting.)
- Whereas heroes of myths have a self- and public- self-revelation, heroes of anti-myths don’t really change a la Don Draper of Mad Men. In myths the character arc is huge; in the anti-myth, there may be no real arc. In a ‘mock-myth’, the hero doesn’t learn anything once returning home. (e.g. Ulysses, a modern form of The Odyssey.)
- If heroes of myths win because they are essentially ‘good’, the heroes of anti-myths can lose despite their goodness, because shit happens.
- Whereas myths focus on psychological states of the heroes, anti-myths focus on moral dilemmas.
- Whereas heroes of myths tend to be separate identities, heroes of anti-myths can be represented by ensemble characters, with each character representing a different aspect of self. (Winnie-the-Pooh, Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants)
- Whereas myth stories are circular home-away-home structured stories, anti-myths can take on a variety of different forms, including linear, branching, explosive etc.
- The Anatomy of Story by John Truby
- The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
- From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature by Maria Nikolajeva
Header painting: William Henry Mander – A Welsh River Valley