In everyday English, a myth is a story which is not true. In a myth, the surface level story is not true, but the symbols running through the story say something deeper about humankind. This is what makes it true.
If you look at all the Ancient myths they have things in common. Characters go on a journey, change, then either return home a changed person or find a new home. This is all related to the symbolism of the labyrinth. The journey itself takes the hero into the deepest darkest parts of the soul, where the hero encounters a Minotaur. The journey out of the labyrinth is a rebirth.
Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes, in the middle of nowhere, you find yourself.Unknown
British novel: let’s go to a party and find a wife.@ExistentialComics
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.
Since all cultures are built on myth, the mythic story works across cultures. Mythic stories work via symbolism, the universal kind of symbolism connected to what has lately been called ‘transformative memory’. This term describes memories which are not authentic, but created by the brain to make sense of life, turning disorder and fragmentation into some kind of meaning. Transformative memory is Janice Haaken’s term. (See her book Pillar of Salt: Gender, memory and the perils of looking back.)
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 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.
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?Marcus Sakey, Publishers Weekly
Myths are highly symbolic. Take The Pilgrim’s Progress as a fairly modern story making use of mythic symbols:
Although The Pilgrim’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
EXAMPLES OF STRONGLY MYTHIC MODERN FILMS
- The Lion King
- Thelma and Louise – a female buddy movie. Buddy movies tend to make use of mythic structure.
- Beauty and the Beast
- The Piano — myth blended with romance
- True Grit — basically a crime story, blended with mythic structure
- Harry Potter — Typically for main characters 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 children’s 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.Canberra Times
SOME PROBLEMS WITH MYTHIC STRUCTURE
In a female-led mythic story the heroine requires an extra step: She needs to break free of the constraints of home. (See Thelma & Louise.)
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 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 shortcomings. 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- anagnorisis, 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 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