Thoughts on Lore and Myth

For my work this term, I’m reading quite a bit about ancient myth as it relates to heroes and heroines. I was thinking today about how odd it is myth exists in a changeable kind of limbo. There is no Bible of Greek Myth (Amazon may differ on that point) that people can go to in order to check authenticity. I can tell a story of Odysseus; you can tell a story of Odysseus; Jimbob C. can tell a story of Odysseus. They do not need to be the same. Some things will not change – he will have a wife named Penelope. He will either be in the process of a journey, homeward or not, or he will be at some point expecting or reflecting on the journey. He will be wily and skilled in rhetoric. Aside from these core traits, your Odysseus and my Odysseus could have radically different lives.

For example, Homer’s Odysseus encounters a whole troop of troubles on his way home, but eventually he gets there. Dante’s Odysseus had no desire to go home and never does. His journey ends in Hell. They are unmistakably the same character though. Odysseus and the Cyclops

Perhaps we can look back now and see the big names of H and D and think they just had special powers for using mythical characters in whatever way they please. This isn’t the case though. Achilles had conflicting stories. Dionysus had conflicting stories. Antigone had conflicting stories. Medea was told in different ways.

Is it like Nancy Drew who has 3,000 adventures all while she is 18 years old? No, because her adventures don’t contradict each other. Is it like the many different Batmans depicted on screen? The many James Bonds? If a character in the Warcraft Universe suddenly did not complete his version of the return home, fans would be in an uproar. “WHAT?!?! Arthas NEVER had brown hair. HE IS A BLONDE!!!!” I can see it now.

What is it about mythical characters that makes them different from those in fictional universes? It feels like a kind of translation. We have freedom to interpret much of it though there is a certain underlying “true-ness” to each character. I may interpret Odysseus in a way that suits my treatise of Hell but his underlying Odysseus-ness is still present. He is more than just a character. He is a multi-faceted variety of ways his character could react with his world (our world?) and still remain him.

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Longasc
    Jan 26, 2010 @ 08:23:56

    In the case of Arthas he was already created with a fixed image in mind, in our visually oriented times: a blonde knight/paladin. Being a blonde and in the cutscenes after his change having white hair is part of his character.

    Odysseus is told to have had red(dish) hair. Interestingly, the hair color has not always been seen as being of major importance, I know dozens of movies with Odysseus having greyish or blonde hair.

    Sigurd/Siegfried and Hagen from the Nibelungs for instance are often portrayed having blonde and dark hair. Yet in no source haircolor or major facial features are mentioned at all. A few sources make Hagen one-eyed, but that was already the climax of the description of the exterior of the characters.

    I love this Odysseus and the scifi cyclops! To come back to your question, I think the heroes of mythology represent an idea rather than a single character, and thus are more variable than hero figures of the present who are usually already present in form of an image, thus leaving less room for interpretation than a few lines describing an ancient hero.


  2. Mike
    Jan 27, 2010 @ 16:00:00

    It may be a remnant of spoken-word traditions of those stories. The written word and recorded images give a sense of authenticity and ‘rightness’. When you look to modern spoken-word traditions like urban legends or family lore, you find the same phenomenon of ever-changing facts. Perhaps Greek writers, so immersed in this tradition, applied it to their writing without even thinking it was unusual.

    The transient text of the internet might be the medium which most resembles this spoken tradition. Maybe stories that originate on the internet will allow details to be changed in ways modern printed texts don’t really allow.

    I do like to imagine, though, that in 1000 years there will be a compendium to English literature which states “Other sources, however, portray Mr. Darcy as a vampire. The prevalence of these sources indicate that this was the most commonly accepted story.”


  3. Evan
    Jan 27, 2010 @ 20:42:06

    I wish I could remember the British scholar who published the version of Sundiata (West African epic) I read most recently, but in the notes he tells a story about a griot who agrees to tell him the story, but says that he won’t tell it the way he usually does. He isn’t trying to hide his culture from outsiders, he just offers a bare-bones version because he doesn’t want the story he tells that evening to etched in paper and have people assume that that is “the story” (or that there is even a single true story for this epic). This is a big problem in the study of literature, which may or may not be particularly recent, but certainly tracks the supremacy of “literature” literature, and probably has a lot to do (in American anyway) with the rise of nationalism and the new, different emphasis placed on canon in the second half of the twentieth century. I have spent a lot of time in English classrooms and seen people have difficulty even properly identifying irony, much less other complex interactions with the reality of a book and the reality outside of a book. The author’s job, as far as they can see, is to do nothing but manufacture verisimilitude and anything that fits anywhere outside of that must be a weak point in a work of fiction (clearly if they read Latin, they would know what this means (but not speaking Latin is far from the worst academic and intellectual crime committed by my worst classmates at Texas English)). At some point, in a Shakespeare seminar, I tried to point out to a particularly obstinate girl that, if she is really bothered by the “unrealistic” reaction King Lear has to Cordelia, then she should be really bothered by the fact that these people are made up and they weren’t even made up by Shakespeare! Of course, by “unrealistic” she meant that she didn’t understand why he would react that way, but it still points to a problem. If someone thinks that Science Fiction is stupid because it is obviously unreal, then why don’t they care that Pride and Prejudice is obviously unreal? Jane Austen made up her characters just as much as J.R.R. Tolkien? Why should it matter?

    This certainly has a lot to do with the relationship between myth and oral tradition and, likely, the idea that most people have to forgive ambiguity and conflict in ancient texts because they can’t properly identify an author and even if they could, they couldn’t ask them for a definitive answer or narrative, because they’re dead. The modern mediums in which this experiences more success, namely, comic books and folktales, are those which are closely linked to mythology, oral tradition, or both. If I could change anything about the study of English-language literature in American universities, it would be the utterly false attachment to novelty as the currency of value. Most of the reason why people five centuries ago wrote stories about Odysseus and Aeneas was to prove that they had read and understood those stories and at least part of the reason why modern students (and in many case writers) refuse to do such a thing is due to the inverse. They also don’t read Greek so they have no idea what the word “myth” means and to them it is merely shorthand for fake, false, stupid things absorbed by the gullible and dim-witted. Hopefully, I can do something about this and it is much more of a problem with the layperson in an English department than with the faculty and more serious students, but it is a shockingly common problem, in my experience.


  4. Adarel
    Jan 29, 2010 @ 03:20:05

    @Mike: I hope so too! Mr. Darcy the Vampire = amazing.

    @Evan: People these days do seem to have an unnatural attachment to a common basis of text. It’s one of the reasons multipathed narratives like DA are so damn interesting. There just isn’t one! There’s still the interesting problem (?) of visuality – we know what Alistair looks like and there’s not going to be any change in that except for maybe some aging effects down the line. It limits the imagination. I don’t mean to say visuality is bad because I don’t think it is – it’s just a different way of thinking about something and imposes on us (or we assume it imposes) a false “truth” of the “reality” of something (going back to what Long said above re: Arthas). Imagine if we had a photograph of Jesus – what a different history of art there would be today and perhaps a different history of Christianity and/or everything else influenced by him.


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