Every religious tradition is intertwined with myth in one way or another, stories that are foundational and yet ahistorical. But we don’t always admit the ahistoricity. For example, a court in India in early February banned and pulped a book by the University of Chicago scholar Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009), because it claims that Hindu myths are not part of the historical record.
In her book, Doniger defines myth as “a story that a group of people believe for a long time despite massive evidence that it is not actually true.” It’s easy to see how such a distinctly modern perspective might be offensive. In contrast, many of us today view things differently. Postmoderns—of which there are apparently few in today’s Indian courts—embrace myth, not as untrue, but as a different kind of truth.
The Mahabharata, for instance, Hinduism’s monstrous epic, is more than twice as long as the Bible and just as full of captivating stories that suggest who Indians are, how they got here and for what. The Mahabharata is to Indian myth as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid are to Christianity. The legends and characters of the Trojan War and its aftermath were to prove important to the development of Christian sensibilities, even of doctrine. A millennium of Christians, for example, accepted the primacy of the Roman See in large part because of the mythical journey that Aeneas took in the Aeneid after Troy fell.
Did Aeneas really wake from a dream in which he learned that his beloved Troy was in flames and resolve to lead a righteous remnant of survivors on an epic journey to discover a new “holy” city? Of course not. Did Aeneas really battle with gods and give birth to a great civilization? Of course not. All of this happened in the same way Athena, the goddess of wisdom and warfare, was born fully armed straight out of Zeus’s forehead. But it might as well have all happened that way, so important was the myth for forming the Roman Empire. I make these points in my new book about the development of the Christian understanding of hell.
So, I believe Luc Ferry knows what he’s talking about when he begins his brilliant book, The Wisdom of the Myths, by explaining how mythology “is not what we often think of it as being: an accumulation of ‘tales and legends,’ a collection of anecdotes more or less fantastical, whose sole end is to amuse us.” Instead, “mythology is at the core of ancient wisdom…the blueprint of a successful life for human kind [sic], mortal as we are.”
We begin to imbibe myths as children; they help us understand our lives. This is why the tales of the Brothers Grimm are ever popular. Philip Pullman’s recent retellings have been a hit, in part because of Pullman’s popularity, but also because there are still plenty of parents who realize that tales of wickedness, evil and danger are important for our young kids. Children are thinking about these things whether we talk about them or not, so we should talk about them through story.
One British publisher, Pushkin, has created a new series for children titled “Save the Story,” with lively, abbreviated editions of classics that are well established, or soon to be. The Story of Gilgamesh, retold by Yiyun Li, and The Story of Antigone, by Ali Smith, are two examples. Li’s opening lines are, “This is a story about how a child with an extraordinary yet destructive power became a man of wisdom and strength. This child, like you, had a very special name: Gilgamesh.” Each book is about 120 pages, illustrated; the full series of 10 will be out by autumn. There is a venerable tradition of retellings like these for kids, including Tales From Shakespeare (1807), by Charles and Mary Lamb, which turned the plays into short stories. It was once the complaint that the brother-sister team were watering down and diminishing the originals, but that was in a far more literate age. I imagine today that the “watered down” versions would be difficult for the average adult to digest.
Speaking of trivial—considering how Tim Manley satirizes classic stories in Alice in Tumblr-Land, one might surmise that he grew up with only Disney versions. Most of his brief “retellings” are less than 100 words long, and each has a corresponding illustration, drawn by Manley. Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan and the like all seem to be obsessed with their iPhones, Twitter feeds and other people’s Facebook status updates. For example: “Chicken Little feared that when people ‘liked’ a photo she posted, they didn’t really like it.” I suspect Manley considers his book a sort of demythologizing of fairy tales, but he’d have to understand them better in order to do that successfully.
Brian Attebery’s Stories About Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth aims to explain the role of fantasy in modern literature, from George MacDonald to James Morrow’s theologically satirizing Towing Jehovah (1994) to the Harry Potter phenomenon, to help us understand who we are. Fantasy doesn’t simply entertain, and its fundamental distance from the facts of life are precisely what gives it power. As Attebery explains, “The fundamental premise of fantasy is that the things it tells not only did not happen but could not have happened. In that literal untruth is freedom to tell many symbolic truths without forcing a choice among them.”
Attebery is a professor of English at Idaho State University. The aforementioned Luc Ferry is a philosopher at the Sorbonne in Paris. And G. Ronald Murphy, S.J., author of Tree of Salvation, the most intriguing book in this batch, is professor of German at Georgetown University. Today’s scholars are perhaps the best equivalent of the priests of ancient days, and set-apart experts and initiates have always been the primary transmitters of sacred fire.
Perhaps you’ve studied Yggdrasil, the tree that figures prominently in Norse mythology and cosmology. It is, according to the medieval text Edda, “the great central tree that stands in the middle of the universe.” Father Murphy offers a fresh interpretation of this pagan myth that became, sometime after 1000 A.D., a way for Scandinavians to understand the cross of Christ. He explains its importance to the Germanic imagination as well as how Christianity inherited and appropriated it. Along the way, Father Murphy also treats the Jelling stone in Denmark, stave churches in Norway, The Dream of the Rood and Viking crosses. He understands that we’re all drawn to stories that help us make sense of our lives and faith. As he writes, “Christianity thrives on its faith and beliefs, its images of salvation, ‘coming home’ to the believer.”