Myths and Fundamentalists
28 December, 2007
I’m a bit of a fundamentalist. Or at least, I like getting back to basics, and when it comes to myths getting back to the basics often leads us to something new. Rather than use the academic meaning of myth (involving origins of the world and so on), I use mythical to refer to stories or characters that are used by many authors and where it is often assumed that the reader is very aware of the overall myth. Thus I would place Batman and Superman as mythical alongside Agamemnon and Gilgamesh, but would exclude Gandalf or Harry Potter. I think Doctor Who would slip in as mythical too. One of the great pleasures of reading these mythical tales is that our knowledge of the story lets us read it again with a different slant. Authors can keep with the basic plots but change viewpoints and open up new ideas within us. The decision to make Agamemnon sympathetic or psychopathic changes how we react to his story, much as a similar choice in the portrayal of Batman does.
And in honesty I often prefer the newer takes on myths than the older ones. Certainly I would prefer to read a modern Batman comic over one from the 1940’s, and equally I enjoy Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze more than the original Iliad. Of course these modern versions could not exist without what had come before, but when it comes to enjoyment do we need to read the originals when we have more relevant versions to hand?
I would say for enjoyments sake no, it’s not necessary. But what I’ve found is that just as modern versions can take an old known myth and spin it in a new fashion, so too can older texts. We often have our own ideas of the basic shape of a myth and reading the original which is different to that understanding can reveal just as much newness. As an example I have always known the christmas story, and yet would not have realised that there are two completely separate and distinct stories of the nativity in the Bible, one in Matthew, one in Luke. Because of my knowledge of the combined story I would often read in elements that weren’t there, for instance that there should be three wise men (no number is mentioned) or that the wise men go to the stable of an inn. Simply by going back to the sources and reading with fresh eyes a whole new christmas story appears.
And so, like the Fundamentalists who want to go back to the basics, I too like to find out as much about the original stories as possible, not because they are better than a later version, but because they can shine a new light on what we once thought of as old.