Masha's latest installment, a celebration of comforting mythologies, contained this lovely statement:
The essence of myth is not something that can be studied, it can only be experienced. The stories and characters can be written down, studied, and known, but the essence is elusive, like a half-remembered dream.Which tells me she doesn't entirely disagree with Mr. Pond, who wrote one of the more important posts that has yet come out of this conversation:
Mythology grabs us round the throat and tells us the way the world is. It demands from us sacrifices and rituals and prayers and traditions. If we accept mythology, we don’t have the luxury of choice. The world is in some way set. The stories are there. We can embellish them if we want. We can question them. We can, of course, walk away from them. But at that point we are no longer within the mythology. We have stepped outside of that story. This is laudable, or foolhardy, or despairing—it depends.Mr. Pond quite fairly questions a certain sensibility in the way both Masha and I presented the word mythology; that is, the suggestion that we get to pick and choose which supernatural narrative we want, and how much of it. I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Pond here. My use of the words "sampler platter" was meant (if rather opaquely) as a subtle jibe, not as support for the Western treatment of mythology as a giant free-for-all buffet. It's one thing to live in peace with beliefs other than our own; it's quite another to treat all belief with so much attempted scientific objectivity that we forget, ultimately, that it holds the right over us, not we over it.
This week's word is mythos, defined by the Oxford as (1) “a myth or mythology” or (2) “(in literature) a traditional or recurrent narrative theme or plot structure” or (3) “a set of beliefs or assumptions about something.”
Not so different from the words we've already discussed, really. But it emphasizes the narrative aspect. I tend to think of mythos as the overarching (usually supernatural) story or stories that define and shape a culture.
In the post that Masha and Mr. Pond were responding to, I spoke of fantasy fiction as a way to deal with big questions outside the clash of polarized modern mythologies. But there's another reason for loving fantasy fiction, and that's because it's a place where mythos is still allowed to exist and flourish.
Under a magical mythos, the beauties and the horrors are both greater than we often meet here. It's not just your life in danger; it's your soul—the dementors may suck it from your body, or the magic ring may waste it away, or the Myrddraal and the Black Ajah may come in thirteens to turn you to the Shadow.
But there are the feasts and songs of Elrond's house and the flowers of Lorien, and the magic and wonder of Hogwarts, and shepherd-boys may marry royalty. And at the end, there is light and the hope of salvation in Going On.
And all of it echoes against a bell inside of us, something that was made for more than lattes and ten-hour workdays, parties and television and stress and sickness and grief.
If I disagree with any part of Mr. Pond's rejoinder from last week, it's the plain (and quite possibly hyperbolic) statement that mythology is dead. I suggest, rather, that it has gone into hiding:
It is one of the ironies of history that classical models and pagan myths were so intricately intermingled with Christian themes that when the elite rejected Christian civilization, they implicitly rejected Classical paganism as well....But there is one realm outside speculative fiction where mythoi still exist, for those who long for such things. I trust Mr. Wright, Mr. Pond, and Masha will all gladly agree that some of us still willingly live under great narrative arches, where the bell that echoes at the words of Harry Potter rings clear and true at sacred words and mysteries.
For all their fine talk of freedom and of dictatorships of the proletarian, the elite wished nothing other than to bar talk of modesty, decency, fortitude, honor, and self-sacrifice from the public square. They wanted to replace all reasoning about the nature of virtue with rhetoric and oration on feelings about values. To do so, not only Nuns and Knights had to be banished from the public imaginations, but also Vestal Virgins and Homeric Hoplites.
Whence, then, scourged and half-stripped of the golden plumes of their wings, did the trembling muses flee, when they fled from the scornful lashes of modernity?
Why, to the only ghetto that held no love for modernity: to us, we happy few, the sons of fantasy whose eyes were fixed with dreamy nostalgia on the things long past (including pasts that never were) and to the sons of science fiction whose eyes were fixed with mingled hope and fear on things to come. —John C. Wright, Harry Potter and the Christian Magicians, Part II: Baptizing Dumbledore
P.S. If you haven't read John C. Wright's treatise on paganism in literature, 'Harry Potter and the Christian Magicians', I highly recommend it. It took me 45 minutes to read, and was worth every second. The links: Part I, Part II and Part III. Enjoy.