Today, the term “myth” conjures up ideas of something false, fanciful, or ignorant. The truth about “myth,” however, is much different. In Greek, the word mythos originally meant “something that is spoken.” This term originated in Athens as the antithesis of the word logos, meaning “an objective account of an event or phenomenon,” and which followed the rules of reason and logic. Mythos was the spoken word, and logos was the specific type of word used in law, accounting, and the court.
In discussing the nature of humanity, gods, and the universe, there were two approaches that one could take. The philosophers discussed these in terms of logos, trying to reach truth through a purely intellectual process. Poets, on the other hand, used mythos, trying to arrive at truth through flashes of insight and focusing more on sets of ideas, attitudes, and emotions. As systems of logic and reason gained greater credibility, this alternative, “mythic” way of understanding existence began to lose its value in the eyes of many.
|Detail of Plato from Raphael's "The School of Athens"|
For instance, around the 5th century BCE, Plato used the word mythos to describe fictional stories and set this concept opposite of “the truth,” which could only be verified or falsified by logic. In other words, “myth” was something that lacked any resemblance to empirical reality. In Roman thought, the word mythos was translated as fabula, meaning a story or play, which entered the English language as the word “fable” and carried with it the sense that such stories were somehow less valuable than other, more straightforward explanations of the world and our existence. The fate of the word “myth” was seemingly sealed by the Enlightenment and its definition of “truth” as something that was logical, rational, or empirically verifiable, and “false” as anything that didn’t fall into these rigid categories (such as myth). It was this rational sort of truth that was to be sought at all costs, while anything resembling myth was to be discarded.
|J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis|
However, there were some in the academic world who recognized profound truths about our existence in the myths of the world. Some went so far as to argue that certain truths about humanity, the gods, and the universe could only be expressed through the medium of myth. J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), Professor of Anglo-Saxon language and literature at Oxford, was one of these. His close friend C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) disagreed strongly, saying that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though “breathed through silver.” In response to Lewis’ statement, Tolkien wrote a poem called “Mythopoeia” (meaning “myth-making”). In it, the poem’s narrator Philomythos (or “myth-lover”) addresses Misomythos (or “myth-hater”) and explains the value of myths and creative myth-making.
Tolkien begins his poem by describing what the world looks like to those who disregard “myth” and its enchanted worldview:
You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are ‘trees,’ and growing is ‘to grow’);
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star's a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical
amid the regimented, cold, inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.
He then goes on to show how looking at the world through the lens of myth (in its earlier sense of insight and emotion) enlivens our experience of the world:
He sees no stars who does not see them first
of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jeweled tent
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth,
unless the mother's womb whence all have birth.
Having shown the richness and expansiveness of looking at the world this way, in an intriguing turn, Tolkien then compares the creative act of myth-making to the creative acts of God:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind…
I will not treat your dusty path and flat,
denoting this and that by this and that,
your world immutable wherein no part
the little maker has with maker's art.
Here, Tolkien endows myth-making and the creation of stories with immeasurable value, even going so far as to attribute this creative impulse to something higher than humanity. In conclusion, he writes:
In Paradise perchance the eye may stray
from gazing upon everlasting Day
to see the day illumined, and renew
from mirrored truth the likeness of the True…
In Paradise they look no more awry;
and though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.
Myth provides a way to explore the meaning of life, our lived experiences, and the infinite possibilities that life holds. For Tolkien, seeing the world through the eyes of myth is not only valid, it is invaluable insofar as it creates deeper ties between the author / audience and the world itself.
|First editions of The Hobbit and The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe|
It goes without saying that Tolkien whole-heartedly embraced myth in his own writings, incorporating its elements into his tales of Middle Earth. And eventually, even C.S. Lewis (the “myth-hater” himself) would come to understand the value of myth and utilize these insights as he wrote perhaps his most well-known and best-loved works, The Chronicles of Narnia.
|Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell|
Around the same time, two more scholars were devoting their lives to the study of myth. Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), a Romanian-born professor of history and religion at the University of Chicago, argued that myth was not an obstacle to the study and practice of religion, but was rather the essential foundation of religion itself. His books The Sacred and the Profane and The Myth of the Eternal Return are extensive treatments of myth, examining the role it played in the lives of ancient societies and show how these same sorts of themes continue in contemporary religions. Similarly, Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) spent his entire career trying to understand why myths were so valuable to humans across time and around the globe. Campbell looked at “myth” as a global phenomenon, and in the three-volume The Masks of God, his comparative studies introduced many in the West to the beauties and significance of Eastern myths and religions, placing them in a global context. Both Eliade and Campbell laid the foundation for the academic study of myth and served to promote its value.
|George Lucas (left) filming Star Wars: A New Hope|
In the 1970s, a young filmmaker named George Lucas noticed that there didn’t seem to be anyone in Hollywood approaching film from the perspective of myth. Lucas explains his realization—and its effect—in the following:
The Western was possibly the last generically American fairy tale, telling us about our values. And once the Western disappeared, nothing has ever taken its place. In literature we were going off into science fiction...so that's when I started doing more strenuous research on fairy tales, folklore, and mythology, and I started reading Joe [Campbell’s] books. Before that I hadn't read any of Joe's books...It was very eerie because in reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces I began to realize that my first draft of Star Wars was following classic motifs...so I modified my next draft [of Star Wars] according to what I'd been learning about classical motifs and made it a little bit more consistent...I [then] went on to read “The Masks of God” and many other books (Stephen and Robin Larsen, Joseph Campbell: A Fire in theMind, p. 541).
At a 1985 National Arts Club banquet honoring Campbell, Lucas said something similar. Perhaps it was this conscious use of myth that resonated with audiences and contributed to the wild success of the Star Wars franchise (which has picked up even more steam recently as Disney purchased its rights and plans are underway to create even more movies set in this mythic world). After creating the original Star Wars trilogy, Lucas developed a friendship with Joseph Campbell, and before his death, most of Campbell’s final interview with Bill Moyers (“The Power of Myth”--available in video, print, or audiobook--is well worth watching/reading) was filmed at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in California.
|Harrison Ford as Han Solo and me as Harrison Ford as Han Solo|
The myths of Star Wars hold a special place in my heart, as it shaped the way I looked at the world. Having watched the Star Wars movies incessantly as a child, collecting its toys, and reading its related books, I started looking for adventure everywhere. From time to time, epic light saber battles would erupt between my brother, me, and my father (though sometimes I would yell “You’re not my father!”). The world around me became alive with heroes, villains, and perilous journeys. My entire world became enchanted because of myth. Unfortunately, this world became disenchanted for a time as I leaned toward logos (see my previous post on the power of stories), but after embracing anew myths and stories, my life has become more rich and much more real.
In future posts, I’ll gather some of the stories that have been most meaningful, influential, and world-enchanting for me. I’ll need your help to find more of these sorts of stories, so please come back and help me create a list of stories that can help others to recover (and maintain) an enchanted worldview.