Mythic expression is humanity's first language. These myths, or to use a more contemporary synonym, metanarratives, are the stories that give purpose and meaning to a people, a way of understanding the seemingly random occurrences in the lives of individuals and communities. Whether these are expressed in clay statues, paintings on cave walls, or mutually intelligible symbols such as words, each is a vision of the world and of the place of humanity within it.
Some have dismissed these stories as "early science," which has been superseded by rational understandings of the working of nature, of life, and of the psyche. However, myth actually remains foundational to all our knowledge, even to the most objective scientific explorations, because all knowledge is framed by some accepted system of beliefs and presuppositions, by a shared worldview, which alone allows us to communicate our truth to each other.
Science does not replace mythic invention, but the very imaginative fancy that underlies myth is the ground from which new scientific hypotheses and theories arise. Ptolemy and Copernicus created visual models of the solar system as Aristotle and Newton imagined falling objects; in each case, one model or story supplanted another because it resonated more closely with our experiences. Einstein devised his theories of special and general relativity using thought games, imagining scenarios in which the traditional theories of space and time did not work. The Big Bang, a theory about the beginning of our universe almost universally accepted by modern science, is a metaphor, a symbolic story that describes science's discoveries put in the language of mythic imagination.
Mythic fantasy, an important form, is different from mere imaginative invention in that it reflects back symbolically the world out of which it arose. It is generally believed that most of the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid were not based on any accurate history but were a reflection on the lives of the Greeks and Romans who saw in them frameworks within which these cultures could formulate their origins, their values, and their destinies. The Greeks and Romans were sophisticated scientists; Aristarchus of Samos, for example, suggested a heliocentric vision of the universe in the 3rd century b.c.e. So the classical civilizations did not use mythic invention as a substitute for science but saw both as sources of knowledge and wisdom. In our own day, Carl Jung and those who followed his lead, like the late Joseph Campbell, understood mythic fantasy as the gateway to the unconscious and to the understanding of the human psyche.
Ethical judgment becomes part of the critical apparatus with which we must approach mythic fantasy. We must ask incisive questions: Does J.R.R. Tolkien reflect the world we experience or does he create a dualism which separates humanity into good and the evil? Is J.K. Rowling's world of Harry Potter one that empowers the positive energies of young people or is it fraught with delusions about forces that threaten us? Does C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia reflect humanity's ability to bring true compassionate action to the Earth or does it disempower humanity in favor of some outside Higher Power which must save us?
Today, authors like George R.R. Martin, Dan Brown, Barbara Kingsolver, Ursula Le Guin, David Mitchell, and Annie Proulx reflect us back to ourselves in the mirrors they create, forcing us to ask questions about what really grounds our lives. They give a meaning and a depth to all dimensions of our experience. Authors like Ofir Touché Gafla question our assumptions, reveal our condition, and help us revel and agonize once again in all the joy and sorrow of the Human Comedy.
This article was originally published in August 2013, and has been updated for the
June 2014 paperback release.
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