Journey to the Sea

an online magazine devoted to the study of myth

Myth Beyond Words

Posted by Randy Hoyt • Dec 1st, 2008

In an article in the first issue of this magazine, I proposed a working definition of myth that encompasses more than just traditional mythology, including stories found in fantasy and science fiction. While this may seem like a broad definition, it is still limited in that it only includes myths that exist in written words. But a wide variety of works use more than just words — in some cases, no words at all — to communicate myths and recall them to mind.

Folklorists and narratologists have observed and insisted that the same story might exist in different versions. Mythology and folklore epitomize this fact: many stories from the distant past have been recorded and retold at different times by different authors. Though the versions may differ in length, emphasis, and many other details, they tell one story. C.S. Lewis, for example, the twentieth-century literary scholar, observed this in the story of Balder from Norse mythology:

We all agree that the story of Balder is a great myth, a thing of inexhaustible value. But of whose version — whose words — are we thinking when we say this? For my own part, the answer is that I am not thinking of anyone’s words […] [but of] a particular pattern of events. (Lewis xxix-xxx)

While the patterns of events in mythology have historically been transmitted in multiple texts, this is nothing peculiar to myth: any narrative can be told and retold in different versions. Also, there is no reason that a “version” must be a written text. For centuries, narratives have been communicated in plays that use spoken words and live performances; in the last hundred years, new narrative art forms have emerged like comic books that use still images with written words and movies that use moving images with spoken words and music. In America today, movies and television shows have surpassed books as the dominant narrative art form.

Movies, comic books, and plays are typically considered narrative art because they undeniably tell stories, but the connection of some other art forms to narratives is less clear. Take as an example the small portion of a stained-glass window shown below, dated around 1180 CE, from the Canterbury Cathedral. It clearly references a narrative (that of Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt from Genesis 19:17-26), but it also clearly does not tell the narrative: anyone wholly unfamiliar with the story would not, upon seeing this window, learn the pattern of events that it depicts.

Narratologists have puzzled over the exact relationship between a particular narrative and its depiction in non-narrative art forms. (Two articles in this issue explore along these lines the fifteenth-century woodcut illustrations of Heinrich Steinhowel and the nineteenth-century totem poles of the Pacific Northwest). But to look at the role that works of both narrative and non-narrative art might play in our experience with a myth, I turn again to C.S. Lewis:

What really delights and nourishes me [in the case of the Balder myth] is a particular pattern of events […] [that gives] (at the first meeting) as much delight and (on prolonged acquaintance) as much wisdom and strength as the works of the greatest poets. (Lewis xxx, xxxii)

Narrative forms of art such as books and movies are essential for that “first meeting” with a myth that brings delight. Though Lewis had in mind only narrative art in this context, I would add that non-narrative art forms can bring about this “prolonged acquaintance”: for someone who has already had that first meeting with the story of Lot’s wife, this window can recall the myth to mind and prolong that acquaintance that brings wisdom and strength.

Two of my personal favorite art forms related to myth are non-narrative: Greek pottery and movie soundtracks. First, the Greek water-pitcher shown below, dated to the early sixth century BCE and displayed in the Louvre in Paris, depicts a scene from The Iliad using the black-figure pottery technique. When Achilles decided to return to the fighting in order to avenge the death of Patroclus, his mother Thetis commissioned the divine smith Hephaestus to fashion a shield and other weapons. In the scene on the water-pitcher, Thetis delivers these divine objects to her son (Iliad XIX.1-36). Many of the Greek vases, including this one, have the names of the characters painted in the gaps to help the observer identify the scene.

Second, the audio clip below comes from the Star Wars soundtrack. (Click the arrow on the slider below to play the one-minute clip; Flash required.) The movie as a whole tells a story, but the musical score alone does not. Even so, I have found that listening to the soundtrack can effectively recall the myth to mind and prolong my acquaintance with it. In this climatic scene, Luke Skywalker pilots his aircraft on a nearly-impossible mission against the massive battle station known as the Death Star. Darth Vader and other pilots from the enemy fleet chase Luke as he nears the target. The audio clip accompanies the final minute before Luke successfully launches the missiles that destroy the battle station. (I recommend a recent post at AMC’s blog that discusses musical scores in science-fiction movies.)

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On this site, we will primarily explore myths contained in works of written words: ancient mythological and religious texts, fantasy and science-fiction literature, and the like. But since it is important to remember that myths can be contained in more than just written words, we are devoting the next two issues to a series titled “Myth Beyond Words” with articles exploring myths in various other forms.


References

Images

  • Lot’s Wife from Canterbury Cathedral, courtesy of Sacred Destinations. Circa 1180 CE. (The window containing this scene, the so-called “Second Typological Window,” can be found in the north choir aisle. The cathedral originally contained six windows windows illustrating events in the Old Testament thought to foreshadow events in the New Testament; the limited number of panels that have survived from the twelfth century have now been combined into two windows.)
  • Thetis Brings Weapons To Achilles” photographed by Marie-Lan Nguyen, courtesy of Wikipedia. Circa 575–550 BCE.

Music

One Response »

  1. I am so glad you have started this discussion here, Randy! The way that images reinforce awareness of stories is really powerful (the students in my online classes all illustrate their creative writing with images they find on the Internet… often choosing familiar images from movies).

    Meanwhile, I don’t know if you have had this experience, but it can also be the case that a first meeting with an image that clearly tells a story UNKNOWN to you can be a great first meeting, too – you don’t know the story per se, but you can tell that that there IS a story… and the image begins your quest to discover what that story is.

    For example, I have often encountered medieval stories in visual form before I was able to track down the text on which they are based! when I first toured around Europe in 1985, there were so many many many stories I did not know – stories from the lives of the saints, stories from the apocryphal books of the Bible (like Tobit, or Judith, or the story of Susannah and Daniel – all parts of the Bible beloved by artists, apocryphal or not!)… I could see that some kind of story was being told in the painting or in the sculpture, but I had to find a text somewhere to tell me the story… or ask a person to tell me, if there happened to be a gregarious and knowledgeable person there in the museum or church or public square as the case might be! :-)