Myth in Contemporary Culture

The traditional definition of myth is simply that they are historical stories used to explain the view of a society on any number of topics.  Unlike the myth and structures of the ancient Greeks, nothing lasts any more.  Myth is intrinsically connected to language, which is more fluid than a developing countryside or societal values.  Thus, it makes sense to me that this definition of myth is perhaps in need of an update.  Adding mythical elements to a story, especially where said elements seem out of place, is a literary tactic that seemingly elevates the scope of the tale in the eyes of individuals in search of some escapism or possibly explanation.  Instead of the above, myths may be more accurately described for our time as fantastic stories from which we interpret, explain or extrapolate to an aspect of one’s life. 

 

In the early twentieth century, Joseph Campbell wrote a book that has served to further the literary use of myth in new media called A Hero With A Thousand Faces.  In the introduction he writes “It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those other constant human fantasies that tend to tie it back” (Campbell, 1968, p. 11).  He goes on to explain the commonality in many of the ancient mythologies and provided a blueprint for the storytellers of his day and the future.  It was perhaps because of the widespread use of this text on college campuses that a new era of myth was about to be unleashed. 

 

Perhaps Campbell’s work had no greater effect on myth in our culture than when a young George Lucas read the book and envisioned a tale that fit within the parameters of “The Adventure of the Hero,” the main archetypal myth discussed at length in the book.  Star Wars changed the way film was seen by those outside of the industry and into more literary circles.  Dr. Joan Benton Connelly, an Associate Professor of Fine Arts at NYU, was part of a documentary on the History Channel that focused on Star Wars’ connection to mythological tradition.  In the film she states that when she watched the movie she was witness to “the creation of modern myth” (Burns, 2007).  This story was more than just a visually stunning piece of film, but a modern myth now a huge part of our culture.  This movie delighted Dr. Campbell whose work was influenced by Carl Jung, who thought that individuals experienced things visually much more deeply than they would through any other sense.

 

The epic journey of a hero is easily accessible to the modern reader or viewer.  The individual hero: Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Superman, Odysseus, et. al, allows one to easily juxtapose our individual struggles and experiences with those of the hero.  Luke Skywalker is at first competing with Han Solo for Leia’s affections and remains without a love interest for the rest of his story.  His duty prevents him from having a successful love life, just as commitments outside of one’s social life can prevent a person from finding love.  It is through these tales that the reader or viewer can find a universal truth within the confines of the fantastic circumstances. 

The Harry Potter novels are another cultural phenomenon that is akin to the ascent of Star Wars in terms of placing classic mythical elements at the center of commercial success.  However while Star Wars was notable for its mind-bending effects and bizarre characters, the Potter books are notable because it ignited a firestorm back towards printed literature.  Harry Potter like Luke Skywalker is taking on his own heroic path that mirrors the paths taken by Odysseus and the ancient mythic heroes.  Unlike Star Wars, where the mythological associations are typically invented or re-imagined as something that better fits the inter-stellar setting, Harry Potter is living on planet Earth during the 1990’s.  The references to mythology can be explained as fact since the “muggles” are living in a world with a magical society coexisting in secret. 

 

Family is deeply critical to a myth, such as the father-son dynamic.  The original trilogy of Star Wars’ movies focused on the story of Luke Skywalker and his father Darth Vader – “vader” is Dutch for father—and their unique involvement in a galactic war.  Potter’s journey begins as an infant when the evil wizard Voldemort murders his parents.  Voldemort then goes for Harry, but he survives the attack, seemingly killing the evil wizard.  It is this loss that drives the boy to overcome these impossible circumstances he finds himself encountering in each installment.  They both receive gifts from their fathers delivered by their mentors. Luke was given a lightsaber and Harry was given an invisibility cloak, and these items were essential to the heroes’ successes.  Both were wounded, Luke lost his hand (in an accident that mirrored his father’s in the later-made prequels) and Harry was given a lightning-shaped scar the night his parents died.  Luke is trying to avenge the murder of his father which changes to ultimately saving the part of his father that remains in Vader.  Harry is trying to avenge his parents and save the lives of those he has come to see as his family.  The individual reader or viewer can often see reflections of these mythical happenings in their own families and inspire “heroic” action, such as trying to save an abusive loved one from substance abuse.  He or she might seek a mentor, someone who has been in their shoes or an intervention counselor -- instead of a kind old wizard.

 

Since the first Star Wars movie was released in 1977, it inspired other hit-hungry filmmakers to delve into classical myth to find the skeletons of the stories they would tell.  Comic book heroes lend themselves to mythological comparison and they are dominating the box office.  The bookshelves in the children’s section of the bookstore are lined with multiple serial books that detail one hero’s journey or another.  Yet the best place for myth today is in the television series LOST, masterminded by Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse.  The show features an ensemble cast of characters brought together by a plane crash on a mysterious island with indigenous inhabitants. 

 

The show features many mythical, cultural, and religious symbols to use as the building blocks of its own mythology.  The writers are brilliant in their ability to answer questions the viewers want to know without giving away much of the big picture of the heavily suspense-driven show.  As the show enters into its final season, the larger story will be revealed and once the secrets of the characters’ storylines are known, I think we will see that many were based on mythical archetypes.  For example, in the ensemble group, two of the male characters Jack and Sawyer share qualities with Odysseus and Achilles.  In the conflict with the indigenous people of the island, Jack often reacts immediately and typically with brute force, similar to Achilles.  He has few weaknesses, but his enemies find that his “heel” is the woman he loves.  Sawyer is a schemer and an unwilling but natural leader.  He uses quick thinking and trickery – including the “Wookie prisoner gag” (Cuse & Pinkner, 2007), homage to one of Luke’s plans in Star Wars – to achieve his ends and is a caring and effective leader, very similar to Odysseus.  With such a wide array of characters, there is little chance of not finding one that will allow the viewer to extrapolate the growth of the character into his or her own life.

 

It is from these sorts of stories where perhaps the seed of inspiration for the next great myth or the next great idea is planted.  The story provides lessons that are often reinforced or reinterpreted as life moves along changing points of reference and points of view.  The follies of the characters serve as lessons to the reader or viewer, such as when Harry Potter eschews his friends’ and family’s advice ultimately killing his Godfather or when Luke rushes to Cloud City before his training is complete causing him to lose his hand.  To share what is important with the people about whom you care and not dive into situations unprepared, are lessons that can influence the actions of the reader or viewer.  It might not been an answer he or she would have come to in deliberate thought.   The answers may come from experiencing a story and taking from it an interpretation of one’s own journey, an explanation of why overcoming adversity makes one stronger, or extrapolating a fantastic battle of space knights or wizards into a metaphor for goal achievement.


 

References

 

Burns, K. (writer/director). (2007). Star Wars: The Legacy Revealed [Television documentary]. Los Angeles, CA: History Channel.

 

Campbell, J. (1968) The hero with a thousand faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

 

Cuse C. & Pinkner, J. (writers). (2007). Not In Portland. [Television series episode]. Williams, S. (Director). LOST.  Honolulu, HI: ABC Studios.

 

Lucas, G. (writer/producer). (1977-2005) Star Wars Episodes I-VI. [Feature Films]. Los Angeles, CA: Lucasfilm/Twentieth Century Fox.

 

Rowling, J. (1997). Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York, NY: Scholastic.

 

Rowling, J. (1999). Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York, NY: Scholastic.

 

Rowling, J. (1999). Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York, NY: Scholastic.

 

Rowling, J. (2000). Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. New York, NY: Scholastic.

 

Rowling, J. (2003). Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York, NY: Scholastic.

 

Rowling, J. (2005). Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. New York, NY: Scholastic.

 

Rowling, J. (2007). Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York, NY: Scholastic. 

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