Writers need myths. Myths are the shorthand we understand that helps stories come to life. As such, when you get us together we talk about them… more often than not.
This article is one such discussion about myths and the making of them over at a pulp writers group I’m a member of. I thought it was particularly interesting in light of what our current understanding of myths says about us culturally, politically, and of course literarily.
There’s a world cultural crisis in progress. Whole cultures are in a state of turmoil over what is actually true and what isn’t.
It’s an old story. A change in the environment produces a challenge to the culture. There’s a lag between the effects of the change and the ability of the culture to adapt to it. The process of adjusting to the change causes conflict within a culture, and/or between cultures. The old white rabbit of Truth gets caught with the cross-culture cross hares in the cultural cross hairs.
Joseph Campbell conjectured that social instability was caused by the failure of a society to correctly use and connect with myths. Perhaps that’s what’s going on in the world today.
Myths are useful tools in understanding the nature of truth. They function like software that can be loaded into a culture’s hard drive. They are the embodiment of the interface between magic and science, materialism and idealism, since they are stories that are understood to be untrue, but by their structure and details are understood to represent intangible truths. Because the nature of myth is based on contradiction, it is a mental tool for navigating the maze of reality whose essential nature is paradox and contradiction—except for those portions of that are not paradox and contradiction, which is all of it and none of it.
I believe that the world needs a compelling new myth and that the source of the myth might lie with the pulps. But then, I’m kind of a dreamer. It comes with the territory, being a writer and into pulps.
I have this notion that in the pulps of the 1930s one finds a sort of mythic and folkloric bedrock for the dominant myths of the contemporary West.
I have my own ideas about what kinds of myths are needed. I’m willing to share them. I’d like to start a kind of movement—similar to the folk music revival of the early sixties, promoting positive social change through a revival of interest in the pulps.
Is anyone interested in sharing ideas?
Some interesting thoughts there.
Looking at the main middle-of-20th-century pulp tropes I'd characterise three main strands:
1. The Western
—this is about frontiers, about independence and the slow victory of civilisation over savagery, about one person's ability to make a difference. By the time the Western became really popular, the West was tamed, so in some senses its as nostalgic as those stories of today set in Victorian London, actually set in a sort of group-consensus fantasy themed with trapping of the actual era. But it speaks to a readership feeling increasingly powerless in an increasingly impersonal and homogenised society of a different time where values were easier to hold and express.
2. The Crime Story
—hard-boiled detectives in mean streets, the one good man in a corrupt world, the tarnished angel who takes the knocks bit comes back plugging. Most of those stories were set in a contemporary world, albeit one that played up the most glamorous or infamous parts of it. Some of the best stories explore personal values in an increasingly corrupt civilisation. Again, there's a lot about the little guy pushing back, or about the lone vigilante accomplishing what the authorities can't do. Some of it is wish fulfillment, but some of it is just "this is how it is but we can try to make it how it should be."
3. The Future Story
—science fiction and science fantasy were starting to take hold, allowing some flights of fantasy for readers perhaps starting to shy away from supernatural fantasy but also enabling allegorical discussion of all kinds of issues from racism to imperialism – and plenty of sex. There were plenty of potential utopias with lurking serpents in New Eden and lots of bogeyman "others" coming to take what is ours and destroy our way of life.
One might argue that any or all of those strands are attempt to process and mythologise changes that were then contemporary and which still continue today.
Since then, the Western had somewhat gone out of fashion. There are less people with experience of that country/frontier life and less people who yearn for it. That genre is perhaps now replaced with the Superhero story (about extraordinary people in an ordinary world, often a world that doesn't understand them but desperately needs them).
Much has been written about the parallels between the pantheons of superheroes and the pantheons of myth, but I think one significant difference is that superhero stories, along with many other "brands" of modern storytelling, are owned and moderated for profit by a creator or company. Hence we have less stories with actual endings; there must always be a sequel or spin-off. There is a Death of King Arthur, a Death of Robin Hood, a Death of Hercules, but the Death of Superman, Captain America, or Batman lasts only as long as the next marketing campaign. The ownership of many modern myths by patent and copyright holders probably prevents their universality in the way that previous stories have embedded themselves as common legends.
As a writer who cut his teeth on superhero stories with iHero Entertainment (then Cyber Age Adventures) and comic book writing, I think Ian’s on to something with the superhero idea. He also nails the biggest drawback that keeps them from becoming true myths themselves, and instead relegated to simply retelling the older myths of the Western gods (though those are being patiently infiltrated by the myths of other societies such as those of the East and native cultures—which is a good thing, I should be sure to add, after such a loaded word as "infiltrated"). Being owned property by trademark and copyright holders, usually entities and not individuals, they don’t belong to the collective voice, and thus they can’t be made mythic through the stories the people put onto them. Only what the corporate gatekeepers allow can become canon, and therefore “true fiction.”
We can’t own them ourselves. They’re not ours. Instead we’re allowed to keep telling the story of the only kind of hero we can really believe in, the one who can stand up to those powers (like the corporations who own our myths, our governments, the owner of the local laundry mat who can choose not to serve “those kinds,” etc.).
There's really not as big a difference historically as appears at first. Heroic storytelling has always been somewhat moderated. The people paying the bards and writers dictate the content. Some examples:
* Greek orators telling the stories of Jason and the Argonauts as after-dinner speakers at banquets, adding in the name of their patron's illustrious ancestor to the roster of Argonauts, to the point where Jason's 30-oar ship had 71 oarsmen.
* Various local god and hero stories being recast to star saints on Christian hagiographies.
* Print publishers from Wynkin de Worde onward selecting the materials he believed would sell (profit over scholarship) and making amendments to text for that purpose.
And there have always been "bypasses" to avoid the gatekeepers. Just as today there is-self-publishing, fan-fiction etc., so there have been oral traditions, 'forbidden' books, the explosion of the 18th/19th century unlicensed pamphlet press and Penny Dreadfuls etc.
What has changed in the last century is close-to universal literacy in the West leading to writing being the primary storytelling medium, and then the rise of cinema and TV. Since publishing is costly (still is if you want to reach a mass market) and film-making is very costly, all the old financial and sponsorship gatekeeping is magnified.
Unlike the classic pulp tropes, I think there’s really only one real, “allowed” myth in the public consensus of modernity - particularly in the U.S. - and that’s the myth of the self-made man (or woman nowadays, though it’s origin is most definitely a male character). It’s the one truly pervading myth that drives our reality. Our folk tales are full of them, from Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed to John Henry and the legends built up around and added to the narratives of historical figures like Washington and Lincoln and Stonewall Jackson.
There have always been attempts to monetise tropes and to sanitise contents for a different mass audience.This week I re-read my Robin Hood novel trilogy and it reminded me of how that legend developed. The earliest stories were definitely tavern tales of a peasant outlaw (often said to be from the village of Loxley in Yorkshire) who tweaked the noses of the rich and powerful - subversive, working class, put-one-over-on-our-supposed-betters stuff. The earliest printed stories, preserved in the Child Ballads, are very much about a people's champion, of the people, for the people.
The next development, on the Elizabethan stage, was authored by educated professional writers who were writing for their patrons (who then funded the plays that the masses eventually saw). The big development here was that Robin was now an outlawed nobleman too, the Earl of Huntingdon, who left his estates to be "down with the people" and give them the vital leadership to resist tyranny that they could not possibly possess in their own humorous uneducated way (c.f Spanish nobleman Zorro championing the Mexican peons and many other "white saviour" stories). The Hood legend is appropriated for a different use for a different audience.
Then we have the Victorian sanitisation, cutting out the crude bits, streamlining the narrative to offer a satisfying 'complete' story that can be absorbed into culture as a quaint and nostalgic old folk-cycle. And then the Hollywood era where the myth has been rediscovered and reinterpreted many times (to varying degrees of success).
But for all of that, when someone stands outside the law against overwhelming authority and who redistributes wealth outside the law, we still tend to call them a Robin Hood. His myth has not entirely been appropriated. His trope appears again and again with every good-natured rogue who joins with a band of comrades to thwart authority (from Bo and Luke Duke to Han Solo).
It’s the myth so deeply ingrained in American culture that it is behind both successes and failures. It’s the reason we love Teddy Roosevelt and understand why Hemingway blew his brains out. It gave way to the “heroes” that follow it – such as the man against the world who can only win by standing firm, the existential hero – and the spies (both male and female) who make their own rules in a world where the rules stifle and get in the way, and because they chose their own way, they win, regardless of whether they die at the end or not.
It’s the myth that supersedes all other, and it’s not just behind adventure tales, but also literary fiction. Hemingway’s hero leaves the army for love only to lose that love to illness and death. Jay Gatsby chooses to chase “the American Dream” and redefines himself, only to lose to the establishment of wealth. It’s a failure that leads Sylvia Plath to take her own life in the face of not being able to live up to the idea of the self-made hero. Her heroine in The Bell Jar rejects the idea of the self-made hero, and pays the price for that rejection.
It is a significant and pervasive myth, but not the only one, even in the USA. The "rebel with a cause" Robin Hood thing is distinctive enough. There is also the "King Arthur and His Round Table" stuff, iterated in everything from Doc Savage to the Avengers, and its distinctive sub-theme of the Lost Hero Returning to Set Things Right. There is some crossover with the "Self-Made Man" idea, but not always and not as the core concept.
Speaking of Gatsby, here comes the irony of the idol of the self-made hero. It is propagated by the very class of people who refuses to let others join their society. They can control the thoughts of the masses by helping the masses believe they can become self-made heroes (just like the rich, upper class, etc.) only to learn eventually that those people have walled up the doors and gates behind them so as to no let anyone else into the club. They just want people to believe they can. (Sure, I know, every now and then some rabbit sneaks through a hold in the fence and dons a bow tie and joins the party, but that hole is immediately blocked up again. (Can’t have any more of the rabble coming in, can we?)
I'd go so far as to say that sometimes a rabbit has to be let in, or the fence breaks.
It’s a myth built into the Constitution as a right – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Just don’t set your sights too high. Keep to your place.
Which leads me to the beginnings of the new myth that slowly entering into fiction – the counter to the self-made hero. This new hero either tries and fails or rejects the old myth and is able to redefine what happiness, liberty, and life actually mean in the fabric of his or her own life – reality be damned. These heroes set their sights on something higher than a traditional hero’s reward. They do their thing to pull together a family, or to save the world in a way that no one can ever know, or to raise a child, or in the case of my own Rick Ruby, to maintain a status quo that allows him fleeting tastes of real, genuine – impossible to hang on to – love. He doesn’t want to improve his status, just live within it in a way that allows him some, albeit fleeting, happiness.
I suspect that Campbell's idea that every story type also includes its opposite - Boy Loses Girl, Man Does Not Learn a Lesson etc. is valid here. Tragedies often pivot on one subversion of a concept, one fatal flaw that denies the protagonist happiness and a future. Sometimes that flaw is in the circumstance of the story, and since circumstance - plot - in stories derives from the myth-type it is using, subverting or flipping that myth-type is what causes the character's downfall.
In other words, if the author decided that the premise of that kind of story doesn't work, then that character's event-line will morph accordingly. It's as if suddenly real-world physics caught up with Batman and he could no longer dodge a spray of machine-gun bullets.
Sure, but it seems to me that one prevails while the other is considered subversive of “counter” rather than mythic.
It's certainly true of superheroes and pulp heroes. "One man can make a difference."
Just borrowing the incarnations of the story-form that we see in our major current comic book heroes:
The Avengers/Justice League - a Varsity of heroes banded together against the greatest of threats; the "best of the best" aspect has been vitiated by multiple teams with massive line-ups now, but up till 1988 neither team had topped 20 members ever. The reader hook here was to identify with a band of heroes who interacted at the highest echelons of herodom, to be in the locker room with the elite.
The oldest and most tied to the original myths, I’d say. This is your gods of Olympus, your gathered heroes of Valhalla.
I can't actually think of many stories where pantheons gathered together for a "mission", or indeed where more than a couple of gods (e.g.Thor and Loki) head off for an adventure together. The first big Greek myth team-ups were the heroes, for Jason's All-Star Argonauts and for Team Hercules.
I'll have to concede that. But that group of characters created the archetypes to later form an actual team. Grant Morrison even used the Greek/Roman pantheon for his version of the Justice League when he was writing the comic book. Per Morrison:
Superman - Zeus
Wonder Woman - Hera
Batman - Hades
Flash - Hermes
Aquaman - Poseidon
Green Lantern - Apollo
Orion - Ares
Oracle - Athena
Huntress - Artemis
Steel - Hephaestus
Zauriel - Aphrodite
Plastic Man - Dionysus
Barda - Demeter
The X-Men - outcast misunderstood outlaws prove themselves to be heroes better than all the people who look down on them; a powerful story dating back at least as far as the heroes of the Water Margins, speaking to every reader who feels him or herself excluded because they are different. But in these stories different = special and individuality is good.
What stories and legends do you know to support this pre-comics? Robin Hood was an outlaw and outcast, but not because of his differences, instead because of monarchist greed, so that's probably not the same thing.
We might have to look to fairy stories, where an Ugly Duckling becomes a Swan, a Cinders-girl becomes a princess etc., or to some Irish myths where heroes are given great handicaps at birth which they must overcome to gain their destiny (for example, not being allowed a name, to hold any weapon not given by one's mother - who won't grant one - and not being allowed to marry any wife born of woman). But I admit that those are all individual stories and may be more about desired qualities not being recognised (the Loathly Lady trope). Nor are any of them groups.
Outcast bands are a pretty old tale, though. It's not just the rich and powerful that tell each other stories.
Batman - an extraordinary individual responds to tragedy by becoming a guardian and avenger through his own personal qualities and efforts. He solves problems by being physically, intellectually, and morally superior. He is right by virtue of being better than a failing law enforcement system.
Superman - an extraordinary individual with remarkable abilities becomes the greatest hero of his age, but hides his brilliance in a mundane mortal identity; only the reader is on on the secret. The secret identity twist is a relatively new part of the story-form for heroes (starting in modern literature with the Scarlet Pimpernel as best I can tell, although it might have been drawn from the "Ruritanian prince' literature of the mid-Victorian era), but it is a separate and potent element, about "if only they knew who I really was..." which also speaks to a shy, overlooked, or bullied reader.
Spider-Man - a hard-luck hero does the right thing even when fate dumps on him for doing it; secret identity, real-life hassles of school, job, and relationships, and stories that juxtapose the hero's basic decency with the fantastic villainy of his rogues gallery and the mundane venality of JJJ. The reader is encouraged to identify with "Hard Luck Parker"because we too have our Flash Thompsons, our Jolly Jonahs, and our Aunt Mays.
Of them all, this seems the most recent development in myth making. Prior ages always seemed to laud the demigods or brightest and best. Are their old, ancient examples of this type of hero?
I think this sort of story works best with our modern serial-form. Everyone wants Peter to win, but then his story is over. Hence the MJ-marriage being continually rewritten. Older stories often feature a hero or heroine being misunderstood, wrongly accused, suffering for doing right etc., but they are either presented as tragedies or they have a conclusion where the hero's virtue is recognised and rewarded at last. You're right that there aren't any really good ancient examples. Perhaps Anderson's Little Mermaid was one of the earliest?
Cutting across these incarnations and their variations are some other circumstances that also depend upon the extraordinary individual:
The Official Hero - that's Captain America, Superman shaking the President's hand, the Avengers A1 Priority Clearance Card etc; patriotism was still major a thing when many of these characters were moulded.
The Rich Dilettante - the hero is a millionaire playboy, collector, amateur criminologist etc., although he may hide his expertise in a secret identity. He has every reason to enjoy his lifestyle and not care about others, but because he is a superior man he eschews the rewards of his wealth and station to fight evil.
If anything, the cynic in me holds this one up as the ultimate prooftext for corporate overlords having their own Mary Sue. Except, when that millionaire resists and fights against the corporate structure and culture. While Luthor is closer to the example for this, Tony Stark is partly there, while Bruce Wayne is the in-disguise Robin Hood who has infiltrated the castle (so to speak).
An assumption of this archetype is that it takes one to know one. Only a wealthy billionaire can take on another one, only the superior-born or proved men could possibly overcome the problems that normal proles could not tackle; in older stories, the disguised lord who goes amongst the peasants ha the education, training, breeding, and natural leadership to help them to happiness they cold not achieve alone because only he can show them how to fight people who have skills like his.
It's the sort of thinking behind "the White Man's Burden", that those with advantages of intellect, education, and moral superiority have a noblesse oblige
responsibility for those lacking it.Although that's an unpleasant concept these days, with racist, sexist, and elitist undertones, it did inform Western culture during our great period of expansionism (including the settling of the Americas) and it is irrevocably embedded into our heroic and superheroic myths - "with great power comes great responsibility,"
The Chosen One - by birth or circumstance the hero has been given a destiny, and must now choose to take up a duty; e.g. Green Lantern, Namor, Black Panther, Dr Strange
The Alien - the strange visitor from elsewhere brings something that is missing from our culture; e.g. Wonder Woman, Thor
The World Expert - the hero is #1 in some field of science or academic study that informs their heroic exploits; e.g. Reed Richards, Hank Pym, Tony Stark, Carter Hall.
Doc Savage, Sherlock Holmes, or even John Henry, if counting track laying as a skill to be #1 in.
The Saviour of Another Culture - the hero is from our culture but the qualities he brings prove invaluable in another culture where he becomes pre-eminent; e.g. Ka-Zar (copying Tarzan), Adam Strange (copying John Carter), Iron Fist
The Monster - our hero must master his demonic side to do good; e.g. the Hulk, the Demon Etrigan, Ghost Rider, anybody with a cursed magic item/weapon
Mary Shelley was key in getting us to view the monster sympathetically, but it wasn't until not so long ago (mid 20th century) we were able to cast the monster as the hero. A major step in that development was Phantom of the Opera, but perhaps the earliest story to go all the way with it would be the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Regarding them all, as a cynic, I’d argue that those have become easy marketing stereotypes rather than mythic ideals. Those have become the shorthand for getting readers onboard without having to do more complex character development.
For that matter, Hercules was a huge rage-monster who slaughtered his own children and nephews when he lost control, but form whom listeners continued to have sympathy as he tried to atone for his crimes. Or, if you want to have a sympathetic monster before even that, look to the Death of Enkidu.
Thanks for sharing your input. Ian provided a useful reminder that the appropriation and exploitation of myth is a process as eternal as the myths themselves. And I think you're right, Sean, that the veneration of the individual is a myth that has become so dominant, people are losing sight of the countervailing nuances and complexities that are part of a healthy culture.