home books papers cartoons bioL

Lecture 5:
Adam Blatner

This is the fifth in a series given to the Senior University Georgetown in the Fall of 2014.

Coming down gradually, now. For some I may have gone too far out in the last talk. Mind-stretching is part of the class, part of the exercise. Don't believe any of it if it hurts. Believe it a little if it's fun. The point is that there are poets and science fiction writers, fantasy artists and children's authors and illustrators, movie producers and toymakers.

I put it to you that we in our own time have created myths in the forms of Star Trek series of movies, Star Wars series, and Lord of the Rings and Hobbit series. We've created Harry Potter movies and scores of spin offs and variants. This is clearly myth!

We grew up with two kinds of myth. The first were mainly the Graeco-Roman myths that played such an important role in language and literature. The second pretended it wasn't myth, it was history. But it was myth. These were the histories of the good guys and bad guys, most significantly in the 2nd world war, less so---but still a fair amount---in the wars and international tensions that preceded and followed the great wars.

There were many other myths, too: The cowboys were the good guys, the indians were the bad guys. Women were supposed to stay home and raise the kids. Things were better back in the good old days. There were thousands of them. Lots about military and sports heroes, almost none about bookish boys and even fewer about really bright girls and women. Lots of myths.

The Semantics of Myth

Semantics deals with how words mean. Everyone knows that Mother, the Flag (American, of course) and Apple Pie is good. Words have not only flat definitions but also emotional impacts. There are those who have been bad mothers, used the American Flag for wicked purposes, and it is possible to make an apple pie that doesn't taste that good. But still...

Myth is bad. We grant that primitive people can have their myths---after all, we have the guns and have colonized them. It's a patronizing attitude. We don't have myths, we have OUR beliefs---which are always true---not myth! Oh, sure, we may argue about the fine points, or even the coarse points, but we're dealing with "truths" not myths.

But then in the 1960s Joseph Campbell pointed out that, hey, everybody always including modern people---us!---have myths. It's not just for other people! In this sense, he re-did the meaning a bit, but also got us to look at the process of what should be the word, myth-ification?

One of the main modern myths is that we can get away from myth. We can use science to get at the hard, dry truth. And we have made some progress in this direction, and have spun off several sparks of dissonance. One is a dour existential philosophy that believes in not believing, thinks it's possible to be ultimately skeptical. Hint: Can't be done.

Another spin-off is the despair that comes from excessive de-mythification. That includes human relations and love, if you really take it to its logical extreme, and folks wither psychically without love.

What's going on is that we're in a transition phase, myth-wise. The old myths are seeming foolish to many and there's no consensus as to what the new myths are. I could tell you some candidates, but until they start gathering a significant minority if not a majority, they're weak. It's not that they're wrong. Of course they're wrong---er---non-factual, not completely factual-- but the myth that there can be a completely factual myth is a myth indeed.



We live in an era when there has been re-mythification---I dare to coin that phrase. We've never been apart from myth, of course. Humans create meaning systems in the forms of stories. They are often hardly coordinated. There was no one reading them, because few could read, and no one bothered saying, "hey, this story is inconsistent with that story. So which way was it?"  Maybe it was apparent to everyone that it was a story, for goodness sake. There was no hope of thinking that one could literally explain the moon or the sun, the wind or death or sickness. Folks told stories.

It runs quite deep, this story-business. It wasn't as though folks thought the stories weren't so. There were many stories. No one claimed that their favorite story was the only true story. Maybe everyone knew at some level that no human story could ever capture some abstract ideal of ultimate truth, as if it could be comprehended by humans.

It was clear that life, so vivid to us, was limited, and for those who were wise, this forced us to reach for that which was unlimited. Only with the emergence of abstract thinking about ultimate principles---which may not have happened until the last few thousand years---would there be an illusion that the human mind could begin to pin down the great mysteries. I suspect this is an act of ultimate hubris, overweening pride, and perhaps wise people believed---as a slight justification---that the simple people needed a story, one story, to unify them, to protect them. Some believed the story allegorically, and some believed it literally.

Gradually, the major narratives or myths in the West were suppressed, or perhaps patronizingly accepted as fairy tales, or co-opted so that the Roman Saturnalia became the Roman-Christian "Christmas." There was a lot of this kind of thing. And as long as the Church had control, they could argue for allegory. With the emergence of personal religion, simple interpretations and odd cults emerged---along with the idea that any of that myth was literally true.

We've had centuries of this latter shift into truth being something that even theoretically could be known---or theoretically known for sure that it could never be known---and it all tended to eclipse myth, story. "Our" side, our friend, allies, the good people, had true beliefs. Their side, or those we patronized, had "myths," which implied that those ideas should not be taken literally. If they became threatening, then their beliefs were evil, satanic, and deserved being ruthlessley suppressed by violence. (Only recently has the ideal of tolerance been promulgated, although at many times in the past there have been political arrangements that were "tolerant," since it was cheaper than violent suppression and the expensive risk of revolt.

All this speaks to another shift---re-mythification.

Movies such as The Rise of the Guardians features the cartoon characters of Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy (Hummingbird-like), Sandman, and Jack Frost  versus the dark spirit villain.

There have been a number of Santa Claus movies that tell the story in different ways, and some of these also portray elves in various roles. The movie "Elf" told it yet again. I know about these--- in a past life I worked on level 7 isle 3---or was it level 3 isle 7---anyway, it was about choo choo trains and I was an elf and helped children to have a great time. So I have a soft spot for the whole Santa Claus story---get all teary-eyed, etc. That myth works deep down.

Yellow Submarine team of Beatles versus the Blue Meanies

Related Creatures
Whos in Who-ville (The Grinch story at Christmas).

More Distantly Related Creatures
Dragons, Wizards, Monsters, Giants, Other Imaginary Critters

Other Books

Seuss, Dr. (Theodore Geisel): Various creatures and stories, such as the well known "The Grinch" and all the Whos in Who-ville.
Disney Movies about Dwarves (Snow White)

Grinch and all the Whos in Whoovile

fungus bogeyman
fraggles, gremlins, toy trolls

Related Materials:

Rise of the Guardians, Santa, Easter Bunny, Sandman, Tooth Fairy... versus darkness,

Carrau, Bob. (1993). Monsters and aliens from George Lucas. (Part of the Star Wars Trilogy of popular movies in the 1970s-90s. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
Eewoks star wars

All the characters from Star Wars and related movies.
   E.g., in the The Phantom Menace    Other droids, podrace contestants, the vile gangster, Jabba the Hut, Watto the Toydarian, tusken raiders, jawas, sando aqua monster, spine studded colo claw fish
   Jar Jar binks, a gungan,    Queen Amidala and her fabulous gowns,     Gungans,   kadoo their mounts,

Star Trek creatures, tribbles furriy creatures star trek fribbles?

Cute lil critters
Tall Story critters
    Ghost stories and monsters
    Dragons and books about them, hundreds\

Harry Potter critters, death dealiers, droings?  Suck out breath, dementors?

Shrek movies
Lord of the Rings

Harry Potter’s house elves Dobby
Tooth Fairy
The World of Warcraft, Everquest, online games one can take roles of many types of character including elves.

Return to Top       For comments, suggestions for revision or additions, email me: adam@blatner.com