Myths & Folktales: Retelling the Truth

Have you ever wondered why so many contemporary novels are based on ancient myths or tales?  You find examples not just in SF and fantasy, but in every genre. Seems we can’t get enough of the old world stories. But I wonder, in this age of quantum information, as we stand on the verge of a grand unified theory to explain all the forces in the universe, why are we still enthralled by the deeds of primitive gods and heroes?


Of the five novels I’ve written, three are rooted in myths, including my new one, The Gravity Pilot, based on the legend of Orpheus. But I’m still asking why the old tales keep repeating – and why myths from as widely separated spots as Norway and India sound so much alike.


Here’s a clue from the Rig Veda, the earliest collection of sacred Hindu verses. The poet says: “Truth is one, though wise men describe it in many ways.”  Yeah, that sounds right.  


But when I went looking for more clues about myth, I found a whole field of stormy academic debate. Oh, good. I love debate. According to various scholars, myths were created to: control nature through ritual; establish models of behavior; validate the social order; furnish religious guidance; and perform the functions of science. Hmm. Not exactly a thrill a minute. What happened to Jason and the dragon’s teeth?


Carl Jung thought myths revealed universal “archetypes” in our unconscious minds. Claude Levi-Strauss believed the “fixed mental structures” underlying myths were conscious values. Joseph Campbell viewed myths as a search for the unknowable force within everything in the universe. And Obi-Wan Kenobi said, “Use the force, Luke.”


Okay, the theory I like best goes this way. Myths began as metaphors to explain why we exist. In the early days, there were so many things we didn’t understand. Concepts as essential as birth, death, evil and good, who knew?  And natural phenomena like the sun, the seasons, lightning, what the heck were they?  All that lack of certainty made us very insecure. So we turned those vague notions into metaphorical people and made up stories about them. The metaphor stories helped us think about ideas that were too big to grasp any other way.


Stories about people make more sense to us, because people are us. We’re fascinated with us.   Narcissus isn’t the only one who fell in love with his reflection. The great novelist Willa Cather once said, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they never happened before.”  William Faulkner said almost the same thing in his acceptance speech for the Nobel prize. He said the only thing worth writing about is “the human heart in conflict with itself.”  


The best metaphor stories are the ones that help us gain insights into why we exist. We need that comfort. Uncertainty gives us the willies . Maybe our first stories about tortoise gods and heroes with magic shields were naive and wrong, but they got us through the day. Now, of course, we have science, so we know the truth. Right?


There’s a wonderful book called Masks of the Universe, by Edward Harrison. He writes, “People have always pitied the universes of their ancestors, believing that their generation has at last discovered the ‘real’ universe.” 


Hey, we’ve mapped the genome. We’ve found the tau neutrino. And we’re about to discover the grand unified theory of life, the universe and everything. This time, we really are right. Right?


Harrison maintains that every human age creates its own metaphor to explain existence, and every time, we sincerely believe in it. But sooner or later, each metaphor is replaced by a new one. Can it be that someday, our descendants will view our quest for the grand unified theory as a fairy tale? 


Or can it be that all our stories about existence are equally true?  Just like the ancients, we’re still exploring the universe and the human heart, still trying to get through the day. No wonder we keep discovering the same insights again and again and retelling the same fresh myths. A long time ago, Socrates found an answer that still works for me. He said, “All that I know is that I know nothing.”


Metaphors be with you!