Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

the recovery of mythology

Consider this my initial deposit on a topic I hope to return to.
I've been thinking a lot lately about the decline and fall of mythology and folktale. Between the period of Frazer's Golden Bough and, say, Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism (1957) — and probably for some years after that — perhaps nothing was more central to the humanities that the study of myths: myths large and small, literary and popular or "folk," myths of all cultures. The popularity of these topics stemmed from multiple sources: the cult of Wagner; T. S. Eliot's use of Frazer's work in The Waste Land; Jung's theories of archetype; the popularization of those theories by Joseph Campbell; the self-conscious renewal of mythographic writing by writers from J. R. R. Tolkien to Evangeline Walton; and serious academic studies of myth and its offshoots by Mircea Eliade, Suzanne Langer, and many others.
But it seems to me that hardly anyone in the humanities talks about myth and folktale these days — it's just not part of our frame or reference. One possible explanation for this neglect — I can only state it now, and defend it later — is that myth and folktale don't lend themselves to the kind of social-historical approach now favored in the academic humanities: they are often impossible to locate in a specific time and place.
In light of all this, I commend to you a new section at the Guardian on fairy tales. Check it out. This brief essay by A. S. Byatt is particularly noteworthy, as it bears on her new novel The Children's Book, which I hope to read soon.


  • I think this is basically true of Anglophone scholarship (prone to hypercriticism of oral traditions, for one thing), but I'm not so sure about its Francophone equivalent. I may well be exposed to a biased sample, admittedly.

  • In relation to myth's resistance to socio-historical reading, I think the decline of myth as category has to do with the postmodern distrust of metanarrative. And those are the sorts of claims that someone like Campbell made--positing these Ur stories behind all of our stories.


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