More Than Meets the Eye

From Mythodea “Movement 8”

More Than Meets the Eye

Title Page from Poetic Edda

The title page of a manuscript of the Prose Edda, showing Odin, Heimdallr, Sleipnir and other figures from Norse mythology. From the 18th century Icelandic manuscript ÍB 299 4to, now in the care of the Icelandic National Library.

Exploring the heavens was something only possible in the imagination up until about fifty years ago. I remember as a boy my father bringing home a telescope and setting it up in the backyard to watch the moon and planets and stars. It wasn’t a powerful telescope but it brought a small corner of space closer to home. The music was composed to celebrate NASA’s 2001 launch of the Mars Odyssey satellite. The satellite orbits Mars and relays to earth transmissions from the various Mars rovers, as well as collects information of its own from the Martian neighborhood. The music celebrates the mythic nature of the expedition that is suggested by the name given by NASA to the mission, Mars Odyssey. I enjoy the serendipitous coincidence that the composer’s middle name, literally, evokes The Odyssey of Homer and the story’s central character (his full name is Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou).

In myth the stars are the home of the gods and ancient cultures identified their images in the shapes formed by stars splashed across the sky. As a teacher of literature I think it is the mythic quality of stories and their characters that gives them their power. The illustration at the top of the page is from The Prose Edda a collection of Old Norse stories and poems that includes The Gylfaginning (The Deluding of Gylfi) a marvelous story that does for Norse mythology what Ovid’s Metamorphosis does for Greek and Roman mythology. The story concerns a Norse king who is tricked by the gods who in the process of tricking him tell him the stories of the Germanic myths. The story begins with Gylfi’s encounter with a man juggling knives (keeping seven in the air at once) in front of house roofed with shields.

Illustration of Gylfi being fooled

King Gylfi gets himself beguiled. From the 18th century Icelandic manuscript SÁM 66 in the care of the Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland.

The stories Gylfi is told have all the elements that capture our interest in stories to this day, adventure, humor, and a slew of interesting characters with very interesting character flaws. Part of the power of myth is the power of story to capture the imagination while, perhaps, explaining the mysteries of the universe. Gylfi under the guise of trying to get information about the gods and their ways takes on an assumed name. He hopes to con the gods and is perhaps an early example of the flim-flam artist. The gentlemen that delude Gylfi are con men in their own right, which is an interesting commentary on the Norse view of the divine character. In the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Huck and Jim are bedeviled by a pair of con men that might be Gylfi’s literary descendants. They are Gylfi’s descendants because though successful in deluding others they are themselves successfully deluded by Huck on a few very significant occasions.

J. R. R. Tolkien on the Myths of Middle Earth

This is often how myth works in story telling, by creating archetypes that can be found in the stories told for less ecclesiastical purposes. When J. R. R. Tolkien created his world of Middle Earth for his novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings he created for his characters a whole mythic system that relied to a substantial degree on that of the ancient tribes of Germany and Scandinavia. The name of Gandalf and his horse Shadowfax come from ancient Icelandic stories found in The Poetic Edda.

The journeys of Bilbo in The Hobbit are more like those of the trickster stories, in that, though he is heroic Bilbo is able to succeed by fooling others. He “wins” the ring, for example, by playing a trick on Gollum and by not playing completely by the rules. The Lord of the Rings on the other hand is a heroic quest in the mold of those told in the mythic stories of the classical epics. Jacob Grimm in his book Teutonic Mythologies describes a character called a Hob-wiht that bears certain resemblances to the hobbits of middle earth. Perhaps these creatures described by Grimm suggest the mythic origins of hobbits. Frodo’s journey is mythic in that the outcome of his journey has cosmic consequences. I think this is what raises many stories to levels beyond the quality of the actual writing.

Literary critics are often derogatory in their treatment of the Harry Potter books, claiming J. K. Rawlings is only a mediocre writer. Still, the nature of Harry’s journey captures many elements of the mythic imagination. One of C. S. Lewis’ favorite books was a science fiction story called A Voyage to Arcturus. He said the book was not that well written but its images and motifs were, in his view, very powerful. Ideally a story ought to be well told and the power of its language comparable to the power of the images and emotions it evokes. Perhaps it is only those stories where a powerful narrative is wedded to powerful language that survive the generations for which they were written.

C. S. Lewis’ own books have succeeded in capturing the imagination of readers for many years. A recent study of Lewis’ Narnia books asserts that they have at their heart a medieval cosmology that evokes the stories and myths that are attached to the names of the various gods whose names were given to the medieval planets. Hence the power of the NASA mission to Mars. It evokes the myths of Mars, both those myths told by the Classical Greek and Roman writers but also the myths of Mars as a hostile planet that have become part of the planet’s science fiction persona.

Lewis sets the second novel of his space trilogy Perelandra on the planet of Venus (Perelandra is the name the locals gave to their planet). It is a kind of science fiction retelling of Paradise Lost and the fall of man with the possibility of changing the outcome. On the planet’s surface a new Adam and Eve encounter a different sort of serpent in a different sort of garden. It is also apropos that the story take place on Venus the planet associated with the goddess of love because at the story’s core is a story of love, of the love of the new Adam for the new Eve but also of the divine for the transitory beings that populate the universe.

Postage stamp depicting Ask and Embla

Faroe_stamp_430_The_First_Human_Beings.jpg‎ (244 × 360 pixels, file size: 50 KB, MIME type: image/jpeg)

The characters in the stamp, Ask and Embla, are the Norse Adam and Eve and theirs is the story of the creation, the Norse counterpart to Genesis. This story, as do others like it, defines the world, where the world came from, where the people that populate the world came from. This is what stories and myths often do for us and one reason they resonate with readers. In this sense both Darwin and Genesis tell a mythic story, they try to explain how things began and the implications of those beginnings for the way people live their lives.

To those that live within a certain mythology that mythology offers a rational explanation for how things came to be as they are (which is completely irrational to those that live outside that mythology) and as a result these myths structure their lives. The battle between Creationism and Darwinism (or evolution) is in this sense a mythic battle. The science of the day supports Darwin but the science of Kepler’s day supported a seven planet solar system with an intricate network of crystal spheres and an ambiguous center.

But the core issue is probably not over how the human race came to be but how our daily lives should be led. Each mythic system brings with it not only this explanation for how things came to be but also a moral code that delineates how life ought to be lived. The myths both explain the universe and set forth a code of conduct. The Darwinian code is not so much a set of laws telling people how to live but an explanation of forces that determine who will survive. Science after all does not seek to impose a system of rules but only to understand how the various components of our universe work. But often the way a world is understood to work shapes the behaviors of those that live and work within that world.

Perhaps it is the stories we tell that help us to decide how we ought to live and to treat those with whom we come in contact. The forces at work in the world as explained by modern science do not reward behaviors necessarily but only those who figure out how to successfully manipulate those forces. Science does not make judgments but people do and perhaps the stories we continue to tell help shape the modern myths of our existence and, in the words of Crosby, Still, Nash, and Young give us a code that we can live by.