Bits on ‘A Short History of Myth’

I expected something more granular, I suppose. More chronology than history. My surprise, then, was of the pleasant variety.

When Jess finished Karen Armstrong’s A Short History of Myth, the thin volume which serves at the introduction to the Canongate Myths series, she told me I’d like it. When she re-read it, she found it trite — but then realized that the assertions made therein were so accessible and evident that they had become part of her thought process about the topic. It seemed trite on the second reading because it had been so simply true the first time.

As I slog through the zero draft of the next novel, mythology and myth-making are very much on my mind. Diuran, the protagonist in Rhymer and in this new piece, tries to change his world by telling stories. He builds the future over drinks and campfires. Sure sounded like I needed to give A Short History of Myth a look-see.

As you no doubt have guessed, I found the book to be brilliant.  The argument that contemporary life is miserable since we don’t have myths to guide us is depressingly well-made. But what killed me was the end:

If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight to our lost and damaged world.

In the final pages, Armstrong states that a good novel can serve the same function as a myth, and is the only thing in our modern world which does so. So, we’re all screwed because we live without myth, and the only people who can save us are novelists. No pressure!


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