Merely a Wanderer Part VI: Completely lost in Faerie and Criticism

I am still wandering in Faerie.  I think that once you enter that realm you never leave.  However, lately my wandering has led me to the vast desert of criticism.  It is here that I have been struggling with what it means for a story to be a myth as opposed to just being a fairytale or a folktale.  In Merely a Wanderer Part III, I talked about fairytale criticism but I did not touch on myth.

Myth has many elements that are similar to folklore and critics who study both have conflicting views on how the two should be interpreted.  As was discussed under the topic of fairytales, some folklorist prefer to consider folklore more in association with fairytale and less with myth, while others would consider folklore to be a type of literary twin to the myth.  The connection between myth and folklore is explained most aptly by Andrew Lang:

The science of Folklore, if we may call it a science finds everywhere, close to the surface of civilized life, the remains of ideas as old as the stone elf-shots, older than the celt of bronze. In proverbs and riddles, and nursery tales and superstitions, we detect the relics of a stage of thought, which is dying out in Europe, but which still exist in many parts of the world. (Lang 12)

He strongly believes that “mythology cannot fruitfully be studied apart from folklore” (Lang 12).  Folklore and myth are part of the development of the culture and the language.   Lang takes the thoughts and theories of the anthropologist and applies that science to not only better understand the cultures that produced the myths and folklore but to better understand the language and the lore.  Instead of looking solely at languages within the same family group, Lang looks at myths that are similar cross culture and language groups. It is his hypothesis that myths provide an avenue to explain certain phenomena and that early development of mankind viewed the world in the same way (Lang 25).

Lang’s hypothesis concerning folklore and myth are similar to Jack Zipes; however, where Zipes concludes that folklores are the oldest forms that create fairytales, Lang finds the myths that the folklores came from. Lang asserts that the names and concepts of a myth are “‘stubborn things,’ and that, as the whole narrative has probably arisen from forgetfulness of the meaning of language, the secret of a myth must be sought in analysis of the proper names of the persons” (Lang 67).  In other words, the names of the characters or rather the meaning in the names and the structure of the story is the driving force to what keeps a story going through generation and culture.

To prove his theories, Lang looks at stories or myths from all over the world that have similar structures: “the mythic prohibition is always broken: the hidden face is beheld; light is brought into the darkness; the forbidden name is uttered; the bride is touched with the tabooed metal, iron, and the union is ended.” (Lang 64).  Lang explains, from looking at all of these different tales that there is a theme of revelation—that is to say that by performing the taboo, light is brought into the mystery of the other sex or of the marriage customs of the people group that the story comes from (76).

Lang’s theories coincide with other theories about myth and its relationship to folklore.  Kirk in, Myth its Meaning and Function, discuss all of the major theories and philosophies concerning myth.  Part of his argument is intended to refute those who think myth is merely a folklore.  Kirk uses the several classical traditions to prove his point:

Any traditional tale is likely to present some kind of mixture of actuality and fantasy; even a ‘sacred’ myth in Hesiod’s Theogony, about the birth and development of a god, will contain some elements drawn from life; but it is still legitimate and useful to distinguish between elements and tales that are primarily actual and those that are primarily fantastic. (Kirk 33)

Kirk argues that myth at least the myth that is seen in the Homeric tradition is myth not because of Homer but because of Aeschylus; “it has become myth by a secondary process of development, acquiring in the course of tradition those over tones of fantasy that many other myths possess from the beginning, by virtue of their subject themselves or of the essential involvement of supernatural powers” (34).   Thus, legend and myth are not always two separate things nor are they easily separated.  However, there is a distinction that critics need to be aware of when they are classifying myth and folklore.

Kirk is more than aware that there is a great many who disagreement among the critics as he precedes to analysis several of the critics.  Ruth Benedict writes that myth and folktales can only be “distinguished” because myths are tales about the supernatural.   This is a common assumption (Kirk 35).  Kirk brings up E. W. Count’s argument that the separation of myth from the folklore that the nineteenth century was so keen on is “a piece of intellectual snobbery that according to Count has greatly complicated the assessment of myth today” (Kirk 37).  However, Kirk does not believe that even if this is true that a distinction between the two should not exist.

Kirk defines folklore as “traditional tales, of no firmly established form, in which supernatural elements are subsidiary; they are not primarily concerned with ‘serious’ subjects or the reflection of deep problems and preoccupations; and their first appeal lies in their narrative interest” (37).  Kirk makes it clear that he is not assuming that folktales are “somehow upgraded into myths by the discovery of some serious or fantastic quality” (40).  Though myths tend to contain elements of folklore motifs—“minimal episodic elements like the solving of a riddle, or the wearing of something that ensures invisibility, or even narrative devices like the performance of a similar action several times over in an ascending climax”—, the motifs are part of a progression of events (40).  Myths contain elements of the folklore but folklore do not contain the elements of a myth:

Myths often have some serious underlying purpose beyond that of telling a story. Folktales, on the other hand, tend to reflect simple social situations; they play on ordinary fears and desires as well as on men’s appreciation of neat and ingenious solutions; and they introduce fantastic subjects more to side the range of adventure and acumen than through any imaginative or introspective urge. (Kirk 41)

In other words the folklore like the fairytale deals primarily with the mundane, with only the heroes on a natural and human level.  Folklore has a nameless and common feel to it.  The story could take place anywhere at any time.  Whereas, a myth has supernatural characters that deal with the divine and the locations and the people are very specific (Vickery 25). Like Kirk, Vickery argues that “[a] myth is part of a creed; it is believed by the narrator. The folktale is purely fiction, and not intended to be anything else.  According to the method of interpretation which is not (luckily) extinct, a myth  always deals with natural phenomena, while according to another view which had advocates among the anthropologists of the previous generation and also has many influential representatives today, a myth is always connected with a ritual” (Vickery 25).

I hope that this clarifies the muddy waters at the oasis in the desert of literary criticism.  But if you don’t want to got lost in this arid land, I suggest that you just read the really good myths–Iliad, Till We Have Faces, Antigone, Oedipus, Beowulf, The Orestiea, The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost–and just enjoy them.  You don’t need the critics to tell you their good. Happy reading…