Making new core myths

I’ve been re-reading Sean Kane’s superb book, The Wisdom of the Mythtellers, prior to a performance this coming weekend at the Carrying the Fire festival in Biggar with Alastair McIntosh.

Kane is an expert in oral traditions and philosophy, as well as being the nephew of acclaimed Irish-Canadian storyteller Alice Kane. One of the subjects he discusses in the book is the issue of where core myths come from, how they change and develop, and how new core myths are formed. As those of you who’ve read the early posts in this blog will know, I’m always concerned when I hear groups and individuals call for ‘new stories for our changing world’ etc etc that these calls don’t take into account (and often seem completely oblivious to) the rich store of knowledge that’s been collected and interpreted by ‘practising academics’ (academic/storytellers) like Kane and the redoubtable Robert Bringhurst, who have studied the development of myth and story in many different cultures for many decades now (Bringhurst specialising, of course, in translating and disseminating the poetry and myths of the Haida people). There’s a large body of evidence relating to the issue of how stories work. Kane makes it clear that not just any old story is going to hack it:

‘A new story [may be] released into the social repertoire … But the release cannot be sudden … The story has to be told and retold until it passes the test of narrative art, and then the further test of the society’s repertoire of acceptable mythological experience. The story has to conform to the patterns of narrative pleasure and the patterns of being in a society. Only then is the society ready to move mythically in the direction indicated by the story. Even then, the society shifts its overall mythological memory subtly, not in a way that disrupts its hierarchy of narrative experience.’

Often, the fact that there is even such a thing as ‘narrative art’ is ignored; often it’s assumed that creating a culture’s ‘myths to live by’ is really no different from sitting down and writing a short story. But, as Alan Garner reminds us:

‘The difference between legend and modern storytelling [he’s talking about writing fiction in the latter case] is that the modern story is a conscious fiction, whereas the legend … was, in its origins, an attempt to explain a reality.’

Stories are some of the basic constituents of the world – at least, of the way we perceive the world and our place in it. They deserve to be treated with respect. In future on this blog I’ll be focusing on the work some other modern mythtellers who have studied this very special form of ‘narrative art’, and who are working to revitalise our own lost myths.


2 thoughts on “Making new core myths

  1. I don’t see that “modern story telling” aka “writing fiction” is NOT an attempt to explain reality. Since there are thousands of writing “fiction” all for different reasons but I would have to think that a lot of them are trying to do just that.

    And what of modern fiction writers who reimagine a legend – that certainly happens all the time ala “East of Eden”

    Maybe it is the narrative storytellers who “don’t get no respect” and Mr. Garner is simply trying to balance things out, but I don’t think it is good scholarship to lump “modern fiction” into one big pile of something else.

    Oh how we love our dichotomies!

    Love your blog btw.


    1. Of course (and as a novelist …) I have to agree! My fault for taking the Garner quote out of context. (And always a danger when you try to cover a complicated issue in a brief blog!) As a novelist himself, and as one who reimagined legends for a living, he certainly wasn’t trying to trivialise or in any way denigrate the art of fiction. Just I think to make a distinction between constructing a novel or short story and the organic way in which core myths – as explanations of how a world comes to be – develop over time as part of the cultural lifeblood of a civilisation.


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