Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.” I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”
Rudolf Bultmann is no longer “hot” in biblical criticism, but his disciples continue to wreak their havoc on faith, not to mention common sense. He thought we could no longer believe the New Testament because it was mythological, and that we had to “demythologize” it in order to find what was true there. Never mind that anything that did not fit with Modernism, Rationalism, and Scientism was automatically dismissed as “mythology,” nor that when you removed the supernatural there was very little left. Well, the joke is on the Bultmanniacs. Did they really understand even mythology any better than they did the New Testament?
A Parable for Demythologizers
To Rudolf Bultmann
“We come with rusty hatchets to chop down
Old Yggdrasil, the mightiest of trees;
We come with buckets full of air to drown
Old Triton, ruler of the seven seas.
For we are Modern Men, the heirs of Time,
And won’t be ruled by anything that’s gone
Before. So if we think it more sublime
To exorcise Aurora from the dawn,
Then who is there who dares to say us nay?”
And so the desert wind swept through their minds
And found no obstacle placed in its way
To stop the stinging dust, the sand that blinds.
Blistered, parched, and withered, one by one
They fell beneath the branches of the Tree,
Succumbing to the unrelenting Sun
In cool, green shade beside the roaring Sea.
Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.
Donald T. Williams, PhD
This post was previously published in June 2013. It was Part 3 in a series of posts on my journey through the Harry Potter series and the lessons the books have taught me.
Good morning, class
I have always enjoyed Rowling’s expansive world. She pulls from various myths, legends, and folktales to create her magical society. I have been thinking about the numerous authors that I have read after Harry Potter jump-started my affinity for reading children’s literature, and three authors stand out as writers who have had a personal impact on my own imagination. Basically, they have taught me everything I know….
I read The Chronicles of Pyrdain at the suggestion of a friend. I completed the first book during February 2011 but was not able to continue the series until the following summer. I was not immediately hooked in the stories like I was Harry Potter, but Alexander is a craftsman of detail and diction, and his enchanting storytelling kept me wanting to continue the story of Taran and his companions. My favorite book of the series is The Black Cauldron, mainly because of its exploration of the conflict between personal glory and self-sacrifice. But what really enchanted me about Alexander is his use of Welsh mythology. From his books, I learned not to fear myth as inspiration, and I began to see the influence of myth on well-received authors like Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling.
I read A Wrinkle in Time in April 2011. I think this book ranks as one of my all-time favorites, and I definitely will be writing more about this book in the future. L’Engle has a different approach to storytelling, as her language seems more accessible to children than Alexander. However, I loved how she combined fantasy, science, religion, and social issues into one mesmerizing story about a young girl who learns to love even if she is not loved back. As I read further works from L’Engle, I began to notice that she uses science frequently in her stories. One might say that science is a “mythology” to L’Engle, and she adapts various theories and statistics to move and shape her worlds.
I think I’m stumbling onto a theme here….
A conservative children’s literature teacher told me to read The Graveyard Book and see if I would hate it as much as she did. This teacher disliked anything fun (Rowling Gaiman) and stuck to “safe” books like Lewis, L’Engle, and Alexander. Well, reading the book had the opposite effect. It freaked me out a bit (definitely not a book for little eyes), but I could not stop thinking about the story, the characters, and the genius of Gaiman. Really, if you want some good storytelling, pick up an audio recording of Gaiman’s books (make sure it’s read by the author himself) and witness the wonder of his craft. When doing research for a presentation on Gaiman, I found this video about his thoughts on creating the book. It all began with him watching his two-year-old son ride his tricycle around a graveyard. He then began to think of a story with a similar structure to Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and he developed probably one of the most imaginative (and ghoulish) worlds I have ever read. However, Gaiman said he borrowed heavily from Norse, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman mythology to create his universe. He said, however, you have to own the myth–make it yours.
So, what did I learn from my favorite authors? First, for many of them, it all began with a picture: for Lewis, a faun carrying parcels and an umbrella through the snow; for Gaiman, watching his son play in a graveyard; for Rowling, a be-speckled boy appeared to her in a metro. Second, almost all of them use myth, or life experience, or observations of their world. Essentially, by taking myth and making it their own, they can create dazzling worlds to fix the characters and action. Thus, the stress of creating something original is gone. Just tell a story, even if it has been told before–only strive to improve it. If anything, you will at least see the mythology you have adopted mold and shape into something unique–something that is yours.
I do not mean to plagiarize the title of Neil Gaiman’s wonderfully cerebral novel, but I think the last posts in this series on the American myth aptly deserves this title. As I discussed several weeks ago, Walt Disney established our American mythology through America’s central medium–film. His legacy has given us some of our first heroes, and we see many children carting around a figurine of or dressing up as their favorite Disney hero or heroine. Even Westerns and science fiction have given rise to American heroes, especially characters from television programs such as The Lone Ranger, Bonanza, The Wild, Wild West, and Star Trek.
However, many of these heroes are mere mortals; their power does not ascend to the status of god. Mythology, by definition, is a divine narrative examining the tales of gods and men. The gods of any culture are in fact the embodiment of the values of that society in human form. For instance, Greek gods represent the values of Greek culture, and their appearance and demeanor changed in Roman culture to reflect Roman values. America values progression and independence, and its stories certainly encapsulate these values–at least in their heroes. But what about “gods”?
Without a doubt, America has an obsession with superheroes–almost to the point that audiences have criticized Hollywood shameless attempt to adapt, remake, reboot, mangle, bedraggle every single comic book or graphic novel story. Despite this aggravating affinity to reboot any film created within the last decade, these films, good or bad, do tell the stories of our American gods: the noble superhero.
Two recent (and successfully created) film franchises accurately demonstrate the god-status of superheroes. First, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy demonstrates a darker version of America’s gods. DC Comics focus on the mythology and “magic” of each superhero, and Batman, interestingly, is one of the few DC heroes to not have a congenital superpower (except probably unimaginable wealth and way too much time). Yet, the Dark Knight ascends to the level of god by becoming the embodiment of justice in Gotham City. In Nolan’s vision, Batman definitely has a darker side to him. He, like the gods of Greek and Roman myth, has a human side to his divinity, and he shows weakness and hesitation in each film. The villains in each film represent a certain vice that Batman must overcome to truly become a god. At the end of the series, Gotham erects a monument to their greatest hero–and their “divine” deliverer.
Joss Whedon’s The Avengers and the films associated with the film also tell the stories of America’s gods. Marvel heroes, as opposed to DC heroes, are actually human that ascend to god-status through science, not through some innate ability. Further, while DC has a more familiar history in America, Marvel truly embodies modern America’s paradigm of progression and advancement and shift away from religion in favor of science. In Marvel stories, science is the god, and the superheroes have tapped into its power, becoming gods themselves. The Avengers movies demonstrate this focus, but the main success of the films–and of The Dark Knight trilogy for that matter–is the storytelling. The Avengers was an action-packed film but told a good story of several people pulling together to achieve a common goal: the protection of their way of life, another paradigm of American culture.
America, as I have said before, has a mythology. It does not appear in a sacred text, nor is it retold by the fireside before bedtime. Instead, America views its mythology through film and television. While some may decry the rise of virtual interaction at the expense of literacy, stories are not confined to a textual medium. Stories began as an oral tradition and have evolved over time and through various cultures. Our culture sees film as its medium and therefore has adapted its stories to fit this capacity. American mythology and stories live on–you may have to pay $10 to go see it.
“A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….” I remember seeing the 1997 restored version of Star Wars in elementary school with my father and reading those lines for the first time. I think every day for recess we pretended to be Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo zooming across space and and battling the evil Darth Vader and the dictatorial Empire.
As an adult, Star Wars has become less important in my life, but I see its impact in our culture, especially to our American mythology. In fact, Star Wars and science fiction films have almost become quintessential American myth tales, though they America did not originate the science fiction story or film. Again, we can thank Europe for that. Tales by H. G. Wells and Jules Verne remain some of the best science fiction literature to date, and Germany’s Metropolis practically is science fiction’s capstone film.
But these films, like Westerns, seem to fit well with our paradigm of expansion, progression, and independence. While Westerns look to the wild west to fulfill these values, science fiction looks to the stars. Indeed, Luke Skywalker embodies any typical young American: an average Joe who leaves his home to fulfill his destiny to become something greater. Interestingly, the story practically begins in the desert with our young hero encountering two rustic droids, a old wizard, and a space cowboy with a furry friend. They enter the cold, metallic belly of a vast space station (which represents technology and innovation put to evil purposes) to rescue a beautiful, yet fiercely capable princess, who provides female audience members a role model of aptitude and independence. The underdog rebels then turn and destroy the the same spaceship, a symbol of oppression and tyranny. Sounds like our own Revolution to some degree, right?
Thus, as Disney and Westerns have incorporated so well, Star Wars and many science fiction films capture the American ideal and contribute its mythology. Recent success in science fiction films is evidence of this. Avatar is the most successful film to date and the newest Star Trek films have shown that science fiction films can be stylish, yet thought-provoking storytelling. And do it need to go into detail about the moral and cerebral depth of films like Blade Runner, Brazil, E. T., Aliens, The Matrix, and Inception? Although Disney may have established the American myth and the Western may be the nation’s mythic original, science fiction films would probably remain America’s most beloved and well-received myth.