Saturday, March 03, 2007

A Short History of Myth - Karen Armstrong

[just an ordinary review; not for any challenge]

Title: A Short History of Myth

Author: Karen Armstrong

Copyright: 2005, Canongate Publishers, New York

Genre: Non-fiction

Pages: 160 pp. (includes 10 pages of footnotes).

Summary: This essay runs approximately 34,000 words long; given the subject matter, that short length would seem to suggest a shallow treatment. But A Short History of Myth is provocative in the best sense. Armstrong draws the reader into thinking about how mythology "works" in communicating the fundamentals of human experience. Myth is supposed to transmit across time the commonality that exists in how we and previous generations experience the forces that shape us and the physical world around us. I'll quote Armstrong here:

A myth was an event which, in some sense, had happened once, but which also happened all the time. Because of our strictly chronological view of history, we have no word for such an occurrence, but mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence...An experience of transcendence...

But the best summation of her book is in this quote:

There is never a single, orthodox version of a myth. As our circumstances change, we need to tell our stories differently in order to bring out their timeless truth. In this short history of mythology, we shall see that every time men and women took a major step forward they reviewed their mythology and made it speak to the new conditions. But we shall also see that human nature does not change much, and that many of these myths, devised in societies that could not be more different than our own, still address our most essential fears and desires.

That paragraph explains why the publishers of the Canongate Myth Series felt that they needed to publish Armstrong's non-fiction volume in advance of the various fictional renditions by modern authors that make up the rest of the series. It provides the platform of thought for the creative work of others such as Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson, etc which are to follow after. It's almost as if the creative works are to be the laboratory in which we work out the proof of Armstrong's theory. Every time we achieve advancement in scientific knowledge or technological expertise, Armstrong shows that human beings seek out a new understanding of the operation of the sacred in our lives. That aspect is *most* important and not to be trifled with or set aside as irrelevant. Armstrong worries that we are doing exactly that in our present day, having never fully mastered the ways available to us for infusing the ordinary with the mystical sense of transcendence.

Also Relevant:

I've read this book, but I'm still digesting it. I'm worried about the larger Anglican Communion these days and, perhaps somewhat fuzzily, I think Armstrong's book in some sense explains why it is so disturbing to me. Peter Akinola is seeking to preserve the myth as it best accords with and infuses his social environment (Nigeria) just as Katherine Jefferts-Schori is trying to do in our environment (the United States). How can those two very different environments share a sustainable sense of the same life-giving story? Because that's the strength of our Christianity; note that Grandmere Mimi has a wonderful story today that exemplifies how we need to be able to span the gap.

Pages Turned read the first three titles in the Canongate series and gives us her views on those titles. JenClair has read one of the books in the series -- Jeannette Winterson's Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles --and offered her thoughts on it. (Update: She also read and reviewed the Atwood title, The Penelopiad. Thanks for letting me know, JenClair!) Based on what they've said and based on browsing in my local Borders, I think the next volume in this series that I will choose will be the David Grossman title, Lion's Honey. It's based on the story of Samson, a story with which I'm quite familiar, and I'll be curious to see how he plays it out. The alternative choice is Victor Pelevin's The Helmet of Horror: The Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur - a labyrinthine story told in an Internet chat room. The various threads of discussion offer the way out...or do they?