My Latest Take on Mythology and the Novel
by William Doty, Ph. D.,
Professor and Chair Emeritus, College of Arts and Sciences
University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa
My initial academic degree was in comparative literature, and that discipline gave me a life-long interest
in literary studies, hermeneutics (interpretation principles and theory), criticism, semiotics (the ways words, signs, and
symbols carry meanings), and the ways certain themes or archetypes are repeated across the arts and literature of various
cultures. There are several well-knit compendia that track mythological materials in the arts (see Brunel, Feder, Reid, and
Winkler; in my Myth: A Handbook 140-48 I survey some of these, and give specific examples for Achilles, Adonis,
Hermes, and Medea). But recently I have been working pop culture veins usually considered too low-brow to be included
in these reference works. I look here at a few novels I have read lately.
We might start with fairly arch transference of mythical figures into fantasy ones in the novels of
Jody Lynn Nye or
Robert Lynn Asprin.
The Elf Master as a college professor seems even more foolish to me than the real variety — with whom
I have some four decades of experience — but certainly there must be a fairly good market for these products, or they
wouldn't be published.
Then there is Neil Gaiman, the highly praised
originator of the revered series Sandman
— described by Norman Mailer as "a comic strip for intellectuals," its author
having been one of the lecturers in the University of Chicago Presidential Fellows in the Arts series. Some of my most serious
students have found these adult comic books to lode deep significances for our culture. An addition to the ten graphic novels in
his Sandman series is The Sandman: Endless Nights, which I am just making my way through: it's an amazing amalgam of noir
(dark, threatening) fiction, stunningly-complex graphics, and along the way hero myths, Sadean eroticism, almost psychotic impressions,
monsters, and catastrophes. In every instance, Gaiman's tales enter new visual levels of intensity thanks to the
illustrators, who have learned from their Japanese forebears as well as dramatic contemporary artists.
Gaiman's American Gods
, at nearly 600 pages, is an impressive book, if totally postmodern: sometimes (cf. 344,
347) the voice and point of view within a section switch with no formal marker from one to another character, and sudden
interludes take readers into entirely different time periods. The novel begins subtly, and it takes a while before the reader
realizes that whole pantheons of mythological figures, from several cultural traditions, are manifesting in escaped convicts (cf.
the film O Brother Where Art Thou?, 2000), shady CIA types, salesmen, the town cop... . A glance through a log
cabin window discloses that three little old ladies are the Norns or Fates (from Teutonic or Greek lore); at one apocalyptic climax,
"A once-famous comedian, believed to have died in the 1920s, climbed out of his rusting car and proceeded to remove his
clothing: his legs were goat legs, and his tail was short and goatish" (488).
And so on, as Legba, Medea (cutely called here Media), Horus and Ibis, Sam Black Crow, Tyr, Odin, and Thor, Auntie Nancie
(here: Mr Nancy) appear, and Lucille Ball speaks directly to the main character, Shadow, from a television set. These are writer's
tricks related to allegory that usually put me off considerably, but Gaiman is an immensely talented writer (originally British) who
carries off the allusions with narrative panache and superb dialogue.
The "main man" or All-Father is anciently-revered Wotan, and the whole plot moves as a "finding the true father" archetype —
but I'll not spoil readers' pleasure by revealing the shtick by which Gaiman brings out this structure in this amazingly complex novel. It
is clearly "speculative fiction," that useful descriptive term that can span the generic distinctions of science fiction and fantasy-magic,
but there are few futuristic elements or the metallica of space operas (such as William Barton's When We Were Real).
I was turned on to Dan Simmons's
Hyperion (a Hugo award winner) and Endymion series (collectively
known as the Hyperion Cantos) several years ago — these are almost metaphysical space stuff — and
have just come across his Ilium and Olympos. By a fluke of the used book trade, I read the account of the
later Homeric epics, Olympos, before Ilium arrived, and I found that in the first volume, the author had taken
care to identify "Dramatis Personae for Ilium," 573-76. These include various non-traditional creations such as the Voynix, "mysterious
bipedal creatures, part servants, part watchdogs, not of Earth," and the collective Moravecs, "autonomous sentient, biomechanical
organisms seeded throughout the outer solar system by humans during the Lost Age" — the Age that followed our own
postmodernist time, from which Observers are drawn up into the future to witness many of the Trojan events so they can
describe them to us as they "really" happened.
Simmons obviously knows his Greek materials backward and forward, and it becomes a game to someone with similar knowledge
to see if they can catch him out cheating, when he seems so obviously to make up new Trojan or Achaian warriors. And my rambling
laughs at the figures of Prospero, Ariel, and Caliban were sustained until I recognized direct citations from Shakespeare's The Tempest,
and Measure for Measure also surface thematically.
The brew is rich and often strongly flavored with the spectacular and incongruous: Here we have Helen of Troy mourning the
loss of her paramour Paris, fallen to Apollon. She goes to open the curtains and sees "three antiaircraft rockets from the Achaean
encampment to the south roar skyward in search of the retreating God-chariot" — which, however, "quantum shifts out of
sight, leaving the morning sky empty" (Olympos 4). The resurrected classicist from our own time, having made fervid love to Helen,
tries valiantly to remember whether or not Paris did have in Iliad a wife named Oeone (a dictionary of classical mythology at one's
side will be a great help).
Some of the classicist Hockenberry's insights are what we've expected all along, such as that "for all his beauty and power,
Achilles is relatively stupid — a sort of infinitely more handsome Arnold Schwarzenegger" (Ilium 10). And we learn that the
gods "freeze time" when they are appearing directly to persons in Homer, so that the addressee alone gets the intended messages (14).
Good old Odysseus is finally located in a museum (157) — some of the information relayed by the "palm function" that has
been somatized and can communicate through time and space: imaginations of just how e-wired human connectivity can be, some
day, perhaps. Aphrodite's mirror shows only the most beautiful aspects of a user, and we slowly catch on that it's one damned
smart laptop (412.)
Perhaps one of the most directly-derived uses of the Homeric materials today, and like Homer, it seems sometimes to go on
forever: but that's to be expected with a combined total of 1266 pages! And like Homer, Simmons does keep one anticipating
each tale that will lead to yet another... .
Asprin, Robert Lynn. 2002a. Hit or Myth. New York: Ace-Penguin Putnam.
- 2002b. Myth-Ing Persons. New York: Ace-Penguin Putnam.
- 2002c. M. Y. T. H. Inc. Link. New York: Ace-Penguin Putnam.
Barton, William. 1999. When We Were Real. New York: Warner-Time Warner.
Brunel, Pierre. ed. 1996. Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes, and Archetypes. Trans. Wendy Allatson, Judith Hayward,
and Trista Selous. New York: Routledge.
Feder, Lillian. 1971. Ancient Myth in Modern Poetry. Princeton: Princeton UP.
Ferrell, William K. 2000. Literature and Film as Modern Mythology. Westport CT: Praeger-Greenwood.
Gaiman, Neil. 2001. American Gods. New York: HarperTorch-HarperCollins.
- 2003. The Sandman: Endless Nights. 2003. New York: DC Comics.
Kossman, Nina. 2001. Gods and Mortals: Modern Poems on Classical Myths. New York: Oxford UP.
Lye, Jody Lynn. 1999. Mythology 101. New York: Popular-Warner.
- 2000. Applied Mythology. Atlanta: Meisha Merlin.
- 2001. Advanced Mythology. Atlanta: Meisha Merlin.
Mackey-Kallis, Susan. 2001. The Hero and the Perennial Journey Home in American Film. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P.
Reid, Jane Davidson. 1993. The Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts, 1300-1990. 2 vols. New York: Oxford UP.
Simmons, Dan. 1989. Hyperion. New York: Bantam-Doubleday.
- 1990. The Fall of Hyperion. New York: Foundation-Doubleday.
- 1995. Endymion. New York: Bantam-Bantam Doubleday Dell.
- 1997. The Rise of Endymion. New York: Bantam-Bantam Doubleday Dell.
- 2003. Ilium. New York: eos-HarperCollins.
- 2005. Olympos. New York: eos-HarperCollins
Voytilla, Stuart. 1999. Myth and the Movies: Discovering the Mythic Structure of 50 Unforgettable Films. Studio City CA: Wiese.
Winkler, Martin M., ed. 2001. Classical Myth and Culture in the Cinema. New York: Oxford UP.
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