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Pól Ó Lorcáin
Paul Larkin

Chroniclers are privileged to enter where they list, to come and go through keyholes, to ride upon the wind, to overcome in their soarings up and down, all obstacles of distance, time and place.
Charles Dickens - Barnaby Rudge, Chapter The Ninth

How understanding ancient myth could save your life

In this week’s never less than excellent Guardian review, there is a thought provoking feature on ancient myth by the English writer AS Byatt. The essay, entitled Ragnarök: the doom of the gods can be read here –

In my view, AS Byatt gets the most fundamental point about myth completely wrong but she does correctly identify the Norse myths as being of central importance in our attempts to understand our most ancient stories. Byatt tells us that she wrote the essay after being invited by Cannongate publishers to write a volume for its ongoing collection of books on human mythology and its origins. The full list of titles and authors can be seen here -

Very early on, she quotes Nietzsche approvingly (from his The Birth of Tragedy) and this is a good pointer for the way she is going in her argument:
"Every culture that has lost myth has lost, by the same token, its natural healthy creativity. Only an horizon ringed about with myths can unify a culture."

This is a good quote as far as it goes. Imagine an Ireland without its Táin Bó Cúailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley) mythology, its ancient wells and fairy rings – these do indeed unify our culture and are inseparable from An Ghaeilge – the Irish language. If we lose these, we lose ourselves and may as well all move to Milton Keynes.

But AS Byatt then dances further down the road with Nietzsche and tells us, equally approvingly, that Nietzsche preferred Sophocles to Euripides because Euripides sought to humanise the actors in our mythical stories. And it is here where the fault line opens in her analysis of myth because Euripides got it right. Our myths are not primarily about explaining our origins, they are about how we can face living in this, frequently scary, dung heap of a world.

Euripides didn’t just tell us part of the Jason myth (the Golden Fleece etc) he told us why Jason's wife Medea killed his and her children. If you want to read a superb rendition of the Medea story, read Scottish poet Robin Robertson's searing translation. Modern myth makers like Cormac McCarthy (The Road, All The Pretty Horses) and Michael Ondaatje (The Skin of A Lion, The English Patient) are involved in the same artistic process of showing us a mirror into ourselves and challenging us to make a choice. To live fully as human beings – the toughest love of all is to love ourselves.

In essence, AS Byatt puts all her golden mythological eggs into one Red Riding Hood basket and tells us the Scandinavians gave us the perfect myth cycle and that Ragnarök (the doom of the Gods) is at its core. These myths, she says, satisfy her because they are “encounters with the inapprehensible”.

She should have read more Tolkien.

The core Scandinavian myth is not in fact Ragnarök but Beowulf (and the related ancient story of Dragon slayer Sigurd) because the key Scandinavian mythical motif is not death and destruction but fortitude in the face of terror and that a man's honour is more important than all wealth. Byatt forgets that Odin amassed warriors for the day of doom who would stand before Armageddon itself and not be found wanting - that is the core message of Ragnarök, the core message of the Beowulf myth and. I would argue, the core value in life.

Tolkien told us about Beowulf and its importance many years ago (in 1936) in an essay called "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" and one of our greatest poets (though perhaps unfortunately one of our least controversial) Seamus Heaney has given us a brilliant Beowulf translation from the Anglo Saxon, which in the copy I have at least, also reissues Tolkien's seminal essay on Beowulf.

What does Tolkien tell us about Beowulf? He tells us that this is an ancient human story, an ancient work of art; primarily a story about a man who faces up to his demons; even in old age he does not hide, does not seek to run away, but girds his trembling heart and faces into the dark again. Most of all he cherishes his reputation as a man. Now we know why the Hobbit is such a perfect myth for our age. Of course Ragnarök is there, but the key character is a simple, insignificant hobbit, without any super powers or magic potions whatsoever, who looked squarely at his demons and lived happily into old age. That is the only way to happiness.

The nightmare comes when, for very understandable human reasons, your courage fails. Then comes Ragnarök. But it is not, or shouldn’t be, the end of the story

The Doom Of The Gods or a hero against the odds.

That is life’s choice.

@ Paul Larkin
Carraic Mhic Eamharcaigh, Gaoth Dobhair
Mí Lunasa 2011
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Title: How understanding ancient myth could save your life
Date posted: 07 Aug '11 - 20:09
Filed under: General
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