Myth and Creativity

I teach a course on the way that myths survive in contemporary literature and film. If you’ve looked at any other pages here you will probably have figured out that i believe that myth actually survives (and never went away) in the very way we live. This doesn’t just mean that heaping up fuel onto the pyres that light our cities at night makes us stupid, light-addicted primates destined for an apocalypse of our own making. It also means we can continuously tap into deep streams of mythic lore and transform the way we live, both collectively and as individuals. This realisation brings to mind Joseph Campbell’s list of the functions that myth performs: it initiates us into a culture, it teaches us a way to live, it creates a worldview and it promotes an experience of life that makes us feel as if we are exactly who we are supposed to be, in exactly the right place and time, just here and now. This experience combines the everyday realities of our lives with the awesomeness of the cosmos.

There are lots of ways to work with myth creatively. The first thing to keep in mind, when considering the possibilities and value of such an exercise, is that all myth, even the greatest and oldest, most powerful and influential stories of all time, were originally composed by someone. They are human cultural constructions, malleable over time or even in one sitting, sometimes written in such authoritative versions that they seem to be unassailable classics, but still – at some point in time the poet or bard or shaman or storyteller gave that tale words or images that became its vehicle across time and space. Myths are not frozen in form or untouchable relics – in fact, for most of human history, they were just the best, most important, most adaptable stories around the campfire. They are the ones that lasted, not because they were set in stone but because they were most flexible. They only survive if they mean something, to real, living people, who engage with them and comment on them and who thereby keep them alive (as Hans Blumenberg pointed out in Work on Myth).

So if we treat myths like this, as stories and images with the deepest but also most adaptable content, reshaped generation after generation by new storytellers with new concerns (and also some very persistent old ones), then we should be able – gasp – to have some fun. There are a few different ways to write with myth creatively and here are some of them:

Retelling old stories with new twists, new characteristics for old personalities, maintaining some kind of balance between tradition and innovation. Examples: in the Canongate/Text Myths series, Margaret Atwood tells the story of Penelope’s wait for Odysseus from her point of view (The Penelopiad). James Joyce also retells the Odyssey as one day in Dublin (Ulysses). Many hero myths tell essentially the same story, to the extent that Campbell and others have formatted a template for the hero’s journey and trials – see The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Star Wars, The Matrix, etc.

Creating new fables around old themes, or building modern stories around persistent archetypes such as the innocent corrupted, the kind stranger, the action hero, the wise old man etc.

Similarly, working any mythic theme, image or pattern into a thoroughly modern story; a myth that explains the origins of something, or a story that promises the regeneration of the world, or explains the existence of evil/wrongdoing etc.

Getting back to the poetic basis of myth, writing epics or just using metre, rhyme and other poetic strategies to turn language to its mythic functions of world renewal and personal/social/cosmic alignment with fate. Many fictions utilise this within their prose; Tolkien often littered his stories with poems, for instance, as do many fantasy and romance authors.

Writing outrageously imaginative fictions of other worlds, or inner worlds, as in science fiction, fantasy, psychedelia or any combination of them…

Writing conventional fiction with allusions to a mythic realm just beneath the surface or beyond the page, which can be introduced with dreams, visions, hallucinations or imaginations entertained by otherwise this-worldly characters.

That’s it for now; again, i will keep updating this page intermittently…



  1. Amen

  2. Developing a stronger understanding for where the core strengths of my story telling relate, I’d like to thank you for this blog Geoff.
    Further, I would like to seek some guidance on where I should aim my reading for what’s rest of the midyear break.
    Perhaps by e-mail?
    Your former student. Thomas.

    • Hey Thomas,
      Good to hear from you. If you want to do some reading outside of what is coming up in your 2nd semester, there’s a million different ways that could go. Did you ever read the Phillip Pullman His Dark Materials trilogy? It combines a love of finding out the truth about things with a distrust of conventional religion and tells the story in a very exciting, adventure-filled way. The shifts between worlds are handled well, as if it is almost like a modern shamanistic journey. Another set of novels that does some really interesting stuff between this world and another is Stephen Donaldson’s Illearth trilogy (which i seem to recall stretched to six, or was it nine in the end?). The protagonist is a leper who is transported into a fantasy world when he suffers a fall in this world and has to deal with the disjunct (no i can’t be a hero, this is a psychological projection, i am a sick man). Just a couple of ideas that jump to mind!
      Cheers, Geoff.

      • Geoff! These sound great. I finished up the Dark Materials trilogy in my teens, and returned to it again with new eyes recently, falling in love with it anew.

        I’ve been thinking of a term – fantastic realism (two extremes I know). In relation to this term, I’ve been considering monsters and how they may come into a far more realistic setting than a keep/knight/forest etc. I suppose the magical realists border on that kind of idea, but I was hoping they weren’t the only ones.

        I remember when I mentioned an idea of a story to you at the end of one of the earlier classes, you named a book that you thought I’d be interested in. I wrote it down, but have since lost the phone I put it into.
        The story I spoke of involved a world with citizens that appear almost completely mindless – 1984esque. The main character, a young boy, one day sees a large monster standing in the middle of a crowd – the crowd ignores him. The boy follows the monster and ends up in a cave with a talking bear that could be described of bipolar and having an eating disorder.
        Does this spring any stories you know of to mind? : )

  3. Hmmm, can’t recall the story i suggested at the moment. I do think of Chocky, by John Wyndham, which tells of a boy who hears a voice from ‘elsewhere,’ who attempts to tutor him towards a better energy source for humanity; not a monster, but a kind of childhood ‘invisible friend’ who turns out to be much more. As for bipolar talking bears… anyone? 🙂

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