Myth and literature

Myth and literature

The relationship between the fields of literature and myth is one of mutual dependence, even though one cannot be reduced to the other. Myth cannot exist without literature and literature cannot exist without myth, neither of the two can exist on its own. Myth forms the basis of literature and remains an integral element of the different types of literature one comes across.

Myth is the actual and primal repository of multifaceted stories for the fictional world-making of literature and helps expand simple plots into ‘super-plots’ that leave audiences entranced in the works of literature. The understanding of myth on the part of the author helps the writer to modify their work from the simple and blasé to the level where the work is considered a classic.

What the literary author knows about myth is in actual terms the element that helps the writer to rewrite the story of the world in that salient phase in the process of creative reception before the penning of the word. The tales one heard around the fire in the early years of living is the actual source of the narrative strategies from which literature evolves.

From Aristotle’s Poetics, it is indicated the terms mythos (“word”), or, myth epitomises the very origin of literature, which is rooted in oral tradition and the performance of literary texts as is seen in the recital of folktales around the fire. The literary writer heard the folktale, which is a type of myth, before maturing and writing for the audience.

Northrop Frye conceives myth as “a structural organising principle of literary form” that forms the basis for the invented, or traditional story recounted in the work of literature the audience comes across in the study or the reading of literature. According to S. Baumbach, myth in simple terms is that story “which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, or a natural phenomenon”.

The analysis on the origins of mythological narratives in antiquity helps the literary author to gain the focus needed in the penning of stories. Myths can in a way be considered as the original literatures of a given society or people as they have been transmitted and received by the current generation.

The forms of literature in mythology have from time immemorial served as the foundation for modern literature-making. This means that such literature ends up providing the mythological archive for characters and themes found in literature and art. In the investigation of the connection between literature and myth, “literature” should be understood as the texts that have been entered into writing or printing.

This differentiation between literature and myth, which first emerges from story-telling rooted in oral tradition, reveals that myth is dependent on its translation into other media, primarily art and literature. These fields serve to preserve and perpetuate myth’s imagery as well as to reveal the “knowledge” contained in its various tales and accounts that are retrievable in different cultural spheres across the world.

The understanding of mythological elements that appear in literature and art requires that they are rewritten into literary forms where they can be read and interpreted. In this manner, literature emerges as the supreme instrument for the transportation of mythical stories. Literature thus constitutes the understanding of, and is also core in the communication of myth for the ordinary people and the scholar.

Even though establishing the difference between literature and myth is not problematic when one considers the fact that myth cannot exist outside literature and that literature does not collapse in myth, the scholar should be wary that he or she does not conflate the two schools. By merging them, the scholar risks misunderstanding their different connection points to “knowledge” and the role they play in its acquisition.

It is very significant for one as a scholar to make a close analysis of the reality of “knowledge of literature”, which relies upon, and yet cannot be reduced to the “knowledge of myth”. The triangular relationship between literature, myth, and “knowledge” needs one to consider the function of myth in the dissemination of knowledge in literature, and vice-versa. This is because mythological elements are retrieved both as evidence of the knowledge of literature and as a device for reflecting on this adapted knowledge.

The extent to which the employment of mythological elements are used supports the dissemination of knowledge in literature and also determines the ways the knowledge of literature can be attained. One’s awareness of its significance as a medium for the communication of knowledge is critical when it comes to the self-reflective or educative function as well as establishing its own “thinking” that is affected by integrating the knowledge of myth into the literary sphere. The death of the mythical figure whose life ends in death, incorporates the tension between the climax and the anticlimax.

Between the beginning and the closure of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Macbeth the myth of seeing and believing serves to drive the plots, the core to the plots is situated at the crossroads found in the behaviour of the characters. This relationship between the mythical supernatural and the mundane human nature is the measure of the limits and potentialities of both myth and literature and the role they play in the dissemination of knowledge.

The death of a character in a literary work weaves this tension of origin and death into a mythological narrative, which on the textual as well as on the metatextual level raises a monument to the memory of myth while re-membering and restoring its silent power of fascination in a poetic framing (such as for example Mark Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, Lend me yours ears” that has in essence become the template for modern political speeches).

Poetic fascination and the production of knowledge as we come to understand them have their source in the interrelation between myth and literature. The knowledge we have of the world is generated and communicated in the relationship between literature and myth.
Sybille Baumbach states, “The “knowledge” of literature and myth and the idea that literature might harbour its own mode of knowledge reaches back into antiquity where the knowledge of literature was not always seen as being desirable or particularly beneficial as it is famously expressed by Plato’s expulsion of poets from the city in his Republic.”

The question remains: what kind of knowledge does literature afford to the individuals that form its audience? Contrasted with “opinion” or “belief”, “knowledge” constitutes information that can ultimately be classified into clear categories.
The question of the division between “knowledge” and “belief” however poses a problem since it is ultimately bound to the individual’s sense of certainty rather than deriving from any kind of objective “knowledge”.

While knowledge can be defined as founded by the individual understanding across different modes of thinking and acting, it is quite hard to pin down an exact definition because knowledge is never static but is always in progress.
Knowledge is ever progressing over time, and its scope metamorphoses to integrate the latest findings in the studies of culture, history, philosophy, and the sciences that form part of continuous academic or independent research. Through engaging in fictional world-making, literature absorbs knowledge that is generated outside the literary realm and appropriates this knowledge in a dynamic process of negotiation and exchange.

Literature is not limited only to the oral and the artistic, it borrows from almost every field in existence in the creation of its fiction, biographies, thrillers and other modes of literary writing. It is ever changing; it has to, otherwise it would fall by the wayside and be part of irrelevant knowledge for knowledge demands that one should always be up to date at all times.

According to Baumbach, “the knowledge transmitted by literature can be classified into different categories, these include: 1. specific or sectoral knowledge, which is bound to a particular field of knowledge and comprises expert knowledge, which can be declarative or procedural, 2. strategic knowledge, which serves as an heuristic tool focussing on processes that are not restricted to a specific area of knowledge and which reveal strategies of how to close a specific gap in one’s own system of knowledge as well as ways to infer, structure, and add new knowledge to one’s intellectual reservoir, and finally 3. meta-cognitive knowledge, which serves to critically reflect upon both the sources of knowledge and man’s capability of epistemological reasoning.”

Her statement is further supported by Michael Wood who remarks that literature comes into being wherever words have savour and serve the role of expanding the etymological connection between knowledge (savoir) and savour (saveur), in short, literature can only give us “a taste of knowledge […] a sample, rather than an elaborate or plentiful meal. We are going to have to go elsewhere for the continuous main course”.

The need to know factor in literature is particularly triggered when it comes to the exploration of some of the glaring gaps in knowledge.
What is little understood is often integrated into literary narratives to promote, in a Socratic manner, the interaction of text and audience by activating the elements of experience and memory in the reader’s collective and private knowledge reservoir. Baumbach further states, “It is within the indeterminable space of literature’s archive that cultural knowledge, which is informed by science, religion, aesthetics, literature, and myth, is not only stored and made retrievable for future generations but it is restored, re-contextualised, and revived either to affirm and contribute to existent systems of knowledge or to establish a subversive counter-discourse, which emphasizes the shifting relations and blind spots of powers in ongoing discourses of knowledge.”

The reality in scholarship when it comes to knowledge and its acquisition is that information does not only have to be verified by critical revision in order to be regarded as “truth”. Information has to be proven and verified for it to be regarded it as “knowledge”, and literature plays a seminal role in the communication of knowledge while revealing a certain awareness of its unbiased nature; a central position that gives it the capacity for absorbing ideas and meaning that can be translated: giving the searcher for knowledge the ability to reflect upon its literariness or its fictitiousness.

Literature in this manner therefore does not only communicate but also generates knowledge through meanings and interpretations when certain strategies of reading are applied. Literature introduces its readers to the art of knowledge acquisition by involving them in the process of restoring knowledge by creating written stimuli integrated into the text.
Through names, events, dates, or allusions to discoveries or findings that activate their reasoning, literature evokes a sense of awareness found in its varied texts. The structures of these literary texts usually drawn from the design of mythical stories are effective tools that contribute to the collective role literature plays in fostering the promotion of knowledge.

The explanatory nature of myth, its imagery, its role as a tool of entertainment, its universality, and role as a tool for the transmission of oral tradition and folklore plays the central part in the generation and communication of knowledge in literature. For literature, myth is the axis of its role as a tool of knowledge acquisition. Myth usually refers to the origins of narratives (“Ba re e n’e re-It was said…” as is the usual norm in Lesotho myth recounting or folktale telling) and provides the structural devices for communicating information, in the process giving the basis for literature (Think how the myth of Sankatana or Chaka have come to influence current trends in literary writing in the mini-African renaissance movements on the continent and the world).

As Johann Gottfried Herder argues, myths in a sense represent a field of possibility to self-acquire knowledge for the individual by presenting insights into the blind spots in current knowledge. The understanding of literary truths, whether scientific or philosophical, is determined both by their concreteness and immediate evidence on offer. Scholars such as Plato tapped the full potential of myth and invented mythological narratives in order to convey philosophical, ethical, or geographical knowledge as it is in his story of Atlantis the mythical city that is said to have been buried under the sea, in a sense giving one the notion of a lost civilisation that disappeared with the most comprehensive libraries ever seen.

This imaginary world presented in the real literature of the period ignited the spark to know in the audiences gathered, it still is fascinating even it the present era and forms part of the media despite its age. The synthetic power of mythopoetic spaces has retained the unifying effect until the present day and it offers an explanation for the persistence of myth in secularised and enlightened society.

The birth of the comic hero marked the beginning of the long-held but hidden relationship between myth and literature. The now apparent union has pushed notions of the supernatural and the spiritual to the margins because the figures are now seen in every form of literary representation and have somehow become common.
The reader of myth experiences a sense of shared identity with the figures he or she reads about or sees in the literature. In a sense, the mythical figures have become transmitters and translators of knowledge in written literature. Literature and myth are therefore also tools that not only promote the revival of ancient thought and culture but also the ethos of the human race.

Tšepiso S. Mothibi

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