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Your Theme, Mytheme
|Your Theme, Mytheme|
|Random Thoughts on Writing|
|Written by Terri Bruce|
|Monday, 23 April 2012 18:31|
In college, as a lark, my husband and I started compiling a list of all the people, places and things that appeared in various stories about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (because we're nerds, that's why). That list became The Arthurian Name Dictionary , and in the process of writing that book, I learned a great deal about the secret lives of myths.
Myths generally have a basis somewhere, in some fact or historical event or teaching tale-the story of Noah's Ark may be based on a real geological event; the stories of King Arthur may be based on a real Celtic chieftain. Over time, cultures meet, intersect, interact, and merge, and in the process, myths travel. A fascinating way to study anthropology is to follow the journey of a particular myth from culture to culture.
A mytheme is the nugget of truth at the center of a myth-in the King Arthur stories, Arthur himself is the mytheme. He is ever present and always king. As the story travels, the mytheme remains, but is embellished. By studying the changes and embellishments over time, we can get a good sense of the geo-political lay of the land at any given time period-the patterns of settlement and development, trade and commerce, allies and enemies, and even the spread of news and ideas.
Each culture that encountered the Arthurian myth wanted to be part of it, and they each invented a knight to add to the pantheon and by following these additions, we can tell who was influencing who in the world. Lancelot was invented by Chretien de Troyes in the 12th Century. Any story after that which featured Lancelot was copied or adapted from this original source (and by extension, we can know that that culture was in communication with the French, either through trade, exploration, or incursion). Stories coming out after this point in which Lancelot is absent means that they were not copied from the French version and came to that country via some other route.
This glimpse into the fascinating, secret lives of myths enthralled me and I've been hooked ever since. I believe mythemes represent a kind of natural selection in our search for the essence of human nature, that the consistent, unchanging part of any widespread myth tells us something about what we, as humans, believe to be true about ourselves. It is irrelevant to me whether or not King Arthur was a real man; what is important is the undying belief that a just man, who believes in noble principles and self-sacrifice for the good of his people is the embodiment of our ideal. The fact that this archetype found its way into hundreds of cultures and persisted for more than a thousand years says a great deal about humanity, and it is here, in these stories, that we find our truth. As such, they make excellent fodder for fiction. From novelized accounts of the lives of bible figures of whom we can never know anything (such as Adam and Eve or Cain and Abel) to the deep and abiding literary history of mythical folk creatures like elves and fairies, to the massive mythology that has been created around vampires and werewolves, authors have long found inspiration in the treasure halls of mythemes as we search for that hidden kernel of truth at the center of any myth. Certainly, mythemes quite often play a central focus in my writing--in SAY IT THREE TIMES I explored various aspects of the mythical "power of three;" in HEREAFTER, I focus on afterlife mythology. For me, when I discover a myth shared by many cultures I always wonder: is this story so widespread simply because it a popular tale, copied by many cultures as it spread, or because it was based on some true event? It makes me wonder.
What do you think? What are some enduring myths that fascinate you and do you think they are rooted in some real or "true" event?
written by Vonnie , April 24, 2012
I, too, use mythemes in my writing (& art). I think Arthur, Merlin, Joan of Arc, Buffalo Woman, etc. represent archetypes whose stories tell us something about humanity. When we follow their journeys, we see ourselves & the people we know, dealing with the challenges, heartaches & joys of life. (If they were a "real" person isn't important). I believe the common threads that run through the myths & legends of diverse cultures are the attempt of humans to understand their place in the universe. I think we all know an innocent, orphan, traveler, warrior, shaman, & destroyer -- and we all look for the "far shores" where the struggles of this life are (hopefully) over.