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The Problem of Mythology as Explanation

I'm reviewing some juvenile nonfiction books for School Library Journal about Greek mythology. (Tangent: I love the editors at SLJ for sending me all this myth stuff, martial arts in picture books, and graphic novels. They are awesomely attuned to my interests!) The problem with these books is one that often comes up in mythology books for young readers: they introduce mythology as an "explanation" for natural events and occurrences.

Books for young readers aren't alone in this, I'm aware. Encyclopedia Britannica has at the beginning of their article on the function of mythology, "The most obvious function of myths is the explanation of facts, whether natural or cultural." Bernard Doyle, writing for the Encyclopedia Mythica over at Pantheon.org, had this to say: "Broadly speaking myths and mythologies seek to rationalize and explain the universe and all that is in it."

As I believe Owen Barfield said (in paraphrase), "Is there anyone so out dated that they are still teaching myth as stories made up by some fellow to explain how the world works?" (kazaraxa and plura can correct me on that if I'm attributing that paraphrase to the wrong philosopher.) The problem with teaching myth as explanation is that this is exactly how it sounds: there's no meaning behind the myths. Some clever storyteller or priest obviously just made them up to give a rational explanation to his peers, who bought all of it wholesale. While myth may not be the best place to use Ockham's Razor, it's hard for me to buy into the "someone just made it up" theory, given the widespread belief myths were treated to inside of their given religious systems. (As we already noted, myth = religion, according to Mr. Dewey.)

What are the alternatives? Barfield has a few (that I'm afraid I can't cleverly sum up in the space of a short blog entry). But it's Tolkien who I always return to here. C. S. Lewis confronted Tolkien with the definition that "myths are lies, though lies breathed through silver." Tolkien objected to this immediately, saying (as paraphrased by Patrick W. Curles) "There are truths ... that are beyond us, transcendent truths, about beauty, truth, honor, etc. There are truths that man knows exist, but they cannot be seen - they are immaterial, but no less real, to us. It is only through the language of myth that we can speak of these truths."

There is a difference between meaning and explanation. Getting that across in a book for young readers is a challenge, so I will try in my review not to hold their understanding of myth, which I view as flawed, against the books that put them forward. I'd love, however, to see some books come out for young readers that actually deal with meaning and myth, that introduce them to the wonder without saying, "But of course, all of that's nonsense."

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Comments

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
slwhitman
Sep. 18th, 2007 11:35 pm (UTC)
No time to respond, except to say that I completely agree. I think there's a lot more to myth than that someone just made it up.
alanajoli
Sep. 20th, 2007 03:01 am (UTC)
Should you have time to elaborate on that later, I'd love to hear it. ;)
(Deleted comment)
alanajoli
Sep. 20th, 2007 03:02 am (UTC)
Given the religion correlation that Dewey gives mythology, I've been giggling at the idea of how much people would be offended if all of the rest of the 200s were, on the whole, considered "explanations that someone made up." Not that Richard Dawkins isn't doing his darndest to espouse just that.
sartorias
Sep. 19th, 2007 01:43 am (UTC)
mmm that was lovely. Thank you.
alanajoli
Sep. 20th, 2007 03:04 am (UTC)
Quite welcome. Least I can do. ;)

Oh, had a lovely conversation with one of your editors (Sharyn November) on Sunday! I approached her afterwards to talk specifically about the Wren books and Crown Duel, and we had a lovely chat.
alanajoli
Sep. 20th, 2007 03:04 am (UTC)
I have officially overused the word lovely. My apologies. Please feel free to replace it with synonyms in the above post.
sartorias
Sep. 20th, 2007 03:10 am (UTC)
Oh dear.
nelilly
Sep. 19th, 2007 01:49 am (UTC)
I've been wrestling with something in a similar vein myself.

Posit an alien species that could not lie. What would their art be like? Would they have painting? Theater? Myth?
alanajoli
Sep. 20th, 2007 03:06 am (UTC)
It depends on whether metaphors are lies, and whether they view the world via their senses/rationally or via something akin to a dream state/mythical mind frame.

Have you read Do Kamo? It might fascinate you for just this reason. It's about myth in the Melanesian world, and I suspect that they wouldn't even have a word in their language for "lie," because the way they experience the world is so vastly outside of that concept. But I'll have to reread to make sure that's an accurate assessment.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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