Myths, stories prevalent in a particular culture and accepted by that culture as true, fascinate and shape our contemporary consciousness. From vampires to Disney to "American Idol," myths about fame and fantasy and other themes that have been passed down through English literature continue to preoccupy Western culture to this day.
Greek and Roman myths, though not originally published in English, still influenced English literature. The ancient Greeks wrote about invisible gods they believe created and controlled the world, such as Zeus. In their stories, the gods were controlled by their passions, like humans, and fought with each other. The Romans based many of their deities on Greek gods. Gods from both cultures symbolized a particular idea, such as Janus, who was the Roman god of beginnings. Numerous English authors reference Greek and Roman mythology to enhance meaning in their work. In Shakespeare's “Romeo and Juliet,” Juliet cries: “Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds, / Towards Phoebus’ lodging.” Phoebus was the god of the sun, and Juliet urges him to hurry home and bring on night so she can be with Romeo.
Stories from the Bible have also shaped English literature. The Genesis account of the Fall of Man and the subsequent expulsion from the Garden of Eden is played out in the poetry of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and in novels such as John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” and William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.” The idea that Eve played the role of seducer in the garden and is responsible for sin entering the world was prominent in medieval literature. Twentieth-century feminist literary critics have used this myth frequently in their scholarship.
Myths shape modern national identities. American identity has long been tied to the American Dream; the idea that anybody can be successful if they try hard enough. Literary scholars originate this myth in literature written by the original pioneers who came over on the Mayflower. Those pioneers believed if they worked hard enough they could create a new life for themselves in America. The Canadian landscape has haunted Canadian literature, from Georges Bugnet’s “The Forest” to Margaret Atwood’s “Surfacing.”
Breakdown of Myth
Nobody believes in myths anymore, said French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard in 1979. After the World Wars, people lost their faith in the overarching myths, or meta-narratives, as Lyotard calls them, that before held people’s identity and sense of belonging. Now, each person has to find her own truth. This new distrust in long-revered establishments such as religion and government Lyotard calls postmodernism. This movement resonates in Western English literature through authors such as Salman Rushdie, Sherman Alexie, Margaret Atwood, Donald Barthelme, Umberto Eco, Louise Erdrich, David Mitchell, Michael Ondaatje and dozens more. Postmodern literature often jumps back and forth in time and contains obscure references. These techniques confuse the reader in an attempt to simulate the disorienting experience of losing the systems, or myths, that the reader used to rely upon.
Supremacy of Myth
Frederic Jameson, a Marxist literary critic, argues that postmodernism is simply another myth. The idea that truth is relative to the person perceiving it is another belief system that people cling to. According to Jameson, postmodern literature is not myth-less at all; on the contrary, postwar English literature, and Western culture in general, is writhing with myths. Humans are still fascinated by the myths they believe in, just as much as their ancient Greek and Roman predecessors were -- whether these myths are found in literature or take the form of TV shows.
- “The Classic Myths in English Literature and in Art;” Charles Mills Gayley, 1911
- “The Norton Shakespeare;” William Shakespeare; ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al., 1997
- “The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism;” Ed. Vincent B. Leitch et al., 2001
Nadine Smith has been writing since 2010. She teaches college writing and ESL courses and has several years experience tutoring all ages in English, ESL and literature. Nadine holds a Master of Arts in English language and literature from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, where she led seminars as a teaching assistant.