It happened the summer my family moved to Paris; I read The Hobbit and then The Lord of the Rings (which I received for my 14th birthday). To call the experience a milestone is definitely an understatement. Tolkien was a master prose stylist (and poet) and all these years later I can still quote lines and passages by heart. But as gorgeous as his literary voice is, Tolkien’s lasting contribution to my life, even more important than the choice I made to become a writer as a result of reading his work, was to set me to the study of mythology, at least on a part-time basis.
No writer worth his or her salt can afford to be ignorant of mythology, which establishes the boundaries of a culture’s imagination. And cultures come in layers. For instance, in the United States, there is the American layer, which consists of childhood experiences, TV, comics and graphic novels; underneath this layer is the European layer, consisting of Christianity (mainly), various European “home country” customs, memories, and languages, and traditional art and music. Then there is the Classical layer, consisting of Roman and Greek mythology, history, and art.
Finally, there is the “deep layer,” the basement of the mind, where the scattered rubble of ancient life and religion lies buried. Gilgamesh belongs somewhere between this layer and the Classical. So do Native American creation stories.
So there is a political component, an element of urgency, in even the oldest stories (and sometimes especially in them) that makes them worth reading and studying. Those who read down through the ruin mound of the imagination are almost certain to catch the pulse of the times in a way that holiday treasure searchers aren’t. The treasures are precisely what most people are likely to miss–they’re smashed, incorporated in some large (and dull) monument, or casually left on the shelves where they were stored.
And now for something a little unexpected. Here is a list of mythological books that ought to be in every storyteller’s kit:
1. The Greek Myths. Robert Graves. The notes alone are worth the price of admission, and this exhaustive compilation of the major threads of Greek myths, along with variants, was my initiation into the mysteries of complex story. I still have the set I bought in college.
2. Cúchulainn of Muirthemne. Lady Gregory. With an introduction by W.B. Yeats, and written in an English that reflects the local community’s Irish dialect, this book will build your command of English even as it takes you through the rich threads of Irish myth. Apart from their storytelling, these myths preserve ancient Indo-European mythological themes. Sometimes amazing, always inspiring, absolutely worth buying and wading through.
3. The Well of the Unicorn. Fletcher Pratt. Very possibly the second-best fantasy novel of the 20th century. Deeply grounded in Pratt’s study of northern history and culture, and with a sense of style and panache rare in any genre. A great read.
4. The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales. J.R.R. Tolkien. As hard as it might be to believe, tLotR is the closing episode of a created mythology stretching back to the world’s creation. Written in a poetic style that reflects such antecedents as William Morris and John Ruskin, these books contain stories every bit as gripping as the struggle over the Ring of Power. Here we have roots that reflect the author’s wide reading and deepest beliefs.
5. News from Nowhere. William Morris. This may be the most boring book you ever read; by all means, work your way through to the end. This is Morris’s account of the socialist utopia he hoped to create (and as he remarks at the book’s beginning, everyone has their own idea of what Utopia is). The problem, or miracle, here is that nothing is going on. People have entered the worldly paradise, and all obsessions and compulsions have vanished. Everyone has obtained the enlightenment that lets them see that all competition and self-aggrandizement is worthless. Morris is a scandalously neglected writer and poet. NfN is a fine introduction to his vision .
6. Save the Khan! B. Bartos-Hoppner. A story of the end of the Khanate of the Golden Horde. Just who were the Mongols? How did their rule affect the early Russians? Historical fiction with the power of myth.
7. The Other Bible. Willis Barnstone, ed. This book will take you right over the edge. Who were the Gnostics, the Samaritans, the Marcionites? This hefty volume compiles what is known (plus excerpts from surviving scriptures) of just about every one of the many early competitors with Judaism and Christianity. Powerful stories and visions, excellent introductory materials and notes.
Happy Reading! AP
Image: The Last Centaur. B. Artzybasheff. 1922. WikiCmns. Public Domain.