A friend who is very ‘literary’ asked me the other day why, with all the social problems and issues facing the world these days I choose to write “escapist trash.” I wasn’t sure how to answer the ‘trash’ accusation, trash being a value judgment. I hope the quality of my writing is better than trash, and the reviews seem to confirm it, but he’s entitled to his opinion.
The term ‘escapist’ is harder to get a handle on. I asked him what he meant by it, and he said, “It’s obvious, isn’t it? King Arthur, Lancelot—those are fairy tales. Bedtime stuff for kids. They have no relevance to the real world.”
We could get into a debate whether a legitimate function of literature is to help correct problems of society (I happen to think it is), but that’s another topic for another time. And yes, of course, there is no shortage of problems to deal with. Let’s face it, society is sick. The more important question, it seems to me, is why it’s sick. Why do we do all those destructive things we do to each other and to the environment?
Perhaps one reason is that we’ve lost contact with what and who we are, and with our place on the planet. That has happened, Joseph Campbell pointed out, because the old myths we used to live by are no longer relevant, and we haven’t yet invented new ones to take their place. As he said in The Power of Myth, we’re standing on a whale, fishing for minnows. When we look out from ourselves to examine the problems we see around us, those are minnows. When we look inward, we see that we are the source of all the problems. The function of myths is to help us look inward.
But what exactly is mythology? According to Karl Kerenyi, one of the great scholars of Greek mythology, it’s a body of material dating from time immemorial that deals with origins, foundations, primordial causes that remain imperishable. To novelist Thomas Mann, mythology was the foundation of life, the timeless pattern, the religious formula to which life shapes itself because its characteristics are a reproduction of the unconscious. Those characteristics are projected outward in tales of gods and heroes, journeys to the underworld, and heroic battles.
Our ancestors didn’t put these stories in mythological form to escape reality, to merely entertain each other; they simply had no other way of expressing timeless truths. To our modern, science-oriented minds, myth-embedded stories may seem silly, so we dismiss them as quaint relics of primitive minds with no relevance to our modern problems. Those who have been specially trained to understand mythology, such as Campbell and Kerenyi and Mann, know better. But how about the rest of us? Judging from the runaway popularity of The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series, we, too, sense there is more to myths than escapism.
I tried to explain to my friend that this is why I write stories about Guenevere and Arthur and Bedwyr and Lancelot. He wasn’t convinced.
“I’ll stick with real literature,” he said.
“Have you read Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers,” I asked.
“No,” he said on his way out.
I guess there was no point in asking him if he’s read The Lord of the Rings.