Myth doing what myth is meant to do

Last Wednesday evening I had the privilege of seeing local theatre company Twitches & Itches Theatre perform a modern adaptation of Euripides’ Bacchae and write about it for  Brock News (January 19, “Brock alumni showcase talents in The Bacchae“).

It was such an amazing adaptation and performance that I haven’t stopped thinking–or raving– about it yet. There are so many delicious ideas I want to dig into with this play! Ten minutes in, I really wanted to bottle up the show so I could use it to teach my students what myth is really about.

One of the Classics professors organized a Q&A session with the director, Colin Bruce Anthes, and one of the actors, Hayley Malouin. I was able to attend this and live-tweet it as part of my social media job. You can read that Storify of this Q&A here.

Ancient Athens meets modern Niagara in Twitches & Itches Theatre’s production of The Bacchae. This very timely modern adaptation of a play originally performed in 405 BCE challenges ideas of identity and explore what happens when extreme left- and right-wing politics collide.

When the ensemble began working on their production in February 2015, they had no idea how timely it would be when presented on the eve of the presidential inauguration of 2017.

“We had no idea Brexit and Donald Trump’s rise to power were just around the corner,” says director Colin Bruce Anthes. “The play was miles ahead of us. Many of the play’s original themes are shockingly reflected in our present society.”

The play engages with current social issues, as Dionysus, an androgynous foreigner, arrives in St. Cadmus and starts changing the entrenched norms. The conservative rule of King Pentheus is challenged by this new god of wine, theatre, and ritual madness and the women who abandon the city core to follow him.

“Some of the dialogue looks like headlines stolen from today’s newspapers,” explains Anthes. “In our production, the priest of a new religion arrives as a David Bowie-esque glam-rock star, bursting through a city’s eternalized film-noir surface.”

As Hayley Malouin explains, the work questions how we can be certain of our convictions and moral compasses when the legitimacy of facts are questioned. “Uncertainty breeds dangerous extremism, but can also provide space for positive change. We see all kinds of uncertainties in The Bacchae.”

Issues of identity are also central to this play: xenophobia, transphobia, and fatphobia are all challenged.

Brock alumnus Iain Lidstone found playing the role of androgynous Dionysus both rewarding and exhausting. “I am a trans man playing a gender-fluid character,” he explains. “On the one hand, I find utter relief and excitement that as a queer artist I get the opportunity to give a voice to queer identities on the stage.”

Lidstone’s own experiences informed the development of his character.  “My character’s gender-fluidity and “effeminate” nature means I am constantly challenging my own internalized transphobia and trans-masculine identity in order to authentically portray our ‘queerified’ image of Dionysus.”

Malouin plays the role of Agave, mother to King Pentheus. “As a fat actor I’ve seen my inordinately unfair share of motherly characters,” she explains, but Agave is different.  “She’s a person before she is a mother, and this production pays particular attention to her journey as an intelligent, politically savvy, but ultimately oppressed agent.”

General manager Marcus Tuttle describes the production as “a play that makes sense for St. Catharines.” Niagara issues are woven throughout the play: the disappearing manufacturing economy and the experiences of migrant workers, as well as challenges faced by the LGBTQIA community.

The physical theatre style the group uses would not be too foreign to an ancient Greek audience, either.  Rather than relying on props and special effects, the technique emphasizes the use of the voice and body. This method requires long term commitment from the actors to physical and voice training.

Twitches & Itches Theatre is committed to developing local acting talent. The group was founded by Anthes and Tom DiMartino in 2009 and moved to St. Catharines in 2013. They have gradually built up a core ensemble of nine performers, eight of whom trained at Brock’s Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts.

This is the group’s sixth full production, and their first independent production at First Ontario Performing Arts Centre. The group also does various community and charity fundraiser performances. They emphasize cooperation and collaboration in their work, with all members having equal voices in what the company decides to produce.

The Bacchae runs at First Ontario Performing Arts Centre from January 19 to 21, 2017.

Alumni: Iain Lidstone, Hayley Malouin, Sean Rintoul, Kaitlin Race, Sean Aileen McClelland, Chelsea Wilson, Marcus Tuttle, Colin Bruce Anthes

Director: Colin Bruce Anthes

Set Design: David Vivian

Photo credits: David Vivian

Advertisements

mythtake is moving!

img_6482

Exciting news! Somebody left a shiny new blog under our Christmas tree and now mythtake podcast now has a home of its own!

http://mythtake.blog

Existing posts will be copied over to the new blog and copies will stay here so you can still find them.

Bookmark the new site to keep up with new episodes, but don’t abandon this one altogether! I’ll be writing here about academics, social media, creativity, and whatever else strikes my fancy. My blog will be a sort of research journal, where I work out ideas for my various projects, and I hope that you will continue to follow along!

mythtake episode 14 Hallowe’en Special: Necromancy in Greek Mythology

img_6482C’est l’Hallowe’en! We have a special spooky episode for you this week: two episodes of necromancy from Greek mythology! Follow the spell-binding details (haha!) of Odysseus’ encounter with the dead and Jason’s summoning of Hekate in Argonautika.

Have a safe and spooktacular Hallowe’en!

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/d77kq-6414dc?from=yiiadmin

Download this episode (right click and save)


Source Passages

Odyssey 11.13-50

Arognautika 3.1026-1049, 1194-1224


Translation Sources

Apollonios Rhodios. Argonautika. Trans. Peter Green. University of California, 2007.

Homer. Odyssey. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. Harper Perennial Classics, 1967.


Shout Outs & Notes

Listener mail from @EllieMackin–you should follow her!


Join us on Twitter @InnesAlison and @darrinsunstrum

We’re now on Facebook! Give us a like, let us know what you think, and follow along at MythTake.

Subscribe on iTunes so you don’t miss an episode!

Subscribe on Google Play 

Find our RSS on Podbean

This week’s theme music: “Super Hero” by King Louie’s Missing Monuments from the album “Live at WFMU” (2011). Used under Creative Commons license. Music used under Creative Commons license and available from Free Music Archive.

mythtake episode 12 mythological tour of the solar system 9: pluto/hades

img_6482

Welcome to episode 12! Our apologies for being more than a little late getting the blog post up, but here it is at last.

This episode, we delve into the mysterious world of Hades. This Greek god of the underworld is also associated with wealth and the Roman god Pluto. There aren’t a lot of myths about Hades but we can learn a lot from his appearance in Homeric Hymn to Demeter.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/37m94-626e67?from=yiiadmin

Download this episode (right click and save)


Source Passages

Homeric Hymn to Demeter 1-23; 334-385.


Translation Sources

Homeric Hymns. Trans. Susan Shelmerdine. Newburyport MA: Focus Publishing, 1995. Print.


Selected Sources

NASA. “Pluto: King of the Kuiper Belt” http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/pluto


Shout Outs & Notes

We highly recommend listening to The Endless Knot episode on Pluto. Sarah and Mark provide a great discussion of the origin of the god Pluto. You can subscribe to their podcast through iTunes.


Join us on Twitter @InnesAlison and @darrinsunstrum

Subscribe on iTunes so you don’t miss an episode! https://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/mythtake/id1103569489?mt=2

Google Play https://goo.gl/app/playmusic?ibi=com.google.PlayMusic&isi=691797987&ius=googleplaymusic&link=https://play.google.com/music/m/Iaegzaquhc7lfvc24icrzardzmu?t%3DMythTake

Find our RSS on Podbean http://alisoninnes.podbean.com

This week’s theme music: “Super Hero” by King Louie’s Missing Monuments from the album “Live at WFMU” (2011). Used under Creative Commons license. Music used under Creative Commons license and available from Free Music Archive.

mythtake episode 11 mythological tour of the solar system 8: neptune/poseidon

Poseidon

“The Artemision Bronze, a bronze statue of deity, either Poseidon or Zeus, about to hurl a missing projectile (either a thunderbolt, if Zeus, or a trident if Poseidon). Height: 2.1 m. ca. 460 BC. Found in shipwreck off Cape Artemisium. Athens National Archaeological Museum.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sounion#/media/File:Poseidon.jpg

img_6482

We travel to that last of the gas giants, Neptune, and learn about Poseidon. This Greek god of the sea, earthquakes, and horses is brother to Zeus (Jupiter) and has a mind of his own when it comes to the Trojan War.

 

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/36wgj-620d8c?from=yiiadmin

Download this episode (right click and save)


Source Passages

Homer Iliad 15.38-48, 176-220


Translation Sources

Homer. Iliad. Trans. Stanley Lombardo. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997.


Selected Sources

NASA. “Neptune.” http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/neptune


Shout Outs & Notes

Check out The Endless Knot (http://www.alliterative.net) podcast by Mark Sundaram and Aven McMaster.


Join us on Twitter @InnesAlison and @darrinsunstrum

Subscribe on iTunes so you don’t miss an episode! https://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/mythtake/id1103569489?mt=2

Google Play https://goo.gl/app/playmusic?ibi=com.google.PlayMusic&isi=691797987&ius=googleplaymusic&link=https://play.google.com/music/m/Iaegzaquhc7lfvc24icrzardzmu?t%3DMythTake

Find our RSS on Podbean http://alisoninnes.podbean.com

This week’s theme music: “Super Hero” by King Louie’s Missing Monuments from the album “Live at WFMU” (2011). Used under Creative Commons license. Music used under Creative Commons license and available from Free Music Archive.

mythtake episode 10 mythological tour of the solar system 7: uranus/ouranos

img_6482

This week we discuss the story of Ouranos, an early sky god in Greek mythology. Darrin ties it in to Frankenstein and Alison offers some summer reading recommendations for those wanting to geek out on history of astronomy. The cat also makes a guest appearance.

 

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/f6yv6-614869?from=yiiadmin

Download this episode (right click and save)


Summer Reading Recommendations

Richard Holmes. “The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science.” Harper Press: 2008.

Richard Cohen. “Chasing the Sun: The Epic Story of the Star That Gives Us Life.” Simon & Schuster: 2010.


Source Passages

Hesiod Theogony 116-210.


Translation Sources

Hesiod. Theogony. Trans. Richard Caldwell & Stephanie Nelson. Newburyport MA: Focus Publishing, 2009.


Selected Sources

NASA. “Uranus.” http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/uranus


Join us on Twitter @InnesAlison and @darrinsunstrum

Subscribe on iTunes so you don’t miss an episode! https://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/mythtake/id1103569489?mt=2

Google Play https://goo.gl/app/playmusic?ibi=com.google.PlayMusic&isi=691797987&ius=googleplaymusic&link=https://play.google.com/music/m/Iaegzaquhc7lfvc24icrzardzmu?t%3DMythTake

Find our RSS on Podbean http://alisoninnes.podbean.com

This week’s theme music: “Super Hero” by King Louie’s Missing Monuments from the album “Live at WFMU” (2011). Used under Creative Commons license. Music used under Creative Commons license and available from Free Music Archive.

mythtakes episode 8 mythological tour of the solar system 5: jupiter/zeus

 

jupiter copy.jpg

Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech. http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/visions-of-the-future/

 

img_6482Today we visit the first of the Gas Giants, Jupiter. This mysterious planet, covered with swirling, toxic clouds in shades of orange, red, white, and brown, is the largest in our solar system. The “King of the Planets” is named after the Greek and Roman king of the gods, Jupiter (Zeus). We examine passages from Greek and Roman literature to shed some light on how the ancients thought of their god they called “the father of gods and men.”

 
https://www.podbean.com/media/player/mjicm-6085f6?from=yiiadmin

Download this episode (right click and save)


Primary Source Passage

Theogony 71-74
…he was ruling the
sky as king, holding the thunder and fiery lightning-bolt himself,
having the victory from his father Cronus by strength; in right detail
he dealt laws and appointed donors to the immortals.

Theogony 478-491
They sent her [Rhea] to Lyctus, to the rich land of Crete,
when she was about to bear her youngest son,
great Zeus; vast Earth received him from her
in wide Crete to tend and raise.
Carrying him through the swift black night, she came
first to Lyctus; taking him in her arms, she hid him
in a deep cave, down in dark holes of holy each,
on Mount Aegean, dense with woods.
Rhea wrapped a huge stone in a baby’s robe, and fed it
to Sky’s wide-ruling son, lord of the earlier gods;
he took it in his hands and put it down his belly,
the fool; he did not think in his mind that instead
of a stone his own son, undefeated and secure, was left
behind, soon to master him by force and violence and
drive him from his honour, and be lord of the immortals himself.

Theogony 491-500
Swiftly then the strength and noble limbs
of the future lord grew; at the end of a year,
tricked by the clever advice of Earth,
great crooked-minded Cronus threw up his children,
defeated by the craft and force of his own son.
First he vomited out the stone he had swallowed last;
Zeus fixed it firmly in the wide-pathed land
at sacred Python in the vales of Parnassus,
to be a sign thereafter, a wonder to mortal men.
Trans. Richard Caldwell


Ancient Sources

Theogony. Trans. Richard Caldwell & Stephanie Nelson. Newburyport MA: Focus Publishing, 2009.


Selected Sources

NASA. “Jupiter.” http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/jupiter

NASA. “Juno: Peering Beneath  Jupiter’s Clouds.” http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/missions/juno

NASA. “NASA’s Juno Spacecraft to Risk Jupiter’s Fireworks for Science.” http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/news/2016/06/16/nasas-juno-spacecraft-to-risk-jupiters-fireworks-for-science 16 June 2016.

Osborne, Hannah. “Juno Mission: How NASA will manoeuvre 250 000 km/h spacecraft into Jupiter’s orbit.” http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/juno-mission-how-nasa-will-manoeuvre-250000-km-h-spacecraft-into-jupiters-orbit-1563401 International Business Times 3 June 2016.


Shout-Outs

Astronomer Erin Ryan on Twitter @erinleeryan, website http://www.erinleeryan.com

The Juno mission on Twitter: @NASAJuno


Join us on Twitter @InnesAlison and @darrinsunstrum

Subscribe on iTunes so you don’t miss an episode! https://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/mythtake/id1103569489?mt=2

Google Play https://goo.gl/app/playmusic?ibi=com.google.PlayMusic&isi=691797987&ius=googleplaymusic&link=https://play.google.com/music/m/Iaegzaquhc7lfvc24icrzardzmu?t%3DMythTake

Find our RSS on Podbean http://alisoninnes.podbean.com

This week’s theme music: “Super Hero” by King Louie’s Missing Monuments from the album “Live at WFMU” (2011). Used under Creative Commons license. Music used under Creative Commons license and available from Free Music Archive.

 

mythtake episode 7 mythological tour of the solar system 4: mars/ares

mars copy

Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech. http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/visions-of-the-future/

img_6482We skip over planet earth (for now) and head to our fourth stop in our tour of the solar system: Mars. The Red Planet,, named for the Roman god of war, has intrigued humans for millennia. Today we learn about the Greek god of war, Ares, from his appearances in the Homeric Hymn to Ares, Odyssey 8.266-366 and Iliad 5.418-425, 880-969.
https://www.podbean.com/media/player/3aamy-5ff9b7?from=yiiadmin

Download this episode (right click and save)


Homeric Hymn to Ares

Ares, exceedingly mighty, rider of chariots, golden-helmeted,
strong-spirited, shield-carrier, guardian of cities, armed in bronze,
strong-handed, untiring spear-bearer, defender of Olympus,
father of Victory, successful in war, ally of Themis,
a ruler for enemies, leader of truly just men,
staff-bearer of men’s prowess, you who win your fire-bright sphere
among the planets with their seven paths in the sky, where your fiery
colts ever keep you above the third orbit.
Hear me, defender of mortals, giver of flourishing youth,
shining down a gentle light form above on my life
and my strength in war, so that I may be able
to ward off bitter cowardice from the my head,
and to bend the deceptive impulse of my soul with my wits
and to restrain the sharp forty of my heart which provokes me
to enter the icy-cold din of battle. But you, blessed one,
grant me courage to stay within the carefree bounds of peace
while escaping the conflict of enemies and violent death.

(Trans. Susan Shelmerdine)

 


Ancient Sources

Homeric Hymn to Ares

Homer Odyssey 8.266-366

Homer Iliad 5. 418-425, 880-969

Ovid Metamorphoses 4.228


Selected Sources

Homer. Iliad. Trans. Anthony Verity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Homer. Odyssey. Translated Richmond Lattimore. New York: Perennial Classics, 1967.

Homeric Hymns. Trans. Susan Shelmerdine. Newburyport MA: Focus Publishing, 1995. Print.

McDonald, Bob. “Mars: from God of War to habitable planet.” Quirks and Quarks. Blog. 27 May 2016 (http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/mars-god-war-earth-1.3602986)

Nasa.gov “Mars: The Red Planet” (http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/planets/mars )

Nasa.gov “Mars Today: Robotic Exploration” (http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/mars/main/index.html)

Nasa.gov “Your Weight in Space” (http://solarsystem.nasa.gov/kids/index.cfm?Filename=puzzles)


 

Join us on Twitter @InnesAlison and @darrinsunstrum

Subscribe on iTunes so you don’t miss an episode! https://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/mythtake/id1103569489?mt=2

Google Play https://goo.gl/app/playmusic?ibi=com.google.PlayMusic&isi=691797987&ius=googleplaymusic&link=https://play.google.com/music/m/Iaegzaquhc7lfvc24icrzardzmu?t%3DMythTake

Find our RSS on Podbean http://alisoninnes.podbean.com

This week’s theme music: “Super Hero” by King Louie’s Missing Monuments from the album “Live at WFMU” (2011). Used under Creative Commons license. Music used under Creative Commons license and available from Free Music Archive.

religion & myth

I have heard a mythology professor bemoan students’ unfamiliarity with the Judeo-Christian religion, but never paid it much heed. It seems that in almost every first year Classics course, at some point a student will submit a paper that is a mash up of half-forgotten, half-misremembered Sunday School stories and a few facts from lecture. While in some way these are easy papers to mark, I don’t think any of us enjoy them because they are so far off the mark. Is this really something we want to encourage?

In the most recent mythology course I worked for, we endeavoured to teach students something about structuralism, which to be really successful requires knowledge of some sort of mythology aside from Graeco-Roman. Our teaching guidelines assumed that most students would have some familiarity with the Judeo-Christian mythology because of its enormous influence on western art and culture. But of the 40 students I had, not one was familiar with any of the Judeo-Christian myths referenced; I know from conversation that other classes were similar.

But the more I have thought about this professor’s comments, the more I am inclined to agree that students need exposure to religions– not for the purpose of moralizing or proselytizing (I would never support that) but so they can understand the cultural artefacts produced within these systems. Many, perhaps most, of the great works of art and literature in the western world stem from two strains of mythology: Graeco-Roman and Christian. An inability to understand a society’s mythology hampers one’s ability to understand its cultural products.

Now, I know referring to the Christian religion, or any religion, as mythology, will no doubt stir up some ire among adherents. But I use the term in its academic sense, rather than as a value judgment (I won’t touch that subject!)  Although we call these belief sets religions today, they fit the criteria of a mythology: that is, these belief systems seek to provide a comprehensive, total explanation of the cosmos. They attempt to answer questions such as where we come from, where we go when we die, why we can’t see the gods, how we should live, how we communicate with the gods, etc. Graeco-Roman mythology also addressed these questions and was once the religion of its day; While there was no set canon, it was equally diverse (if not more so) as any religion today in terms of individual beliefs.

So that leads me to think: What is the difference between religion and mythology? Is it simply a matter of time and distance– that is, if the culture is sufficiently distant from one’s one, does that make it myth? I think this is problematic as it creates a value hierarchy and considers some belief sets as more legitimate than others. Rather, I would suggest that mythology is the underlying system of understanding and that religion is the expression of this system through ritual and enforced norms; that is, the religious expression both stems from and reinforces the mythology. With time, elements of the religious expression outside of the original mythology are also incorporated into the mythology as the system is altered to maintain its currency and authority in a shifting society.

To follow this idea further, I would suggest that knowledge of mythologies is necessary to understand and appreciate art and literature produced within (or with reference to) these systems not simply for the basic story that is depicted by a painting or poem, but to understand things such as the artist’s intention, how the work relates to the artist’s contemporary society, and how the artist’s work is interpreted by different audiences. Exposure to these mythologies (religions) is necessary not only to understand what a particular work of art is about, but to understand its importance and significance in a society. 

some beginning thoughts on myth & fantasy; or, a classicist’s foray into tolkien

I am a latecomer to the genre of high fantasy. I come to it not as a fan of fictional worlds (although that is a consequence), but primarily as a classicist trained in studying mythological texts. It is only in the past few years that I have become increasingly interested in classical reception; that is, how successive audiences have received, reinterpreted and reused Graeco-Roman mythology. This has led to my growing interest in how classical mythology is adopted and adapted into popular modern art and literature.

My academic training has certainly equipped me with a theoretical framework for approaching mythological texts. As an MA candidate in Classics writing a thesis, I had to not only understand and use theory, but also defend my use of it. I became comfortable using Foucauldian discourse analysis, feminist theory, gender theories, and, of course, Lévi-Strausse’s structuralism to understand classical texts. This, I believe, is one of the enduring legacies of my MA degree: As I read any work of fiction, watch a movie (which, alas, I do all too infrequently) or even a TV show, a part of my brain is always churning away at some point asking questions. What genders are being constructed and how? What kinds of power dynamics are happening, and how does this relate to gender roles? How are women’s roles constructed? What type of thinking is happening here? What is the underlying invariant that this work explores? And, most importantly, WHY is this happening the way it is?

I began my venture into high fantasy accidentally, reading the first four books of Martin’s GoT series during the last spring of my MA. I binged on them between writing drafts of thesis chapters. They were an escape, but they also enthralled me as I began to apply my thinking skills–at first unwittingly, but then more consciously. As my ideas of how I could apply my theoretical toolkit to these texts increased, so did the questions I wanted to investigate, and thus my interest in epic fantasy grew. As a late comer to the epic fantasy party, I have a lot of catching up to do. Thus far I have only read the first five books of GoT (that’s all that’s out) and The Hobbit; I am currently a third of the way through Silmarillion with the rest of the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy lined up next. Forays into Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Pratchett’s Discworld and Riordon’s Percy Jackson series are also planned, as is a re-reading of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. I might even be convinced to finally dip a toe into Rowling’s Harry Potter. Plus, of course, reading some academic writing about these works. My goal in all this venture is not to become a know-it-all of fantasy literature; I am not interested in memorizing endless trivia as I have already burned up too many precious brain cells memorizing Greek conjugations, which I no longer use. Rather, I am interested in seeing how these works connect with Graeco-Roman mythology, whether it be openly, as in the Percy Jackson series, or through structuralist analysis.

The problem is, of course, the more I read the more ideas I get and the more questions I come up with to answer. That’s where my blog comes in. I want to use this space to sift out ideas, see what works, piece things together bit by bit. My goal isn’t to determine which work is best, or list characters or facts or argue about movie interpretations (although I plan to address that), but to look at how these works engage mythological ideas. The focus isn’t on facts, but ideas. (I’ve always been a big-picture thinker.) A warning that this will not be a series of neatly-written essays, but a rambling monologue!

Is it right to approach these texts as mythology and to relate them to classical mythology in particular? We are, after all, talking about multi-volume epics written by a single author and, in the case of Tolkien especially, influenced primarily by Norse mythology, not Graeco-Roman.  Graeco-Roman mythology, on the other hand, was a result of oral tradition. There is (and was) no one defined canon of Greek mythology; rather, there were as many variations to a story as there were tellers. The versions of myth with which you as an ancient Greek might be familiar depended on where you lived; when you lived; and whose version you heard, liked, and remembered. Myths were in constant creative reuse, and only a fraction of the art and literature which records them has survived to our day. I find students, when first approaching Greek mythology, want to pin down the “correct” version of a myth and to fit multiple myths into a single timeline (I was guilty of that desire myself, way back in the day), but myth simply doesn’t work this way. Multiple versions co-exist simultaneously and cannot be logically reconciled with one another. It’s a challenge to our linear, western way of thinking, but once we move past that we find a remarkable field of study.

To come back to the question, then, can works written by a single author be compared to works composed anonymously by many poets in many versions be compared? Yes. When we study Greek mythology we use a text that, at some point in time, has been set down by someone. The difference, I think, will be that a work by one author, such as Tolkien, will have a greater degree of internal consistency than a work created over many centuries by multiple authors, such as the Homeric epics. Homer, whoever and how ever many he was, set down the Iliad and Odyssey after centuries of oral composition and thus it contains an odd mixture of both Bronze Age and Dark Age society which leads to what could be considered inconsistencies in description (I am thinking here particularly of the difference between the Phaeacians’ Bronze-Age palace and Odysseus’ hovel with a manure pile out front– both these men are kings (basilei), but one’s palace is from the Bronze Age and the other’s is from the Dark Age.) Tolkien, on the other hand, went back to The Hobbit after writing LOTR to make slight adjustments to the story to ensure consistency. But my point is really this: at some point, we have written texts for Greek mythology and we also have written texts for epic fantasy. We have texts with which we can do a textual comparison.

And we can compare mythologies across culture and time. Structuralism allows for this; indeed, I would say structuralism demands this. A key aspect of structuralism is the search for the invariant; that is, the underlying ‘thing’ that a myth is about once you strip off the decoration. Lévi-Strauss describes it several ways in his English work Myth and Meaning; The image that works best for me is that of a landscape. Structuralism strips away the plants and trees and soils and looks at the underlying features of the landscape/myth and finds similarities here across mythologies. These are the invariants, and include explanations of good and evil, death and life, how to live, how to relate to the gods, and why we can’t see the gods. While mythological invariants are found across genres and forms of art, they are perhaps the most easily seen in myths proper and the fantasy genre.

Structuralism also includes the idea of pre-literate thought. It feels odd to discuss pre-literate thought when we are dealing with a work written by a very literate man in the 1950s, but that is the term we have so let’s use it. Pre-literate thought seeks to provide a total, global explanation for the world. Rather than addressing particular phenomenon and being content in not knowing the rest (which is what Lévi-Struass calls scientific thought), pre-literate thought seeks to provide a comprehensive explanation. I think this might be most easily seen in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, which I am reading now, although it is certainly evident in The HobbitThe Silmarillion attempts to provide a global understanding of the world of Middle Earth (and includes all the invariants I listed above– but more on that in another post). Comparable mythological texts for easy comparison would be Hesiod’s Theogony or Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Finally, Greek mythology gives us epic and we are talking about epic fantasy. Now the epic is not unique to Greek mythology (think of the Old English epic Beowulf, which is also on my reading list), but we have the Iliad and Odyssey where we see the idea of the hero developed and the hero on a quest. Heroes on a quest…. sounds a bit like Bilbo, doesn’t it?

To summarize, then: A work does not have to make direct reference to Graeco-Roman mythology to be compared to it. We can use structuralism to compare myths across time and culture by looking at the invariants. Graeco-Roman mythology provides us with texts for comparisons, as well as the heroic epic cycle. Building on this, my ideas for further inquiry include:

  • more consideration of fantasy as myth;
  • construction of gender in The Hobbit;
  • relation between Tolkien’s books and the movies;
  • searching for the invariant in Tolkien;
  • evidence of the heroic epic cycle in The Hobbit and LOTR;
  • depictions of women;
  • depictions of monsters;
  • discussion of the nature of epic; and
  • comparison of origin myths.

But I know this list will grow much longer the more I read. Clearly, you can take the girl out of academics, but you can’t take the academics out of the girl!