There are some books that immediately speak to some inner part of us. Within a page or two we are entranced, with that same focus and attention that we had as children when we read under the covers because we couldn’t bear to leave a chapter unfinished.
While writers such as Tolkien and J K Rowling have overtly dipped their bread into the mythical soup, many other writers – knowingly or unknowingly – conjure up archetypes that we embrace gladly like old friends.
In the field of writing itself there are also archetypes (or cliches, if you prefer). The struggling artist, the posthumous success (Steig Larson), the ‘I happened to go to school with a literary agent’ (also not-so-fondly referred to as ‘the jammy bastard’) and a clutch of others, which you can recognise at any writing conference or creative support group. Myths are powerful cloaks to wear however, and over time can become so comfortable that we don’t notice the cloth beginning to tighten in. And, in their purest form, myths give us definition and insight; they exalt the best of human traits and they warn of the consequences of the worst. They are a rambler’s map of our own psyche.
Joseph Campbell examined myths and cultural tales from different places and identified similarities and key stages. His Hero of a Thousand Faces is a good starter if you’re new to him.
Campbell proposed three distinct stages for the hero’s quest:
1. Separation (e.g. leaving the village, seeking love / adventure, etc)
2. Initiation (the trials and tribulations that are overcome)
3. Return (the hero transformed who arrives bearing gold, wisdom or some other reward from the quest).
I’ve often thought there ought to be a stage between stages 1 and 2, a 1a if you will. I call it 1a. Preparation. Every piece of writing, in a sense, is a quest to transform and translate ideas into a cohesive narrative. And, unless you plan to keep your work in a drawer forever, one of those writer initiations lies in bringing your word to print or at least to the reader in some form.
We can learn a lot from mythology. About how it stirs the emotions and shapes thinking, about how each culture and civilisation wrestles with the same human frailties and finds ways to illustrate the dynamics of the human condition. And we can learn how to condense the experience of everyone into the story of anyone.
When the Egyptians – or any other civilisation for that matter – defined their pantheons and legends, they were really creating stories that would echo through the ages. As grandiose as that sounds, perhaps that’s what all good writing aspires to do as well.