Monday, November 14, 2011

Mythopoeic Dualism

Does style play a special role in fantasy?

C. S. Lewis speaks in several places of a mythopoeic art, holding it as distinct from the manner of telling. This is an art is whose objects exist in the ideal, independent of any embodiment in tangible form. In his introduction to an anthology of George MacDonald’s works, he writes:
If you try to take the theme of Keats’ Nightingale apart from the very words in which he has embodied it, you find that you are talking about almost nothing. Form and content can there be separated only by a false abstraction. But in a myth—in a story where the mere pattern of events is all that matters—this is not so. Any means of communication whatever which succeeds in lodging those events in our imagination has, as we say, “done the trick.” After that you can throw the means of communication away.
Lewis did not think style unimportant, of course. He was sensitive to the defects in MacDonald’s style; he praises Eddison’s writing while deploring Lindsay’s as “wretched”; his own novels are quite polished. But he holds that what is important in each case is independent of the verbal presentation. The telling is just the wrapper. The myth is the soul, the true reality; the telling is the body, necessary for the time being, perhaps, but to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible.

Being more of an Aristotelian than a Platonist, I am not quite comfortable with this “mythopoeic dualism.” Lewis would make the mythopoeic art a liberal art, like composition: a story exists even if no one is telling it, just as a piece of music exists even if no one is playing it. But the product of this mythopoeic art supposedly consists of a sequence of ideas with no guidelines as to how to “play” them, whereas composition leaves no such freedom. Is that what myth-making is really like?

For one thing, whoever has told a story to children knows very well that they are at least as sensitive to style as their elders, quick to point out the slightest deviation in wording. Analogously, in primitive societies, the manner of telling is fixed, and the story-teller assumes something of a priestly office. The same is true of the Greeks and other peoples of antiquity. They did not retell Homer: they recited him, and the poems themselves are highly formulaic. But even modern retellings of ancient myths follow certain traditional channels. Edith Hamilton’s Mythology is probably the best compendium of Greek myths for children—it’s what I grew up reading, at any rate—and this owes to the fact that she pays deference to the texts. It lends her book a certain heterogeneity. Or again, there are four different Gospels rather than one “harmony”; such harmonies have been written, but they never supersede the texts.

No, I begin to wonder if certain aspects of style are not intrinsic to myth as such. Lewis avers that he has always loved the tale of the Golden Fleece while never being particularly fond of any single telling; nevertheless, I think there must be something about the manner of telling, the style, that tints the story in all its different tellings. Style and story are mixed; they represent, not distinct categories, but a multiplicity of interwoven elements. Even the retelling of a modern “mythopoeic” novel (e.g., The Trial, Lewis’ example) must retain something of the author’s style.

If this is so, then myth is more akin to poetry than Lewis concedes. His enjoyment of MacDonald’s stories as “myths” must owe something to their style, and not merely exist in spite of it. What would we have if we stripped Phantastes of all stylistic elements? Not much more than we would have of Keats’ Nightingale, I think. Faërie would not survive the operation. But even Lewis was not consistent in his dualism, for he excludes The Night Land from his canon of story precisely because of its atrocious and foolish style. And how could we separate the story of The Worm Ouroboros—which Lewis praised so highly—from its ringing Jacobean idiom? Does not the manner of telling cast an enchanted mantle over the entire proceedings?

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