WE ARE supposed to be living in a scientific, demythologised age. No gods, no wizards, no unicorns, no fairies. But stories that contain these elements and much more show no signs of dying. Quite the opposite.
A recent episode of Game of Thrones, featuring a spectacular combat between fire magic, the living dead, and dragons, was heralded as the biggest battle in TV history. The film Avengers: Endgame, starring gods and monsters, just smashed the record for money taken over its opening weekend. Or there is the new biopic, Tolkien (Features, 3 May; Film review, 10 May), which would never have been made if J. R. R. Tolkien and his fellow Inkling, C. S. Lewis, were not two of the best-selling novelists of all time — their yarns telling of fabled worlds and magical characters.
I could go on to list the box-office success of vampires and the supernatural, the books of J. K. Rowling and Philip Pullman, or the features of modern myths that have become cultural commonplaces, such as the occult Force from Star Wars.
SO, IS the ubiquity of modern myth-making significant? What does it mean?
Those of a sceptical cast of mind could put it down to entertainment and nothing more. Such stories offer distraction from the drudgery of modern life, and consolation. But I don’t think that that can be quite right. As the philosopher and poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge argued, fantasies cannot be called just figments of the imagination when they last. If they repeatedly show up, and prompt further creativity and inspiration, they must be connecting with something that’s real. They are then channelling, not just concocting. They are not only amusing: they are generative.
With this in mind, the psychologically inclined critic reaches for a second explanation. Myths offer ways to understand life, they say. As the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss put it, they are “good to think with”. They are a bit like collective dreams: if we reflect on them, they reveal something about shared anxieties or possible futures — maybe a take on the world that we are unconsciously creating. Examples would include apocalyptic stories that speak of environmental collapse.
There is much in this reading. It insists that good myths, the kind that last, are not empty fantasies but draw on basic truths. Furthermore, they can give access to truths that are hard to glimpse in other ways. They are not like allegories, in which a moral imperative or character fault is clearly signalled from the start. Instead, they enable us to appreciate the subtle nuances of moral complexity and personal ambivalence — the porousness of good and ill — and navigate a way forward.
I think this is how ancient Greeks read Homer, for example. Reflecting on the flawed virtues of Achilles, or the mixed motives of Odysseus, didn’t offer rules for flourishing. Homer did not write self-help books; rather, they fostered the more valuable capacity to discern what might be going on amid the confusions of the day.
The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus can be appreciated in this way, alongside their many other meanings, including the historical. To draw a simple lesson from it and conclude, say, that love is greater than suffering misses its greatest gift: that is, to feel invited to participate in life yourself, to inhabit and find its hidden verities.
A myth can do that precisely because it does not state facts. Instead, it conveys the turning points, the openings, the revelations that allow a direct knowledge of things to be unveiled. It doesn’t tell, it shows, to use the novelist’s adage. Moreover, it shows so as to show us how we can detect the ways in which life is underwritten. It gives us the eyes to see, the ears to hear.
THIS thought points to a third meaning of the contemporary infatuation with myths: it is a reading that is unashamedly subversive. Put it like this: perhaps the greatest taboo in a scientific age is to suggest that the cosmos is not a machine, evolution is not blind, and people are not biological AIs.
It’s to assert, instead, that the cosmos flows from forces that are beyond physics, evolution is shaped by that spiritual unfolding, and people have souls that can know of, align with and grow into these other dimensions.
In short, modern myths celebrate what is proscribed in a secular age. The secret of their success is appealing to an inner awareness of energies that are not material. Further, the stories suggest that we can learn to relate to this dynamism, and not simply try to control it. They alert us to a wisdom that is fundamental in a religious world-view. Spirit, the supernatural, and powers such as love are cosmic and potent.
Even to the casual consumer, popular myths foster religious feeling and a taste for spiritual knowledge. They are potentially revolutionary. As another Inkling, Owen Barfield, put it: the cinema screen and the page of a book can become “an entirely new window” through which to see the world — although, in truth, the window has been there all along.
Dr Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and writer. His next book, A Secret History of Christianity, will be published in August by John Hunt Publishing.