The hour of the fantast cometh – do we need mythology more than ever now?

An old friend of mine recently sent me a link to Russell’s Brand’s flagship article in the New Statesman, which the flamboyant buccaneer appears to have temporarily boarded and seized:

When I’d recovered from the shock to my carefully constructed world order (newsflash: there’s more to old RB, far more, than being a big-mouthed rakehell womaniser who’s good at making people laugh), I got to thinking about what he’d written.

I was particularly drawn by his referencing of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Campbell posits that mankind abandons his old rituals and religion at his peril. As I observed to my old friend on the subject:

Mankind’s religious/mythological rituals and belief systems historically gave him a nexus through which to engage with his environment and derive a place of belonging therein. Malaise arguably sets in with the arrival of monotheism: godhood is no longer anchored to the material world – divinity is placed above the stars. Gods no longer inhere in the natural world around us, they are distanced from it. From there it’s not too many steps to reach the state of play today: God created the universe and everything in it/He created it for mankind to do with as he will/if He isn’t perceivable by our senses perhaps He doesn’t really exist/but that idea about the planet being ours to exploit was still rather convenient… so let’s hang on to that one. And now we’re all atheists we don’t even need to worry about going to hell if we f*ck up the planet and half its inhabitants while we’re getting rich and turning profits. We’re all going to die (as in REALLY die) anyway, so why not?

The psychologist Jung was also outspoken as to what happens when human beings forsake the irrational belief systems that have hitherto governed their behaviour, and embrace the world on strictly non-spiritual, material terms:

‘Primitive man was much more governed by his instincts than are his “rational” modern descendents, who have learned to “control” themselves. In this civilizing process, we have increasingly divided our consciousness from the deeper instinctive strata of the human psyche […]. Fortunately, we have not lost these basic instinctive strata; they remain part of the unconscious, even though they may only express themselves in dream images. […] For the sake of mental stability and even physiological health, the unconscious and the conscious must be integrally connected and thus move on parallel lines.’

[Man and His Symbols, ed. Carl C Jung]

Modern man believes he has outgrown the need for irrational belief systems, but deep down inside the psyche knows what is good for it, and strives to return us to the fold, as it were, through imagery glimpsed in dreams. A material world, with all the comforts modern science and technology and economics have furnished, is not enough on its own to guarantee human happiness.  A Chilean philosopher (whose name escapes me for the time being – my apologies) examined Ireland during its Celtic Tiger heyday in the 90s. Even before its economy went belly-up he discerned a problem, which he identified as the ‘tipping point’: economic growth continued, but human happiness stopped increasing at a parallel rate. Suicides went up, anxiety/depression did likewise, juvenile delinquency and crime worsened. 

The point is that the best intentions of capitalism and socialism alike have failed to address this problem, which persists today and is still with us in very real form.

And so to the central point of this post – now more than ever, humanity needs mythologies. More specifically, it needs fantasts.

In light of all the developments I’ve touched on above, is it any coincidence that the market for fantasy, sci-fi and mythological reworkings has never been stronger? Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Game of Thrones, remakes of Battlestar Galactica and Clash of the Titans, to name but a few examples straddling television, the silver screen and the written word; all our media are awash with tales of long ago and far away, enriched by pantheons of deities and emblazoned with the kind of myth-dream religious symbolism that would have given old Joe a hard-on the size of Middle Earth.

Is it any coincidence that said genres – once the preserve of shame-faced geeks huddled together reclusively in library corners whilst their social superiors flirted one another into bed over drinks and erudite conversation about ‘real’ writers and ‘high’ culture – are now aggressively in the mainstream? If I jump onto a dating website (yes, I’m single ladies…), I’m just as likely to encounter a stylish attractive woman staunchly labelling herself in the Geek category and listing the aforementioned GoT as a ‘hobby’ as I am to find her counterpart who wouldn’t be seen within a light-speed jump of a tale that has anything to do with a dragon or a pointy hat.

In my opinion, this isn’t just down to adroit marketing. Even the best marketing pros need a potentially willing audience to work off of. And the 21st century public has proved so very, very willing…

The real question is: why? Could it be that as we approach what could be humanity’s darkest hour, we are – subconsciously or not – reaching back towards what Campbell and Jung claim we have forgotten? Namely: our need for parables, to glimpse the struggle of humankind through myth and faerie tale, scripture and folk story, and therein identify ourselves and our place in a world that seems increasingly dissociated from itself, where a distended chain of cause and effect isolates and insulates us from universal human patterns of behaviour – despite the fact that we (in the developed world at least) are more information-rich than ever.

The ever-rising global population and its increasingly materialistic expectations are pushing us inexorably into a worldwide conflict, one that will be underpinned by a fraction that continually contracts with a vice-like and awful certainty: resources/people. Or to put it another way: dwindling resources divided by increasing numbers of people equals great calamity. The world could be about to get Biblical on us – and Noah’s ark might seem like an oceanic joyride in comparison.

Any wonder, then, that we are so keen to bury ourselves in myth, or more specifically its latter-day descendent, fantasy/sci fi? Tolkien once observed that he was trying to create a mythology for the English-speaking peoples. I’m not aware if he was familiar with Campbell’s work, but he strikes me as somebody who understood the importance of mythology to the human mindset.

Of course, one might just as easily dismiss such a hankering for tales of the fantastic as mere escapism; baby food for irrational thought that it behoves any self-respecting adult to outgrow.

A clue to the lie underpinning this perspective may be discerned in Campbell’s closing chapter to The Hero. In it he treats of the animal-god worshipping practices of early human societies, what our Christian forebears would have called ‘pagans’ and some today might call ‘primitives’. Yet Campbell claims these rituals had a beneficial effect on the societies that practised them:

‘Through acts of literal imitation – such as today appear only on the children’s playground (or the madhouse) – an effective annihilation of the human ego was accomplished and society achieved a cohesive organisation.’

So perhaps ‘childish’ ideas aren’t so bad after all – it seems that part of what Campbell is getting at here is that children instinctively understand something modern adults have forgotten. And further to the point, perhaps tales of the divine and the supernatural aren’t all that escapist either. Could it be that by engaging in myth-making/fantasy we are actually reaching toward a more harmonious state of mind? Identifying with and absorbing such tales give us an opportunity to suspend our rational modern selves along with our disbelief; it furnishes us with a way of placing ourselves in a context that means more to us than the cold functionality that emerges from the modern concept of individualism – that of a tax-paying, GDP-contributing unit, bundled up into various spurious categories of commercial proclivities: drinker, smoker, fashionista, car enthusiast, what have you.

We can of course be all of the above things if we so choose. But the more you divide human beings according to their proclivities, the more you separate them from one another. Stories, like music or watching sport, can be shared in the way that many of these other more material things can’t – if I buy a beer it’s mine; I can share some of it, but not the whole thing. Likewise, I can lend you my car but we cannot both use it at the same time unless we are always going to the same places.

But stories can be truly shared, as an experience. And through shared experiences human beings can begin to make connections with one another, via touching points that cannot be accessed through the complex and electrified mainframes of politics or economics. I don’t claim the shared experience of high fantasy will wipe away the problems of the human psyche – but by embracing the genre we can begin to revisit ourselves and reassess what is really valuable to us, perhaps even what is essential to human happiness. A look at the heavyweight thought put into the best of the genre will suggest that its best writers are at least peripherally aware of this, and are seizing the opportunity presented for communication with both hands.

So rejoice, all you budding George R R Martins – the end times could be ‘a comin’, and the people are prepared to listen to what we have to say. The rest is up to us wordsmiths.


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