A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong is the first book in the Canongate Myth Series and serves as an introduction to the subject. While the other books are classic myths re-imagined/retold by popular authors, Armstrong’s volume attempts to make sense of the role of myths, their development through history, and the place they have, if any, in today’s world.
Armstrong sets out to overcome two challenges: to explain why myths are still relevant today; and to sketch a brief history of their development to date in less than two hundred pages
Armstrong, a popular religious historian, clearly brings a passion and deep interest to the subject. But despite her knowledge and writing skills, she can’t quite pull off this ambitious undertaking. A Short History of Myth is interesting and thought provoking at times, but its lack of clarity and rapid fire history undermine its power. Armstrong’s chronological outline and notation of central themes and reoccurring motifs might be useful as a quick overview of the history of myth, but too often the history is rather pedestrian and the arguments are muddled.
At first Armstrong takes a traditional humanistic tack: humans are meaning seeking creatures and myths are a way for us to make sense of our surroundings, our history, and our nature. In this way, myths can be seen as art that shines a mirror on our experience and helps us understand ourselves and the world better. Myth is not the same as reason or logic, but is a different, yet complementary, tool of understanding. But she can’t seem to leave it at that.
Instead, in the opening chapter – entitled “What is Myth?” – Armstrong seems to portray myth as a sort of self therapy. She insists that myth is only valid if it “compels us to live more fully.” Armstrong asserts:
A myth is essentially a guide; it tells us what we must do in order to live more richly. If we do not apply it to our own situation and make the myth a reality in our own lives, it will remain as incomprehensible and remote as the rules of a board game, which often seem confusing and boring until we start to play.
This strikes me as silly. Are myths a kind of sermon or devotional that needs to be applied to your life to have meaning? Can’t you appreciate the power and imagination of these timeless stories without trying to overtly apply them to your life? Yes, myths often contain insights into human existence. But are they really only “valid” when they change our lives in some perceptible way? I think Armstrong is stretching to make myths relevant today. Something doesn’t have to have therapeutic value to be relevant.
Armstrong tacks a much more interesting tack in the book’s concluding chapter which serves as her conclusion. While occasionally slipping back into therapeutic mode, she posits myths as an example of an intuitive mode of thinking that is a needed balance to science, pragmatism, and cold reason. She discusses Nietzsche’s “Death of God;” how the brutal Twentieth Century damaged the goals of Modernity and its Enlightenment ideals; and how artists like T.S. Elliot, Pablo Picasso, and Malcolm Lowry (among others) used a mythic vision to shed light on the problems of the modern world.
I think Armstrong is much closer to the truth in her conclusion than in her introduction. Although, I don’t always share Armstrong’s pessimism about the relevance of traditional religion in today’s world, I do think art and literature have a key role to play in a healthy society. They can, and do, serve as a kind of mythology for modern times. And I do think intuitive and mythic forms of thought and art are an important balance to the cold rationalism and near worship of science and technology that sometimes afflicts our culture.
It is too bad Armstrong didn’t explore these themes in greater detail. It would have been a much livelier discussion than the one we get.
For those with an interest in the subject A Short History of Myth is an interesting, if flawed, read. And at 150 pages it is a quick one. But its muddled arguments and choppy history keep it from being a book I can strongly recommend.