The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


William Blazek

In Don DeLillo's 1985 novel White Noise, a sociologist explains the postmodern significance of television: “It's like a myth being born right there in our living room, like something we know in a dreamlike and preconscious way. I'm very enthused, Jack” (51). The passage hints at several of the issues involved in considering the place of mythology in studies of the novel: whether or not it is possible to have a modern myth, how relevant oral storytelling (from which myths are born) is to literary fiction, and what role the preconscious or unconscious self has in either mythology or literature (see PSYCHOANALYTIC). Perhaps the fact that a contemporary novelist such as DeLillo can reconfigure the novel form through references to mythology and some of its key tenets suggests the enduring importance of myths to human perception and the writer's imagination. Moreover, the novel, especially in the twentieth century, provides examples of the variety of functions served by mythology in the shaping of modern fiction. Depending on how the parameters of myth are defined and on how they are applied to literature, a case could also be made that myth is such a basic and vital aspect of human nature that it infuses the novel structurally, linguistically, and thematically.

Opposing views point to the incompatibility of myths and literature. Northrop Frye (1912—91), one of the main advocates of mythology's crucial stake in the workings of literature and criticism, accepts that the ancient sources of myths appear in muted and degenerated form in literature and that the evolution of literary forms from Greek drama and epic poetry to Romantic poetry and realist fiction also marks the decline of mythology's significance, although he sees a cyclical return to myth in the ironic mode of modernist texts (see MODERNIS). For the Victorian anthropologist Edward B. Tylor, myths concern the external world and have no symbolic, and therefore no immediate literary, value. The twentieth-century American critic Richard Chase (1914—62) considers myths to have been almost completely superseded by literature. Another case against the synthesis of mythology and literature is made by Walter Benjamin (1892—1940), who blames the evolution of the print industry for the loss of an oral storytelling tradition and the wholesome communities that it sustained. In particular, he explains, “The earliest symptom of a process whose end is the decline of storytelling is the rise of the novel at the beginning of modern times,” and claims, rather unjustly, that the novel “neither comes from oral tradition nor goes into it” (87; see HISTORY). Whether literature is understood as leftover myth or the novel as the chief culprit in the decline of myth's storytelling foundations, the relationships outlined here are clearly fraught with controversy, not least because the purlieus of myth are so wide-ranging, and the measurement of mythology's value to the novel depends on how myth is defined and understood by writers, critics, and readers.

Theories of Myth

Difficulties in defining the meaning and importance of mythology stem from the various ways myth has been applied to different fields of study, notably anthropology, psychiatry, sociology, and literary criticism.

Anthropology, in the pioneering work of Tylor and James G. Frazer (1854—1941), centers on the dynamic roles and rituals associated with primitive mythology, exploring both the social experience behind mythic beliefs and the symbolic importance of fertility rites and burial practices, for example. Frazer's The Golden Bough (1890—1915) catalogs a large number of nature myths, taboos, festivals, customs, and folk practices. The author draws from ancient Egyptian, Greek, and other European traditions in order to prove the intricate practice but also the extinction of magic and religion among what he calls “the primitive savage” (374) and “rude races” (254) before the supremacy of modern science. For Frazer and his follower Jessie L. Weston (1850—1928), myth was a remnant of the past. Nevertheless, Weston's analysis of the Grail legend, From Ritual to Romance (1920), proved a key text in the early twentieth-century revival of interest in myth associated with T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922). A literary critic with a deep understanding of anthropological theory and practice, Eliot became the dominant force in promoting a particular elite version of modernism, in large part because his literary art and criticism were linked to contemporary debates about mythology and ethnography. These debates ranged from Frazer's myth-and-ritual inheritors among the Cambridge Hellenists, most notably the classicists Jane Harrison (1850—1928) and Gilbert Murray (1866—1957), to the opposing views of Franz Boas (1858—1942) and Bronislaw Malinowski (1884—1942), founders of the modern science of ethnography and the “functionalist” method of fieldwork, initially among tribal cultures. (Malinowski's Argonauts of the Western Pacific was published the same year as The Waste Land and James Joyce's Ulysses.) The authority of Eliot's vision enabled him to project in his generous and self-serving 1923 review of Ulysses that Joyce's “mythical method” would replace traditional narrative and prove “a step toward making the modern world possible for art” (1975, Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. F. Kermode, 178).

Sigmund Freud (1856—1939) found the mythic patterns of Greek drama useful paradigms to explain the symbolism of dreams and to develop theories in psychoanalysis about the role of parents and siblings in the formation of sexuality and the psyche. His rival Carl G. Jung (1875—1961) took a more comprehensive view of the ways that myth might release the potential of the unconscious. He proposed a theory of archetypes, motifs that run through ancient and modern myths—sky gods, for example, are expressed in stories of Zeus or flying saucers. Jung identified the source of archetypes as the “collective unconscious,” which he described as the “common psychic substrate of a suprapersonal nature which is present in every one of us” (2). While Jung's interest in mythology was aimed at explaining how archetypes might aid psychological wellbeing, his exhaustive research into mythic symbols and structures influenced literary critics such as Frye and the American “myth and symbol” school. It also seemed to validate the mythological subject matter chosen by leading modernist novelists such as Thomas Mann and Joyce.

From the mid-twentieth century, Joseph Campbell (1904—87) assimilated Jung's theory of archetypal images and popularized the study of myth beyond the confines of anthropology and psychiatry. Emphasizing the myth of the heroic quest, Campbell claims in his seminal early work The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth. (13)

This overarching assertion was further developed in Campbell's later writings, such as The Masks of God (1959—68) and the television series and book entitled The Power of Myth (1988), in which he extols the eternal and universal qualities of myth. The romantic appeal of Campbell's work is described by Robert A. Segal as “fetching” but the theories as being flawed because of their circular arguments, under-analyzed evidence, and mystical nature (138—41). Nevertheless, the generosity of Campbell's vision of oneness between humans, animals, plants, and sky finds parallels in myth and symbol literature criticism with its tendency to find in narrative texts a wealth of mythic imagery and designs.

The French sociologist and philosopher Roland Barthes (1915—80) would also interpret myths as universal forces, but his aim in Mythologies (1957) is mainly to alert readers to the ways that political and social hegemonies can manipulate myths to stultifying effect. Through insightful observations of contemporary life, he develops a way to understand the mechanisms of myth through its historical layers of meaning—investigating through semiology how, for example, a picture of a black French soldier saluting comes to represent imperial France (see IDEOLOGY, STRUCTURALISM). “Signified” objects and concepts combine with verbal, visual, and auditory “signifiers” to form “signs” that can be read by the semiologist in Barthes's system, one that aims to liberate the mind to see the world more clearly. Semiology can therefore defend individuals from the passive conservatism promoted by constricting ideologies that manipulate myths in order to dominate and control. Barthes asserts that myth “establishes a blissful clarity” (143) that simplifies the complexities of history, and that “the very end of myths is to immobilize the world” (155). “[N]othing can be safe from myth” (131), he warns, and thus the myth-reader or semiotician serves as a kind of sociolinguistic Knight Templar to protect the oppressed. Barthes essentially views myth as a danger to the good of modern communities. He pays little attention to other theories of mythology and usually ignores ancient myths in his analyses. Myth as it features in ideology is his predominant concern, and in that regard he is closely in tune with literary critics who acknowledge the inextricable ties between ideology and myth in literature.

Northrop Frye: Mythology, Ideology, and Criticism

Northrop Frye, although open to the most wide-ranging applications of myth to literary study, was keenly aware of the ideological attachments to mythology in practice. In Myth and Metaphor, he calls literature “the mythological imagination at work in the world” (1991, ed. R. D. Denham, 91). Furthermore, he notes two principal features of the social function of myth: it provides “a vision of the cosmos, constructed from human concern” and it will “be seized on by whatever establishment or pressure group is in power” (252). In a manner related to both Campbell and Barthes in their reaction to modern political and social norms, Frye defines the role of his profession: “I see it as the essential task of the literary critic to distinguish ideology from myth, to help reconstitute a myth as a language, and to put literature in its proper cultural place as the central link of communication between society and the vision of its primary concerns” (103).

One of Frye's major contributions to this task was to identify key modes of literary myth, first defining myth as “mythos, story, plot, narrative” (Myth and Metaphor, 3). From that formal basis he identifies core mythic narratives such as the journey and return, the attendant features of those narratives (including metaphorical associations with nature and the seasons, symbols of death and rebirth, or temporal and spatial shifts that might reflect natural cycles or visionary dreams), as well as mythic symbolism and archetypes. With regard to the latter, he explains how “Moby Dick cannot remain in Melville's novel: he is absorbed into our imaginative experience of leviathans and dragons of the deep from the Old Testament onwards” (Anatomy, 100). In his efforts to rescue primary myths from the secondary influence of ideology, Frye observes that primal concerns for a supply of food, sexual reproduction, and communal dwelling can be found in myth's influence on literature across millennia. Examples include archetypically significant scenes in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) following Jane's flight from Rochester and the night she spends alone outdoors, without food or the means to ask for it. Mythic omen and prophesy could be associated with the technical use of foreshadowing (prolepsis) in Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (1875—77). While Frye most often draws his examples from British drama and poetry—most frequently William Shakespeare, William Blake (1757—1827), and John Milton, with special reference to the Bible—he gives space to the novel in his work on myth and literature. His exemplars include Herman Melville, Marcel Proust, and Joyce, notably Finnegan's Wake (1939), which reveals “the turning cycle of life, death, and renewal” (Myth and Metaphor, 372). Frye's critical studies illustrate that “a work of literature has a structure of myth and a texture of metaphor” (Myth and Metaphor, 127). The cultural critic Marc Manganaro examines the authority gained by the rhetorical skills and the comprehensive nature of the work of comparative anthropologists and critics including Fraser, Eliot, Campbell, and Frye, but also notes the conservative strain within these efforts to build a unified system for literary criticism and mythology, a program that cannot escape inherent ideological objectives (1992, Myth, Rhetoric, and the Voice of Authority).

The Mythological Novel

Two critical texts that focus entirely on mythology and the novel are John J. White's Mythology in the Modern Novel (1971) and Michael Palencia-Roth's Myth and the Modern Novel (1987), and both attempt to explain the resurgence of mythological themes and subject matter, especially in British and European literature, following WWI. A need to reassess the foundations of European culture after the war is one explanation, along with a concurrent rejection of mimetic narrative, the influences of Freud and Jung on the novel's range of psycho-mythic referents, and the imaginative potential offered in playing myth and archetypes against the everyday experiences of modern life. White lists sixty-six entries in his bibliography for “Mythological Novels and Novels with Other Preconfigurations,” a term he uses for mythic structures and metaphors in the modern novel (242—45). Among the texts he examines are Mann's Joseph und seine Brüder tetralogy (1933, 1935, 1943, Joseph and his Brothers) and Doktor Faustus (1947, Doctor Faustus), Joyce's Ulysses (“the archetypal mythological novel,” 30), John Updike's The Centaur (1963), Bernard Malamud's The Natural (1952), Hermann Hesse's Demian (1919), Alberto Moravia's Il disprezzo (1954, Contempt), and Alain Robbe-Grillet's Les Gommes (1953, The Erasers). An updated compendium would include texts by ethnic American writers such as Sandra Cisneros, Louise Erdrich, Maxine Hong Kingston, N. Scott Momaday, Toni Morrison, and Amy Tan, novelists who draw upon classic American mythology. Other writers to be added might include Cormac McCarthy (for his reassessments of the frontier myth), writers who use global myths from native or immigrant sources, and writers who mix elements of traditional native or religious myths with the contingencies of contemporary existence.

White focuses on novels that retell classical myths, reference mythology within contemporary settings, or allude to myths. He expresses reservations about an uncritical acceptance of archetypes as central to the mythological novel, acknowledging how Frank Kermode and René Welleck distrust such notions as racial memory in the aftermath of the Holocaust during WWII (78, 104). Palencia-Roth's work is more open to the ideas of Frye and Campbell in incorporating archetypes within his definition of the mythological novel. This inclusiveness allows him to investigate recurrent patterns with mythic associations in three texts, each of which represents one of three types of mythological novels: Gabriel García Márquez's Cien años de soledad (1967, One Hundred Years of Solitude), a mythification novel; Mann's Joseph und seine Brüder (1933, Joseph and his Brothers), illustrating demythification; and Joyce's Ulysses, a novel about remythification. There are certainly naïve and overzealous examples of archetypal criticism: the American myth and symbol critics R. W. B. Lewis, Leo Marx, and Henry Nash Smith earned notoriety as well as opprobrium. Nevertheless, a willingness to discern archetypal structures and imagery in the novel has its rewards for the discerning reader.

Creation, flood, journey, and hero myths are the foundational stories for many texts; but on another level an awareness of archetypes and symbols that relate to human sexuality, nourishment, shelter, community, and consciousness all give life to the novel. Furthermore, to associate the writer with the prophet and visionary, as Frye suggests (Anatomy, 56, 139), or to connect the experience of reading with a form of eternal time (Palencia-Roth, 86), contributes another dimension to the interpretation of mythology's integral relationship with the novel. Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote (1605, 1615) undermines the myth of a golden age of chivalry, yet the characters' testing journey is mirrored by the adventure of the reader in following their stories through the construction of the narrative, balancing ideology and myth, rationality and emotion, reality and imagination.

SEE ALSO: Magical Realism, Reading, Religion.


1. Barthes, R. (1957), Mythologies, trans. A. Lavers.

2. Benjamin, W. (1968), “The Storyteller,” in Illuminations, trans. H. Zorn.

3. Campbell, J. (1949), Hero with a Thousand Faces.

4. Chase, R. (1949), Quest for Myth.

5. Frazer, J.G. (1922), Golden Bough, abridged ed.

6. Frye, N. (1957), Anatomy of Criticism.

7. Jung, C.G. (1969), Four Archetypes, trans. R.F.C. Hull.

8. Palencia-Roth, M. (1987), Myth and the Modern Novel.

9. Segal, R.A. (1999), Theorizing About Myth.

10. White, J.J. (1971), Mythology in the Modern Novel.