This short essay from Philip Pullman on the resilience and wonder of myths was first published in 2005 to accompany a boxset of myths and their retellings that featured Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson and Karen Armstrong. We’re making it available here to celebrate the republication of Pullman’s own fascinating, controversial retelling of Christian mythology The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.
From time to time someone comes up with the idea that there are only seven stories in the world. Or only three, or only eleven, or whatever. Or else they claim to have discovered that every different story is a variant of one basic story, such as Cinderella, or the quest for the Holy Grail.
And they find no lack of listeners, because our interest in how stories work and in what sort of stories there could be is almost as powerful as our appetite to hear them told. We could argue about it for ever, and our pleasure would never pall.
But what is certain is that writers and novelists and poets, people who have a visceral need to tell stories, find themselves coming back again and again to those narrative shapes and forms and structures we call myths.
There’s something sensuous about the attraction they hold, something almost physically satisfying about their shapes; we like to run them through our minds, we like to stroke their contours, we like to arrange the light so it brings out their features and throws interesting and form-revealing shadows. A myth is intoxicating, because it is something other than just a story. In one way, it’s the very opposite of poetry. Robert Frost said that poetry is whatever gets lost in translation: we could say that a myth is a story that is not lost, or harmed, or diminished as it sheds the skin of one language and assumes that of another, because as C.S. Lewis pointed out, a myth is a story whose power is independent of its telling. Our first experience of the story or Orpheus and Eurydice would affect us just as strongly in whatever version we came across it, because it’s the shape of the events that contains the power and not merely the language.
This is a fact designed to keep writers humble; the brilliance and dash of our sentences are of little importance beside the events we try to describe. It’s a reminder that most of our readers still regard our words as a window and not a surface: they want to see through them to the great and tragic forms acting out the passionate drama of the story. The cosmic events the characters repeat in this driven and compulsive way are far more interesting than our prose style.
Nevertheless, each new writer does bring something never seen before to a story that might have been told a thousand times. It might never have been seen from quite this angle, it might never have been suffused with quite this emotional tone; the intelligence that plays over the events might never have glittered with quite this silvery wit. This is what makes the telling, and retelling, and retelling of myths such an endlessly refreshing struggle, such a demanding privilege, such a humbling joy.
— Philip Pullman is the author of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, as well as the His Dark Materials trilogy and the upcoming The Book of Dust.