Sunday, September 20, 2015

Stories About Stories

I like Brian Attebery a lot, and I am really enjoying his book Stories about Stories, but this is wrong:

There is an important difference between castoff myth and living tradition. The Scandinavian Eddas, the Kalevala, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and the stories recounted by Homer or Ovid are myths of vanished civilizations or peoples converted to other religions. They no longer belong to anyone but are legitimately part of a cultural commons, available to anyone who wishes to tap into archaic mysteries.
He then goes on to discuss 'living religions' and their myths.

The Kalevala was written in the 19th century, drawing on Finnish folklore. It is key to the rise of Finnish nationalism. Ask a Finn if it's dead myth and if it no longer belongs to Finns. Be prepared to duck.

There are no 'Scandinavian Eddas.' The Eddas are Icelandic, and Iceland is not a Scandinavian country, due to being half way across the North Atlantic, rather than on the Scandinavian penninsula. I would argue that the Eddas and the Sagas belong to Icelanders, though plenty of other people have tried to grab them, mostly in the service of Scandinavian or Germanic nationalism. See Wagner. Are the Icelandic myths dead? Yes and no. They are an important part of Icelandic literature and history, part of the Icelanders' sense of their history and who they are. Like the Kalevala, they are national myths, rather than religious myths.

Stories about Stories is an interesting book. Attebery is diving into difficult topics, such as how legit is it to use the myths of indigenous peoples for modern fantasy? In other words, cultural appropriation. He goes very slowly and carefully, thinking the topic through rather than issuing a slogan. But the focus on myths as religious bothers me a bit. Myths can be in the service of cultures and nations. This is who we are. This is our origin. Finland is a small country that struggled to become a nation. Iceland is a far smaller country that has struggled to survive through most of its history. Their literatures are central to who they are. I don't think I would say their myths are 'castoff' and up for grabs.

The Icelandic myths are up for grabs in one sense. They have already been grabbed by far bigger nations: the Scandinavians, England, Germany, the US. There is no way to go back. The result is a very mixed bag. I like Wagner's Ring Cycle. I like the first Thor movie. But there is an amazing lot of Viking crap out there, much of it to be found in Scandinavian gift shops in the Upper Midwest. I am sure I can find plenty of crap in Icelandic shops online, as well. That is one difference between sacred and secular myths. The sacred ones may produce horrible kitsch, but it's sincere. Secular myths can be used cynically, with hipster irony.

Somehow the vendor in Pratchett's Small Gods is relevent here, but I'm not sure how.


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