My chum Sandy Auden has just posted an excellent chat with one of my favourite history writers and presenters, Michael Wood. I’ve mentioned Michael’s excellent books and BBC series here before and was once surprised to be contacted by the adminstrator of a web resource on South American history because I had been commenting on Michael’s Conquistadors and they wanted to link to the comments (which was very flattering and a reminder of how linked up we are today).
Michael’s recent series and book was In Search of Myths and Heroes, which I thought was a natural progression for him since in all of his series he has explored not only history but oral tradition and myth, a quality which is especially noticeable in In Search of the Trojan War and In the Footsteps of Alexander (do yourself a favour, ignore Ollie Stone’s dismal movie and watch Michael’s series instead). In the Alexander series there were a number of scenes in the East where native tribesmen would recount for him ancient poems handed down century after century detailing the epic of Alexander, recited around camp fires, the way humans have told tales since before even Homer.
I see from Sandy’s excellent interview that this is a quality Michael has been quite concious of and indeed influenced the making of this latest series. He is also excellent in relating ancient to modern, making long-past events and myths relevant to a modern audience not necessarily familiar with them; in one scene following Jason and the Argonauts he remarked that once they left the Meditteranean they were, as a more modern myth would put it, ‘boldly going where no-one had gone before.’
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone that a person who reads so much history and fantasy would find mythologies so compelling. I’ve just read Karen Amrstrong’s A Short History of Myth due from Canongate later this year as part of a series of books by contemporary authors re-working ancient myth (the series will be simultaneously released by 24 publishers around the world). Many of our best fiction writers use myth and folklore to great effect: Gaiman, Holdstock, Aldiss to name but a handful.
When used skilfully it achieves great effects because they are using themes and stories which humans have passed down for thousands of years and they resonate, sometime conciously, sometimes at an unconcious level. Myths should never be written of as the mumblings of primitive peoples struggling to understand their world. Although many do discuss subjects such as gods and creation stories, they are less about those subjects and far more about people. That’s why they are still relevant and why gifted writers still re-work them for modern audiences.