A Reflection on Three Questions Concerning the Re-telling of Sacred Stories and of Myths (An Academically Disreputable Inquiry)


  1. Are there canonical sources—gold-standards—for myths, and how would we recognize them?
  2. Should our re-visioning of sacred persons and mythical people stay true to the standard version?
  3. Should there be myth-dilations?

Brusque answers:

  1. Yes, the two Bibles for sacred stories, and Homer, mainly, for pagan myth.
  2. Yes, at least as far as their vitals, their life-data, the given facts, are concerned.
  3. Yes, myths demand amplification.

Gold-standards: Which and Why?

1. The Hebrew Bible (including the Apocrypha) and the Christian Bible palpably differ in authority from, say, gnostic gospels, such as the Gospel of Judas, which is flagrantly fantastic and deliberately contrarian. Since this little essay is mainly about pagan myth, I shall stray into the Bible-related answer to the second question with a testimonial and then have done with the Bible as a canonical source.

Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers (1933-1943) is the most expansive re-telling of the Hebrew Bible I know of, twenty-six chapters of Genesis (24-50), roughly thirty-five pages, expanded more than fifty-fold into eighteen-hundred pages. As far as I can tell, this meticulous detailing, this exposé of the human story behind the sacred story and of events not only on the living earth and its terrestrial underworld, but also in a heaven of disaffected angels, does not deviate one jot or tittle from the given Biblical fact, what you might call the life-structure of the twelve brothers and their one father and several mothers, nor are Mann’s thousand-and-one concrete realizations of the laconic original in any way factually incompatible with it. This disciplined faithfulness, I will claim below, imparts to the retelling a pithy vitality that a looser treatment would dissipate.

2. What can I mean by the “vital facts” of a mythical being? Here is an anecdote that intimates what is meant by a fact: Clemenceau, French prime minister from 1917-1920, during a friendly discussion with a representative of the Weimar Republic about what historians might write concerning German guilt for the First World War, said: “This I don’t know. But I know for certain that they will not say that Belgium invaded Germany.” Facts, when ascertainable, are interpretation-proof residues of reality. By “vital” facts I mean biographical data of that sort.

Where are the facts of myth to be found? In the canonical account, the gold-standard telling. I will give an example of divergent facts in different texts, which bear on the biographical armature of Helen—the Helen of whom Marlowe asked: “Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships, / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?”

Stesichorus, a prolific sixth-century B.C. poet of a wholly lost oeuvre, wrote, conventionally, of a Helen who went to Troy. For this imputation on her respectability, the gods blinded him until he produced a palinode, a counter-song of retraction (retold by Plato in Phaedrus 243), in which she never was in Troy, but was rescued from her abductor Alexander in Egypt by its king. Homer, we may infer, refused this retraction, which would have nullified his Iliad—and remained blind. The counter-canonical tale, in which Troy harbored a phantasm of Helen, is accepted by Herodotus (Persian War, 2.112 ff.). His motive is, I think, to relegate to the status of “mythical” in the derogatory sense this early West-East incursion. It is mere pre-history; history begins with the datable antecedents to the East-West invasion of the Persian War. Euripides later picks up this version in his Helen, a romance.

3. Now why is Homer’s version the standard reference? How can I know that? Well, first he precedes Stesichorus by roughly a century, so the later writer is being reactive, derivative. Second, Homer’s poems were saved, presumably deservedly. These are, however, mere appeals to circumstance. The truly telling argument appeals to Homer’s greatness and the consequent poignant actuality of his people.

I aver that books come in an arguable continuum of judgment-categories from really bad, through enjoyably competent, to seriously good. But “great” is a category discontinuous with this spectrum; it breathes in a different ether. The criteria are, in fact, specifiable, although here only in abbreviated fashion: it is sufficient to observe that the band of those who have actually read the books in question tends to come together over their classification. For example, despite Hesiod’s wintry charm, I, at least, have never heard anyone argue that he is seriously comparable to Homer.

Why not? What propels Homer, for those who have savored him line by line, into a darling of the gods who blinded him not as a punishment but to make him the fitter a conduit for the Muses’ song—an artful “maker” (Greek: poietēs) of epic poetry, yet not out of matter created by himself, but from fully formed figures imparted to him by the Musical divinities (a distinction elaborated below, in II.3 and 4).

Take this very case—Helen. Stesichorus’s Helen is the choice-less victim of an abduction, perhaps a rape. This Helen-version saves her reputation but at the expense of her vitality. Homer’s Helen is in every respect fully actual: She is, before her escapade as she is after her recapture, tired of her limp husband Menelaus. She willingly runs off with the pretty-boy Alexander, taking along Spartan treasure and leaving behind her baby girl. A real abductor would have forced her to bring the child, a valuable house slave, as we learn in the Odyssey (14.447). Helen is indefeasibly seductive—she will make up to Alexander’s brother Hector in Troy and beguile Odysseus’s son Telemachus in Sparta—but she never likes the man she’s with. A funny line in the mostly unfunny Iliad comes after she has watched her present man skedaddle from the single combat with her husband, the contest arranged to end the Trojan war then and there. She has been watching it from Ilium’s topless towers (or rather high walls) and Aphrodite comes to her with an order: “Go to your man, he’s waiting in your bedchamber.” And she says (at some length): “Why don’t you go?” (3.395). This fatally beautiful, flagrantly defective female is unsteady and willful and altogether a presence—the real Helen, a woman who makes choices, bad ones. At home in Sparta she could have bid the charming Trojan prince a suppressedly tearful good-bye. And he would have seen enough to make that devastating choice, the so-called Judgment of Paris, that threw the goddesses into the war-mode. This heedless preference for the mortal Helen over three immortals expressed by Priam’s most light-weight son is, incidentally, alluded to only in one line, late in the Iliad (24.28) and in very vague language not naming Helen; clearly Homer thinks it’s a very subsidiary cause for his war. So Helen’s vitals are not to be tampered with, unless lots of evidence is adduced. She was in Troy, all right.

4. Some texts are excused from this obligation to preserve factuality. For example, Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), in bulk the post-pagan counterpart to Mann’s post-biblical Joseph, is not to be held to any fact, but can be as factlessly atmospheric as the author likes, because Ulysses is not Odysseus in his own place and time; rather Bloom is the Jewish-Irish reincarnation, the avatar of a remote pagan.

Similarly Kazantzakis’s Odyssey: A Modern Sequel (1938), a continuation grafted onto the twenty-second book of the Odyssey, is a deliberate fantasy, a contravention of Homer’s account of the hero’s return. In this epic, Odysseus returns for good—a final return confirmed by a last short voyage in which the sailor takes leave of his odysseian travels by going way inland, there to build a sailor’s cenotaph. Kazantzakis’s willful rewriting of the Odyssey, three times the length of the Homeric epic, pays a price: This new, entirely modern—here meaning indeterminately straying—Odysseus and his wildly fantastic pilgrimage are difficult to take in (and I can’t pretend to have gotten far). Moreover, this new Odysseus, who takes off into the wild blue yonder, introduces a duplicity, a rending, into the mythical world: There are now two Odysseuses. This doubling is not the same as two perspectives on one character. For example, we may ask whether Aeschylus’s Clytemnestra commits an assassination or performs an execution and if his Orestes commits a vengeful matricide or performs a divinely-ordered retribution—but only if there is one queen and one son about whom we ask.

5. So Homer is not one of many, an idiosyncratic poetaster and lax researcher who failed to acknowledge alternative versions. His Helen is the Helen, not because, as I shall claim below, he concocted, conflated, composed her cleverly, but because she came to him. One way to put this is that, as he lived, blessedly, with a tradition of tales from which to harvest concretely present detail for his figures as well as hints of immemorial depth, so he was unburdened by the scholar’s notion of “literature,” which replaces the natural coherence of the imaginative world with the learned administration of written texts. His highly formal and consequently very expressive prosody, his clever punning and sparely-expressed psychological complexity, are only embellishments spun out of his artistry. His people come from elsewhere and they bring their own inimitable souls and their proper eventfulness. He holds on to his people and the words do come: Res tene, verba sequentur.

Canonical Revisioning: How and Why?

1. From the writer’s perspective, adherence to the prototype is profitable because the unconstrained, uncontained imagination goes flaccid; it becomes tautly concentrated when encased by the cincture of fact.

2. From the story’s perspective, one might well ask “what’s the difference?” as long as the tale is well told. Well, it makes a great difference for the epic world, the world of the imagination, into which the story taps. In bringing an invented alternative, an innovation, into this world, the writer, as I said above, rends it, tears its fabric—for the pagan myths form a coherent universe in their own time and place. Now there will be two homonymous but different beings, both now vagrants in their territory, vying for legitimacy. There seems to me to be an obligation for latter-day writers to integrate their re-telling into its world—or why call your creation “Helen?” Two Helens offend against Ockham’s Razor by needlessly multiplying entities—a mere misdemeanor in the realm of logic but a sort of sin against the land of the imagination.

3. Once the factual frame is subverted, the discipline is gone and mere invention supervenes—that ludicrous human arrogation of divinity called “creativity.” The tale now issues not from the character’s essence but from the writer’s, the faux-creator’s, invention. No longer does this author call on the Muses—“Sing, goddess, the wrath” and “Speak to me, Muse, of the man”—but on his own “creativity,” and all too often that piddling confection, a literary creation, comes forth. Not, however, I hasten to say, inevitably, for human invention and artifice too can produce clever and convincing works. So let me repeat here how a maker-poet differs from a creator-poet. The former applies his well-trained artistry to received material, of which more below (II.4); the latter imitates God by making something out of nothing—in modern parlance, out of his unconscious.

4. Disregard of Homer’s givens is an invitation to what appears to me the most deleterious mode for making fictions: subjectivity. Put positively, the poets that seem to me to make the most vital fictions, beings that have more life and surely greater longevity than real people (or animals: what real dog has lived through the millennia that Odysseus’s old Argos has?), are objective reporters. Beings come to them, become manifest, and press to be bodied forth. They appear, to be sure, in the imagination, but they are not made by the imagination. The poet is to be credited for his acute internal vision. It achieves his beings’ thereness: their imaginative concretion and verbal articulation, their human-all-too-human particularity and definitive description. That Odysseus has a long torso and short legs is well-observed by Homer and his vivid word pictures come from keen looking—the kind of seeing that blindness fosters. [1]

There is a curious notion that poetry is self-expression: Well, lyric poetry perhaps, but surely not epic or epic-derivatives, in which the rare “I” is authorial, or better, reportorial, and not personal. There is a second strange idea that authors’ sufferings bring gravity to their work. Well, if so, probably more for readers who seek in fiction the warm motions of feeling rather than the cool delights of imagination. To me it seems that the maker’s emotional vulnerabilities aren’t in it, at least not as generative principles; sympathy for victimized women, abhorrence for brutal men, these are imported latter-day sensitivities, romantic in mode and contemporary in content; so conceived, figures can’t come into their own. Take, on the other hand, a case of an author clearly in love: Tolstoy with Natasha Rostov, as actual a being, both as an enchanting girl and as a dowdy, demanding mater familias, as ever walked the earth. Surely, she appeared to him first, and he couldn’t help but love her. I can’t imagine that she was conceived to bolster the self-esteem of young wives thickening around the middle.

There is, to be sure, good subjective fiction as well, but its appeal is to readers’ personal sensibilities or their special interest in the author. Such fictions tend to lack that poignant particularity which is the facade assumed by universality in epics and novels. In the course of the fifth century B.C., Odysseus seems to have lost his Homeric standing—his vivid imaginativeness degraded into self-serving lying, his ingenious versatility into base scheming, his meaning-laden adventures into comic episodes. Sophocles’s Philoctetes and Euripides’s satyr play, The Cyclops, and minor pot-paintings are the evidence. Honest Homer gives some cause for this view, to be sure, but why it took over, I don’t know; perhaps Odysseus was regarded as a naturalized Athenian and so fair game. But the Odysseus, Homer’s Odysseus, who has, as the commander of his homeward-bound fleet, episodes of culpable obliviousness, and, as the returned repossessor of his palace, a moment of murderous rampageousness, is accorded some justification: sheer exhaustion on the seas, and once at home, the discovery that his palace is infested by a hundred-plus uninvited suitors who have eaten out his substance, plotted to murder his son, and all but committed outrage against his wife. The Homeric Odysseus is a dilatory but faithful husband, bound to a wife who is his equal and partner; he is an ever-mindful parent who—as far as I know alone of all the heroes encamped before Troy—regularly refers to himself as a father, “the father of Telemachus” (2.260, 4.354), a usually temperate and self-controlled man, and, above all, a great poet, the poet of his own odyssey. To see him as repulsive is to put in suspension his full, his objective, his primary Homeric being in deference to a preconceived sensibility.

5. What, then, is the function of human imagination in making fictions, and particularly in filling out myths? I think that there are two imaginative functions: one is like a workshop, the other like a reception area.[2] The workshop is an internal place where human artfulness goes to work on given material to curry and articulate it. The reception area is an internal place just waiting for the Muses to present beings and the actions that spring from their essence—that being a fancy way of saying outright what our contemporaries find insupportably embarrassing: No one, no one whosoever, has a non-evasive answer to the question where these self-sustaining fictional beings come from. This I do know: that their appearance in the imaginative chamber is what makes great fictions objective—given rather than created. And that is precisely why it seems to me pusillanimous to refuse to consider a theological explanation.

6. Another charge against subjectivity in myth-adaptation is that it invites indeterminacy. For while objectivity is apt to let cheerfulness break out, the subjective mode tends to ally itself with the suffering moods. Now objective suffering has some tragic clarity, but subjective suffering tends to willful irresolution.

Irresolution, indeterminacy, is the via ignava, the “craven way,” of the intellect; it is the enemy of openness, for it is a powerful pre-entrenchment. The mantra “Life is very messy” shifts responsibility to a non-being, “Life;” in sober fact, it is people who make messes, and people are meant to unmake them. Some tragic dilemmas have no solution, but all human conditions have a resolution: a way we come to deal with them, either by a masterful coping or by a determined resignation or by a decision to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.

It seems to me that art, especially narrative art, should not be so unlike human reality as to be terminally indeterminate, when the human life-span is a concatenation of crises-plus-resolutions, and the whole often reveals order in retrospect. So, also, then, should works of art offer not escapism, to be sure, but some sort of sublimation—which is but a sort of condition-transcending conclusiveness.

7. Aristotle says that plot (mythos) is the source, and as it were, the soul of tragedy, because tragedy is primarily an imitation of actions, and therefore only secondarily an imitation of agents (Poetics 1450a40 ff.). In other words, the event structure determines the character. That may be true of tragedies, which are brief cut-outs of extended life, concentrating on an event and its actors. Epics, however (perhaps not the anonymous bardic songs but surely the attributed Homeric poems), which are not under the Greek one-day time-limitation customary for tragedy, but are time-extensible ad libitum (Aristotle, Poetics 1449b8-9), may be said to work in reverse: the character extrudes, so to speak, the events. Here the person determines the myth, at least in its detailed realization: Its people act out who they are, and an old story of one of those East-West women-stealings (which for Herodotus are, as I said, the dubious pre-historic antecedents of the Persian War) is turned by the canonically envisioned Helen-character into a willful running-off. For real, round people, in life or fiction, are not mere victims for long—and especially not in fiction, where victim-types tend to make the plot peter out and thus to prevent finalities. After all, waiting to be rescued is no life, and such supine characters have no after-life either. Hence, one might make it a rule of receptive imagining and so of fiction-writing—a first bit of advice to authors-to-be: Before you even begin to write, know what happens after your telling is done. For if you don’t know that, you don’t know the meaning of your story. Real characters must live out the afterlife you’ve made for them, and their fate must backlight your story.

8. Even a great work, like Charlotte Bronte’s best, Villette, is diminished by willful indefiniteness: By the last page we do not know whether Lucy Snowe will receive her intended husband back, saved out of the tempest encountered by his returning ship, or will be left with the cold comfort of being the directress of a well-established girls’ boarding school. There are, to be sure, heavy hints at a shipwreck, but that is because the author, while reluctant to burden her long-suffering heroine with one more final disaster, also wishes to capture for her story the romantic gravity of ultimate misfortune. But it is not done in good faith; Charlotte Bronte must know whether his proper mythos makes the man emerge safely—or drown.

Terminal indeterminacy, abandoning the reader in medias res, is not only irritating, it is unrealistic, for in real life M. Paul either walks in the door of that pensionnat in the “clean Faubourg” or he doesn’t. So also one of these options should turn out to be a fact of the Muses’ tale; why, then, muddy the waters with that indecisively raging tempest at sea? Better to build in some clear clues of eventuation; that done, it is, to be sure, a neat trick of the story-telling art to finish before the conclusion, leaving it for imaginative readers and epigonous myth-makers to clue out the fact.

Should there be myth-dilations?

One feature of a solid, well-rounded item of reality is that its substance is attended by millions of strange shadows, or conversely, that it offers indefinitely many perspectives: angular ones, as the observer circumambulates the object, radial ones, as the viewer pans in for close-ups and beyond. Well-actualized beings of the imagination are just the same. The Muse-delivered prototype entrains multitudes of re-tellings; for the captivated imagination there is no end of new views.

This essay originally appeared in the St. John’s Review (Volume 57, No.2, 2016) and is republished here with gracious permission of the author. Miss Brann welcomes questions/comments via mail: Dr. Eva Brann, St. John’s College, 60 College Avenue, Annapolis, MD, 21401-1655 (she does not use computers).


*Cato the Elder: “Hold onto things, the words will follow.” Quoted in Jane Hirshfield’s essay “The Question of Originality,” in Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (New York: Harper Perennial,  1998).

[1] So the English Homer in his blindness sees and tells “of things invisible to mortal sight” (Paradise Lost 3.55).

[2] Kant’s apparently similar “productive” and “reproductive” imagination are toto caelo different, the first being a deep faculty for bringing together sensibility and understanding to make cognitive experience possible, the other being analogous to ordinary memory. See his Critique of Pure Reason, B 181.

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