Saturday, 22 September 2012

The Politics of Myth


In stories, images and casual references we include a lot of mythic items. Not just big narrative-involved myths like Venus or Hamlet, but characters who stand for something that we vaguely recognise and sometimes want to name-check – Robin Hood and redistribution, Captain Cook and discovery. But around the names of mythic figures (whether they really existed or not -- and that’s not always clear, Robin Hood again) there in fact cluster through time a remarkable and remarkably changing series of ideas, concepts, obsessions, confusions, all with some social and so political edge. These notions hang together, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes contradictorily, and generate a living and sometimes challenging myth. To look at these myths will both indicate just how much politics, past and present, there is about in our world, present and past, and how strange some of the past politics can be – which might even make us wonder if our own politics of myth is always all that sensible ? To put it another way, the figures of political myth can be turned inside out and read not only for their own weirdness (look what has happened over time to King Arthur), but also as classic examples of how people find meaning, consolation, escape, or even vengeance, in the myths they use so casually and so much.

The topics chosen for examination here are a set of myths that are still with us in quite forceful ways, have changed and re-formed quite a lot over time, and may well still be changing in our own mythic minds. Example for further analysis might well include Merlin, Robin Hood, Elizabeth I, Ned Kelly, Jesse James, Marilyn Monroe.

Each talk can be accessed for free and in full by following the link to the Melbourne Free University website:

  1. King Arthur (and Guinevere and Lancelot and Galahad and Morgan)
Starting over a millenium ago (even if there was no real KA) and flowing thorough the languages and cultures of Europe, focal is the idea of the king who stood for various forms of nobility but was finally let down by dissent among his own people. Not surprisingly, a lasting myth.

  1. Joan of Arc (and the English, and the French, the Inquisition and the many later versions)
Religious, pure-hearted, a successful war-leader, the saviour of enfeebled France, and burnt to death before she was thirty: surely the most startling of stories, and also one with remarkably varied meanings for people, not only in France.


The plays and poems would be enough for a wise author myth, but on top of that comes the insistence from many apparently sane people that he didn’t write them anyway. One of the main contenders died before most of the good plays were written, so this myth seems to have unusually obsessive origins.

  1. Bennelong (and Boney and Jandawarra)
The relation between Australia’s indigenous people and the most recent arrivals has been a long and often negative story, and one way of looking at it is to compare mythically different figures, the notionally appropriated Bennelong, the fabricated image of `Boney’ and the actual criminal -- or tragic -- figure of Jandawarra. 

  1. Sherlock Holmes (and Watson and Irene Adler and the countless imitations)
They are only stories ! But scholars still go on about just which was 221B Baker Street; the hat and glass are a must for play detection. The rather complex myth of Sherlock Holmes is, what with drugs, urban angst and gender tensions, vigorously alive today.

1 comment:

  1. Hi there Stephen. I had never even heard of Melbourne Free University until I read about the Crime Fiction series that's starting next week (and in which I wrote an article on Weekend Notes if you are interested in seeing - http://www.weekendnotes.com.au/melbourne-free-university-classics-of-crime-fiction/).

    What a top bloody joint, eh? :) I hope to come along to something at MFU in the future. Health issues prevent at the moment but it all sounds wonderful :)

    There is a lot to explore on the website - like the audios you mention here. Yep, very glad to have made MFU's acquaintance :)

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