If someone wrote a constitution outlining the powers allotted the contemporary storyteller, one of its central clauses might read like this: “So-called ‘myths,’ an antiquated genre cobbled together from perpetuated falsity, if written at all, must be done so for the sole purpose of amusing the children in the nursery.”
But even without such a rigid document, most of us have tacitly consented to this convention. Lemuel K. Washburn, the early-twentieth-century author, atheist, and ardent proponent of such thinking, once derisively asked:
Where are the sons of gods that loved the daughters of men?
Where are the nymphs, the goddesses of the winds and waters?
Where are the gnomes that lived inside the earth?
Where are the goblins that used to play tricks on mortals?
Where are the fairies that could blight or bless the human heart?
Where are the ghosts that haunted this globe?
Where are the witches that flew in and out of the homes of men?
Where is the devil that once roamed over the earth?
Where are they? Gone with the ignorance that believed in them.
These creatures-and this “ignorance”-persist, but they are in disrepair, and too small to matter. We’ve stored them in the playpen, and as any parent will tell you, no object goes unmarked if left with even the best-behaved child. When we in the West wrote off our oldest and most treasured narratives as (at best) merely for children, or (at worst) merely for historians, we created a great discontinuity in our story tradition – and we rarely stop to ask, “Is this where myths truly belong?”
Fortunately, the West is not the only culture with a tradition of storytellers. The Japanese, for example, have a strong narrative continuity, unaffected by the literary developments of western modernity – and their myths are not exclusively for children. Hayao Miyazaki, the most famous Japanese director of what we Americans would call “children’s movies,” recently released Ponyo, an excellent myth-a feature length cartoon-that defies many of our western story conventions. In light of its success as well as that of Miyazaki’s entire catalogue (Spirited Away is considered one of the greatest films in Japanese history), we must wonder if our unspoken laws are false. Ponyo, Miyazaki’s reimagining of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” offers us a glimpse of how we in the West might also restore myth to its proper place.
The film is the story of a love so powerful and important that it could literally touch off the Apocalypse. Sosuke, a small boy who lives with his parents on a sparsely inhabited island, one day comes across Ponyo, a magical fish washed ashore. Sosuke quickly takes a liking to Ponyo and promises to take care of her forever. This innocent promise has profound repercussions because Ponyo, equally innocent and equally smitten, chooses to accept Sosuke’s offer. By sheer strength of will, she defies her fish nature and turns into a human so that she can love Sosuke forever-a person she is not made to love. If Ponyo’s choice and her love remain unfulfilled, if Sosuke’s promise is false and he refuses to love her, then the natural order could not sustain her unnatural decision and would be destroyed. The fate of everything (at least everything that concerns Man) depends upon Sosuke’s willingness to fulfill that promise. In Ponyo, quite a lot depends on love.
The plot uses many archetypes with which westerners are familiar, especially the forbidden love motif. So what sets Ponyo and Miyazaki’s other films apart from western stories? There are too many answers to that question for this short article; however, I believe the most noteworthy distinction is that Miyazaki’s tales show the unparalleled power of mythology. This, I believe, is crucial to understand and emulate if there is to be any restoration of the western myth.
Why is the power of Miyazaki’s mythology significant for western myths? Put simply – because of the decreasing power of the western fairy (by which I mean mythical creature). This diminution (in quality, not frequency) is a relatively recent development in western storytelling. In fact, J.R.R. Tolkien himself, a master of myth and expert on mythology, claims that the devolution of fairies originates with Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
In Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, the fairies are minuscule, too swift to be seen, and out only at night. Their worst deed is to steal a baby and leave behind a double, and best is to bless the marriage bed. In short, Shakespeare’s fairies are barely consequential. Since the Elizabethan era, western literature has continued to diminish the power of the fairy, leaving them without innate supremacy over humans and with a decreasing effect on the human story, and ultimately resulting in characters like David the Gnome and the Smurfs.
This contrasts with a much longer, and far older, tradition of western myth, in which the mythical element is of such great stature that it is incomprehensible and uncontainable. For instance, in Greek mythology, Zeus and the other Olympians, themselves of such a remarkable rank that they could alter the affairs of men on a whim, succeeded the reign of the Titans, who bore monikers like Cronos (Saturn), Oranos (Sky), and Gaia (Earth). Imagine the effect of such imposing characters on the Greek – it was Man, young and old, who was diminutive.
Similarly, in Beowulf-a tale told hundreds of years later and many leagues away-when our heroic King faces the dragon, he is doomed; and when he falls, his country plunges into a dark age. The mythic element was perilous when met, even if it was good-natured. These tales served an existential purpose-they placed man on the periphery of meaning and stature, and the fairy far closer to the center.
Clearly, a drastic shift in the nature of fairies occurred in the West – but why? Because there was a drastic shift in the self-image of the Western Man. Tolkien proposes that the diminishment of western fairies began with European exploration. He says, “It seems to become fashionable soon after the great voyages had begun to make the world seem too narrow to hold both men and elves; when the magic of Hy Breasail…had become the mere Brazils.” This hierarchical reorganization continued into the Enlightenment, during which Europe elevated Man and his reason to supremacy, and rid itself of “superstition.” In such a climate of anthropocentrism, powerful fairies became increasingly unacceptable and therefore less interesting, and were eventually marginalized by the advent of so-called Realism-a European fascination with the mundane and a rejection of the fantastic.
The western fairy is now too impotent to matter, and has become a character in a new myth: the myth of human supremacy. Adults no longer have anything to fear from fairies – and therefore have nothing to learn from them. For example, in 1904, J.M. Barrie premiered Peter Pan, Or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, a play that presents mythic creatures in a manner highly indicative of the modern West. In Barrie’s tale, a fairy’s existence is so beholden to humans that the mere disbelief of a child is potent enough to destroy it, and a child’s clap, which signifies belief, is strong enough to resurrect it. Certainly, Peter Pan has many virtues (its criticism of “adulthood” for one), and is a modern classic for good reason. However, Peter Pan is just that: truly modern. In it, the fairy is entirely subjected to human power. Today, in films like Ferngully, Shrek, and Hellboy 2, fairies are dominated by humans, and the new myth of human superiority and fairy inferiority is perpetuated.
Fortunately, the West is not entirely lost. In the mid-twentieth century, authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Madeleine L’Engle began retelling the old story in competition with the new, and made fairies – like Aslan – powerful enough to teach adults and children alike. We can hope their work will continue with a new generation of authors. In the meanwhile, Miyazaki’s fairies are potent enough to remind us of something missing from our own tradition – and maybe even ourselves.