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The Life of P

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The Myth Factory

NO SPOILERS FOR AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR CONTAINED BELOW

Human beings are storytelling creatures, as we are oft told.  Usually this is about the narratives through which we interpret the events in our lives, but on a larger scale stories tell us from where we came and allow us to conceptualise our place in an increasingly large universe. Over time our most sacred stories transitioned from oral folklore and mythology into codified religion and, in doing so, they gradually lost their mutability to become dogmatic truths. As a species, we lost something in this shift.

In 2009, Disney made a surprising acquisition of Marvel for $4.29 billion. Now, with billions of dollars in revenue from the monumentally successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, it makes perfect financial sense. But in 2009, we were only two films into what Marvel termed “Phase One” of the MCU following the breakout success of Iron Man. The only other release, The Incredible Hulk, had a lukewarm reception. It can be viewed as a shrewd commercial gamble but I think that misunderstands their intention. Disney’s real motivation only became clear to me several years later when, in 2012, it purchased Lucasfilm, ostensibly paying $4.06 billion for a single franchise, Star Wars. Unlike Marvel at the time of the acquisition, everyone knew that the Star Wars label was essentially a licence to print money, so few questioned the business decision. Most of the scrutiny came from fans concerned about the consequences for a fictional universe dear to their hearts. At the time I pointed out those fears were misplaced given the expert curation of the MCU following the Marvel acquisition and George Lucas’ own inability to manage his creation. Disney’s stewardship has been more uneven in respect of Star Wars (quite aside from mixed reactions to the films, the dearth of videogames following an exclusive licensing deal with EA is a travesty), but the acquisition builds to the same goal.

For several hundred years, the most retold stories outside of religion were fairytales, be they the Germanic tales we associate with the Brothers Grimm, the Middle Eastern tales collected in One Thousand and One Nights or the countless folk tales from Africa, China and beyond. These continued the oral tradition of being retold and altered, with each storyteller imparting something of themselves. These are the stories upon which The House of Mouse truly built its empire, moving from amusing cartoons to stories with deep societal roots which then became synonymous with childhood. Although I may dislike the “Disneyfiction” of darker tales, such retelling is perfectly in keeping with their folk story origins.

In the 20th century, comicbooks were a major disruptive force. With DC and Marvel at the forefront, we saw the creation of a new mythology of alien gods and human heroes. This mythic nature may be clearest with Marvel’s literal translation of the Norse pantheon into the Asgardian race, but is equally true of super-powered mutants and those caught in their wake. These were also mutable characters who could change with the times, routinely killed off and resurrected to reflect the values and needs of each decade. The core elements of the characters remained the same, but they provided a lens through which to perceive rapidly changing times. It is no accident that their rise occurred alongside increasing secularisation, because for many these were allegorical stories that served a similar purpose as religious teachings in calibrating our moral compass through lessons like Spider-man’s familiar, “with great power comes great responsibility”. And if you question the cultural impact that comics had before the rise of their colossal movie franchises, consider 2007’s mainstream US press coverage and backlash to the “unpatriotic” decision to kill Captain America in a post-9/11 story arc.

Amazing Fantasy #15, Aug. 1962

These mythological intentions are even clearer with Star Wars. George Lucas has overtly espoused his appreciation for John Campbell’s seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he examines what he terms the “monomyth”, a single overarching story that humans in unconnected societies have been telling one another around the world and across the ages, a story that appears fundamental to what it means to be human. He identifies all the points of commonality and maps out “the hero’s journey”, which Lucas slavishly used as a template to craft Luke Skywalker’s adventure. The extent to which the resulting story resonated with its audience can scarcely be described.

This, then, is what Disney has been acquiring beyond its original foothold in fairytale and folklore: the sources of modern mythology, control over the central stories that we tell (and retell) outside of religion. We see now the culmination of the MCU’s ten-year story in Avengers: Infinity War, drawing together characters it has spent a decade establishing. Even within that timescale we can see societal shifts emerge and become incorporated, such as Black Panther upending the perceived wisdom that a black blockbuster could be a financial success, whilst also posing searching questions about racial identity and responsibility or Civil War’s (underdeveloped) questions about identity registration and the nature of a society’s sense of security.

Many are baffled by the success of the Marvel and Star Wars films. This may be because they seem childish when compared to more serious fare or because it is easy to view them in the same way as forgettable action flicks. They are fantasies and they are silly. For several years my advice has been to approach these films specifically with the concept of mythology in mind. When we read the stories of the Norse gods, we don’t decry the ridiculousness of Loki’s children including a large wolf, a gigantic snake and an eight-legged horse, or that Odin keeps the severed head of wise Mimir alive by using some herbs and singing. These sorts of stories are not bound by that kind of cold logic. Rather, it is the shape of the story, and individual interactions, from which we learn  a few truths about the world, what it means to be human and, perhaps, ourselves.

Norse Mythology

I remember as a boy my father introducing me to myths of the Norse gods. Although they were told to me as pure fiction, they resonated with an identical primal, religious truth to the Biblical stories that pervaded my Catholic upbringing. Over time I developed a more nuanced understanding of fiction not merely as a vehicle for entertainment but a purveyor of deeper truths. Nowhere is that truer than with tales that transcend a single telling and earn the loftier title of myth. The difference may be nothing more than that they are a mongrel amalgamation of retellings, more powerful than any single story or storyteller.

Neil Gaiman’s work has always been infused with the ancient myths, particularly his most literary works, The Sandman and American Gods. Now he is releasing his retelling of the tales with which I (and he) grew up in a volume titled simply Norse Mythology. The muted black and gold cover feels less fantastic than the artwork adorning his past fictions and the black-edged paper of the signed first edition produces a sombre, earthy tome. Mjöllnir weighs heavily on the cover though the book thankfully lacks its heft.

Of course, another Gaiman book meant an another launch event and another chance to hear him speak, this time in a packed out auditorium at the Southbank Centre. The larger audience meant that the evening was host to some big announcements. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Gaiman chose to open with a reading not of the topical tale of The Master Builder (which he paraphrased as Odin deciding to build a wall around Asgard to keep the frost giants out and, essentially, making them pay for it…) but rather with Freya’s Unusual Wedding. His respect for the oral tradition that begat these tales is evident in the punchy short sentences and in the humour that suffuses his versions. They originated, he noted, in an oppressive part of the world where in the summer the sun barely set and in the winter it barely rose — in either case the solution was to get drunk and tell stories round the fire. These are stories that deserve to be told out loud.

When asked what stories he thought he would survive in the next thousand years, he saw limitation in the fact we tend to read rather than speak and retell our biggest stories. Whilst he would love to see The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy still being read, it would require similar study to reading Shakespeare to unpack a simple joke about digital watches and their relevance at a specific point in time during the transition from analogue to digital. Which would almost certainly ruin the joke. Instead, he decided he would be happy if, in another thousand years, we were still telling the Norse myths. Perhaps we are in an age when we contribute new ideas to an existing canon of characters and keep them moving forward, polishing, refreshing and renewing them. Think of comicbook superheroes updated for each decade, Sherlock reborn in the modern world. Gaiman himself has done so with The Sandman‘s Dream and Death being touchstones for countless modern writers exploring those same Eternal characters.

He revealed a considerable amount on various other projects too, With a lot of his work being translated into other media, it’s a great time to be a fan of his work. We saw the latest trailer for the forthcoming Starz adaptation of American Gods (which is likely to be released through Amazon Prime in the UK). Meanwhile the Good Omens film is progressing, with a director to be selected in the next month or two, followed by casting. He mused on the emotional experience of writing those characters without his co-author Pratchett to call on, a film that he wanted to see made but will never get to view. A bigger surprise was a previously unscreened trailer for an adaptation of the short story How To Talk To Girls At Parties. The story drew from his proto-punk youth in 1970s Croydon which is readily apparent on screen. It is due to be released this summer and the cast includes Elle Fanning, Nicole Kidman and Matt Lucas. Hopefully you will see the trailer before too long, once it is polished and the sound mix finalised.

However the biggest news of the night, on which the event closed, was a simplest. Gaiman revealed that he is now a solid three chapters into writing The Seven Sisters, the sequel to Neverwhere. Cue raucous cheers and applause. It was only right that he reveal it here in London. The city has changed in the 20 years since Neverwhere, and it’s high time we returned Below.

"Lack of imagination is an occupational hazard for an apex predator."

(CC) BY-NC 2005-2019 Priyan Meewella

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