Mythology and legends are inherent to every human society. Often myths are bound up with religion, for instance Greek and Roman mythology, but not exclusively so. There is also what is known as secular mythology, Robin Hood and King Arthur being two of the most famous examples. All stories must, by the laws of the universe, come from somewhere, even if they are fictional. They must have some root, some kind of inspiration. Mythology, likewise, must also have an origin. Arthur was possibly a chieftain in post-Roman Britain, one whose story was later elaborated into the fantastical tale we know today. Robin Hood may well have been a real outlaw. Even the non-secular mythologies and folktales have an origin of some kind, a tale or an idea that gets stretched and becomes supranatural rather than natural. In particular, there is a huge group of ancient myths that came about as explanations for natural events such as the seasons (Persephone) or a massive flood (every culture has that one, the most famous instance being Noah’s Ark.)
Over time all myths, whatever their origin, change. They evolve. They are taken by successive generations and adapted and moulded to fit their own needs. The ancient Greeks myths were adopted and adapted by the Romans. Later on, as the empire expanded, the Romans subsumed the myths of other cultures, Celtic and Egyptian and the likes. Later still we can see parallels in Germanic and Danish cultures. The three Fates, the Moirai, the weavers of destiny in Greek mythology, became the Parcae of Roman mythology and we can see a similar thing in the Viking Norns.
Mythology and mythological themes remain popular and so even today this process of change and evolution continues, each generation developing their own versions and own ideas. People still flock to sites supposedly connected to King Arthur or the heroes of Ancient Greece, the temple at Delphi or Tintagel or the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest. Mythological themed movies, though maybe not in the top tier of filmmaking, still provide a draw for audiences. Disney are the top dog in that category, producing some of the best mythology based films of the last sixty or so years. Recently they had a hit with Moana, following in the footsteps of Atlantis, Mulan, Hercules, The Black Cauldron, Robin Hood and The Sword in the Stone. For many these films provide a first taste of mythology, an accessible introduction to stories that have been knocking around since long before any of us were born. It is fair to say that not all of them were commercially or even critically successful. The only films that the critics didn’t hate were Mulan and Hercules and even then Hercules didn’t get away entirely unscathed, the animation style being a particular target of critics. Still, every one of them, without fail, is leagues ahead of such fare as 300, Immortals or the remake of Clash of the Titans. The awfulness of these latter mentioned films has not stopped film producers from making more, nor from people going to see them or liking them. They provide us with an example of what has been happening for centuries, namely the adaptation, changing and evolution of mythology. Where previously it was writers and poets who were largely responsible for this, the likes of Thomas Mallory, T.H White and Walter Scott, today it is more likely to be the filmmakers who are responsible.
That is not to say that writers don’t still play their part. Frequently they turn towards mythology for inspiration, sometimes ripping it off entirely (Rick Riordan), writing their own stories based on that mythology (Neil Gaiman) or being a bit more subtle and less explicit like Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games or J.K Rowling with Harry Potter. I’ll admit that even I have dabbled in mythology, used it for my own ends. Part of what brought the whole ‘Morfaverse’ into being was an idea about the Roman gods in the modern world. That’s gone now but for a while I’ve been playing a loooong game with something. That game will go on for a while yet but it is again an example of the more subtle variety. Originally, as you can tell, it would have been of the second ‘based on mythology’ variety and may have ended up straying into the first. Whilst films may be the more visible picture of the way mythology is evolving, books and the written word, the way that mythology has evolved traditionally, still has a part to play.
All that I have mentioned above, however, is connected with older mythology, stories brought forth from the distant past. Modern mythology is an altogether different beast. In its case we often have a clear view of the origins and we can trace its lineage from that origin and into the realms mythology. In much of the world Batman, Superman and other comic book superheroes are becoming mythology and in a sense already have done. They’ve already been reworked, repackaged and re-adapted numerous times, and most recently in as ham-fisted a way as the Clash of the Titans remake.
Perhaps the most interesting modern myth is Sherlock Holmes. It is difficult to find a fictional character, and a modern character at that, who has captured the imagination of the world in quite the same way as Holmes has. There may be no other character and may never be. Today he is a figure more akin to Arthur, Achilles and Brian Blessed Bran the Blessed than he is to other literary detectives such as Morse, Poirot or any of the others. He is thoroughly mythological. Through innumerate adaptations, spin offs, continuations, rip offs and the public imagination he has progressed from the page, from fiction, and into the mythological sphere.
A piece I was reading in The Guardian reckoned that the Sherlock Holmes we know today is hardly Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation at all, but a creation of all the people who took him on after Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle’s Holmes, the piece argued, was, in general, a lightly sketched character and it was illustrator Sidney Paget and actors like Basil Rathbone who helped flesh him out. His most famous catchphrase, ‘elementary my dear Watson,’ was actually invented by P.G Wodehouse in his novel Psmith, Journalist and only later adopted into the Holmes mythos by way of the many film versions. The deerstalker is another example, never specifically mentioned in the original text, and again made famous by the likes of Sidney Paget and the Basil Rathbone films. Like the most famous myths of old Holmes has evolved and changed and his origin (whilst not obscure) has begun to be overtaken by what has come afterwards.
On the subject of Holmes, recently there was a kind of hoo-ha (not an especially big one) about one of the latest incarnations, Sherlock, and an episode involving a lengthy bust up in a swimming pool and a plot centring around Mary Watson being some kind of super-assassin. The complaints, the ones which I saw, were mainly about how this wasn’t Sherlock Holmes. It was more James Bond, more Ian Fleming than Conan Doyle. Whilst I’d agree that the episode was shitilly written, though it started well enough, by saying it isn’t Sherlock Holmes you’re barking up a tree stump. You can’t say it’s not Sherlock Holmes because, these days, Sherlock Holmes is a myth. It might not be Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes but it is another version of the myth, another interpretation. Holmes has been hacked worse than that before, will be again. It is no different to any of the myriad times Arthur has been butchered or the times Greek mythology has been hacked up. It is no different to the recent butchering of the Superman/Batman mythos.
Myths don’t belong to anyone. They belong to everyone. It isn’t like something that you or I could create, something which by legal rights belongs to us. The exception is Superman/Batman but that’s because the US keeps extending their period of copyright. People, filmmakers and writers, are free to do what they like with mythology, to adapt it how they see fit and to use the characters however they want. It can turn out to be a load of horseradish, Mary Watson being a super-assassin really was a stupid idea to begin with, but when it comes to mythology people are entitled to cook up horseradish if they want to. When we complain about something like the Sherlock episode, or Batman and Superman suddenly becoming best buds because their mothers share a name, what we’re really complaining about it is that it is not a good interpretation, it isn’t how we, personally, see the myth. When it comes to mythology, particularly modern mythology, we feel a sense of entitlement. Yes, they belong to everyone but everyone includes ourselves and when a piece of mythology is hacked up, say the Greek myths or Sherlock Holmes, we can feel affronted, as though someone has deliberately taken an axe to our car windscreen.
The thing we’ve got to remember is that when someone takes a piece of mythology not only do they have every right to do so but they are only doing what hundreds of people have done before them. It is no different to what Mallory did, what T.H White did, what Zack Snyder has (unfortunately) done. There have been millions of bad workings of mythology before and there will be more in the future. Like spilt milk, it isn’t worth crying over. Such bad attempts to rewrite mythology are soon forgotten. They add little to what has come before. The good, on the other hand, have the potential to be absorbed into the original myth and to become a part of it, to enhance it. When an idea catches on all it can take is one writer to change a myth forever.
Ivanhoe is one of those second variety of story mentioned above, the sort where an original story is crafted from existing mythology. At times it borders on the first variety, the rip off, but that is beside the point. The point is that the aspects of the Robin Hood legend introduced by Scott, the joviality, the idea of it being a fight between Norman and Saxon, he being Robin of Locksley, became a key part of the mythology. It is hard to imagine, today, a version of the legend that does not involve Robin of Locksley or him fighting some corrupt Norman regime. Admittedly Scott didn’t come up with all these ideas himself, Locksley was based on something he found in a sixteenth century manuscript for example, but his usage in Ivanhoe popularised them and made them an integral part of the mythology. Walter Scott only did the same sort of thing that other writers and filmmakers have done- All the ones mentioned here. The difference between Scott and many of the others is that his ideas were not awful and they stuck around, helping the legend and the mythology of Robin Hood to evolve.
When we think of mythology we tend to think of it as something fixed, something immutable that has been that way since time immemorial. Like everything else in the world that we see as fixed, (society itself, our national institutions, our beliefs etc.) it is far from the case. Mythology is fluid, always changing, always adapting and being reworked into something new. That, since ancient times, has been the way. Each generation inherits their own version of a myth and then adds something of their own. Some ideas stick around, as with Walter Scott and Robin Hood, whilst others, the bad ideas that don’t quite work, are lost to history and (hopefully) forgotten. Sometimes myths fade away entirely. Other times they become super-myths, like the stories of Arthur. New myths and legends are born- For our time examples include Batman, Superman and Sherlock Holmes. The mythology we know today is not the mythology of tomorrow, just as it is not the mythology of yesterday. The three are not mutually exclusive but you can be certain that they will all look very different from each other.