Moses and Superman: Why Writers Revise Mythology for Relevance and Meaning


Humans are constantly revising everything– it’s how we evolve — by hashing, rehashing, innovating, building upon and creating new spins on ancient memes, fairy tales, myths and even religions. It requires a deft melding of both the familiar and the new. Look at the proliferation of superheroes. Not since the Alexandrian conquests have we seen such a hotchpotch of multi cultural gods and myths blending together, reborn and renewed in shiny new epic adventures and incarnations. 

My favorite recent example is Cider House Rules– a stunning retooling of ancient Semitic folklore retold and reconfigured in a1940’s tale of the love hate story between a young “doctors” rebellion against his demanding patriarchal “father”, who “falls” from heaven (St. Clouds) to live in an apple orchard, fighting his destiny the whole way, only to realize “watching and waiting is a lot like doing nothing” whereupon he learns that action is required and thereby reclaims his destiny.

Another stunning example is Apuleius’s The Golden Ass (125 AD) where he sets down in writing the powerful love story of Cupid and Psyche. Reading this original retelling of the ancient myth it is impossible not to see its influence on practically every Shakespearean tragedy ever told from Much Ado About Nothing to Twelfth Night to Romeo and Juliet right on through the the underlying themes of Wuthering Heights,Bruce Joel Rubin’s Ghost as well as resonant throughout Perreault and Grimm’s Beauty and The Beast, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. As for Homer we can see it born and retold through the great classics of India: The Ramayana and The Mahabharata.  

 Not only are they organic, but they are us! Jung referred to them as archetypes or ancient memes that are so ingrained in our genes they resonate constantly throughout our subconscious minds. He further defines “urtürmliches Bild, or archetype, “ as a memory deposit, an engram, derived from a condensation of innumerable similar experiences… the psychic expression of an anatomically physiologically determined natural tendency.

Haha, never made the connection, but it’s perfectly translatable and traceable through Nietzsche’s Apollonian Dionysian theories, right on back to the drunken divine revelries of the Celtic, Nordic, Indo Aryan and Greek myths of Bacchus, Apollo and Dionysus. In the Orient you have the numerous tales of the drunken masters who prevail in spite of their inebriated states…

Regardless of the source, be it original or revisionary, we are constantly reworking memes, themes, morals, archetypes and ancient myths born from the human imagination and experience. The quality of the end result depends on the skill, intelligence, craftsmanship, and interpretation of the author and artist. Lucas famously created Star Wars using the dynamics of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces”. John Irving utilized the timeless archetypes of Milton’s Paradise Lost and Semitic folklore to lend a mythical quality to his Cider House Rules. Puzo and Coppola drew upon the Arthurian Cycles and Fairy tale structure  to create an immediate identification and empathy with a notorious crime family struggling to extricate itself from the underworld. Tarantino, at his best, is constantly playing off the literary traditions of “harrowings”  from the Celtic Imrams and injecting them into his Outlaw worlds.  When these dynamics are deftly employed you have a timeless hit, when they are ignored or forced you have a ponderous mess like “What Dreams May Come” or Gangster Squad.

Stoker’s Dracula born from the dark imaginal realms of Absinthe, The Green Goddess, Opium or Laudanum and their addictive powers — as were Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, and Keats.

One needn’t have “missed” the point in order to expand upon it. Perhaps the larger point is whether it is the author, the fans, the publishing company, or another writer, as new technologies, trends, and new awareness and understanding develop the best characters and plots are being constantly revised to meet the Primary Images of contemporary society and culture. When I worked for Booker Plc in London they were very busy bringing Ian Fleming’s works into the modern age through the works of John Gardner. One of the more recent and fascinating examples of this in movies was how after The Bourne Identity came out it forever made the Pierce Brosnan Bond obsolete– the producers knew immediately they had to recreate Bond through Daniel Craig or risk seeing their golden goose become a cultural relic of the past.

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