Mythos Week, Day 4
What are myths? The great author on religion Karen Armstrong said that (i) they’re concerned with death, (ii) they’re accompanied by ritual, (iii) they’re concerned with extreme experiences and the unknown, (iv) they tell us how to behave ethically, and (v) they’re concerned with non-earthly realms. In Mythos Week – preparing for the publication of Woodland Revolution on 31st March – I’m going to write about these five aspects.
How should we behave?
The myths of prehistoric hunter gatherer societies, some of which are tantalisingly preserved in our earliest written tales – the Garden Of Eden for instance – were not only oral histories and cultural meaning frameworks, they were depictions of ethical behaviour. These days, we use the word myth to mean something untrue, but that’s a modern interpretation. As Karen Armstrong pointed out, a myth is simultaneously something which is related as happening once, yet which is perpetually important and relevant to a community or society. Myths, in the past, were templates for living.
Our view of history is linear and chronological; we’ve forgotten what is timeless and universal about the human condition. The pre-logos world was more concerned with what an event meant rather than what actually occurred.
When I was a teenager, I, like so many teenagers, read Lord Of The Rings. I sympathised with the characters, I adored the vast landscapes, I was enthralled by the epic tale, and I loved the naturalistic detail Tolkien put into his masterpiece. But although I treasured the book for those things, there was one tiny detail which remained in my mind as the decades passed by. It was a short section in one of the appendices, describing the life of Aragorn, King of Gondor and Arnor after the destruction of the One Ring.
In just a few lines Tolkien gave us an extraordinary glimpse into his own thinking about death. Having had the inspirational notion of making Elves immortal and Men mortal, he described how Aragorn and Arwen approach the final part of Aragorn’s life. Aragorn – a man of Numenor – is allowed to “lay down his life” at the end rather than die of natural causes or illness. This extraordinary phrase resonated with me like little else in Lord Of The Rings, and it has stayed with me ever since. Having had a wonderful life, Aragorn is lucky enough to be able to take his own life into his hands for the purpose of ending it – deliberately, thoughtfully, lovingly, a deed of living though it is simultaneously a deed of dying. Then again, death is part of life; so why not?
We have more recent courageous deeds to inspire us into new ways of thinking. Terry Pratchett, so admired and loved for his Discworld novels, was also a deep thinker in the matter of death. His assisted dying documentary Choosing To Die, which focused on the final hours of the 71-year-old motor neuron disease sufferer Peter Smedley, was a truly extraordinary piece of work, a film I watched, often with tears in my eyes, recognising both the bravery of Smedley’s stance and the brilliance with which Pratchett communicated his message. For all that millions have enjoyed the Discworld novels, I can’t help thinking that Pratchett’s Dignitas documentary and his attitude to end-of-life matters will be remembered as his true legacy.
Christian groups and other deluded persons criticised Choosing To Die as “biased,” and much more besides. Well, they would. They needed to keep believing their fantasies. But Pratchett himself said he was “appalled at the current situation,” and that “it should be possible for someone stricken with a serious and ultimately fatal illness to choose to die peacefully with medical help, rather than suffer.” Indeed, it should be possible. That’s the true humanity, which religion cares nothing about.
Woodland Revolution is a myth.