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An essay by Israel Zangwill

Modern Myth-Making

Title:     Modern Myth-Making
Author: Israel Zangwill [More Titles by Zangwill]

So far as I can gather from the publications of the Folklore Society, the science of Folklore is in a promising condition. The doctors seem to be agreed neither about the facts nor the methods nor the conclusions, but otherwise their unanimity is wonderful. Originally the science was made in Germany, where it still flourishes, like all sciences that require infinite pains and inexhaustible dulness. All that can be done with any fruitfulness is apparently the collection and classification of stories, songs and superstitions. Hypotheses and theories are mainly bricks without straw, and the only certain conclusion that may be drawn from the prevalence of folk-tales all over the world is that all men are liars. This was the first contribution to the science, and the Psalmist may be regarded as the founder of Folklore. Herder made an advance when he collected the folk-songs of many nations; and Grimm as a collector was truly scientific, but when he brought in his mythological explanations he brought in mythology. Benfey's celebrated theory that European folk-tales are Oriental in origin and comparatively recent in date seems to be bearing up well.

But no one seems to study the mythopoetic instinct as it manifests itself in modern life, in the daily refraction of fact through the medium of imagination (a medium whose power of refraction is far greater than that of water). Because we no longer create gods and goddesses, or people the woods and brooks with fairies and nymphs, and the forest with gnomes and the hills with hobgoblins--because we do not soften our lives with an atmosphere of gracious supernaturalism, and fresco our azure ceiling with angels--it is assumed that the mythopoetic instinct is dead. Far from it! It is as lively as ever, and we may watch it at play in the building up of legends, in the creation of mythical figures; in the shaping of the Boulanger legend, the Napoleonic legend, the Beaconsfield legend with its poetical machinery of the primrose, the Booth legend, the Blavatsky legend; in the fathering of epigrams upon typical wits like Sheridan, or the attribution of all jokes to "Punch"; in the creation of non-existent bodies like the AEsthetes, and in the private circulation of scandals about public personages; in the perpetual revival of the Blood Accusation against the Jews, or the pathetic clinging to the miracles of exposed Spiritualists and Theosophists; in the Gladstone of Tory imaginations and the Balfour of Radical; in the Irish patriot of oratory; in the big-footed Englishwoman of French fancy, and the English conception of the Scotchman who cannot see a joke; in the persistence of traditional beliefs or prejudices that would be destroyed by one inspection.

Apotheosis is still with us, and diabolification (if I may coin a word). We canonise as prodigally as in the mediaeval ages, and are as keen as ever about relics. We are still looking out for dead King Arthur: he will return by way of the County Council. _Plus ca change plus c'est la meme[*] chose_--probably the profoundest observation ever made by a Frenchman. Our mythopoetic instinct is as active as of yore, only the mode of its expression is changed. It works on modern lines, has taken to prose instead of poetry, and only occasionally unfurls wings. Why does not the Folklore Society investigate the origin of our modern myths? Why not seize on the instinct as it is seen at play in our midst, moulding movements and fashioning faiths? Why not catch it in the act--employ vivisection, so to speak, instead of dissecting dead remains? Why not try to extract from the living present the laws of the creation and development of myths and the conditions of their persistence, so that by applying these laws retrospectively we may come to understand our heritage of tradition? Ah! but this would require insight into life, which your scientist has no mind for. Besides, dry-as-dust work--collation and classification--may be distributed among the members of a society; but how require of them fresh vision? There is dispute as to how folklore arose: one school talks vaguely of creation by the clan, the community, the race; another insists that the germ at least must always have sprung from some one individual mind, just as a proverb may be the wisdom of many but must be the wit of one; that ideas that are "in the air," like a tree whose branches are everywhere and whose trunk nowhere, had a single root once; and that every _on dit_ was literally "_one says_" originally. But if we watch the process of mythopoetising in our daily life, we shall see both theories illustrated. Consider the myth of Lord Randolph's small stature: it may be traced easily enough to Mr. Furaiss's pencil. Many people who have the impression forget whence they derived it; and many who never saw Punch had the idea conveyed to them by London letter-writing journalists who never saw Churchill. Yet there is no doubt that the myth is the creation of a single man. In this instance the genesis is clear, and it makes for the one-man theory. In other instances, I can quite imagine myths arising from a spectacle witnessed in common by a multitude, or an incident developing itself under the eyes of many. No single reporter of the doings in Sherwood Forest built up the Robin Hood legend.

[* Transcriber's note: So in original. One would rather expect an accent circonflexe on the first 'e', not an accent aigu.]

Doubtless every ballad was the work of an individual; crowds do not spontaneously burst out into identical remarks, except on the stage. But the crowd was ready for the individual's ballad; it furnished him with his theme and his inspiration, so that he "gave back in rain what he received in mist." Thus, most folklore would owe its birth to the co-operation of the individual and the community--the former the creative or male factor, the latter the receptive or feminine factor. The one man launches his jest, his caricature, his story, his melody, into a sympathetic but inarticulate environment. Then it is taken up, it is transformed, it grows mighty. The "Times" is something very different from the total of the contributors' manuscripts.

Perhaps the most interesting field of folklore work, from the point of view of mere literature, was that opened up by Von Hahn's classification of the stories of the world according to their original elements, their bare plots. There are about seventy main types of stories to which all the wandering tales of the world may be reduced. As thus:


1. A man saves some beasts and a man from a pit.

2. The beasts somehow make him rich, and the man somehow tries to ruin him.

I have little doubt that these might be fined down to seventeen on a very broad basis of classification. I should like to see an analysis of the world's novels similar to that which Polti has made for the drama. Probably it would need a Society to do it, though it would be easy enough to keep pace with the output when once the arrears were cleared off. There are only twenty novels published every week in England, omitting serials, and probably only two or three hundred in the whole world. By a division of labour these could be easily taken to pieces and their plots dissected. In time this might lead to a copyright in incidents as well as in words and titles, and the stock situations would be stocked no more, and the conventional novelists would be killed off. Even if Parliament did not see its way to copyrighting incidents, for fear good ideas spoiled by weak writers should be lost to use by the strong, the publication of a catalogue of the motives of fiction already treated would deter all but the most shameless from changing infants at nurse, or rescuing young ladies from bulls, or mistaking brother and sister for lovers, or having to do with wills lost, stolen, or strayed. Colossal as the task looks, a first rough analysis would sweep away half the new novels of the month and include three-fourths of the fiction of the past. Here is the broadest and most general formula of English fiction as she is wrote for the young person: _A young man meets a young woman under unpropitious conditions which delay their union._

Nine-tenths of the novels of the day may be dissected under the following heads: (_a_) Description of Hero; (_b_) Of Heroine; (_c_) How they first met; (_d_) Why they did not marry till the last chapter.

There! Quite unintentionally I have given away the secret of novel-writing. It is, for all the world, like the parlour game of Consequences, wherein each person fills up a form unknown to the others. The muscular John Jones met the beautiful Princess of Portman Square in the Old Kent Road, and said to her, "Oh, 'Arriet, I'm waitin' for you," and she replied, "You must wait till the end of the third volume," and the consequences were that they got married, and the world said, "We must get this from Mudie's." After this lesson in fiction any one may rival the masters, provided he can hold a pen and doesn't mind leaving the spelling to the compositors. You may perhaps think that the real value of a book lies in the accessories before the marriage, in the pictures of life and character; but I can assure you, unless you turn everything round this axis, the critics will tell you you can't construct. For my part, I would rather have "The Story of an African Farm," two-storied as it really is, than a hundred bungalow romances. Better genius without art than art without genius.

For French fiction the formula would have to be varied. It would run: (_a_)Hero; (_b_)Heroine; (_c_)How they first loved; (_d_)What the hero's wife or the heroine's husband did; (_e_)Who died?

Another piece of work I should like to see done is a census of the population of novels. Then we should see clearly how far they are a reflection of life. In England I warrant the professional men would outnumber all others; the aristocracy would come next, and the urban working-man would be swamped by the villagers. The nation of shopkeepers would be poorly represented, and artisans would be few in the land. There would be more perfectly beautiful English girls than there are girls in England, more American millionaires than even the States can raise, and more penniless lords than if Debrett were a charity list of paupers; more satanic guardsmen than ever wore "the widow's uniform," more briefless barristers than all the men who have eaten dinners in vegetarian restaurants, and more murderers than have ever been caught since the days of Jonathan Wild. Indeed, I am not certain but what the population of English novels would come out thirteen millions, mostly criminals. The relative proportions of blondes and brunettes would also be brought out, and whether there is a run on any especial colour of hair. Plain heroines came in with Jane Eyre. It would be interesting to ascertain if they are still worn or still weary.

[The end]
Israel Zangwill's essay: Modern Myth-Making