- November 4, 2022
- Jessica Frazier
What are myths for? More than entertainment alone, these epic tales helped the Ancients follow current affairs.
Let us start with a story…
Once upon a time there was a curious king: he was detested by half of the people in his kingdom, but beloved by the other half. He behaved as no previous king had done, making allies of the country’s enemies and enemies of its long-standing friends. He flouted tradition and did much that had once appalled the people. No one knew whether the king was mad, or was secretly following some clever plan.The townspeople gathered in the village square to discuss the problem. ‘If only we knew whether it is madness or wisdom that guides the king.’ At that very moment an old man, who had been sitting silently by the well, stood up to speak. ‘I know!’ he said, ‘We must test the king. First, we find the prettiest maiden in the village, and when morning comes…’
And now let us pause in the middle of the tale. Hopefully adopting this style has had its desired effect: the reader builds a mental picture of a crisis of governance, and wants to know the solution that can save the kingdom. He enters into what ‘narrativist’ philosopher Paul Ricoeur called the ‘architecture of historical knowledge’: instead of isolated events glimpsed in mid-flow, the tale ‘gathers together’ what we need to know ‘through a configuring, synoptic, synthetic act’. It creates an ‘architecture of historical knowledge’, allowing us to pause, stand, and see more clearly from within the roaring river of history. The reader becomes enraptured, engaged in vivid problem-solving. Whereas the public’s attitude towards the news is often one of passive data-consumption, it is imagination, speculation, prediction, and planning that come into play when we tell stories.
In the pre-print world of oral tradition, myths and epics were the main vehicles for news about the world at large, yet today we don’t tend to associate them with ‘information’. Many of the world’s great tales are based on what would at the time have been recent news: Sumeria’s Epic of Gilgamesh and the Bible’s monarchical cycle of the Books of Samuel and Kings both warn of the casual corruption of early kings in the Ancient Near East. India’s epic poem, the Mahabharata, opens a window on to succession wars and conceptions of governance from the third-century BC empire of the ‘dharma-sovereign’ Ashoka onward. The saga of King Arthur tells us much about Britain in the wake of the Romans, and its regional struggle toward the possibility of unified government. Even the One Thousand and One Nights contains a Hello! magazine-esque report on the wonders of Haroun al-Rashid’s court, while also giving us the tabloid low-down on tricksters, scams and scandals to watch out for in the medieval Middle East.
In many ways such accounts functioned better than the headlines and brief reports that currently shape the public’s picture of the world. In pre-print cultures, ‘storied’ information was more portable than lists of data, technical manuals, or detailed histories because it could be easily remembered and retold. News travelled best in the narrative form of folktale, myth, and epic poem, for it was all the more eagerly consumed by audiences for its entertainment value. Ancient Indian epics such as the Mahabharata claim that their stories hail from sages in the mythical forest of Naimisa, and that these sages inherited them from seers, who perceived the truths directly in eternal reality. Be that as it may, the tradition of story-telling that has continued throughout two millennia to the present accords some of the same reality-revealing wisdom to its modern bards orkathakas (one who is literally, a ‘story-er’). Many of them still roam rural India today, carrying storyboards, portable theatres, or fabric rolls of illustration that they can use to summon their tales into the present reality of the listener. Their tales moved, expanded to encompass new material, circulated at every level of society, and were transformed in each new version: for most of history such fluid oral texts were the Wikipedia of their day.
It is important to see that their stories did something mere archives of facts cannot do. On the one hand, they did not hold narrative literature to high standards of accuracy; in their fluidity, the stories were susceptible to infection by polemic and propaganda. But on the other hand, they did convey situational knowledge – giving them insight into contexts, motivations, relationships, chains of events, and the volatile force of human agency that shapes them. We learn about what the population suffered in the grip of capricious rulers; we empathise with the injustice of their situation; and we share in their coping strategies. In some ways, stories convey a deeper truth than the modern information media we know so well. They tell us not what is happening now, but what kinds of things happen over and over again – and how we can intervene to change them.
The modern world has, ironically, been fascinated with myth. It was interpreted as the relic of archaic science (JG Frazer), the excrescence of ‘archetypal’ patterns of agency (CG Jung), or the external projection of mental processes within ourselves (Ludwig Feuerbach) that the conscious mind cannot bear to acknowledge (Sigmund Freud). Myth has been taken as the expression of the basic binary structure of all meaning (Claude Lévi-Strauss), a tool of catharsis for humanity’s fundamentally violent nature (René Girard), or the way that we codify universal existential problems and their solutions (Joseph Campbell, Peter Berger, Clifford Geertz, etc). Again and again, the Iliad or Odyssey, the Hebrew epic of Genesis, Exodus and Deuteronomy, India’s vast Mahabharata, or other cultures’ tales of warring gods, quests, and love stories, have been treated as codifying perennial problems in human life. Yet such interpretations tend to favour mysticism and metaphor; they forget that myths also tell us about practical, immediate, current events.
Most of the world’s epics are pervaded with historical content, so that they would have felt contemporary to their earlier audience in a way that is archaic to us as modern listeners. The Epic of Gilgamesh seems so alien as to appear primeval, archetypal – and it is interpreted as such by many scholars. But to a Sumerian family sitting at the fire in 2000BC, it would have spoken of the perennial problem of bad kings and the dangers to civilised life, foreshadowing the biblical God’s warning that if Israel takes a king he will make his people’s sons run in front of his chariot, take their daughters as perfumers and cooks, and turn the people themselves into his slaves (Sam.1:8). Gilgamesh is also a report on rustic life beyond the city as imagined in the figure of Enkidu, the wild man in the story who teaches new ways to the arrogant king Gilgamesh. In the second half it even reports on intellectual and religious debates, when it airs the idea of immortality circulating through the Ancient Near East at the time – and rules against it when Gilgamesh realises that he must accept death. Appropriately, one of the key versions of the epic was found in the library at Nineveh; a city with a reputation for misrule and immorality was interested in an epic story about a king learning good moral governance – learning not only to rule the kingdom, but also himself. In this respect, theEpic of Gilgamesh combines a tale about public problems, with a reflection on the private psychological processes that can cause, and solve, them.
Such reportage of public events, complemented by diagnosis of their private causes, is also found in the Iliad. In some ways, the tale of the Trojan war is an explicit news feature story; reflecting on a broad pattern of Greek expeditions in Turkey around the turn of the second millenniumBC. But the angle of the reporting highlights the way personal motivations within a country’s leadership can lead to devastating consequences for the wider public. We may read the opening as a headline: its words suggest a ravaged populace calling for news on the distant events that have so direly affected them:
Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.
Translated into the language of broadcast news, this becomes: ‘Next on tonight’s news: war breaks out following tensions between Trojan prince and Greek soldier: extensive casualties confirmed. Military capacity decimated. Key military personnel confirmed dead. Fears of a break down of diplomatic relations prove justified.’
Already, this opening gets to work neatly ‘narrativising’ the root causes of the events that caused ‘countless ills and many good souls sent to Hades’. The rest of the Iliad analyses the unfolding of this debacle, and looks repeatedly at the moments of decision-making that propelled events. Figures like Odysseus act as mediators, watching and wondering how best to intervene in the causal train
As a problem-solving text, the Iliad’s solutions occur largely through a medium that it naturally affirms being made of it: richly expressive words. While the basic story tells of a tryst and a siege, it is really communication – between Hector, Paris and Priam, or Achilles, Ajax and Agamemnon, and even Zeus and Hera – that moves the tale. Speeches frequently mark the meeting of characters in conflict, and it is largely through the diplomatic mediating figures of General Odysseus and King Priam that words and strategic thinking allow a group of leaders lost in brutal wars of attrition to extract themselves from the flow and counter-flow of emotions. Compositionally, the insertion of speeches into the broader oral frame narrative may have allowed generations of bards to add their own diagnosis into the overall analysis of events given in the text. This portrait of a communicative community presented good, practical advice to the diverse communities of the region: wordy peace makers such as Odysseus were the forerunners of modern treaty-negotiators.Hector, the ultimate loser of the story, has been interpreted as failing because he did not really communicate with his men and his wife Andromache, striking a marked contrast to Odysseus’ frequent exchanges with others and in reconciliation with Penelope. Above all, in his private night-time visit to the tent of his enemy Achilles, King Priam was perhaps the first to recognise that direct meetings in which language hits home can disperse and divert the passions that impede diplomacy; talk is one of the best tools for building political relationships and overcoming endemic communal conflict.
India’s Mahabharata offers a different solution to corrupt leadership – a solution grounded in its genesis in oral tales woven together in a communal bricolage, creating a more eclectic fabric of information. The world’s longest epic, the Mahabharata was composed over more than a millennium from approximately 600BC to 400AD. At one level it served as an archive of public ideas, gathering tales and events, theories and teachings from every region and section of society into its 200,000 verses. We see this flagged in its own self-representation at the start of the epic: like so many Indian texts it starts its narrative at the beginning – the beginning of the world. When the cosmos was destitute of brightness and light, and enveloped all around in total darkness, there came into being a mighty egg, the one inexhaustible seed of all created beings. The text itself is just such an ‘inexhaustible seed’, in which all beings are ‘contained’ in the form of linguistic information. When the deity Brahma asks about the text, the sage Vyasa sings its praises by representing it as a vast encyclopaedia of all things:
O divine Brahma, by me a poem hath been composed which is greatly respected. In it is represented the mystery of the scripture… the cosmic myths and histories of the Puranas named after the three divisions of time, past, present, and future; the determination of the nature of decay, fear, disease, existence, and non-existence, a description of creeds and of the various modes of life; rule for the four classes…an account of asceticism and of the duties of students; the dimensions of the sun and moon, the planets, constellations, and stars, together with the duration of the four ages…the sciences of Logic, Medicine; Welfare and Governance; Ethics and Soteriology celestial and human… the art of war; the different kinds of nations and languages: the nature of the manners of the people; and the all-pervading spirit; all these have been represented.
The passage is an extraordinary list of the kinds of information present in the ancient world, from proto-scientific cosmology to medicine and ethics. What we hear in Vyasa’s voice here is the excitement of a culture in the grip of a voracious hunger for knowledge. Innumerable Śastra manuals and Sutra treatises were being written in the classical period from 600 BCE to 400 CE. Together they have bequeathed India a portfolio of arts and aesthetic styles, mathematical, medical, astronomical and political sciences, as well as a philosophy that still shapes India’s shared cultures today.
Of course, Vyasa is exaggerating in his expansive summary of the Mahabharata. But his overall assessment is not wrong – it does its best to amass the vast bulk of knowledge available in the cultivated kingdoms of its time. The picture of northern classical Indian that it paints shows life in different regions and classes – for the farmers, homeless ascetics, and forest-dwelling tribal youths caught up in waves of Indian empire-building, as well as the elite. As the historian of religion Anne Monius notes of the Tamil epic, the Cilappatikaram, it is by placing truths into epic poetry that the authors hoped to place them in the minds of the people, and it is ‘only in poetic narrative form that such wondrous events become humanly comprehensible’.
But the Mahabharata, like the Iliad, also fulfils a political purpose: it analyses the causality behind two leaderships warring for a single kingdom. In a region that frequently suffered such conflicts, it again shows the personal greed of the few led to the deaths of the many. Its political focus is on the contrast between two kinds of king – the good Pandavas (demonstrating honest, orderly, law-abiding rule), and the bad Kauravas (dishonest, self-interested, corrupt leadership). It shows the populace how the individual personalities of the greedy, disrespectful Kaurava brothers lead to problems of succession. As a society still shifting from tribal communities to kingdoms, people needed to comprehend the distant world of the royal courts – a milieu that was little understood in markets and farms where their laws were beginning to be enforced (a relatively new concept) by the legal clerics and standing military of the time.
The Mahabharata’s political analysis is distinguished by a focus on the long-term consequences of human motivation, rather than just on immediate actions. The story’s retrospective narrative frame lends it the ability to trace slow-building motivations over time, giving a richly detailed narrative texture. Arjuna’s frustration with the betrayals of politics and his growing attraction to the purity of the yogic ideal, leads to his famous breakdown on the battlefield in the Bhagavad Gita: his growing disillusionment almost scuppers the whole war. Yudhisthira’s commitment to honourable dharma allows him to be taken advantage of repeatedly in times of war, yet it is also what makes him a promising candidate for a peacetime sovereign. These are not really tales of war, but of desire (the Kaurava brothers’ desire for the kingdom and the lascivious Bhima’s desire for the good wife Draupadi), of selfishness (one queen’s hatred for the sons of her rival queen), and of blind duty (as of good King Yudhisthira’s willingness to pay a debt that will enslave his whole family). The drawn-out causality has sometimes been taken as evidence of Hindu fatalism: a man’s character is his fate. But in fact its careful account of how internal states prompt influential events signals a culture that, recently discovering the psychology of yogic meditation and ascetic self-restraint, is interested in encouraging us to take control of our agency. The effect of this is that it unravels not merely a single conflict, but the very way that conflict can stem from self-interest and bias at the level of leadership. It is not events but personal motivations that should be under the lens.
Other epics describe public failures caused not by self-interest but by miscommunication, lack of empathy, and inadequate understanding.The King Arthur epic, in its various retellings, turns on failures to communicate motivation. In many respects it contrasts the causality of a ‘prophecies of divine plans’ worldview that brings Arthur to power, with the problems that secrecy creates in even the most well-meaning polity. Thus the lie of Uther who seduces Igraine by impersonating her husband, the secret of Arthur’s parentage, the hidden identity of his sister leading to an incestuous bastard heir, and Arthur’s willingness to lie about his whereabouts – all of these mendacious situations inspire discontent at court. In the twelfth-century History of the Kings of Britain that is the earliest Arthurian epic, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s probable use of tribal hero tales from the pre-Roman Catuvellauni and Trinovantes contributes a tone of mingled hope and scepticism towards the kings converging on southern Britain in the early centuries CE. Promises and lies abounded, and as Hector loses by not communicating more openly, so Arthur’s supposedly just rule fades in a court weakened by bad faith.
Geoffrey of Monmouth tried to counterbalance the secrecy and opacity of the political world, in his short work Prophetiae Merlini (Prophecies of Merlin). This little-known text was as influential in its way as the broader history of Arthur, giving Merlin’s own (often damning) narrative of political events. It inspired a new genre of subversive literature called ‘Galfridian prophecy’ in which wise figures gave their own commentary on politics, providing a kind of editorial gloss for the people. It is perhaps not a coincidence that an early version of King Lear precedes Arthur’s story in the History of the Kings of Britain: here too the way forward is to listen to truth-givers like Cordelia rather than lying political schemers like her sisters. In Monmouth’s separate Life of Merlin, the truth-telling prophet finally flees the political world and becomes a sylvan man of nature, like Enkidu in the tale of Gilgamesh.
A more hopeful picture of ‘storied’ truth-telling is painted in the One Thousand and One Nights, an epic woven from the collected oral tales of centuries, spanning Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Indian, and Hebrew sources. In a core section that reflects the flourishing of Abbasid society, they dramatise the problem of corruption in leadership for an audience of medieval Sunni Muslims struggling to negotiate the whims of caliphates and viziers at home, kings in foreign lands, and wealthy business-men. At the same time, they uphold the famed emperor Harun al-Rashidas a virtuous King Arthur-like leader, thus contrasting corruption in contemporary politics with a template for good governance. The narrative frame features a storyteller, cunning Scheherazade, who submits herself to the power of her volatile husband in order to subvert his corrupt court from within: it not only bemoans problems of corruption but also promises a solution to them. In her stories, powerless individuals – the impoverished Aladdin, the hapless Sinbad, women like herself – repeatedly seek a way to challenge the powerful, and often enough they win some measure of success despite their hopeless situation. Ultimately, cunning is the key to survival, and for Scheherazade specifically, it is storytelling – the power to spin compelling new myths – that enables her to inspire compassion, change minds, suggest alternative routes of action, and ultimately acquire some of her husband’s inherited power. The One Thousand and One Nights is a fascinating story-cycle, not least because it reads as a manual for minority cunning in the face of majority power. Witty words win. Narrative can solve the problems that science, academia, and the news merely report.
These epics teach their readers to understand the messy situations they find themselves in; they reveal hidden causes within leadership, and they also suggest ways that transparency and communication can help to illuminate political problems that have been kept out of public reach. It is because of this curious power myth can wield, bringing causes normally beyond the ken of the masses within reach, that the deciphering of myth has been one of the great passions of modern thought. In his 1986 work The Cycles of American History, Arthur Schlesinger – who served as historian, political speechwriter, and ‘court historian’ to John F Kennedy – wrote: ‘The law of acceleration hurtles us into the inscrutable future… Rhythms, patterns, continuities, drift out of time long forgotten to mould the present and colour the shape of things to come. Science and technology revolutionise our lives, but memory, tradition and myth frame our response.’
Memory and myth, story and epic have a narrative structure that works as a form of reasoning because we essentially have story-shaped minds. Stories almost always entail the situational description of a) a circumstance constructed through some past history, b) an overarching teleological purpose to the characters or events, and c) some action in the present moment that must be decided upon, with a set of consequences. This basic structure of a past linked to possible futures by the tenuous thread of a goal and a chain of actions, is a cognitive schema of agency – that is, of the way we live our lives. As the cognitive scientist and philosopher of mind, Daniel Dennett, has pointed out, we are all ‘virtuoso novelists’ in that we reflect extensively on the past, blending our memories with those of others to create archetypal templates that we then use to analyse data and make decisions.
Paul Ricoeur is one of the thinkers most closely associated with this idea: in his books Time and Narrative (1983) and Memory, History, Forgetting (2000), he drew on Aristotle and Augustine to show how our subjective experience of the world is shaped as a story stretching from past to future. Narratives appeal to us precisely because they mirror our lives in a way that no list of facts or scientific treatises can ever do; it isn’t just information they give us, but also a map for what it means to be a thinking, acting person embedded in a particular situation. Research suggests that bare information – persons, events, dates – needs to be slotted it into a story we can understand. When looking at the headlines, we may know which policy is being debated or which landscape deforested, yet have no idea of the context that explains the situation. Furthermore, the facts alone do not help us to determine a course of action. But myths, fairytales and epics all set up a situation, tell us what is relevant, present the motivations of different protagonists, and, if we follow the tale, they even suggest a course of action, and explore its possible results.
In this, myths are fundamentally futural – utopian even – in a way that news is not. Mircea Eliade, the influential Romanian writer and theorist, noted in The Myth of the Eternal Return that myths have a unique power because they always point to a utopian element – a real or imagined resolution. Unlike factual reportage, they take place outside of strict history, and place events within a floating space of possibilities, a retelling from the beginning in which we always enjoy ‘finding out’ how it ends, even when the tale is well-known. Transferring events into epic reality effects are gressus ad originemin which we are perennially able to go back to the beginning as it were, and seek answers; perhaps this time King Arthur will succeed, Hector will save his house and Achilles his lovers, and the Mahabharata’s war will be ended with fewer needless deaths and a cleaner peace. The myth may be tragic and thus cautionary – dramatising dangers. Or it may be heroic – suggesting solutions. But in either case, it builds a rational bridge from the present to a future.
This presents the world in a way that lets us see our capacity to change it. As Martha Nussbaum has pointed out, narrative helps to shape our agency in the world by highlighting the values embedded in a situation and making us feel what matters, then showing how individuals act and change the situation in response. Stories are more adept than factual reports at inspiring emotion, because they cast all the protagonists in the light of their basic emotions. We weep over their deaths, more than over statistics. We feel the grief of a decimated community whose journey is narrated, in a way that we do not typically respond to a list of fatalities. So, too, we are empowered to emulate ‘storied’ heroes, but may not see the same possibilities in an isolated event of success. Narrative is an activist discourse, calling on us to consider alternative possibilities in a way that fact-giving does not.
The American academic Walter Fisher and other proponents of the ‘narrative paradigm’ have also pointed out that communal ‘storying’ draws on templates gathered from the long-standing experience of the community. Through collaborative oral composition and bricolage, myths create agency-maps – combining shared wisdom to make us better informed than we could ever be alone. As novels are tied to the ability of a single mind to record its extended reflection in continuous writing, so myths are intimately bound with the ability of a text to pass across regions and communities, between genders and generations, gathering input as it builds from one telling to the next. Myth and epic build meaning into history in a range of ways.
They add cognitive order to the constant flow of events through which we live, isolating specific trains of cause and effect, particular problems and their unfolding.
They map out human agency against the background of contexts and values that frame a given situation; as such, they offer templates for our possible action within each situation.
They capture the communal wisdom of shared analysis and pooled suggestions, all through the process of collaborative composition.
In all of this, epic news offers a welcome contrast to the attempted objectivity of contemporary news media which is comparatively fact-rich, but understanding-poor. Television news reports, and social media news-bites give us events without context. They present a slice of time-specific facts that need to be ‘storied’ to gain meaningful context. If we watched television news in spring 1983, for instance, we were informed that a famine had begun in Ethiopia, but not its government’s role in causing it. Nor were we told of any solution other than to send aid, a strategy that later contributed to widespread corruption in the country. In the same year, Ronald Reagan unveiled the space-based anti-missile Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed Star Wars in the media. The box office hit series of movies from which it took its nickname became the main reference for understanding this complex and expensive weapon of the Cold War, and its broader place in US foreign policy.
These are events that are still little understood, and this is partly because they have not been incorporated into tales about basic food provision in subsistence economies aimed at the public at large, or the ways that weaponry functions within the larger structure of international relations and domestic economy. Epic news is fact-poor (did King Arthur really exist?), but understanding-rich (well-meaning leaders regularly carve out a brief respite from strife, often ended by corruption within the ranks). In addition, ‘storied’ news helps to combat fact-fatigue, the phenomenon in which an audience becomes bored by the flow of disjoined facts, and switches off attention. Narratives appeal to our story-shaped mind; The West Wing, House of Cards, Homeland and Borgen are all popular TV series that have tried to ‘story’ the news and let us know why institutional corruption, political and cultural struggles, or volatile leadership are happening, and what we can do about them.
Of course, even news media now seems to convey myth to many. In 2016, the history of information entered a new phase in its story, as fake news became a household idea. One of the sources of fake news surrounding the US election was found in a small town in Macedonia, where internet-savvy authors were making money out of sensational, clickable tag-lines that they had invented. If mass appeal was the name of the game, then alarmist falsities served better than the truth. Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump, it was claimed, and FBI agents were being murdered by someone associated with Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Masquerading as news, myths took on new power. In the old days an authoritative voice could be heard, but now there were so many voices that only volume commanded the attention of the masses.
Today, fake news has become a lucrative business. In 2017, inspired by creative interpretations of a solar eclipse that year, ‘flat-earthers‘ produced more and more outrageous videos, rejecting all modern scientific evidence to argue that the Earth is flat. Refutations sprang up. YouTube flat-earthers gained hundreds of thousands of followers, making up to $7,000 a month. Sensational fictions have never made such big money, and the realisation that, as Hillary Clinton put it, ‘so-called fake news can have real-world consequences’, has prompted governments to look into content regulation. The democratic, participatory nature of information-sources like Wikipedia, Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook should act like a self-cleaning oven in which false claims are spotted and deleted. But that same structure has proved to undermine itself: our selective confirmation bias means that we consume only facts and fictions that already appeal to our pre-existing outlook. The news can become a modern mythos that is more propaganda than open exploration of a situation’s possibilities.
Is there an ancient analogy in this? The bard of old also had to devise tales that would please his audience and elicit payment. This surely accounts for much of the fantastical element in epics, folktales and myth. Stories about farmers who work hard, raise a family, grow old and die added little to the lives of those living precisely that tale. Sensationalism always sells. And propaganda can be found in every epic: the Mahabharata affirms Sanskrit-modelled kingship, while the Iliad explains the value, and inevitability, of a pan-Hellenic identity, and the tale of King Arthur similarly affirms the value of unitive empires. Yet epics are often less predictable than we might think – bringing to light complexities and ambiguities, much as open-access sites like Wikipedia preserve competing views, in their unedited state at least. Where film and television narratives tend to concretise a particular writer’s interpretation, it is perhaps in memes that we see collaborative complexity preserved: Childish Gambino’s artistic protest video ‘This is America’ has inspired diverse versions that include Donald Trump singing about his America, a utopian ‘This is Wakanda’, a feminist version, and others dramatising public frustration in France, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Malaysia, and the violent ‘peace-keeping’ conflicts of Iraq. Each is propaganda, but taken together they point to a tale of disappointed populations appropriating bottom-up media to fight top-down power in the modern world. Where oral epics no longer assimilate public opinion through their retelling, new media are now doing so
In this global age when data overwhelms us, ‘storied’ news must be revived at ground level if we are to understand our situation and plot the way out of it. In his manual for better public knowledge, Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload, Bill Kovach asks: ‘Are people really up to the task of being partners in developing their own news?’ It is an open question. What is missing in meme-culture is the gradual accumulation of insights in a collaborative composition that must couch new ideas within existing ones, binding them through a linking rationale, and thereby building meta-insights. Memes can be seen as short-lived disposable cries for attention that sink back into the sea of data almost as quickly as they arise. Epics, on the other hand, emerge from societies used to slowly absorbing their data in shared contexts of recitation. Perhaps one of the things needed to counter the effects of information-paralysis, news desensitisation, and orphaned facts, is to generate more public literatures that ‘story’ the world collaboratively at grassroots level, not only among the media elite, and integrate fresh possibilities – the very essence of an empowered approach to history
Finally, what of the story with which we began, concerning the king and the villagers who must figure out whether he is sane or mad? Perhaps here, as in the case of the Iliad’s speechmakers, the Mahabharata’s sages, or the Arabian Nights’ storyteller-extraordinaire Scheherazade, the way for the villagers to discover the king’s motivations is through story:
‘…when morning comes,’ continued the old man, ‘we will send her to the castle with these instructions…’ The old man explained his plan and the very next day the villagers sent the prettiest and wisest maiden in the village to the castle. The guards took one look at her, and with a whistle and a wink, she was beckoned to the king’s chamber. But she refused his advances, and insisted first on telling him a story. She spun a tale about a distant emperor who was loved by some and hated by others. ‘One summer,’ she said, ‘there was a terrible drought in the land. A good fairy came to the palace, and there she asked the emperor to sacrifice his own treasure to save his starving people. The emperor thought carefully, and finally he replied…
At that, the wise maid stopped suddenly and cried: ‘Why, I can-not remember the ending of the story!’ She turned and asked the king slyly: ‘How do you think the story should end?’