Myth Placement: How and Why Popular Media Monkeys with Mythology–Part 2

In the early 1980s, Joseph Campbell indicated that mythology had fallen out of favor in the media, but he could not have foreseen the rampant popularity of mythological themes, characters and structures;  from comic book-like TV series like Hercules and Xena to the epic big-screen journeys of the Fellowship of the Ring and the fall and rise of Anakin Skywalker, mythology has experienced a revival among the general public. More recently, of course, the Greek pantheon has been embraced by an even wider audience through the Percy Jackson novels and inevitable movie, the Clash of the Titans reboot, and a forthcoming War of the Gods. Although mythology is seldom taught anymore in an academic setting (I am finally up to teach a college myth in human culture class next year after ten years of asking), and few college students can recognize the simplest of allusions to classical myths, Perseus is an action figure, Zeus is on keychains, and schoolchildren can dress up as Athena or Ares for Halloween. As mythology loses its place in the academy while being embraced by the popular media, the themes, characters, and events of mythology are being morphed from their traditional forms to fit modern sensibilities and values. At last, here is part two on the subject of how and why the mythical world is altered in text and on-screen. If you missed it, here’s part one.

1. What ARE they teaching them in these schools?

One reason, surely, that film makers and writers use mythological themes and elements is because they themselves like the mythology. Some of them were undoubtedly Latin nerds like me, who always thought, “You know, this stuff is great; if it had the right presentation, it would catch on faster than Spider-Man!”  Thus, authors like Percy Jackson’s Rick Riordan operate from a deft and deep knowledge of mythology to bring their stories to life.  Other media mongers, however, seem to be under the impression that mythology is not widely taught, certainly not in public schools if the scant knowledge of college freshman is the indicator, so therefore they are at liberty to make any changes they like, assuming no one will actually notice.  Like filmmakers who think no one knows much about the original book on which their film is based (read: Tim Burton’s movie that was charming, but was not Lewis Carroll’s story!) these folks depend on the gullibility and lack of mythological knowledge among the general public to pass off shoddy versions of the myths. Unlike C.S. Lewis and J. K. Rowling, who include great in-jokes assuming their readers actually do know a classical allusion is not a magic trick performed to the accompaniment of Bach music, such writers and filmmakers trust in the general lack of knowledge  to get away with whatever changes they want to make. Sadly, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: because the general public watches television instead of reading Edith Hamilton or Bullfinch, most viewers and readers are duped into thinking the “tinkered with” version of the myth is authentic. This has been clearly illustrated to me as I give a reading quiz on “Leda and the Swan” in my literature survey class, and I always offer extra credit for names of other women with whom Zeus dallied. The most frequent wrong guess? Xena.

This mangling is not just limited to mythology, of course. Countless numbers of folks get their history from mainstream media. This isn’t even a recent development, as dime novels of the nineteenth and early twentieth century have dramatically influenced general perceptions of the real historical people (like Billy the Kid) featured in them, and I still have to correct misperceptions created by Gone with the Wind when I do Civil War programs. Literature has always gotten this treatment, from those Vincent Price gore fests that had nothing but a title in common with Poe’s work to the inventiveness of the aforementioned Mr. Burton (I knew better than to trust him after what he did to poor Washington Irving).  Even our understanding of the job descriptions of medical and law enforcement personnel is tainted by what we see in fictional presentations (just watch a doctor or police show with a real doctor or police officer for laughs), but most viewers seem to understand that those fictions use free adaption of facts. Mythology, which is already pretty murky to so many folks, is less likely to be scrutinized, and really, it is likely that the average viewer has been in the hospital more often than in ancient Troy.

2. I need a hero!

The hero’s journey, analyzed very thoroughly by the aforementioned Mr. Campbell in his Hero with a Thousand Faces, is a pattern that viewers and readers have seen acted out in the travails of Frodo Baggins, Luke Skywalker, and, of course, Harry Potter, but, interestingly, our contemporary media latches onto just a few elements, and only certain kinds of heroes.

Perseus, obviously, is a great choice for film: strapping young demigod who wallops monsters and gets the girl, what’s not to love? But has Orpheus ever gotten a movie deal? And anything featuring Oedipus is doomed to the direct-to-arts-channel market (although last year I had an entrepreneurial student who designed a movie trailer for an Oedipus film as his creative drama project; I think he might have had a winner, especially with his cast, which included Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman).  And when has any version of Hercules’ story included the less pleasant effects of his legendary temper (i.e. the murder of his family in a moment’s rage)? We like our heroes troubled and all, but not that troubled.

When heroes, even heroes lifted from mythology, take on the characteristics of the classic hero journey, their progress usually says more about modern readers and their sensibilities than it does about the cultures of Greece or Rome. The descent into the underworld, where one may encounter a father or other dead mentor is thus transformed into Luke Skywalker’s  largely psychological journey into a cave where he “kills” a version of Darth Vader, who turns out to be himself. The hero’s journey now is not just an actual path, but a series of experiences laden with Freudian meaning to give us a modern hero complete with psychiatric disorders and angst.  Beowulf can’t just kill Grendel and his mother per the ancient poem. Nope, according to the recent film, now he has to have a conflicted  sexual relationship with the monster mother that makes his final battle with the dragon an illustration of the dangers of succumbing to the lure of power, sex, and skiving off responsibility for the results of one’s actions.

This trend is also not a new phenomenon, as even Edmund Spenser, in the sixteenth century, gave the Underworld visited by Sir Guyon most of the usual suspects, but also details his Elizabethan readers would understand, including plenty of nasty digs at Catholicism, which was religion non gratia at the time. Modern readers, if they catch or understand such elements at all, generally find them distasteful, as may future viewers who wonder about the strange craft used by Charon in Clash of the Titans. It doesn’t look like much in mythology, but it does connect nicely with some swell Pirates of the Caribbean imagery, looking more like the Flying Dutchman than an upturned trireme (which it is apparently meant to be.) One would think that such a craft would be in poor taste, considering that Perseus’ adopted parents and sister perished when their ship turned over, but then, Perseus is the modern American Greek hero, as much John Wayne and Mel Gibson as Greco-Roman. He’s so tough that he even gives the gods a run for their money, an attitude that is definitely all- American.

3.  Gods, who needs ‘em? I’m an American!

“Damn the Gods!” is the tagline of Clash of the Titans, and it does not fail to follow that theme. All through the film, Perseus, resentful of his family’s deaths as collateral damage in the war humans are waging against the Olympians, sticks to his policy to act “as a man,” refusing the help and gifts of the gods and denying that his father is Zeus.  This, of course, does not tally with the usual relationships seen between humans and gods in mythology. In fact, the point is made in the film that the gods apparently need the worship of humans to continue their immortality, reminiscent of children clapping their hands and shouting “I do believe in fairies!” to save poor Tinkerbell from an untimely demise. Perseus, though, and  a whole lot of other people, apparently, do not want to clap their hands and shout “ I do believe in the Olympians!” They want to stand on their own two feet as humans, neither fearing or loving the immortals on the mountain.

Self-reliance, not just thanks to Ralph Waldo Emerson, is an ideal modern media consumers, particularly Americans, like in our heroes, though we don’t mind interdependence between equals, like crew members on a star ship or members of a crime-fighting team. Even then, individualism is important, and we like our heroes to be their own people. This can, of course, be very positive, as we root for Harry Potter taking his destiny in his own hands by asking the Sorting Hat not to put him in Slytherin House. No one wants a protagonist who is a mere robot, a game piece like the figures in the original Clash of the Titans.  And yet, we all should realize that, even if our destinies aren’t controlled by the Olympians, that we are not nearly as in control as we think we are. Harry, course, is just as much a cog in the machine of Dumbledore’s (positively motivated, of course) machinations as he is a decision-making individual.  Han Solo, who scoffs “no mystical energy field controls my destiny,” in his dismissal of the Force, is actually a key player in the fulfillment of the destiny of the Skywalker family. We are all eagerly waiting the next developments in Mockingjay to show us just how much that seeming model of feminine independence, Katniss Everdeen, is really a tool in a rebellion for which she is the symbol. And Christians, certainly, know that we are personally responsible for our individual choices, but we seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in those decisions so that we may remain within God’s will and live for His glory.  Perseus’ vehement refusal to acknowledge Zeus as his father smacks of the brand of independence that is not mere personal responsibility, but the desire to wrest all control over our lives from anyone or anything in power. We don’t need gods (or God, it often seems) because we are gods. We have elevated ourselves to divinity, proud of our accomplishments and seeming to require nothing from on high, so the gods must bow to us. This attitude is the driving tone of Clash of the Titans, and it is echoed by celebrities, politicians, and sports stars every day.  So where does genuine faith come into the re-visioning of mythology? That’s coming in part 3,  I promise.  To be continued….


  1. Dear Ms. Baird Hardy,

    I began reading Mr. Granger’s blog several years ago after reading his book “Looking for God in Harry Potter”, and this is actually my first trip back since The Deathly Hallows’ release. I am certainly glad that I found my way to this corner of the web though, as I see I have missed out on many intelligent discussions. I enjoyed reading this post, and the “Gods, who needs ’em?” section in particular. I think in no other place does this tragic mindset of extreme American independence play out in more delicate prose than in Melville’s Moby-Dick. Who can forget the enigmatic Ahab’s words against the whale and the sun? So full of vengeance and hatred, his will is so heavily wrapped up in the desires of the American spirit that we find ourselves almost cheering him on as he says: “Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines.”

    What I find remarkable in those last gripping moments of Ahab’s battle with the whale is the inevitability that man’s penultimate destination is destruction (as a Christian, I consider another ending in the wake of that we meet in life). Melville, I think, in writing Moby-Dick did tap into a construct of the American mind, but what is rather interesting to me today is the foreign epic that overshadows his here in The States.

    Melville’s struggle with the forces of the Divine are too rarely known among Americans today, but a great many know of Frodo’s frightful journey to carry the Ring into the heart of Mordor. Tolkien’s willingness to describe the forces beyond Frodo, Aragorn, and Gandalfs’ actions allow us to explore the loving nature of godly sovereignty. Such force is certainly not democratic, stripping away the ideal that man is owner of his soul. Yet The Lord of the Rings has flourished in the U.S., and I wonder if it is in relation to our human need for guidance in a culture that has turned its cheek on God’s ultimate power?

    Thanks for this article, and I do apologize for this wall of text. I look forward to reading more of your posts in the future!



  2. Elizabeth says

    Thanks for coming back, Corbin! It may take a while, but I hope you’ll get to enjoy some of the great backlog of conversations we’ve had over the last couple of years!

    Your points about Ahab are spot-on. I’m teaching American Lit I this summer, the class where I promise the students that if they trudge through all those Puritans, their prize at the end is Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville (at least, that seems like a prize to me!) We don’t get to do Moby-Dick, alas( but we do read Benito Cereno) That motif, of the American as commander of his own destiny, is critical to Melville, especially since, considering where it gets old Ahab and his crew, except for Ishmael on a coffin, there is a sharp criticism of such an attitude. Yes, we can put ourselves up as gods, but we fail, like Ahab (or, like his protege who quotes him relentlessly, Khan from Star Trek!)
    Our need for myths that show we do need God, that we will never be happy or complete apart from Him, is the focus of part three in the on-going post here (talk about a wall of text!) and a theme that John covers nicely in Spotlight and much of his great Harry Potter scholarship. Stay tuned!

  3. Chuck Perego says

    Interesting article. HP does not disappoint. One note. On a recent visit to Washington, D.C., my wife and I stopped at the Smithsonian to see Julia Childs’s kitchen. It is supposedly re-installed in toto, down to the knives on the wall and the books on the shelves. As one might expect, there were numerous cookbooks (including two copies of The Joy of Cooking), but there was also a copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology! I have no idea why she had a book of mythology in her kitchen, but I am gratified that the curators have left it there.

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