Myth, Fantasy, and Meaning

From Ovid’s Metamorphoses to the Mahabharata, the Popol-Vuh to the Norse Eddas, myth gave people ways to understand the world, to develop cultural identity, to share values. But what is the role of myth in modern cultures? We now tend to use the word“myth”to mean a dangerous falsehood, yet we continue to use stories of the unreal to make sense of the real, to articulate challenging ideas and to substantiate our values and practices. One way we do so is through fantasy: Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter, and Katniss Everdeen have retraced the classic hero’s journey, and magical lands like Oz and Earthsea reflect our world back to us in new ways. But mythic thinking runs deeper than film and fiction, shaping us in ways both obvious and subtle. Americans use a national dream, for example, to understand race- and class-based social hierarchies; families and other communities, such college campuses, develop their own folklore to define themselves. In this course, we will grapple with the ways myth, folklore, and fantasy permeate our lived experiences and cultural interactions: How do traditional myths not only embody culturally specific values, but reveal transcendent human concerns, ones that continue to shape our choices? How does scholarly work from a range of disciplines – including anthropology, psychology, literature, and philosophy – complicate our understanding of myth and its meaning? How do a culture’s fantasies reveal its social realities, making meaning through the assumptions and distortions of fantastical literature and film? (Think of Rowling’s muggles and mudbloods or the political philosophies of Game of Thrones.) Most importantly, we’ll hold this folkloric mirror up to ourselves, to unpack mythologies of self, family, and community, and to examine how the stories we tell can create political and personal conflict, but also the possibility of social cohesion.