Why Do Humans Tell the Stories They Do: An Interview with Lily Alexander (Part Four)

How might a reliance on mythic structures be vital in a world of transmedia stories?

I suggest that as part of the ritual-mythological system, itself a component of symbolic and modeling processes, mythic stories are useful in facilitating the adjustment of individuals, families, groups, and society at large. By means of storytelling, they provide exciting “settings” and “characters,” timeless and wondrous landscapes, and a bountiful choice of magic beings. Mythic-ritual structures can be very powerful in aiding the meaning-making process – our construction of current symbolic maps of the world – by employing, recombining and reinterpreting familiar mythic images.

However, an “evolution” of terms would be helpful. What used to be termed (and rightfully criticized as) “mythic structures,” was renamed and redefined by Turner and his school of symbolic anthropology as dominant symbols (as a result of collaborative field work, rather than the work of armchair philosophers), and later as dominant symbolic processes (Turner’s functionalist approach redefined all symbols as processes), and even more precisely as a system of ritual-symbolic processes. Mythology is part of such processes.

If we were to consider myths as a set of static or “frozen images” (as Eisenstein suggested could be employed to underscore visual irony), unrelated to specific time, they would have merely a “decorative” or “entertaining” effect on new stories or games, hence a quite superficial significance. Even worse, they could be used to fool us and “pretend” to be part of a true adventure.

In the study of “mythic structures” I argue that outdated approaches must give way to newer methodologies developed over the last sixty years. I consider myth as part of a symbolic process, change, functionality in/for society, and never-ending activities of re-interpretation and meaning-making. I suggest that myths may even be the substance of which our templates of hypothetical realities are made; they may have a biosemantic significance.

If we grasp the relationship between myth and process/change – viewing mythological symbolism in the context of society, how it can function to mediate the needs and conflicts of one’s historical time, and how societal crises affect the interpretation of key symbols – then we can make mythic structures work in full force for us in storytelling media, optimizing society and its ever-changing challenges and needs.

Much recent writing discusses the tensions which occur between the activities of world-building and traditional forms of storytelling. What relationship are you positing between worlds and stories?

These are relationships of mutual dependence, of a Mobius band type. I understand that media scholars today may emphasize the “autonomy” of world-building from the story. I accept this as a polemical stance, a hyperbola meant to attract attention to a new phenomenon. Yet, while world-building exists today in novel forms and on a new scale, it is not a new phenomenon, but an activity rooted in ancient cultural practices of humankind. I strongly believe that there can be no effective use for a fictional world without a story. A story is a call for “Action” for the “world”-screenplay (to use a movie set metaphor). The story is what activates the world, and lets it unfold.

Consider the entrances and the trigger-points of some notable fictional worlds. From the moment of their introduction to us, these worlds experience a loss of balance because of a disastrous event. In The Odyssey, a young husband is drafted into the army and must leave his family, perhaps forever. Alice loses equilibrium and falls into a wonderworld, through the “underworld.” So does Dorothy, but by means of a violent twister, propelling her through the air. Harry Potter leaves home for a school of magic – his risky adventures are fated. In The Lord of the Rings, evil forces threaten to rob various human and human-like species of their shared Homeworld. The Enterprise is always crossing boundaries into dangerous Unknowns, where “no man has gone before.”

Besides planting flowers in gardens along diligently-mapped rivers of newly-built worlds, something should happen so that this picture-perfect world comes alive and gears up for defense. In the most influential cases, we are invited into fictional worlds when change is about to threaten their foundations. We are astonished, feel sympathy, and eagerly look for solutions alongside their anxious populations.

Fictional worlds are rarely invented out of leisure, perhaps only in poems. A “harmonious” wonderland would hardly sustain a story. Wonderworlds are created to underscore trouble within Homeworlds, and to explore their symbolic “loss of balance.” Fictional World-Building is a Homeworld Improvement, inseparable from World-Saving. Such a feat often begins with one hero on a journey, who must transform himself in order to understand a problem and rescue his world.

A fictional world is a template of a possible future. We can only assess such a hypothetic reality by testing it in action, giving it a stress-test. We must observe what is happening within it at moments of conflict/crisis; what the outcomes might be; and what resources such a template possesses for problem-solving. Only then can we determine the essence of this fictional world-model, and decide if it provides a “good future” for us.

Fictional worlds are also dramas: the need to “build” them is an “alert response” to social breaches and other emerging forms of dangerous disequilibria, to hidden troubles which even wise elders cannot foresee. Fictional world-building is always a reaction to (latent) crisis. Dystopia – a form of tragedy displaying not merely a hero’s peril, but the entire community on the edge of survival – is a “negative” model showing outcomes we must avoid. Our dystopian world-building insists that we must try to fix a problem in the present, so that we may heal the future.

When it comes to the stories of ordinary people, whether in realism or fairytale, fictional worlds are always realms of survival. They are invariably wonderlands of possibilities and infinite choices. The more constrained social conditions are in reality, the more imaginative, intricate and unapologetic are the gifts of “second chances” in Wonderworlds. These much-needed fictional worlds are also very “motherly,” as if the she-goddess Mother-Nature is in charge; expectedly they are empathetic and compassionate. Assisted by all sorts of magic helpers – from Fate, smart aliens, strange coincidences, and the Fairy God-Mother with cooperative mice, to the art of pathos and reverse pathos provided by ritual wailers and modern-day storytellers on-screen – fictional worlds emerge as a support system and a template for the future, created by people like us, mass-men and women.

Unsurprisingly, these magic carpet-like fictional worlds are woven out of lanes and crossroads of infinite chances. Any pit can be avoided by pulling oneself up by the bootstraps; jails have tunnels leading toward the outside world of freedom; underdogs and orphans get lucky and become useful and proud women and men. Such stories/parables always close with hard-earned happy endings, and with justice and everyone’s dignity restored.

While I highlight the fact that the connection between worlds and stories is profound, the variable dynamics between them is very interesting too. The fictional worlds can be viewed as sites of “forever interaction” – places with no end in time, into which new visitors/heroes can step, and where their new stories can take place. This is clearly a mythic timeless dimension.

Conversely, a story is a segment, based on the cause-and-effect principle, happening in linear time, with time progression, which demonstrates a phase transition with some sort of reversal (Aristotle’s “from bad to good” or “from good to bad”). We expect to witness the transformation of a character, and of a (social) situation. In the process, some in the cast of characters change, so too do some in the audience.

What do these two systems – worlds and stories – have in common? Cycles. These are temporary segments with endings, which always repeat themselves. So it is expected that into fictional worlds ever-newer protagonists will go, repeating the hero’s journey and feats, embarking on new adventures and acquiring new wisdom. However, each individual story-event is different and each heroic feat is not a feat/shift if it does not “change the world.”

Even when we have a cycle of hurricanes, each season is different, causing diverse effects; as is the summer harvest – one year is more fruitful than another. While cycles are repetitions, they also ensure a shift; the fictional world must gradually change, experiencing the impact of each Journeying hero and his/her team. The story/world dichotomy, at the very interesting junction between conceptions of linear and non-linear time, affects many phenomena of interest to narratology, anthropology and media theory, such as storytelling on-screen and on-stage, fandom, videogames, and transmedia.

Much contemporary writing on world-building emphasizes the act of imagination involved in building worlds from scratch, but your approach would seem to focus on the ways that storytellers rely on a shared vocabulary drawn from their culture’s pasts. Would it be better to think of this process in terms of rebuilding fictional worlds?

The current “age of adaptation” (Linda Hutcheon) signals our need to interact with, and re-build, worlds already in place in our collective imagination. This activity was already noticeable in the Renaissance (the word means “re-birth, reviving, restoring”), as well as in Romanticism and Modernism. Perhaps earlier: the Romans re-configured Greek culture in their own mythology, switching names, i.e. Zeus to Jupiter and Aphrodite to Venus. Even strikingly original contemporary worlds are subconscious responses to, and debates with, worlds of the past.

Nesting dolls – nesting worlds – emerging one out of another, created by previous eras’ imaginations are an interesting image-model. People may think they are designing fictional worlds “from scratch” because they don’t consciously acknowledge their own ancient stories and myths; yet their subconscious selves remember – and so it seems “from scratch.” Usually re-combinations of already known image-symbols are mobilized in new bold fusions (emerging from as early as the imagery of lullabies, as the magnificent animation Tale of Tales by Yuri Norstein suggests).

There is nothing wrong with the new creation having an umbilical cord connected to “forgotten” myths. Such work can still be groundbreaking and effective for a new era. Compare two stories of metamorphosis, for instance (one of myth’s typical plots). Both “remakes” are tragic-ironic. In one a man dies in an ass’s body (becomes a donkey), while another is turned into a giant insect (Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass versus Kafka’s The Metamorphosis). The difference is that one restores his human identity after numerous adventures, while the other has no adventures, just suffers a shameful isolation and never comes back as a man. A universal story of metamorphosis is rooted in early myth; but how differently do these remakes speak to their contemporaries, commenting with bitter sarcasm on the declining world of Antiquity and the Roman Empire, and later on Europe between two world wars.

In sum, I think nothing in culture can be made from scratch anymore. Consciously or not, we retrieve the memories of our favorite tales, which have “grown” out of previous mythic narratives, re-configured by new generations, with the composition altered, and the story elements recycled. I’d suggest that what is at work envelops an entire spectrum of combinations between the old and the new: we are in a state of the never-ending (ritual-symbolic) process of recreating, honoring, re-interpreting, rebuilding, fusing, making parody of, and creating – albeit from the same bricks – amazingly original, previously inconceivable, new worlds.

Examples of marvelously re-configured mythic worlds include some of my personal favorites: Roddenberry’s Star Trek: Next Generation; Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy; J.K. Rowling’s playful take on Celtic mythology and British literature in Harry Potter; Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, and Pan’s Labyrinth – multicultural neo-myths of the Spanish and Latin American traditions; the Japanese masters Akutagawa, Kurosawa and Miyazaki, with their brave insights on world narratives; and Ireland’s Joyce linking together Homer, Dante, Peter Pan and Modernism. Amadeus, Taxi Driver and Fight Club were “written” by the Russians Pushkin and Dostoevsky; while Hitchcock borrowed heavily from Shakespeare, the Baroque, the Romantics and the Expressionists. Such masters as Gogol, Kafka, Bulgakov, Borges, Marquez, and Cortazar generated an endless vibrant stream of magic realism. These re-configuring practices will become even more daring in the era of globalization, as storytellers increasingly borrow from each other’s national traditions.

It is not a question of how much old and how much new is in each emerging fictional world, or if it is created by the collective (oral tradition) or an individual (great author), but what elements and vital building blocks of imagery we need to make our “models of possible futures” be functional and effective. And in what order they should be linked together, to maintain life-asserting architectonics.

Thus, I would prefer “world-building” rather than “rebuilding,” because regardless of the building blocks, any original and effective fictional world is a unique “possible world” or template of a “hypothetical future,” a new and necessary addition to modeling systems. Each fictional world, if it is to be compelling, has its own unique function in fine-tuning and optimizing a specific society at a given historical time, addressing a new set of unresolved problems.

Lily Alexander  has been teaching film, literature, media and screenwriting for fifteen years; the last ten years in New York, at NYU and CUNY. She received her masters in drama and film, and defended a dual doctorate in anthropology and comparative cultural studies, with an emphasis on narrative, in 1998. Alexander teaches her brand of courses, which uniquely combine theories of culture and storytelling with creative writing, hoping to enthuse new Tolkiens and Rowlings. Her most recent classes, at Hunter College, focus on world fairytale, folklore, myth, novel, short story, and science fiction as part of the framework of past and present storytelling practices. Alexander’s new book Fictional Worlds: Traditions in Narrative and the Age of Visual Culture was published in October 2013 (available on amazon.com). This text is also available in digital formats, as a set of Kindle books, and forthcoming as a set of iBooks for the apple platform. The four books of the digital sets are titled, Fictional Worlds I: The Symbolic Journey & The Genres SystemFictional Worlds II: Dramatic Characters & Dramatic ActionFictional Worlds III: Tragedy & Mystery; and Fictional Worlds IV: Comedy & the Extraordinary. Her website is storytellingonscreen.com. Email: contact (at) storytellingonscreen.com. Comments and questions are welcome.