I would like to examine a section in Gaiman’s “Reflections on Myth” published in Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art and republished in in his collected nonfiction The View from the Cheap Seats, which I have recently started to read. This is the chunk:
“Too often, myths are uninspected. We bring them out without looking at what they represent, nor what they mean. Urban Legends and the Weekly World News present us with myths in the simplest sense: a world in which events occur according to story logic-not as they do happen, but as they should happen.
But retelling myths is important. The act of inspecting them is important. It is not a matter of holding a myth up as a dead thing, desiccated and empty (“Now class, what have we learned from the Death of Baldur?”), nor is it a matter of creating New Age self help tomes (“The Gods Inside You! Releasing Your Inner Myth.”) Instead we have to understand that even lost and forgotten myths are compost, in which stories grow.
What is important is to tell the stories anew, and to retell the old stories. They are our stories, and they should be told.”
These sentences don’t present much to argue with on the surface. But through Gaiman’s actions/creations, we can see he undermines what he “preaches.” Gaiman goes beyond retelling myths, such as what he did with Norse Mythology, where he updated myths for the modern reader and arguably stayed close to source material (though I, like Ursula K. Le Guin, didn’t like how he went about it). I am speaking of American Gods and Sandman more specifically, where he assimilates myth into his own brand—taking it from a communal (read: cultural) form and turning it into a fandom-religion where he is the priest. My thesis, which I am still ironing out in this brainstorming exercise, is that he does not participate in mythology. He does not contribute to it or polish it as others, like Jo Walton in her Thessaly series, do, but breaks it apart and then takes the pieces he likes and melts them into something else entirely. He destroys the original, cultural beauty and theology of myth, as if there are no merits in seeing these stories as they are in their original time periods, contexts, and evolutions. Allow me to explain.
In Sandman, Gaiman plucks the gods from the myths and sticks them in the comic universe just like he plucked Marvel characters and stuck them in 1602. Gaiman is quoted in the Afterword’s script letter to Andy of Marvel 1602 as saying he didn’t want to “mirror the Marvel Universe here: we’re doing something that’s more fun than that—we’re trying to create it. We get to make up our own.” He just wants the characters, never mind the original contexts that made these characters what they are in our consciousness. He steals their history, making the familiar unfamiliar without having to work for it. It’s the equivalent of going to a film simply because your favorite actor is in it and associating all the characters they were previously with the new character, except Gaiman doesn’t even create a new character for the actor. He merely changes the setting and tells the viewer “this character is Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissorhands, the Mad Hatter all at once now tell me how clever I am.”
And this is exactly what he does with myth. He ignores the very roots of mythology while reaping all the benefits of seeming the well-versed mythologist. Never mind the fact he refused to read Joseph Campbell, saying: “I think I got about half way through The Hero with a Thousand Faces and found myself thinking if this is true — I don’t want to know…I’d rather do it because it’s true and because I accidentally wind up creating something that falls into this pattern than be told what the pattern is.” Gaiman actively avoids the mythology itself while ignoring mythology is the pattern.
In that same interview, Gaiman is quoted as saying, “But I tend to be more interested in the actual myth,” which doesn’t ring true. Gaiman, repeatedly, tends to ignore the myth and use the characters to shove his story along. This is seen in the way he treats the creation of myth. In American Gods, gods do not create the universe (leading to what I call a “scientific explanation” of things), but humans create the gods out of their belief. The very families of gods don’t make sense anymore (if gods are born from human belief, how are their divine children born? How is Zeus born from Rhea? He must not be, if he was actually formed from the collective consciousness of people). And let’s not get into how Shadow is Odin’s son (i.e. is he divine or not? Is he a demigod or not? Doesn’t matter). Instead, let’s look at how Gaiman doesn’t even allow the gods he deems worthy of his story to evolve with the times. He calls them “Old” as if the gods are not timeless (the very concept of a god). Gaiman creates “New Gods” that encompass our new collective consciousness—what we pay attention to in this modern age. Never mind that, historically, gods always evolve to incorporate new forms of worship and interests: Kronos shifts from child-eater to castrated Father Time figure, Greek gods are merged with Latin gods and Egyptian gods, the Hebrew monotheistic god turns into the Polytheistic Trinity—there are many ways the old gods evolve, yet they do not die from non-belief. Humans do not have that power. A sacrifice to the gods does not give them physical strength. It only gives them proof of one more bent ear for their own agenda.
In American Gods, the New Gods squeeze out the possibility of the Old Gods evolving. Instead, they are the ones who offer the Old Gods chances to “rebrand.” This is what fundamentally doesn’t make sense about Gaiman’s theology. If the Old gods could always just rebrand, how could New Gods ever get the chance to exist in the first place? As if the Old Gods didn’t know what was coming if they didn’t choose to rebrand? It seems more like they’d be chomping at the bit to associate themselves with anything and everything. After all, if they aren’t diversified enough they will die.
We know that the goddess Easter is feeding off the Christian Holiday, so she was quick to rebrand. So was Vulcan, the new character created for the show, now the god of guns (which seems more like territory Ares would want, but I’ll let someone else rant…). The Old Gods seem to encompass a lot of modern ideas already (after all, it’s the gods who taught us how to do things in the original myths—like Prometheus giving us fire, they bring modernity to mortals, right?). For example: Vulcan would be a better personification of technology (BECAUSE: FEMALE ROBOT HELPERS) than Technical Boy. Arguably, Yggdrasil is the Internet itself (or you could call her a form of Maya, maybe?). And don’t you dare tell me that Dionysus wouldn’t be the god of films (he loved theater).
In myth, gods had sex with each other and made babies. Sometimes, accidentally. But that’s normally how you would get “New Gods.” Yet American Gods needed to create conflict and so created the “New God” strawman so Gaiman could stitch together the short stories he actually wanted to write. Though, if we were to give Gaiman some credit, we could argue his “New Gods” were to show that there is a scientific explanation for gods. If Gods are created from human consciousness (we create our own monsters, they are a shared delusion, reality isn’t real) then yeah, sure, they make a little more sense. And I’m willing to support that that is possibly how some things are created—in a Jungian, archetypal sense. Sometimes humans do help create myth—true or not, human propagate myth and mysteriousness. Lady Liberty—Libertas—is the personification of freedom. She was, at one point, erected for a political agenda. It could be argued that humans named her—created her. Or that they just gave a name to a personification—a personification controlled by a previously unnamed god. Or gave an old god a second name. I wonder if Gaiman would label her as “Old” or “New”?
It is my “belief” that sometimes gods lie and say they are another god if it makes you believe them or if the name expresses part of themselves they want you to see and understand. If we were trapped one day and a goddess heard our prayers why wouldn’t she call herself Libertas so we wouldn’t be afraid? Names give understanding.
Sure, we help shape them as much as they shape us. But saying that we created them does not make sense to me—not even scientifically. It is much more believable, to me, to take a Perelandraian view of mythology. Where the gods are gods of space and time. Where the gods are found in science itself. Where they caused the big bang and populate other worlds like a colonial race of aliens. Whatever. At most, I feel like I have the power to summon a demon. A demon who was already in existence. A demon who can tell me whatever name he’d like. But I cannot create. I do not want to create. I do not want to get my hopes up and be let down like that.
In episode 7 of American Gods, “A Prayer for Mad Sweeny,” it is implied that one person alone brings Mad Sweeny the leprechaun to America. If one single person can cause the existence of an imaginary being, then why aren’t more children’s night terrors running about (a happening I would say occurs more than their belief/understanding in God). There are too many holes to poke into Gaiman’s method of believing. Sure, there are plenty of holes you could poke in current thought processes (thus, atheism) but shouldn’t—if we are to suspend disbelief anyways—we account for what we believe gods are originally? If, for instance, we are to believe that leprechauns exist in the U.S. because one person believed in them, yet that person didn’t know to believe in them unless she was told about them in the first place this becomes the “chicken or the egg” scenario. Which is not what myth typically is. Mythology is already the answer to the “chicken or the egg” dilemma. Gaiman shouldn’t use mythology to answer his Big Questions if he makes his own answer irrelevant.
I am starting to disagree that myths are “compost” as Gaiman states, for this overlooks myths as living, breathing plants woven into current stories. Gaiman does not weave into what already exists—American Gods is not another branch on the tree. Allow me to be dramatic: it is a stolen piece of nature. And when you chop off plant parts, yes, sometimes the seeds and stems can take new root. You can graft something new. But the old trunk you stole from is still sitting there. Or the plucked fruit shrivels up. Or you get a bad seed.
Parts of American Gods can’t take root. Instead of nurturing the plant-that-is-world-myth that is already firmly planted, Gaiman whacks away at it. He does the very “dissecting” he claims to avoid. He wants to “create it” as if it is not already in existence and as if myth is not a communal, cultural act. As if picking flowers here and there to make his own floral bouquet (that will eventually wilt) will somehow give him a clearer understanding of what he has destroyed. And perhaps it does give a clearer view. It got me talking about mythology, for sure. But it is so much more satisfying when the author works within the constraints of what is already established—grows from the same tree rather than try to be an entirely new plant all together. Myths/stories are not compost. We are the compost. We are what they grow from. We are what the stories live in and sprout from.
Mythology is not like the fairy tale. Fairy tales are retold in countless renditions. They are the story archetypes whose characters (more so, story structure) can be pasted into other contexts. Mythical characters/stories cannot have this done to them so well because mythology is the context. The characters are myth/religion/reality itself–representations of forces of nature and culture. If you take such characters, you automatically change nature and culture (rather, you try and fail to, because let’s be honest, your story is weaker than the reality). It doesn’t translate. When the lines between fable, fairy tale, and myth cross and blur, there could be excuses made. But unless those excuses are called upon, the story fails to really talk about myth as it is.
Arguably, this myths-as-compost has been done long before Gaiman (read: Thor and Wonder Woman), but never has mythology been so controlled by one man. Arguably, comics before him were a communal art form. Now Gaiman slaps his name on them and creates his monomyth according to his own selection. In his Columbia essay he states American Gods “will be, for me, a way of trying to pin down myths—the modem myths and the old myths, together—on the huge and puzzling canvas that is the North American continent. …I have lived here for six years, and I still do not understand it: a strange collection of home-grown myths and beliefs, the ways that America explains itself to itself.” And this is part of the problem too—his trying to pin down the myths. America needs no outsider to explain their myths to them. America, yes, needs to look inward sometimes. But perhaps let us have a say in our own cultural mythmaking? But that is the Gaiman brand—colonialism.
This post was updated on 6/26/17.