Ball's thesis is that there is something about certain stories that enables them to escape the bounds of their origin to mutate and become something quite different - and further reaching - than the original. Often, many of us haven't ever read the originals. And if we have, they can be quite disappointing. As Ball points out, to become a myth, it helps a lot of the original work is ambiguous in interpretation and loosely written. As a result, we are unlikely ever to find 'great literature' taking on mythical form - it is far more likely to come from genre fiction and more recently other media such as graphic novels.
Along the way we discover a lot about the original works and the way that they have inspired a whole range of other versions and stories that have the myth at their heart, even if they have totally different protagonists. If anything, given the importance of malleability and spinning off variants, Ball spends a bit too long on the original and its creator in each case: one thing that seems pretty much impossible to do is to consciously create a myth. It was quite fun when Ball got onto a chapter dedicated to other myths-in-the-making to try to guess what might fit in this class. Before reading on, I guessed the James Bond books, which Ball pleasingly then listed as a possible case.
Inevitably with such a subjective concept, it's unlikely that anyone will agree entirely with Ball's assessment - that's part of the fun of reading a book like this. I found it quite amusing that when talking of Sherlock Holmes, we are told that he and Watson cannot be fixed points in a changing age, as if they were, ‘the works of Conan Doyle would be like those of Dickens or Austen, treasured but immutable.' But, in fact, Jane Austen's work has relatively recently had a fair amount of the treatment Ball uses to identify a myth. Think, for example, of Lost in Austen, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Bridgerton and Death Comes to Pemberley.
Arguably, the humour in myth and in the development of myth is the thing that is most missing from this book - Ball's approach is mostly deadly serious (with the exception of the 1960s Batman TV series). This comes through, for example, in his dismissive attitude to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, arguably by far the most innovative development of the Dracula myth, both in the way it subverts the structure and in its brilliant humour - perhaps he hasn't watched it.
Overall, though, this is a wonderful book for anyone interested in the nature of writing and storytelling and the way that we as human beings respond to story and it responds to us. It's a must-have for lovers of myth and genre fiction alike.
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