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The Modern Myths - Philip Ball - review

Philip Ball is one of our most esteemed science science writers, so it's easy to think of his new book The Modern Myths as a hobby project. However, Ball brings to this exploration of the idea that stories about the likes of Robinson Crusoe, Dracula, Sherlock Holmes and Batman are our modern day myths the same erudition, attention to detail and careful research as he does to writing about the physical world.

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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  1. Hi Brian,
    Thanks so much for this generous and thoughtful review. I'm delighted you enjoyed the book.

    My intention was never to be dismissive of Buffy. I fear I was only able, with so much to cover (in that chapter particularly), to allude to it briefly - but not, I thought, dismissively. Here's what I said:
    "It’s really only the flipside of the same coin that makes Joss Whedon’s cult TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with its adult-proof, postmodern code of rules and references, another effective (and somewhat more self-satirizing) vehicle for exploring teenage issues. As young people know, fighting monsters is just something you have to get on with, and can even be kind of fun if you’re in the right gang – but high school is hell."

    That you read this as negative might perhaps help to explain why you felt an absence of humour - that, of course, is a very personal affair, and so maybe what I intended as humour in passages like this came across to you as something else...!

    Same goes for Austen. I don't think that putting zombies into a spoof is quite what it takes to make a story mythical (for all that I'm in favour!) - but remember that what I said was this:
    "Is Pride and Prejudice ever about anything but how we can be too hasty, in affairs of the heart, to prejudge others and misinterpret their nature and intentions? I would contend that the goals, trajectories and cast of these two popular stories are too fixed, too lacking in ambiguity, to make them mythical. But I’m open to persuasion (and perhaps even to Persuasion)."

    But these aren't gripes, just attempts at clarification. Your review is lovely.

    1. Thanks, Philip. The reason I thought the Buffy comment was negative was that the 'same coin' was Twilight, and I think it's fair to say they aren't in the same class. As for Austen, good point re zombies, though I did give three other examples, all showing an evolution in a different direction, and could add more (e.g. Tamara Drew).

      The main point, though, is it's a great book!

    2. I agree, they are not in the same class at all! But that's why Buffy is the *flip side of the same coin*, that coinage being that the vampire myth can be an effective vehicle for exploring issues for teenagers and adolescents. I don't mean to imply that that's the limit of Buffy's appeal, any more than it is for the brilliant Stranger Things.

  2. This is clearly a book I should read. I'm interested to learn how myths get started. All I know is that they get started all the time. When I was growing up in the Ashdown Forest in Sussex, there was the Myth of the White Stag -- a wonderful albino stag that reputedly haunted the woods. The thing was that everyone knew someone else who had seen it, but hadn't seen it themselves...

    1. Definitely worth reading! I think what Philip is referring to as a myth is a rather different concept, but they both exist in the same broad sphere of myths and legends.


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