Isabel Greenberg's "The Power of Myth"
Isabel Greenberg writes stories about stories. In her whimsical and profound graphic novels, 2013’s The Encyclopedia of Early Earth and 2016’s The One Hundred Nights of Hero, the writer and artist from the UK crafts beautifully illustrated legendary tales that also serve as collections of its fictional peoples’ myths. Greenberg arranges both of these stories around storytellers, one a young man traversing the globe and the other a queer housemaid. They portray for the reader the intimacy and tenderness inherent in storytelling among loved ones and the defining and organizing power that their transmission can have among the masses. They also teach a more cogent and impactful lesson on the nature and power of myth than the majority of offerings that readers can find in their bookstores. But what is myth? How does its pervasive presence stick with us and guide us now? And what is so insightful about Isabel Greenberg’s crafting of and commentary on them?
Both of Greenberg’s books take place in the world of “Early Earth.” In The Encyclopedia of Early Earth, a young man recounts to his love his journey to her across Early Earth’s many nations, surviving by the skin of his teeth and armed only with the stories of his people. In The One Hundred Nights of Hero, a queer housemaid (Hero) tells stories for one hundred nights to thwart the advances of her mistress’ sinister suitor. Early Earth is watched over by a high god BirdMan and his children, Kid and Kiddo. Powerful but imperfect, they embody the pushes and pulls of grace and cynicism in organized religion, manhood, childhood, and rebellion.
It has been said of myths that they never happened because they are always happening.
Humankind’s most foundational myths capture fundamental truths about people, and readers can map their own troubles, triumphs, and relationships onto their mighty figures. The ancient gods are deeply flawed, sexual creatures, dealing often with heartbreak and jealousy and infidelity. Humans are striving and ambitious. Love is elevated to divinity and debased to want. Sisyphus will always haul his boulder. Adam and Eve will always want knowledge. Rama will always leave Sita because it is right in the dharmic scheme of things. Sometimes good wins out, but often it doesn’t. Myths captivated significant and popular theorists of religion throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Joseph Campbell, whose ideas about myth have become a significant influence on American pop culture, posited that mythology is the singular psychological exercise that differentiates the human from other animals. Campbell understood myths as ordering and articulating human dialectic with “nature” and serving to reinforce the mutually preserving relationship between the individual and the tribe (these ideas, especially Campbell’s emphasis on the nature-culture binary, have come into serious question in recent years and deserve their own essay at some point) (Myths to Live By. 21-23). Émile Durkheim, writing nearly a century before Campbell, believed myths to be indicators and intensifiers of social membership in a manner that transcended death and generation—and Mircea Eliade understood myths as complex serializations of symbolic pieces into a whole, contributing to the indirect task of expressing the otherwise ineffable encounter with the sacred or “wholly other” (Pals. Eight Theories of Religion. 105-106, 203-204). All three of these thinkers have been used as fodder for twenty first century critics who rightly decry their fallacious prioritization of rationality alone, their stuffy armchair-scholarliness, and their basic subscription to the paradigm of the European, middle-class, male subject (assuming their own worldview to be universal). This critique is essential in writing about their works in hindsight, but artists and commentators do well to understand also how their ideas have been built upon in clever and enriching ways.
Greenberg proves in her books that she understands what classic thinkers are talking about without binding herself to their contextual and scholarly limitations. Her characters, through her idiosyncratic writing and illustrating, capture the feel of myth and are driven by similarly overarching themes: ambition, caring, self-understanding, love, sex, and liberation. Like the thinkers named above, Greenberg communicates a deep reverence for the practice of storytelling. It defines nations and ties together secret societies. Stories have the power to ruin lives and cultures as well as redeem them in solidarity and inspiration.
Something particularly eye-catching in The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is Greenberg’s use of creation myths and battle stories and portrays their syncretic transformations across cultures. The shamanistic, spartan Nords who live in the northernmost region of early earth read their long days and nights and their basic religious structures into their creation story. The world began in BirdMan’s eye. When his eye is open it is the daytime, when it closes it is night. Where the Nords see bleak, patterned creation, the war-like Britanitarkans see the universe arise out of chaos. Creation began with a well in their story, and BirdMan and his ravens pushed back all the terrible things that emerged from the void into its bottomless pit. From the clay of the well they made the world and tall trees grew out of it to support the sky. Unlike the Nords, the Britanitarkans have a Cain and Abel myth, but the younger brother is murdered over a woman’s favor, not God’s. The Nords and the Britanitarkans share a story, though, of a battle the Nords won with cunning over their barbaric opponents, and this cultural dissonance causes trouble for our protagonist.
The One Hundred Nights of Hero takes the cultural know-how of Encyclopedia and injects more distinctly feminist themes. The stories that Hero tells to stall and distract Cherry’s self-aggrandizing would-be lover analyze the beauty and danger in all kinds of love among women. One story in particular sticks with the reader. It is about five sisters who grow up secluded from civilization and apart from their sailor father. They learn to read in secret and treasure the power of the written word above everything. After one sister is married, she reveals to her husband that she can write. Illiterate, scared, and angry, the husband accuses the wife of witchcraft and she is sentenced to death. His word is taken as infallible because the men in power also fear the unknown, especially knowledge and self-possession among women. Her four sisters come to bring her home and are tried with witchcraft, too, and rather than deny it they accept their sentence. They are to be executed by being pushed from the top of the tallest tower, and on that day they step off without waiting to be pushed. (spoilers ahead) Of course, Hero’s ensnaring storytelling is also seen as enchantment by the chauvinists she bests, and Hero and Cherry also step off the tower into the embrace of the smallest moon. The ancient stories in new contexts become our own, and this game of generational telephone sees movements grow from moments, rebellion stirred from apathy.
There is much to learn in and much to be commended about Greenberg’s books, especially for the religiously nerdy. They cleverly remind us that where we’re from and what we tell one another are a significant part of who we are, that how we receive our stories and appropriate them anew could define the future. Even if that's not an enticing subject, read them anyway, because they are beautifully illustrated, enjoyably written comics.