Stories emerge from our links to past shared experiences

To enter the world of literature is to enter into a collective, shared experience that connects us to the ancients.

The other day I heard a story about Australian aboriginal people. It appears that some of their myths for explaining the constellations in the night sky are very similar to those of the Greeks. In one aboriginal group's oral history, for example, the Pleiades star cluster is described as a group of seven sisters chased by a hunter. This is identical to the Greek myth of Orion chasing the seven daughters of Atlas. Is this mere coincidence?

The renowned Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye talked about humanity's shared literature. He saw it as a pool of the collective imagination from which every work of art emerges. Frye looked back on centuries of literature, starting with campfire tales. He concluded that "a myth is a simple and primitive effort of the imagination to identify the human with the non-human world, and its most typical result is a story about a god. Later on, mythology begins to merge into literature, and myth then becomes the structural principle of story-telling (...) the containing framework of the mythology takes the shape of a feeling of lost identity which we had once and may have again."

We often experience that feeling of vague familiarity when we read a story or view a film. James Cameron's movie Avatar is structured around a storyline that many recognize as a retelling of the American legend of the relationship between Pocahontas and European settler John Smith. Others see shadows of The Last of the Mohicans.

In creative work rarely, if ever, is something truly original. As creative people, we seem to build on the concepts and stories that have found their way into our deepest consciousness. In the retelling, we see faint reflections of ourselves in a vast ocean of shared experience.

References and Links

1. The Pleiades myth
2. The Northrop Frye quotation is from the CBC Massey Lecture, The Educated Imagination, first published in 1963 (Chapter V. The Verticals of Adam).
3. Avatar
4. The photo of the Pleiades star cluster is from a sky survey conducted by NASA/ESA/Aura/Caltech.

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