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Modern Myth-Making
by [?]

So far as I can gather from the publications of the Folklore Society, the science of Folklore is in a promising condition. The doctors seem to be agreed neither about the facts nor the methods nor the conclusions, but otherwise their unanimity is wonderful. Originally the science was made in Germany, where it still flourishes, like all sciences that require infinite pains and inexhaustible dulness. All that can be done with any fruitfulness is apparently the collection and classification of stories, songs and superstitions. Hypotheses and theories are mainly bricks without straw, and the only certain conclusion that may be drawn from the prevalence of folk-tales all over the world is that all men are liars. This was the first contribution to the science, and the Psalmist may be regarded as the founder of Folklore. Herder made an advance when he collected the folk-songs of many nations; and Grimm as a collector was truly scientific, but when he brought in his mythological explanations he brought in mythology. Benfey’s celebrated theory that European folk-tales are Oriental in origin and comparatively recent in date seems to be bearing up well.

But no one seems to study the mythopoetic instinct as it manifests itself in modern life, in the daily refraction of fact through the medium of imagination (a medium whose power of refraction is far greater than that of water). Because we no longer create gods and goddesses, or people the woods and brooks with fairies and nymphs, and the forest with gnomes and the hills with hobgoblins–because we do not soften our lives with an atmosphere of gracious supernaturalism, and fresco our azure ceiling with angels–it is assumed that the mythopoetic instinct is dead. Far from it! It is as lively as ever, and we may watch it at play in the building up of legends, in the creation of mythical figures; in the shaping of the Boulanger legend, the Napoleonic legend, the Beaconsfield legend with its poetical machinery of the primrose, the Booth legend, the Blavatsky legend; in the fathering of epigrams upon typical wits like Sheridan, or the attribution of all jokes to “Punch”; in the creation of non-existent bodies like the AEsthetes, and in the private circulation of scandals about public personages; in the perpetual revival of the Blood Accusation against the Jews, or the pathetic clinging to the miracles of exposed Spiritualists and Theosophists; in the Gladstone of Tory imaginations and the Balfour of Radical; in the Irish patriot of oratory; in the big-footed Englishwoman of French fancy, and the English conception of the Scotchman who cannot see a joke; in the persistence of traditional beliefs or prejudices that would be destroyed by one inspection.

Apotheosis is still with us, and diabolification (if I may coin a word). We canonise as prodigally as in the mediaeval ages, and are as keen as ever about relics. We are still looking out for dead King Arthur: he will return by way of the County Council. Plus ca change plus c’est la meme[*] chose–probably the profoundest observation ever made by a Frenchman. Our mythopoetic instinct is as active as of yore, only the mode of its expression is changed. It works on modern lines, has taken to prose instead of poetry, and only occasionally unfurls wings. Why does not the Folklore Society investigate the origin of our modern myths? Why not seize on the instinct as it is seen at play in our midst, moulding movements and fashioning faiths? Why not catch it in the act–employ vivisection, so to speak, instead of dissecting dead remains? Why not try to extract from the living present the laws of the creation and development of myths and the conditions of their persistence, so that by applying these laws retrospectively we may come to understand our heritage of tradition? Ah! but this would require insight into life, which your scientist has no mind for. Besides, dry-as-dust work–collation and classification–may be distributed among the members of a society; but how require of them fresh vision? There is dispute as to how folklore arose: one school talks vaguely of creation by the clan, the community, the race; another insists that the germ at least must always have sprung from some one individual mind, just as a proverb may be the wisdom of many but must be the wit of one; that ideas that are “in the air,” like a tree whose branches are everywhere and whose trunk nowhere, had a single root once; and that every on dit was literally “one says” originally. But if we watch the process of mythopoetising in our daily life, we shall see both theories illustrated. Consider the myth of Lord Randolph’s small stature: it may be traced easily enough to Mr. Furaiss’s pencil. Many people who have the impression forget whence they derived it; and many who never saw Punch had the idea conveyed to them by London letter-writing journalists who never saw Churchill. Yet there is no doubt that the myth is the creation of a single man. In this instance the genesis is clear, and it makes for the one-man theory. In other instances, I can quite imagine myths arising from a spectacle witnessed in common by a multitude, or an incident developing itself under the eyes of many. No single reporter of the doings in Sherwood Forest built up the Robin Hood legend.