The Mythic Imagination: From Ancient Troy to the Present Day

Lindsay Clarke’s working life has been devoted to his two principal passions, writing and education. In both contexts he has tried to put the power of the creative imagination – in both its inventive and compassionate aspects – into the service of the radical evolution of consciousness, which he believes is seeking to happen in these transitional times. His first novel ‘Sunday Whiteman’ was shortlisted for the David Higham First Novel Award; his second ‘The Chymical Wedding’ was awarded the Whitbread Prize for Fiction in 1989; and his novel ‘The Water Theatre’ was longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin International Literary Award. ‘Green Man Dreaming’, a collection of Lindsay’s essays, talks, poems and occasional pieces, was published in 2018,

Let me begin by quoting what must be one of the briefest creation myths ever composed. It’s from the Jewish Hasidic tradition and says: ‘God invented people because he likes to hear stories.’ Now because I’m a novelist it won’t surprise you to hear that I like that myth a lot; and one of the things I like about it is that, for those of a sceptical disposition, its terms might feasibly be reversed: ‘People invented gods because they like to hear stories.’ Either way it puts story at the heart of our existence, and it may well be that it is the capacity to tell stories which most distinguishes us from other species.

As far as we know the animals live entirely inside the received world of natural order except in so far as we have complicated it for them. We also live there, and our lives are finally dependent on it, but we also live inside a complex world of stories. We tell our lives in stories– the story of our day, of our accidents, adventures, griefs, joys and tribulations. We live in a time that prioritizes information but we don’t speak intimately with one another by imparting information, we do it by telling stories, and our accounts are shaped with narrative structure and often illustrated by dialogue: ‘I said… and then she said…’ etc because story is how we convert the raw events of our lives into experiences of value and thereby open a passage through from feeling into meaning. But we are also born into a world of stories – the story of our family, our tribe, clan, nation and culture – stories which have the power to shape our lives with both moral and imaginative authority.

Interviewed about the role of story in his culture, the Native American Apache, Benton Lewis, is reported as saying, ‘stories go to work on you like arrows; stories make you live right; stories make you replace yourself’, and the more I think about those simple statements the more powerful they become. When you hear or read a good story you know that something forceful has entered you. It can even be a painful experience, piercing you to the heart, making you experience what the French philosopher Bachelard called ‘a homeopathy of anguish’. Benton Lewis also suggests that a good story has ethical force. It has moral consequences for the way we behave – something which is too often forgotten or ignored by those who purvey stories filled with violence and sensations for the entertainment of the young. Most startlingly he declares that story has the power to transform us – that the person who comes out of hearing or reading a good story is not the same as the one who went in. I’ll have more to say about that later, but for the moment would like to point out that in this relativistic, post-modern culture where all the grand narratives of the past are under serious question, few novelists would dare to make such claims for the stories they tell today. Yet I wonder whether Benton Lewis’s traditional wisdom doesn’t have more usefully provocative things to say about the true value of myth and story to our confused and confusing times than all the almost impenetrably codified language of academic literary theorists?

Myths are, of course, the stories through which a culture tries to answer the otherwise unanswerable big questions of our existence. Such questions as: Where do we come from? Why are we here? Why are things this way? What happens when we die? And both our sense of the reality we inhabit, and our understanding of it, will be shaped by the myths to which we give credence.

Consider, for instance, the differences between, say, the Pope and Richard Dawkins. For the Pope, life is a God-endowed drama of spiritual life and death, of salvation and damnation on which the fate of the soul depends; whereas Dawkins sees it as the scientifically explicable, evolutionary activity of genes, which has meaning only in so far as we assign it through the exercise of our own intelligence. So here we have two men believing two different quite stories and therefore living in two different mythological universes. And of course neither of them would readily concede that their beliefs are myths as the term is commonly used.

The point is that it’s relatively easy to recognize that a culture is living inside a sense of reality determined by myth when we don’t share that myth – consider the myth-driven blood-rituals of the Aztecs of Mexico, for example. But because our sense of what is real is shaped by the myths in which we believe, it’s hard to recognize them as myths at all – especially in a culture like ours which is largely convinced that its intellectual method of enquiry gives it access to a true vision of the actual world. Other people may live inside myths, we seem to insist, but we are realists and our world is real. However it’s part of the burden of this talk to suggest by way of contrast that (if you’ll forgive a terrible pun) whatever we think we are myth-taken.

I’ll come back to that later, but for the moment I want to look at the way some myths act on the human imagination so powerfully that they command attention from generation to generation across the centuries and across cultures even as the world changes around them. The stories associated with the Trojan War clearly have such power. Ever since Homer sang of that war several hundred years after its probable date, writers such as Euripides, Virgil, Chaucer and Shakespeare have reworked its themes. Only last week the poet Alice Oswald published a remarkable long poem titled Memorial which is a moving elegy for those who were killed at Troy. The myths associated with that war are all good stories, of course, but how to account for their continuing ability to excite both the creative and the responsive imagination in such vivid ways? My own belief is that certain events seem to exercise such powerful effect on the collective imagination of a culture that, as memory gets to work on them, they begin to transcend literal reality and take on a form which corresponds to archetypes built into the structure of the human psyche – that amazing software with which we all come issued at birth. What’s more, they do it so strongly that those same archetypal responses can be activated thousands of years later within the psyche of people who live in utterly different times and cultures. The story of the fall of Troy has lived on this way for 3000 years because it is the myth of the West’s first Great War. It grips our imagination tightly still.

But was there ever really such a war – a war of which the stories have proved so powerful and enduring in their impact that it feels realer to us than many more recent conflicts? Did the long siege of the city ever actually happen, or were Homer, Euripides, Virgil, Chaucer, Shakespeare and the others simply drawing on, and adding to, the rich realm of the imagination, or is there some historical truth behind the tales told about that war?  The question has divided scholars for centuries, sceptics remaining dubious of the factual truth behind such heroic legends, and the romantics insisting that the strength of oral tradition, and its power to move us, must derive from the experience of actual figures whose lives were shaped by world-changing events. Put such a question to the archaeologist Manfred Korfmann, who supervises the Projekt Troia dig in Turkey and he simply says ‘Why not?’ And that’s probably the most satisfactory answer we’ll ever be able to give.

But there certainly was such a city – it’s still possible to visit its ruins, to read records of archaeological research conducted there, and to see pictures of how its citadel might have once looked like based on an imaginative reconstruction of what remains. Ancient historians such as Thucydides certainly believed in the historical truth of the Trojan War and, by classical times, there was a well-established tradition that Hisarlik in western Anatolia was the location of that doomed city. It was on that hill – its name means ‘the place of the fort’ – that Heinrich Schliemann began to dig in the 1870s, and his adventurous approach to the work, while creating many problems for later archaeologists, revealed a site of enormous historical significance. Not everyone shared his confidence that he had discovered the ruins of Homer’s Troy or that the jewels in which he photographed his wife had indeed once belonged to Helen; but patient, more scientific work continues there to this day, and a picture is emerging of a larger, wealthier city than Schliemann conceived – a city of around six thousand people, commanding the trade routes to the Black Sea, which would have been a very tempting prize for the aggressive warlords of Mycenae and Argos.

Part of the difficulty of establishing the historical truth of the Trojan War arises from the fact that we know so little about our principal source for the stories. It seems probable that Homer (if there ever was such a single figure) flourished in the ninth century B.C.E., which places him at least two or three hundred years later than the likeliest date for the war; so the stories were already ancient by the time he came to sing of them.  But we do have other, less poetical sources, most significantly the archive of clay tablets on which the bureaucrats of the Hittite Empire kept their records.

A number of these, dated around 1300 B.C.E., speak of the Hittites’  touchy diplomatic relations with a people of a country they called Ahhiyawa. This name sounds tantalisingly close to the Achaiwoi (or Achaians), which was a name that Homer gave to the people who followed Agamemnon to Troy. Archaeological digs around the sites of Mycenae, Pylos and Tiryns in Peloponnesian Greece long ago revealed a powerful warrior culture that was at its peak between 1300 and 1200 BCE. Around that same time the Hittites maintained a trading alliance with a prosperous city on the Hellespont that was known to them as Wilusa, which again echoes intriguingly on the name Ilios (or Ilium) which was the Homeric name for Troy. It seems possible then that such a city stood on a fault line between two contending imperial powers, one to the east and one to the west, and eventually fell victim to a western invasion.

We know from Hittite records that the Emperor Hattusilis was troubled by attacks made by the Ahhiyawa on the coastline of Asia in the 13th century BCE. And the site at Hisarlik shows that the citadel was conquered and destroyed around that time. But whether the conflict that took place between the people we know as the Greeks and a city-state that we call Troy was such a war as Homer sings of – a war that began with the abduction of Helen and ended with the stratagem of the Wooden Horse – that’s another matter.

‘We do care about the authenticity of the tale of Troy,’ Lord Byron declared. ‘I venerate the grand original as the truth of history…and of place; otherwise it would have given me no delight’; yet Byron might have been wiser to acknowledge that the stories of Troy transport us into that luminous and elusive region of the imagination where myth and history intersect. We know from our contemporary experience that vivid tales tend to accrue around strong individuals and dramatic events, and not all of them are strictly true. And isn’t it as well to remember that ‘the truth of history’ is itself a matter of continuing interpretation and dispute, and that myth can carry a powerful imaginative truth of its own? If the stories of the Trojan War have inspired generations of great artists since Homer first sang them almost 3000 years ago, and still resonate in our own violent times, isn’t it because the human truths they celebrate – their accounts of passion and ambition, of daring and triumph, of loss and grief – are constant matters of the human heart?

I began to write my own retelling of the stories in The War at Troy just as the war in Iraq was gathering force, and that conflict gave my work a sudden contemporary relevance. I watched the ‘shock and awe’ attack on Baghdad as I was thinking about the fall of Troy and was appalled at how little we seem to have learned over the last 3000 years.  For as I saw it, the ancient stories understood that war is never inevitable unless we choose to make it so, and that the stated causes of a war may not be the real reasons why it is fought. One version of Helen’s story, for example, declared that she was never in Troy at all, only a phantasm of her which was so powerful in the minds of men that the Greeks believed she was there. This was also the case, you will remember, with the much-vaunted weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Those old stories also seemed to understand that it is much easier to get into a war than it is to get out of it and that, no matter how much courage it may evoke, warfare eventually harms and corrupts everyone involved in it. So my novel The War at Troy begins with the quarrel among the goddesses over the golden apple, and the Judgement of Paris on Mount Ida, but it quickly gets caught up in the hot broil of human passion as Paris betrays his friend Menelaus for love of his wife Helen. From there it descends inexorably into the hideous carnage of war. But it also felt important to honour the Greeks’ understanding that the gods have a part to play in warfare, and my solution was to honour them as archetypal powers which are, as I suggested earlier, always present within us and between us from one generation to the next.

Christianity has taught us to use the word God as the subject in such sentences as ‘God is Love’, but the Greeks would use the word ‘theos’ with predicative force, saying by contrast, ‘Love is a god’ or ‘War is a god.’ Such archetypal energies were invested with divine status by the Greeks because they are immortal. We mortals die; those impersonal powers never die. They engage each generation in those passionate conflicts which constitute what James Joyce called ‘the grave and constant’ matter of the human heart. Nor can we avoid them except at a cost to our own vitality; so it seems wiser to bring them into consciousness and try to relate to their power creatively rather than allowing our lives to be driven unconsciously along by them without our understanding what is happening and why.

This seems to me to be the real force behind the myths of the Trojan War. Those stories don’t speak about a contest between two warring factions for control of the trade routes to the Black sea. They trace the origins of the war to a quarrel among three goddesses over a golden apple and the Judgement of Paris as to which was the fairest. So what’s that all about and what has it to do with our condition now?

Let me approach the question by what might seem an indirect route and shift your attention to the aftermath of the war in the story of the Odyssey. Joseph Campbell long ago offered a Jungian view of Odysseus as a man who, in his words, undergoes ‘psychological adventures in the mythic realm of the archetypes of the soul, where the male must experience the import of the female before he can meet her perfectly in life.’ Now anyone familiar with my novels will know that I’m more than sympathetic to such a vision, but I find it difficult to square this picture of a hero who suffers what Campbell calls a ‘self-divestiture’ in the Cyclops’ cave as the first of a transforming sequence of ordeals and initiations, with the vainglorious character who taunts Polyphemus with his true name, draws a sword on Circe, and eventually returns to Ithaca to butcher all his wife’s suitors, and then looks on in approval as his son strings up the young women who have dallied with them. Indeed, there is a case to be made that Homer’s Odysseus remains largely unchanged by all his travails and ordeals, and I suspect that Campbell’s reading of the poem tells us rather more about him than it does about either Homer or Odysseus. But Campbell was, I believe, reaching beyond the text to affirm certain elusive values which have more than literary or scholarly importance, and I hope some of you will agree that an understanding of those values may be critical in a mature response to the psychological, sexual and political conflicts that trouble our own time.

One of the things by which I was most struck as I re-read the Odyssey was the dread of the feminine that seems to haunt its majestic lines, True, there are remarkable portraits of female characters contained within them, and to such a degree that even such a Goddess-intoxicated poet as Robert Graves shared Samuel Butler’s conviction that only a female bard could have conceived the figure of Nausicaa. But apart from the Cyclops and the Laestrygonian giants, every danger that besets the life of Odysseus and his crew seems menacingly feminine – Circe turning his men to swine, the Siren-song luring him to destruction, the engulfing monsters Scylla and Charybdis, and the sensual Calypso who uses magical powers to detain our hero for many years. It bothers me too (am I alone in this?) that although Athena is celebrated throughout as the presiding deity of the poem, acting as guardian over both Odysseus and Telemachus, whenever she  manifests in the mortal realm it is almost invariably in masculine form – as Mentor, as Mentes, and as the shepherd who greets Odysseus on his return. Even when she appears in her own form, she counsels Telemachus against leaving Penelope alone for too long because she might do him out of his inheritance as she arranges a new marriage for herself.

Now the Odyssey was sung for the entertainment of a warrior aristocracy nearly three thousand years ago. It spoke to the culture of a patriarchal society which preferred to see Athena as the daughter of Zeus, sprung, however oddly, directly out of his head, rather than as the archaic snake-wreathed deity who once bore her name – so perhaps none of this is greatly surprising. But the longer I looked at the poem, the more I thought I saw the lineaments of another story concealed inside it – a story that might have made good sense to an earlier Goddess-worshipping culture, and one that might, with a little sleight of hand, make more urgent sense to ours. So the second volume of my version of the Trojan war – The Return From Troy– became a story that turned the events of the Odyssey inside-out and brought the feminine principle out of the shadows to re-imagine the tale from its point of view.

We could spend a lot of time discussing exactly what I mean by that unsatisfactorily vague term ‘the feminine principle.’ I’m not the first speaker to regret our discomfort with the use of such less gender-specific terms as the Chinese yin and yang or the alchemical Sol and Luna to address the archetypal contraries on which life seems to hang; and the lack of such terms in our language seems to drag us into the vexed issues of gender on which I have no desire to embark. So let me simply confess myself impressed by the way it seems to be of the very nature of ‘the feminine principle’ to resist abstract definition, and say that what I understand by the term is dramatized in all its rich complexity by the attributes that the Greeks assigned to those deities who gave immortal form to the varied aspects of the feminine – three of whom, three archetypal forms of feminine power, take part in the quarrel over the golden apple. Now many commentators have remarked that a beauty contest between goddesses behaving badly seems an unsatisfactory account of the cause of a war which generated some of the greatest stories of all time. And If that was all that was happening, I’d  be inclined to agree; but the story may be better understood if we remember that there are not only three goddesses active in this story but four. The three visible presences are Hera with her matronly bounty, Athena with her strength and wisdom, and Aphrodite. Each of them is powerful in her own way but each makes manifest a form of feminine power which is attractive to men. The fourth invisible figure concealed behind them is quite different.

She is Eris, the dark figure of Strife or Discord, twin-sister to Ares, God of War. It was she who began the quarrel among the goddesses because, alone among the divinities, she had not been invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the parents of Achilles. Here is the moon’s dark face, bitter, angry and excluded. This is the aspect of feminine power which we men prefer not to confront because it leaves us fearful and uneasy. It’s much simpler to dismiss her as a harridan and shrew. Better still to pretend that she can have no serious claim on our attention; even that she does not exist. This is why Eris is rarely invited to the wedding, though she often figures prominently in divorces. But gods which are derided and ignored don’t simply go away. Spoiling for trouble, they withdraw into the shadows. And the place where the dark aspect of the goddess tends to be most severely repressed is inside men.

Once the power of the goddess is demeaned inside a man’s soul she becomes visible in the resentful and embittered faces of the women around him. If she remains unattended, then her energy can turn distorted and crazy inside him, manifesting itself in unfeeling lust, in sexual violence – the vain attempt to seize by force what can only truly be won through mature relationship – and, worse still, in the malevolent effort to turn the power of myth against the people of another tribe or nation or race by withholding compassion and projecting a hostile negative shadow onto them, thereby dragging the world into war.

Yet if such realizations are brought to consciousness and properly assimilated, might it possible that the male talent for aggression could become energy available for the cultivation of the feelings; that the savage glory of the warrior might be seen for the destructive force it is; and that the darkened, life-giving power of the feminine principle might begin to shine once more?

In The Return from Troy, my version of the Odyssey, Circe presents herself to Odysseus in many aspects – as bounteous provider, as passionate lover and as wise healer; but the main thrust of her rites is to launch him on that arduous night-sea voyage whereby the centre of his consciousness begins to shift from the ego to the soul. Such a shift can happen only when all his resources of pride and cunning are exhausted and he has been reduced to the condition of Nobodysseus – a man with no fixed identity, an almost vacant space in which the feminine values, both light and dark, which have long been ignored inside him can at last begin to find room to breathe and express themselves.

Because of our industrial capacity for violence on a devastating scale, these issues of evolving consciousness are more urgent than ever. We live in a world run by a terminal patriarchy which stubbornly resists demands for change –  change which might quicken the life of the soul by bringing us through into a renewed relation to the feminine principle. The time for such change feels perilously overdue.

William Blake once wrote that it is ‘the classics, the classics, that desolate Europe with wars.’ He was thinking of Homer, and though a larger explanation for our violent history is clearly required, when one considers the generations of gallant young men brought up on the Iliad who have been inspired by the ferocious glamour of Odysseus and Achilles to seek death or glory, it’s not difficult to see what Blake meant.  Yet it’s of the essentially metamorphic nature of myth never to take a fixed and final form, and it seems to me significant that recent re-workings of the Troy story such as John Barton’s Tantalus, Alice Oswald’s Memorial, and my own Troy books, all find the poetry of war in its pity and suffering rather than in its futile glory. Which brings me back to the recognition that, because we always live inside myth, our sense of reality is shaped, and can be re-shaped, by the stories to which we chose to give credence.

Once this is recognized we begin to see that, as my friend Jules Cashford puts it, ‘the world is not given to us as fact but is inhabited through interpretation’; that reality is not simply out there, fixed, obdurate and impervious – it changes according to the stories we tell about it. Which is to say that reality is always porous to the imagination.

But what is the imagination? The intellectual mainstream has a pragmatic answer to that question. Its seen as a more or less reliable adjunct to other, more reliable methods of intellectual procedure, and gets defined by its functions – the capacity to visualize things which are not actually present to our outward senses, for example, so that I have only to say the word ‘elephant’ and suddenly a large animal is present to your inner eye which was not there a moment ago. Or by its capacity to transfigure things into forms other than those by which they usually present themselves to the senses. Magritte’s painting of a pipe which insists that it is not a pipe makes us startlingly aware of this function. Or to draw metaphors from one set of things to make statements about another, or present them in an illuminating new perspective. Imagination is also allowed a part in remembering events in the past and in envisaging what will happen in the future – though we are warned it can turn against us by conceiving of fearsome things which probably won’t happen, or things which don’t exist at all. For this reason Francis Bacon declared that the imagination should not be given wing – it should be tied down with weights.

This pragmatic view has of the imagination has tended to prevail in the general assumptions of a system of education where it gets viewed as a sort of talent of which one can have too much or not enough. But there is another, larger way of thinking about the imagination, one which has always been alive among the poets. Coleridge, for instance, declared in his Biographia Literaria that ‘the imagination is the prime agent of human perception’ and he took care to distinguish it from fantasy. William Blake insisted that, ‘Imagination is not a state: it is the human life itself. Man is all imagination.’ And that to him this world is ‘one continuous vision of fancy and imagination.’ But this view of the imagination is much older than the romantic poets and philosophers. That last statement of Blake’s seems to relate Imagination to the Hindu concept of  Maya, which is often translated as ‘illusion’ but might better be translated by a word that shares the same Sanskrit root- MA – iMAgination. And when the alchemist Ruland the Lexicographer defined imagination as ‘the star in man’ he was affirming a creative link between human nature and the nature of the cosmos that goes back, like an underground stream, through the hermetic philosophy of the alchemists and the medieval world-view, to the Gnostics, to the mythopoeic imagination of the ancient world, and perhaps much further, right back to the primordial animistic vision of our oldest ancestors.

It will already be clear that my own view of the imagination is allied to this ancient tradition. I regard the imagination as the means by which, with more or less psychic energy, we shape our vision of the world and our place within it, and also as the primary means by which we can transform it. What matters, of course, is the degree to which are conscious of what we are doing.

When I work with students in my writing classes I encourage them not only to think of the imagination this way but to try, through a kind of thought-experiment, actually to imagine the imagination. The first image I ask them to visualize is that of icon Earth, the planet’s blue swirl of seas and continents and clouds as it was first seen from space by the astronauts. Then I ask them to drain it of colour until all that remains is a circle which represents the outside world – everything that is not them. For the next image I ask them to place a dot beside that circle – a dot which is them, alone and of minimal significance against all that vastness. Then I ask them to let that dot grow and open until it forms another circle beside the first and the same size as it. This represents their inner world, all that is only them – their thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, fears and anxieties, the entire realm of their inward experience. Lastly, I ask them to move both circles so that they overlap.

You may recognize this last mental image as a Venn Diagram, but it’s a very ancient symbol indeed, originally illustrating the meeting of Heaven and Earth through which life gets made. It was co-opted by Christianity as the Vesica Piscis, the Fish’s Belly, as an emblem of Christ as the intersection of Heaven and Earth, Eternity and Time. I ask my students to concentrate on the almond-shaped area of overlap between the two circles as the place where they actually live – that region where their inner world is in a permanent state of negotiation with all the intelligence that is reaching them from the outside world about what is real and true. That area of overlap is called the mandorla (from the Italian word for almond). To the ancient Egyptians it was known as the hieroglyph Ru, which signified the female organ of generation and, by extension, a sacred portal through which new life can enter.

I think of it as the house of the imagination, as an image of the place where, all the time, our inner world merges with the outer world to shape the experience from which each of us builds our personal myth. For we don’t just live in the public world around us, nor only in the private world within : we live in the mandorla where those two worlds meet and negotiate about reality with one another as a more or less vigorous exercise of the imagination. The problem is to keep it open so that the claims of both outer and inner world are honoured as fully as possible.

Once imagination is conceived this way we begin to see it as the process through which we continually strive to hold together the often contradictory pulls of our outer and inner worlds in order to create a myth by which we can live. In Healing Fiction, James Hillman says that ‘the way we imagine our lives is the way we are going to go on living our lives,’ but that we don’t have to carry on telling ourselves the same story about ourselves or the world around us because the stories we tell to give our lives shape and meaning can be transformed through the active power of the imagination. In fact, by engaging energetically in that process we can begin to work extraordinary changes in our lives. In that respect, the imagination is related to a word which comes from the same root – magic – the power to conjure things into existence and to bring about those changes in the world which seem to defy the normal laws of causality.

So here is a myth about the mythic imagination itself– one which views it as a continuous attempt to reconcile the contrary elements of our lives and nature – inner and outer, the masculine principle and the feminine, spirit and matter, ego and soul, the conscious and unconscious regions of our being, in order that something new may arise from that reconciliation. It’s in this spirit that I pursue my career a novelist, and it’s in this spirit too that I’ve been working for some years in Northern Ireland as part of an effort to encourage the telling of different, more humane stories than those that have left the divided streets of that province running with blood.  I believe that it’s through through such committed exercises of the creative imagination that arrested situations, be they personal or political, are most likely to be transformed. In looking for inspiration, encouragement and guidance in that belief, I turn often to the world’s marvellous store of mythological stories. Myth are a living force in our lives – one that, however rational and sophisticated we take ourselves to be, simply won’t go away. May the gods forbid that it should ever do so, because the universal tensions and possibilities of this often difficult process are most vividly embodied in those powerful stories.

Writing about myths, the Roman historian Sallust said, ‘These things never happened but always are.’ Some two thousand years later James Joyce said something similar in Finnegan’s Wake: ‘utterly impossible as are all these events,’ he wrote, ‘they are probably as like those which may have taken place as any others which never took person at all or are ever likely to be.’ Which sounds very Irish, but is teasingly true, and it reminds me of what a little Irish girl once wisely said on the subject: ‘Myths are stories which are not true on the outside but are true on the inside.’ I can think of no better definition of what myths are and why they remain so important to us as an abiding source of wisdom, nourishment, and inspiration in our lives.


This article is an edited version of a talk delivered in 2011 as one of the series of Chapel Lectures organized by Ebenezer Presents at Burrowbridge

Lindsay Clarke’s ‘Troy’ novels will be republished by HarperCollins in four volumes under the general title THE TROY QUARTET as an e-book in October 2019 and in paperback form in May 2020.

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