The annual conference of the UvA’s students of English was held on 27 June. Presented by the students’ own Literary and Language Activities Committee Etcetera (LLACE), this year’s gathering focused on the theme of mythology.
When the committee asked Dr Nicholas Carr of the English department to speak at the conference, he suggested a topic that took them by surprise. “I teach a course on modernism, and mythology comes into that quite a bit, so they were expecting something along those lines. But this is a special conference for the students—it marks the end of their academic year, and it’s very impressive that they have the time and energy to attend it, let alone to organise it. So I thought they might enjoy hearing about a writer who’s not (at least not yet) part of the usual academic curriculum.”
The committee was very receptive to Dr Carr’s proposal to give a talk about the legendary songwriter Bob Dylan, performer and winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. “Dylan, of course, has incorporated all sorts of mythological materials into his songs over six decades. He has also played the game of celebrity in a way that has spawned a sort of personal mythology about himself. And, notwithstanding a few howls of protest at his Nobel Prize, as a writer of songs he is part of an oral tradition in literature that goes back to classical mythology.”
But it was another aspect of Dylan’s work that Dr Carr discussed as a form of mythology. “One of the few constant threads in Dylan’s career has been his ever-evolving use of the folk tradition. There’s a huge overlap between what we call ‘mythology’ and what we call ‘folklore’. In many ways, folklore could be said to be the mythology of poor or marginalised people.”
Dr Carr’s talk compared these two versions of pre-modern, orally-transmitted literature—folklore and mythology—suggesting that what seems to be radical and subversive in one becomes more hierarchical and conservative in the other. “It is striking to notice the essential similarities, in terms of character and plot, between a folk ballad like ‘Blackjack Davy’ or ‘The Gypsy Laddie’ and mythological tales like Helen of Troy, Apollo and Daphne, or Orpheus and Eurydice. But whereas the latter become the domain of elite culture, the former circulated in a less official fashion that was not subjected to the same sort of control, with very different outcomes in terms of the meanings that we can read into them and the sort of worldview they convey.”
As forms of literature that seem so rooted in the distant past, do folklore and mythology have any relevance for us today? “Well folklore is still the best possible training for aspiring singer-songwriters!” laughs Dr Carr. “Mythology is always around, and once in a generation or so we get excited about the idea of special kinds of stories, so deeply rooted in human experience that they are ‘universal’ or something like that. But folk lingers around to remind us that there’s more than one possibility to any story. That’s probably a good thing. We seem to be surrounded by people—politicians, advertisers, media; even, I dare say, teachers—telling us that we must do this, that there’s no alternative to that, that such-and-such is the only way. But if there’s one thing that literature is good at, it’s giving us a healthy reminder that there are always other possibilities out there. I take comfort in being reminded that there’s more than one way to live a life.”