As further evidence of the American ignorance of cultural history, I give you the reaction to the new movie Rise of the Guardians. It's a pretty good cartoon that has more going on under the hood than it needed to capture its target audience.
The basic plot is simple. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, Sandman, and Jack Frost band together to battle the evil Pitch Black, aka the Boogeyman. The premier movie review aggregation site RottenTomatoes.com summarizes the story in a way found in many reviews:
"A sort of Avengers for the elementary school set."
Which sets the reality upside down. As if teams of traditional figures of myth are an inferior copy of modern superheroes.
As if this summer's movie was the first story of improbably powered beings banding together to battle evil. Or even that the idea was born during the 1960s, when the Avengers comic sprung full-grown from the heads of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Or maybe it started in the 1940s, the so-called Golden Age of comics (ask Mr. Google about "The All-Winners Squad").
Not so much. And here's a clue: One of the members of the Avengers is Thor, for Odin's sake. God of thunder. Member of the Norse pantheon. One of many divine pantheons you can find. Greek. Roman. Hindu. American Indian. The stories about those divinities and semi-divinities include plenty of tales of team-ups.
Gilgamesh palls around with Enkidu. Thor adventures with the rest of the Aesir. The Lokapalas, defending the four cardinal and four intermediate points of the compass, are found in Hindu and Buddhist traditions. The word Lokapala means -- wait for it -- "guardian."
So, no. If you ever read the classic Bullfinch's Mythology (which is now for free online) you know that tales adapted from classic myths aren't downsized imitations of the stories of modern superheroes. Vice versa, in fact.
End rant mode. And enter a short look under that hood of the new cartoon, which is smarter about the truths of myth and legend than it needed to be. (Spoiler alert: I'm not going to give up much more than I've seen in the reviews. But if you're the sort who wants to know nothing about a movie before you see it, come back after.)
At one point in the film, one of the Guardians explains to a new member that all of them were once someone (or perhaps something) before they were empowered and chosen as Guardians. In some ways, that's a nod to the books that were used as source material for the movie. William Joyce's Guardians of Childhood series imagines fanciful backstories for some of our most popular mythic figures.
But there's a deeper truth behind this idea: The myths that last are the ones that resonate deeply with something inside us, something real that preceded the tales. And in some cases, the legends really are built upon what was likely a real person.
The easiest example from the new movie is Santa, aka "Nicholas St. North." There's reasonably good historical record that a fellow named Nicholas was born about 1800 years ago in what is now Turkey. He became a Christian bishop about whom tales were recorded of his good deeds, including his giving away gifts to the needy.
Nicholas to Saint Nicholas to Santa Claus. In the new movie, the character speaks with a broad Russian accent. Maybe that reflects how the character is understood in Russian culture. According to the website of the St. Nicholas Center, different cultures adapted Nicholas to represent their own particular needs. Here's the Russian understanding:
"Nicholas is greatly revered in Russia as the protector of the weak from the strong, the oppressed from the oppressor, and the poor from the rich -- he is the Russian champion of the disadvantaged."
In short, he's a guardian.
The other characters in the movie also spring from deep wellsprings in human emotion. Jack Frost is taken from Viking lore: Jokul Frosti ("icicle frost"). He's a winter spirit for a culture that lived through powerfully hard winters. Rabbits were harbingers of fertility and the new life of spring long before Christianity found its reason for the season. The Sandman is a traditional figure who comforts children for whom the world of dreams can be a terrifying place.
Even the Tooth Fairy has an interesting history, tied up with sympathetic magic and the fear of cursing spells that use discarded body bits like hair, blood or bicuspids.
When a scholar uses the word "myth," she doesn't mean a fake story or a fairy tale. And it's not really a commentary on whether the story is true in some absolute sense. Here's a classic definition of "myth" from American folklorist William Bascom: "Tales believed as true, usually sacred, set in the distant past or other worlds or parts of the world, and with extra-human, inhuman, or heroic characters."
These are stories that use the power of narrative to explain, set standards of morality of behavior, and pass on what's understood as wisdom. The tales that last are the ones that somehow succeed. And every culture has its tales that succeed. So we have our own myths today, our stories of a loving Creator who instructs, of a resurrected Deity, of a life that persists unseen just beyond the boundaries of death.
In the Guardians film, the character of Pitch represents fear. And not simply fear, but the deep, blackening fear that squeezes out even the possibility of hope or joy. He is defeated in this story in the only way he is ever beaten in real life:
Not by the figures of legend, but by the unlikely courage mustered in a human heart. Bolstered in the movie, as is often the case in real life, by our true mythical guardians.