In [Stories] We Trust
Stories have shaped our [human] cultures, morals, laws, spirituality, capacity for reason, and unlocked our innate ability of infinite imagination. There is an endless ocean of literature out there, it can be a little disorienting to trace all the ways our personal lives have been informed by stories told and retold in so many different versions and mediums. When stories transcend nationality and ethnicity, appealing to a larger human audience, they become a part of our collective consciousness – an indivisible human culture – they can be so familiar so as to disguise themselves in new ways, reinterpreted in new mediums, and we can still pick them out.
In “The Hermeneutics of Screwing Around” Stephen Ramsay suggests a meandering pathing through the infinite amount of literature available to us. We’re forced to consider, where do we find our common culture if not in a prescribed set of readings (“the canon”)? And, what are the “literary arts” today and how do we forge a common cultures around stories?
This train of thought carried me away and I became curious about popular literature and its inter-cultural relevance, especially when stories can now be published and translated with incredible ease. I’ve distinguished five categories of literary arts on a spectrum of cultural significance, to look closer at the communities that gravitate around certain mediums of story, and their sphere of influence in everyday human lives: Mythical, Legendary, Saga, Genre, and Obscure.
Mythos / Mythological
The upper tier includes all historical manuscripts which constitute some mythology or religious doctrines; includes symbols, gospels, dharmas, and even mythically-significant poems and ballads like the Norse Eddas. Covers all supernatural folklore and speculation throughout history, since it informs, and is informed by, a global superstition of multiple-dimensions and ultra life-forms, particularly among ‘the illiterate.’ Mythological literature will always include manscripts that have had significant consequence on spiritual belief systems or historic events.
* Speculative science-fiction may even fall into this category if it contains spiritual dimensions (I.e. Star Wars “The Force” is recognized by some as a unifying theory of quantum energy that is spiritually accessible to real Jedi).
* The works of L. Ron Hubbard, the grimoire’s of Aleister Crowley, and possibly Lovecraft’s Cthulu stories – while all examples of Genre: Cult-classic have had far-reaching spiritual effects on select readers that have received global attention, thus they mix with the ‘Mythological’ category.
Legend / Legendary
‘Legendary literature’ encompasses all oral and written stories that have had a historical impact and global (or nearly) influence. The heights of literature. Philosophical discourses. Famous speeches, delcarations, treaties. Law, as a form of literature, would fall under this status. Historical documents and letters. Significant non-fiction and memoir. Folk songs and classical music… music has its own behavior of cultural influence separate from literature. Instantly recognizable fine-art. Literary canon with historical impact: Shakespeare, Karl Marx, Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger.
* Homer’s “The Odyssey” and “The Illiad” are examples of Legendary Sagas, literature which has shaped our understanding of history; blends elements of Mythos but not too much, since the Greek gods tend to be regarded as fictitious characters.
* Beowulf – a Saga of Legendary proportions, author unknown.
* J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy – treasured in all corners of the earth, particularly after Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaption. “The Hobbit” is Tolkien’s fourth work to be canonized in such a way.
* Star Wars – another such franchise to achieve global cultural absorption on a historic level.
Sagas & Ballads
A category of media which has become practically unavoidable in the modern world. This includes all stories whose global appeal is phenomenal: heights of literature, cinema, and sequential art (graphic stories); elite songs; anything in the “Genre’ category which may be translated and recreated in dozens of major languages: syndicated comic strips; popular TV-shows; Video-Games; Lesser-known fine-art. Literature that comprises some part of a culture’s identity but has a lesser or unknown historical impact: Mark Twain, Fyodor Dostoyesvky, Ernest Hemingway, Ken Kesey.
* Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood, Twilight, The Hunger Games, Star Trek, Game of Thrones (most recently). Though these literary franchises may have their origins in the Genre category, they’ve become unavoidable in society. Popular literature (Pop Lit) takes on many forms and mediums, but what they all have in common is a plot-driven narrative and an unprecedented level of cultural influence that transcends nationality.
* Comic books are a special case: this medium predominantly belongs to ‘Genre: Cult-Classic’ as there is a tight-knit community of “elite readers” but some of these titles have achieved ‘Saga’ status and beyond, particularly of the superhero variety. The mythically-formulaic stories of Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Spiderman, and Iron Man are globally popular, and have been culturally appropriated in ways it is difficult to imagine. These characters are ‘Legendary’ in themselves, and some are even ‘Mythical’ reinventions that captivated the multitudes in mass. Thor, is one such mighty example, of how all of Norse mythology was appropriated and tailored to fit a cohesive story with inter-dimensional superheroes and villains.
Encompasses all human mediums of literature, popular or otherwise, and is further divided into three sub-categories
Pedestrian: grossly popular, but limited to intended-audiences (language, cultural, sub-cultural). Familiarity of product may surface in other cultures, but popularity remains localized. Reality TV, magazines, pulp novels. Jokes, as a form of literature in general, belong to this category, although some jokes are more like folk-stories that inform a national or ethnic culture, and those few may be considered ‘Legendary.’
Best-seller: literature which sells extremely well, and is often cross-translated into several languages; however, significance is not recognized outside genre, limited cultural impact. Stephen King is a ‘best-selling’ author that crosses into the ‘Saga’ category, since his style is iconic and influences other media the world-over. Dean Koontz is a best-selling author with many hard-core fans, but lacks extra-cultural visibility.
Cult-classic: All literature and media that does not meet wide commercial success, but it quality enough to attract a community, or “cult” of story-admirers. Dedication to the titular franchise can be extreme and shape the lives of its fans in ‘Legendary’ and ‘Mythical’ ways (as ‘The Sandman’ does for me) but it’s overall appeal is capped by international visibility, translation, and lack of cinematic interest (or poor quality of film-version). Cult-classics still find fans in other countries, in other languages, but only in small numbers of die-hard fans. Some cult-classics becomes so beloved, that they are promoted to ‘Saga’ and ‘Legendary’ levels of cultural saturation.
The remote and out-of-sight island of obscurity, which is difficult to label or describe for the simple reason that we don’t can’t know what we don’t understand. Ironically, this is the biggest continent among our categories, serving as a catch-all for the canon of literature that is shrouded, unpublished, unpopular, limited to an audience, out of print, hidden in an attic, endangered, and stories which have somehow been forgotten. These stories are still there, here, fading in and out of Oblivion, loved and known by few or none, waiting… These shy manuscripts are potentially explosive,
* as in the case of ‘The Dead Sea Scrolls’ which remained ‘lost’ for a few thousand years, and then rocked the foundations of history and religion upon their translation, reaching Mythical and Legendary levels immediately.
* Recent classified information released by Edward Snowden and The Guardian could be seen as another example of “Obscure Literature” having “Legendary” consequences upon publication.
Where do they fall, on the spectrum of global cultural relevance?
Mythical – Legendary – Saga – Genre – Obscure
Stephen King. The Brothers Grimm. John Lennon. Franz Kafka. Rimbaud. Coen Brothers. Edgar Allan Poe. Eckhart Tolle. Obama’s sppech-writer, Jon Favreau. Ayn Rand. Paul Simon. Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Marquis de Sade. Ezra Pound. Salman Rushdie. Friedrich Nietzche. Quentin Tarantino. Joss Whedon. Square Enix. Adolf Hitler. Walt Disney. Hildegaard Von Bingen. Rudyard Kipling. Jane Austen.
Please feel free to comment. Answer any or all.
Pose an author that challenges classification.
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