Recovering Identity Through Myth, History and Place
Myth and history are necessary in explaining the world, and can be depended upon for guidance with one as reliable as the other. The idea of place, with its inherent myth and history, is an important factor in one's identity because place shapes character and events. Robertson Davies' Fifth Business, E. Anne Proulx's The Shipping News, Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, and Jack Hodgins' The Invention of the World use myth and lore to describe the obstacles which the protagonists and others must get over or confront in order to recover their perspective identities. Place anchors the novels in Canada: Fifth Business in Ontario, The Shipping News in Newfoundland, In the Skin of a Lion in Toronto, and The Invention of the World on Vancouver Island. Because they are different places, different stories develop; but since these places are in Canada, they share the Idea of North in which the dream world is as important as the real world. This paper will demonstrate this typically Canadian characteristic of myth coexisting with reality, showing that explanations of identity given by myth and the oral tradition are at least as powerful as documented history.
In order to understand how myth and history work to explain things and recover identity it is important to understand their similarities and differences. Myth and history are similar in that they both explain, instruct, give origin, and shape the world. Their differences lie in the use of the supernatural. Whereas myth deals with "supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes," and explains "aspects of the natural world," history is "A chronological record of events, as of the development of a people....A formal written account of related natural phenomena" (College Dictionary 903, 644). Myth relies on faith for belief, while recorded history relies on documentation or proof. Though they differ in these ways, myth and history are both equally reliable sources of explanation and guidance. Whereas one event may be documented to have taken place and another event may not have such proof, both happenings offer the same end: what is to be learned from the story. Northrop Frye writes in "The Koine of Myth" that there are stories that "may be asserted to have really happened, but what is important about them is not that, but that they are stories which it is particularly urgent for the community to know. They tell us about the recognized gods, the legendary history, the origins of law, class structure, kinship formations, and natural features" (Myth and Metaphor 5). If a person learns from myth to live in this world as a whole person, she has a truth at least as functional as one taken from recorded history or documented fact.
Billy Pritty in The Shipping News does not use recorded scientific methods to chart his way in the water, as one who studies history might. Rather he relies on oral tradition to keep his boat from hitting known sinkers. Enveloped in thick fog, Billy uses a rhyme from the time when people sailed without modern aides such as charts or lights:
When the Knitting Pins you is abreast,
Desperate Cove bears due west
Behind the Pins you must steer
'Til The Old Man's Shoe does appear.
The tickle lies just past the toe,
It's narrow, you must slowly go. (175)
The idea of finding one's path by way of myth or oral tradition is typically Canadian, since not all of Canada has been mapped from the ground. In many cases myth is more reliable than recorded history because its telling goes back farther in time, and thus it existed before documentation. It had power before the printing press inked history books. Further, the example of the "Gammy Bird" (a paper that prints fake advertisements and recycles wrecks to present them as new) as a spreader of information and truth proves that documented "facts" are not always to be believed.
Dunstan Ramsay in Fifth Business argues...
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