Marina Warner in The Liberal:
WRITERS don’t make up myths; they take them over and recast them. Even Homer was telling stories that his audience already knew. If some individuals present weren’t acquainted with Odysseus’s wanderings or the Trojan War, and were listening in for the first time (as I was when a child, enthralled by the gods and goddesses in H.A. Guerber’s classic retelling), they were still aware that this was a common inheritance that belonged to everyone. Its single author – if Homer was one at all – acted as a conduit of collective knowledge, picking up the thread and telling it anew.
In an inspired essay on ‘The Translators of The Arabian Nights’, Jorge Luis Borges praises the murmuring exchanges of writers across time and cultures, and points out that the more literature talks to other literatures, and reweaves the figures in the carpet, the richer languages and expression, metaphors and stories become. Borges wasn’t a believer in anything – not even magic – but he couldn’t do without the fantastic and the mythological. He compiled a wonderfully quixotic and useful bestiary, The Book of Imaginary Beings, to include the fauna of world literature: chimeras and dragons, mermaids and the head-lolling catoblepas whose misfortune is to scorch the earth on which he tries to graze with his pestilential breath. But Borges also included some of his own inventions – The Creatures who Live in Mirrors, for example, a marvelous twist on the idea of the ghostly double.
Borges liked myth because he believed in the principle of ‘reasoned imagination’: that knowing old stories, and retrieving and reworking them, brought about illumination in a different way from rational inquiry. Myths aren’t lies or delusions: as Hippolyta the Amazon queen responds to Theseus’ disparaging remarks about enchantment: ‘But all the story of the night told o’er, / And all their minds transfigured so together, / More witnesseth than fancy’s images / And grows to something of great constancy’ (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, V.i.24-7). One of Borges’s famous stories, ‘The Circular Ruins’, unfolds a pitch-perfect fable of riddling existence in the twentieth century: a magician dreams a child into being, and then discovers, as he walks unscathed through fire in the closing lines of the tale, that he himself has been dreamed.