Academic journal article Mythlore

The Road of Our Senses: Search for Personal Meaning and the Limitations of Myth in Neil Gaiman's American Gods

Academic journal article Mythlore

The Road of Our Senses: Search for Personal Meaning and the Limitations of Myth in Neil Gaiman's American Gods

Article excerpt

Death, oddity, and knowledge

CONTEMPORARY WESTERN CULTURE IS BROADLY REFERRED TO in terms of mythology. This discourse can be traced back to the development of semiotics and has proliferated in today's discussion of a culture which, perhaps falsely, believes itself to be secular. In this study, I inquire into the concept of mythical secularity in the contemporary novel American Gods (2001/2011); the author Neil Gaiman lets his characters experience a mythical culture based on dubious binary pairs. If the protagonist Shadow can be interpreted as a realist element in this heavily symbolic and intertextual work, he can serve as one possible solution to the problem of defining truth and knowledge, and right and wrong, in the novel's America. Shadow does then, in spite of his many symbolic or archetypal traits, not become limited to any particular type of mythical figure. The protagonist realizes his own need to exist within a social context, but at the same time finds it impossible to wholeheartedly involve himself in American culture. He develops a critical view of the culture to which he nevertheless needs to belong, and the intermediary position he attains carries moral and ethical, as well as epistemic and ontological, implications.

In brief, American Gods is the story of the ex-convict Shadow who sets off on a classic road trip through America as a bodyguard to the grifter Wednesday--the American aspect of the Norse god Odin. Gradually, as Shadow is exposed to different elements of American culture, he becomes aware of its complexity, ambiguity and limitations. He struggles to make sense of what he sees and in doing so accepts the concept of binary division. Initially, opposites such as dead/alive, real/fake, light/darkness, good/evil, divine/human, old/ new, and religious/secular seem to be mutually exclusive categories. These dichotomies can all be connected to the opposition between the old and new gods in the novel. After many journeys on physical American roads, in dreams and through the land of the dead, Shadow sees that the war between these two sides of gods has been staged by Wednesday and his partner to serve as a power generating sacrifice. When Shadow learns the truth about his employer, he decides to stop the war, and succeeds in doing so.

Shadow's success is entirely dependent on the help he receives from his dead wife Laura, his new-found friend Sam Black Crow and the buffalo man whom he mostly sees in dreams. Superficially, these three characters--especially the dead Laura and the odd buffalo man--seem to be anything but normal and trustworthy guides. However, in the novel's universe their peripheral positions give them a transcendental and reliable perspective of life; they know something important, "[s]omething that the dead are keeping back" (American Gods [AG] 543). (1) Dead, abnormal, and odd characters linger in the periphery and remain largely unbiased. Their interpretation of reality is of epistemic and ontological, moral and ethical value, and it is essential to Shadow in his search for personal meaning. This personal quest of Shadow's occurs on the novel's individual level, while the symbolic system that is American culture forms the text's cultural level. The present study discusses on the one hand the multifaceted culture to which Shadow is subjected, and on the other the protagonist's personal view of and relationship to this culture.

Culture: Myth creation and the absence of a center

My analysis of the cultural level uses concepts from three different perspectives on contemporary western culture and fantasy literature: firstly, from Mathilda Slabbert's and Leonie Viljoen's "mythical" reading of American Gods and Avril Rubenstein's more general discussion of the mythical dimension of fantasy; secondly, from intertextual theory; thirdly, from Derrida's deconstruction theory.

When focusing on the notion of myth creation in fantasy, Slabbert and Viljoen and Rubenstein interpret elements of the narratives they discuss as archetypes. …

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