Showing posts from July, 2016

The Great Flood in Literature: Wrestling with Proteus

Walter Crane illustration of Hercules wrestling Proteus There is a figure in Greek mythology called Proteus (sometimes called the Old Man of the Sea), a minor sea god with two remarkable powers: shape-shifting and oracular utterance. To get the truth out of him, however, one must first catch him. When anyone attempts to grasp him, he rapidly changes from one form into another in an attempt to evade his captor’s clutches. But if a person is tenacious enough to hold on until Proteus tires and resolves into his true form, the god will render up the truth his captor seeks. Orally transmitted stories share with this mythical sea god a “protean” character. Handed on by word of mouth, each time a story is told the teller gives it a slightly different form and a different shade of meaning, so that over time many different versions of the same story emerge. The literary author who works from an oral tradition is like the hero who captures Proteus: first he must wrestle with the many v