English, Department of


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The George Eliot Review 24 (1993)


Published by The George Eliot Review Online https://GeorgeEliotReview.org


George Eliot developed a systematic sense of myth and mythmaking when she read and translated D.F. Strauss's Das Leben Jesu kritish bearbeitet into The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1846). Strauss carries on his monumental work of demythologizing the gospels by affirming that myth represents the truth of human feelings and aspirations and that these themselves are an expression of the Idea that divinity and humanity are to be united. This Hegelian theory of the place of primitive Christianity in the evolution of man's historical destiny depends for its elaboration on the conception of myth that Strauss derived from Karl Otfried Muller's book of 1825 Prolegomena zu einer wissenschaftlichen Mythologie, which was translated by John Leitch in 1844 as Introduction to a Scientific System of Mythology. A brilliant classical scholar, Muller argued that 'mythical images were formed by the influence of sentiments common to all mankind' and that the articulator of myth simply obeys 'the impulse which acts also upon the minds of his hearers, he is but the mouth through which all speak, the skillful interpreter who has address first to give form and expression to the thoughts of all: What the community affirms, the mythmaker expresses. The myth that arises is the poetry of their beliefs.

George Eliot reformulates Muller's sense of myth in three places in her canon. In 'Janet's Repentance', when Bill Powers is encouraged by Dempster to incite the crowd against Mr. Tryan, the narrator ironically likens him to 'the enunciator of ancient myth who makes the assemblage distinctly conscious of the common sentiment that had drawn them together: In Silas Mamer the antique Mr. Macey is presented as the mythmaker of Raveloe. He is described as an 'oracular old gentleman' in chapter 7; and the epithet 'oracular' seems especially important here because George Eliot emended her manuscript to insert the word in her text. Mr. Macey's recital of the story of the Lammeter-Osgood wedding and the story of how the Warrens become the Charity land is ritualistic. These stories are the heritage of the community, all listen attentively to them, and a certain few ask premeditated questions at designated moments in the course of the recital. 'Every one of Mr. Macey's audience had heard this story many times, but it was listened to as if it had been a favourite tune, and at certain points the puffing of pipes was momentarily suspended, that the listeners might give their whole minds to the expected words. But there was more to come; and Mr. Snell, the landlord, duly put the leading question' (Ch. 6). Mr. Macey's voice is heard as the single voice that orchestrates the belief of the many.