EVOLVING MYTH IN THE ANTRHOPOCENE
Art is inspired by that which precedes it, akin to genetics and evolution. Richard Powers’ The Overstory celebrates this tradition, referring to famous literary works throughout; a selection by no means arbitrary. The title’s double meaning is an immediate clue: ‘overstory’ referring to forest canopies but also to narrative’s long ancestry. To align his novel with the historical novel tradition, for example, Powers references the genre’s defining works, Scott’s Waverley and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. This essay shows Powers’ similar efforts to align Overstory with myth through careful reference to Gilgamesh, Metamorphoses, and Macbeth. Examining these texts, I detail how Powers uses them to seed his-story’s overarching message: to survive the Anthropocene, humanity needs new myths.
1700 BC – Gilgamesh
The oldest fragments of Gilgamesh are attributed to an anonymous Babylonian poet chiseled 3,700 years ago; no human narrative predates it. A logical starting point in Powers’ efforts to align Overstory with myth, it nonetheless speaks to his ambitious timescales. An example of his vast temporal considerations is the description of the tree that breaks Douglass’ fall when his plane is downed over Vietnam: “It grew; its roots slipped down and encased its host. Decades passed. Centuries. War on the backs of elephants gave way to televised moon landings and hydrogen bombs” (101). Unlike War and Peace, Metamorphoses, and Macbeth, Powers only briefly employs Gilgamesh, much like Waverley. Douglass is furious to learn that trees are left to line highways only to block views of deforestation:
But the deliberate, simpleminded, and sickeningly effective trick of that highway-lining curtain of trees makes him want to smack someone. Every mile of it dupes his heart, just like they planned […] He feels like he’s on the Cedar Mountain, from that Gilgamesh […] The forest from the first day of creation. But it turns out Gilgamesh and his punk friend Enkidu have already been through and trashed the place. Oldest story in the world (110).
Enkidu, raised in the wild, is sent by the gods to end King Gilgamesh’s tyranny over Uruk. However, Gilgamesh defeats Enkidu and ‘civilises’ him. Then, in a quest for fame, they travel to the Forest of Cedar and kill its guardian. While environmentalists in Overstory see themselves as forest guardians, arguably the most relevant aspect of Gilgamesh to the modern world is its depiction of the ‘civilised’ versus the ‘wild’; urbanisation firmly established as superior over nature. This relevance to modern attitudes responsible for causing the Anthropocene is remarkable, but not coincidental. Civility between strangers developed in Mesopotamia after the repurposing of nature to human service, agriculture, required people to remain by their crops; settlement creating civilisation. The Agricultural Revolution, perhaps the earliest origin of the Anthropocene (Steffen et al 845), redistributed labour in ways unmatched until the Industrial Revolution, creating two populations: urban and rural. The city-country divide in modern democracies’ voting habits suggests this division remains substantial, affecting ideologies and stalling societal responses to climate change (Damore et al 6). Gilgamesh, humanity’s oldest story, tells of humanity’s oldest divide.
The brevity of Gilgamesh’s inclusion in Overstory, like Waverley, suggests Powers is seeding a mythological narrative tradition that will grow like Scott and historical fiction. Explanations for using Gilgamesh in this way are found in Andrew George’s edition, where he cites Assyriologist William Moran’s description of Gilgamesh as a human story insistent on “human values” (xxxii). George warns of reading Gilgamesh as myth because:
the function of the poem is not to explain origins. It is more interested in examining the human condition as it is. On these grounds the epic is not myth […] myths are incidental to the story and the epic is certainly much more than the sum of its mythological parts – unlike, for example, Ovid’s Metamorphoses (xxxiii).
However, Gilgamesh is often studied alongside mythological texts because “no book on the mythology of ancient Mesopotamia can resist it […] [Gilgamesh] retains, in spite of its long literate history, an unmistakable aura of the mythical” (Ibid). Gilgamesh, though not mythological, has become mythic. Powers uses it accordingly; not as a myth of origin, but as an origin of myth. This aspect of the epic transcends its main theme: the search for immortality. Unsuccessful in acquiring immortality, Gilgamesh realises death can be metaphorically vanquished by building lasting legacies in life, the epic closing with him admiring the towering walls he has constructed to protect Uruk (XI.323-6). Powers’ first marker of myth thus establishes humanity’s views of nature and death as enemies to overcome.
8 AD – Metamorphoses
Ovid’s Metamorphoses, containing some 250 myths, is the most explicitly mythological text Powers uses to position Overstory. Ovid opens with “Changes of shape, new forms, are the theme which my spirit impels me/now to recite” (1.1-2); Powers, concerned with the natures of change and the changes in nature, could not have avoided Metamorphoses if he tried. Dramatising physical, emotional, and spiritual transformations, Metamorphoses’ opening words introduce Patricia’s character and remain central throughout; her scientific career goes through phases and transforms how other characters consider trees, changing their lives in turn. An important moment in Powers’ use of Metamorphoses to explore Patricia’s character comes when it prefaces her attempt to rationalise finding a tree that resembles a woman:
The word turns odd, foreign in her head. Myth. Myth. A mispronunciation. A malaprop. Memories posted forward from people standing on the shores of the great human departure from everything else that lives […] They laugh at the stupefying odds against anything accidental growing exactly like this, like us, out of mindless wood […] Her staff, her scientists, her board of directors: no one has any use for myth. Myths are old miscalculations, the guesses of children long ago put to bed (492-3).
Three similarities between Metamorphoses and Gilgamesh are particularly noteworthy. First are the floods (also found in Genesis). Like the urban-rural divide, it is again remarkable how relevant these ancient texts are to specific twenty-first century concerns of the Anthropocene; rising sea levels and increasing frequency and intensity of storms among the most pressing. In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh writes “through much of human history, people regarded the ocean with great weariness” and “before the early modern era, there had existed a general acceptance that provision had to be made for the unpredictable furies of the ocean” (37). Yet during the “mastery and conquest” of European imperialism, founding cities like Mumbai and New York defied ancient wisdom; considered defendable islands with strategic harbours, the Anthropocene is revealing them as “precarious” (37-9). Resulting from Jupiter’s anger (God’s in the Bible), Ovid’s flood (the ‘Deluge’ in Gilgamesh) depicts nature as a “method of punishing mortals” (1.260). As in the Bible and Gilgamesh, Ovid’s flood, in which “The world was reduced to an ocean” (1.292), is an early literary example of climate change; the distinction between these depictions and today’s understandings of climate change is while human activity inspired the floods, it did not cause them; they are supernatural punishments, not natural consequences. Other environmental transformations occur throughout Metamorphoses’ opening: before the flood, Chaos becomes the world, which then passes through ages of Gold, Silver, Bronze, and Iron (1.5-252); divinity always the prime mover.
The transition of humanity from rudimentary and natural states to civilised ones is the second noteworthy similarity. Like Enkidu in Gilgamesh, Metamorphoses depicts humanity originating within nature but quickly positions them at odds. Ovid writes “Thus clay, so lately no more than a crude and formless substance/ was metamorphosed to assume the strange new figure of Man” (1.87-8) but adds humankind is “a holier living creature, more able to think high thoughts […] freshly formed and newly divorced” (1.76, 80). After the flood, the current iteration of humanity forms from stone (1.401-13), and while Ovid admits we “bear the unmistakable marks of our stony origin” (1.415), humanity’s evolution, or elevation, to “hold dominion over the rest” (1.77) is firmly established.
The third comparison is the quest(ion) of immortality. To close, Ovid upstages Gilgamesh, inserting himself to claim immortality:
Now I have finished my work, which nothing can ever destroy […] My name shall be never forgotten […] people shall read and recite my words. Throughout all ages, if poets have vision to prophesy truth, I shall live in my fame (15.871-8).
Crucially, though Ovid exemplifies myth’s ‘old miscalculations’ of death and nature as requiring mankind’s conquest, Powers’ use of Metamorphoses to explore Patricia’s character also underscores the potential for humanity to make ‘new calculations’, repeating Ovid’s words four times throughout the novel “people turn into other things” (147, 445, 492, 583).
1606 AD – Macbeth
Shakespeare presents myth in radically new ways. For Ray and Dorothy’s first date, Dorothy takes them to an audition for an amateur production of Macbeth: “Why? She says no reason. A lark. A whim. Freedom” (80). But Powers’ reason is to prime fate and prophecy as ‘evolutionary cousins’ of myth, narrative and supernatural traditions their ‘common ancestors’, writing “they both get cast. Of course they get cast. They were cast already, before they tried out. That’s how myths work” (81). Macbeth thus serves Overstory’s vast temporal considerations and establishes a symbiosis between myth and prophecy, an ‘ecosystem’ where past and future imply each other.
Like Powers, Shakespeare uses narrative traditions passed down from writers like Ovid to frame his characters, the Witches and Hecate, who in turn frame the play. Hecate, the Greek goddess of mythology, does nothing to advance the plot, so her inclusion in Macbeth is similar to Overstory’s inclusion of the works in question: a marker to signal wider narrative traditions. The nature of the Witches, central to Powers’ framing, has become obscured over time. In some editions, the Witches are called the ‘Weïrd Sisters’, often misinterpreted as ‘strange’. However, the 1623 folio calls them “weyward” (136), again often misread as ‘wayward’. ‘Weyward’, however, is a variant spelling of an Anglicised spelling of a Norse word: weyward = wyrd = urðr, meaning ‘fate’ (“urðr”). That Shakespeare makes Hecate (mythology) ‘oversee’ the Witches (fate) as “the mistress of your charms” (3.5.5) underscores Powers’ implication that myth and fate exist on a spectrum of time, the arrows simply travelling in opposite directions.
Macbeth acts as a steppingstone in Overstory, a ‘missing link’ in the evolution of myth from Antiquity to the Anthropocene. Macbeth’s attempt to overcome one mythologised enemy of humanity (death) is ill-fated by his interpretations of another enemy (nature). When the Witches tell him “none of woman born/Shall harm Macbeth” (4.1.94-5) and “Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until/Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinan Hill/Shall come against him” (4.1.107-9), Macbeth’s assumptions of nature betray him. He misses that ‘none of woman born’ could mean Macduff, who “was from his mother’s womb/Untimely ripped” (5.7.46-7), and he dismisses the threat of Birnam Wood, for “Who can impress the forest, bid the tree/Unfix his earthbound root?” (4.1.110-1). In this way, while Gilgamesh and Metamorphoses establish humanity’s views of death and nature as enemies, Macbeth exposes these views as problematic. For example, the Witches set the ominous tone of the play by suggesting perverted views of nature are the real enemy, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair/Hover through the fog and filthy air” (1.1.12-3).
Macbeth foreshadows the events that happen in Ray and Dorothy’s life, like Metamorphoses did for Patricia; the play about prophecy becoming prophetic. Unable to have children, Dorothy gives twisted meaning to ‘None of woman born shall harm Macbeth’ when her infertility spurs her infidelity. Similar to how Lady Macbeth pushes Macbeth to murder by subjunctivising his manhood —“When you durst do it, then you were a man” (1.7.49) [italics mine]—leading to Macbeth’s undoing, so does Dorothy question Ray’s manhood by cheating on him. While not explicitly stating this causes Ray’s ‘undoing’, Powers nonetheless is highly suggestive by writing of Ray’s thoughts of Dorothy “off getting her brains fucked out” alongside a breakdown of the seconds leading to his aneurism (387-90). Echoes sound of Macbeth’s forewarning: “O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife” (3.2.39). In the same way Gilgamesh became myth, Macbeth has become prophecy; the ‘Scottish Play’ warning of the dangers of ‘conquering’ death and misreading nature. When Macbeth learns that branches have been used as camouflage and Birnam Wood has ‘come’ to Dunsinan, he charges nature a conspirator against him, saying “I ‘gin to be aweary of the sun/And wish th’estate o’th’ world were now undone” (5.6.51-2). Macbeth’s wish prophetic of the Anthropocene.
2018 AD – The Overstory
While Overstory openly works to rectify humanity’s relationship with nature,Powers more subtly recalibrates immortality. Immortality, an egotistical concept, progressively darkens from inspiring ‘greatness’ in Gilgamesh, to inspiring Metamorphoses itself, to inspiring Macbeth’s downfall. Given this trajectory, a downward spiral of egoism ironically detrimental to human life, Powers reevaluates the myth: Patricia nearly succumbs to suicide twice but ‘overcomes’ death by choosing to live, while Olivia survives an overdose, becoming ‘reborn’ with an awareness of the everlasting qualities of nature. Though Olivia dies, the novel’s final lines belong to her, as thought by Nick: “This. What we have been given. What we must earn. This will never end” (625). Powers redefines ‘immortality’ as something possible through humility, when death and nature are seen not as enemies but vital parts of human life. This is depicted in Nick’s rearrangement of fallen branches to spell the word “STILL”:
Already, this word is greening. Already, the mosses surge over, the beetles and lichen and fungi turning the logs to soil. Already, seedlings root in the nurse logs’ crevices, nourished by the rot. Soon new trunks will form the word in the growing wood, following the cursive of these decaying mounds. Two centuries more, and these five living letters, too, will fade back into the swirling patterns, the changing rain and air and light. And yet – but still – they’ll spell out, for a while, the word life has been saying, since the beginning (624-5).
Refraining from adding new myths himself, Powers’ prognosis of the need to do so and his reassessments of existing myths constitute evolutions of the mythological tradition all the same. The final section of the novel is called “Seeds” for this reason: planting new ideas that will grow. Ghosh suggests fiction, myth, and epic make it possible to imagine the world “as if it were other than it is”, which is “exactly the challenge that is posed by the climate crisis” (128). He adds, “to think about the world only as it is amounts to a formula for collective suicide” (Ibid). At first, Powers’ efforts to meet Ghosh’s challenge might conjure the famous diagram of human evolution:
Left to right: Gilgamesh, Metamorphoses, Macbeth, Overstory, new myths…
But this diagram presents modern humans as ‘more evolved’ than our ancestors, suggesting evolution has a ‘destination’ that is us. If Powers is not suggesting Overstory is ‘more evolved’ than Gilgamesh or his novel is the ‘destination’ of narrative tradition, what is he saying? Tree rings, a metaphor and narrative device throughout Overstory, help answer this question. After Olivia dies, Nick sleeps on the massive tree stump of Mimas, the tree they tried to save:
He lies on his side as night comes on, his head on a wadded jacket near the ring laid down the year Charlemagne died. Somewhere underneath his coccyx, Columbus. Past his ankles, the first Hoel leaves Norway for Brooklyn and the expanses of Iowa. Beyond the length of his body, crowding up to the cut’s cliff, are the rings of his own birth, the death of his family, the roadside visit of the woman [Olivia] who recognized him, who taught him how to hang on and live.
A more accurate diagram of Powers’ work on the evolution of myth might therefore look like this:
Powers hints at this through Mimi: “Time was not a line unrolling in front of her. It was a column of concentric circles with herself at the core and the present floating outward along the outermost rim” (42-3). In short, our past is not behind us, it is within us, as will be our future. It is through Ray, however, after his aneurism renders him as immobile as he (and Macbeth) once considered trees to be, that Powers most succinctly summarises humanity’s need for new myths in the face of the Anthropocene:
To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one […] and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people. But Ray needs fiction now as much as anyone (478-9).
—as much as everyone.
Anonymous. The Epic of Gilgamesh ed. Andrew George (London: Penguin Books, 1999).
Damore, David F, Robert E Lang, and Karen A Danielsen. Blue Metros, Red States: The Shifting Urban-Rural Divide in America’s Swing States (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2021).
Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).
Ovid. Metamorphoses trans. David Raeburn (London: Penguin Books, 2004).
Powers, Richard. The Overstory (London: Vintage, 2018).
Shakespeare, William. First Folio: Mr William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (London: Isaac Iaggard and Ed. Blount, 1623).
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).
Steffen, Will, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen and John McNiell, “The Anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives”, Philosophical Transactions: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, vol. 369, no. 1938, 13 March 2011, pp. 842–867.
“urðr”, Old Norse Online, The University of Texas at Austin, Linguistics Research Center, http://www.lrc.la.utexas.edu; accessed 1 October 2020.