We Don’t Know How Lucky We Are: Updating Myths for Today’s Culture

As I leave Australia and New Zealand for a while, graphic designer and former newspaper cartoonist Hugh Todd pointed me to John Clarke’s song, ‘We Don’t Know How Lucky We Are’, and got me thinking about the power of myth and storytelling.

I’m no stranger to Kiwi comedian John Clarke’s alter ego Fred Dagg: I worked in a West London infant school where children sang Where Would You Be Without Your Gumboots? for the NZ element of a Multicultural Carnival – although when I was in Wellington some months ago, I sadly didn’t get to see Fred’s boots, which apparently have pride of place in the Kiwi national museum, Te Papa.

What really grabbed me about Clarke’s glorious, funny, utterly Kiwi anthem is the spoken intro, which recounts how Maui brought NZ’s islands into being:

At the dawn of the day, in the great Southern Ocean

When the world’s greatest fish was being landed

And the boat they were pulling it into was sinking

The sea was quite lumpy, and the weather was foul

And the bloke with the map was as pissed as an owl

And the boys cried out, “Maui, ya clown! Let it go!”

In the noise he reached down for his grandmother’s jawbone

And he winked at his mates and said:

“Boys…we don’t know how lucky we are!

“I’ve a feeling I have stumbled on something substantial!”

“We don’t know how lucky we are!”

These verses, which reimagine New Zealand’s mythological founder as an ordinary Kiwi bloke on a boat trip with his mates, reminded me of one of the Odysseus by Tony Robinson and Richard Curtissimplest and greatest kids’ TV shows of the 1980s, Tony Robinson and Richard Curtis’ Odysseus: The Greatest Hero of Them All/The Journey Through Hell.

At the height of their success with Blackadder, this British team took to retelling the whole of the Iliad and Odyssey in child-friendly language, giving a casual, witty spin to the ancient myths. Simply delivered as a one-man piece to camera, with Robinson recounting the tale from various contemporary locations, this series traded bardic pomposity for exuberance and drama – and as a result, was a testament to the power of oral storytelling.

Sadly there’s no footage from the Odysseus series online, but you can see some of Blood and Honey, Tony Robinson’s similar treatment of Old Testament stories, online. Here’s his take on Jacob’s Ladder:

Both Clarke’s Maui and the 80s Odysseus challenge us to find fun ways to bring the myths down from their pedestals and, without losing our respect for them, bring them into the classroom, the library or even everyday life.

Maui’s just a bloke out on a fishing trip; Odysseus, a hapless husband trying to get home; whatever setting you work in, what myths could you re-cast for the 21st century?

For more on oral storytelling, check out the guest post from Lee Castledine, Secretary of the Australian Storytelling Guild, here. Next month, we’ll be joined by Diane Wolkstein, official storyteller to the City of New York, for an exclusive interview.

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