History becomes myth

In a number of writings I have made reference to Samuel Hynes’ idea of the ‘Myth of the War’.[1] By this term he was referring to the way the events of the First World War (the Great War) have been reworked through art, literature, poetry, film, and by historical narratives themselves. In order to fully appreciate how the Myth of the (Great) War was constructed it would seem helpful, therefore, to have a greater understanding of how history become ‘mythologised’. However, this then raises another question: to what extent is history itself already ‘mythological’, especially when history is presented in narrative form?

The nature of myth

Leaving aside the second question for a moment, what constitutes a myth in the first place? I think a good place to start is to look at Roland Barthes’ theory of myth, expounded in great detail in Myth Today, which is the second part of his book Mythologies.[2] In spite of the depth and complexity of this text, there are two specific ideas which seem to encapsulate the essence of Barthes’ argument.

The first, drawing on Saussure’s theory of semiotics,[3] is that myth represents a second order semiological system and a metalanguage:

It can be seen that in myth there are two semiological systems, one of which is staggered in relation to the other: a linguistic system, the language (or modes of representation which are assimilated to it), which I shall call the language object, because it is the language which myth gets hold of in order to build its own system; and myth itself, which I shall call the metalanguage, because it is a second language, in which one speaks about the first.[4]

The key point here is that what constitutes a sign in the first-order system (signifier and signified) becomes a signifier in the second, as shown in the following diagram[5]:

On the plane of myth, the signifier becomes the form, and the signified is the concept (as it is on the plane of language). And it is through the form that the (mythical) concept announces itself as the signification (Barthes’ term for the sign on the plane of myth):

I shall call the third term of the myth the signification.  The word here is all the better justified since myth has in fact a double function: it points out and it notifies, it makes us understand something, and it imposes it on us.[6]

Barthes’ most famous example of the relationship between form and concept is the cover photo of the July 1955 edition of Paris Match, which shows a Black French solider saluting (presumably, though it is not in the picture) the French flag.

On the plane of language the meaning is simply a Black soldier giving the French salute.  However, on the plane of myth the picture signifies the greatness of France and the French Empire, which does not discriminate against anyone, regardless of their colour.  The form empties out the meaning, in order to make ready for the (second level) signified (the concept). In this example, the story of the Black solider is displaced by the signification of him as an example of the benevolence of French imperialism.

It is important to note, staying with this example, that the form is constituted by a number of different elements. To start with, the date of the publication, July 1955, which was just over a year after the French defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, which was at that point part of French Indochina. Ironically, perhaps, this battle marked an important episode in the collapse of French imperialism. Furthermore, France had also recently become a protagonist in the Algerian War of Independence, which was to end seven years later with another defeat for the Empire. I say ‘ironically, perhaps’, because it could also be argued that it is precisely because of the French defeat that this picture takes on such a mythological significance. Myths seem to gain their greatest power at the precise moment when the reality is the complete opposite. Interestingly, Barthes makes no reference in his text to the recent historical context of this picture, even though he must have been very conscious of it.

The date is also important for another reason: if this picture was published today it could well be ‘read’ as signifying post-French colonialism, because at first glance it could easily be seen as portraying the picture of a Black African solider in their native (post-colonial) country.

Another important element of the form is the fact the picture is on the front page of Paris-Match, which was (and still is) an important news and celebrity lifestyle French magazine. In many ways, publications such as this can be seen as epitomising a liberal bourgeois ideology that embraces liberté, égalité, fraternité. This essentially ‘writes out’ the alternative narrative which lurks in the shadows, that is, of state violence and torture, and (attempted) subjugation of ‘inferior’ peoples.

The other key idea developed in Barthes’ text is that myth is the process of transforming history into nature. In other words, complex socio-historical events, which are full of contradiction and paradox, become ‘translated’ into ‘matters of fact’ and ‘eternal truths’. This is achieved semiotically by the signifier appearing to give foundation to the signified. Referring to the Paris-Match cover example, Barthes writes:

…everything happens as if the picture naturally conjured up the concept, as if the signifier gave a foundation to the signified: the myth exists from the precise moment when French imperiality achieves the natural state: myth is speech justified in excess.[7]

This idea of naturalisation matters particularly in the realm of politics and fulfils what is essentially an ideological function. In other words, if the ruling class (which for Barthes was the bourgeoisie) can present themselves as the ‘natural’ form of government, and even better, if they can appear to be ‘apolitical’, then this strengthens their grip on power. Barthes argues that the bourgeoisie achieve this sense of ‘naturalness’ through a process of disavowing their own identity and replacing it with that of nation. He describes this process of disavowal as a ‘haemorrhaging’:

…the bourgeoisie is defined as the social class which does not want to be named. Bourgeois, petit bourgeois, capitalism, proletariat are the locus on an unceasing hemorrhage: meaning flows out of them until their very name become unnecessary…Politically, the hemorrhage of the name bourgeois is effected through the idea of nation. This was once a progressive idea, which served to get rid of the aristocracy; today, the bourgeoisie merges into the nation, even if it has, in order to do so, to exclude from it the elements which it decides are allogenous (the Communists).[8]

Interestingly, perhaps, Barthes equates the bourgeoisie with the political right, whereas today they would be considered part of the liberal elite, and the enemy of right-wing populism. The political left, on the other hand, and insofar as they constituted a revolutionary party or movement, is considered by Barthes to exclude myth, because revolution generates a fully political (and therefore non-mythological) speech. However, Barthes also argued that myth does exist on the left, but has different qualities to that of the right. One of the left’s problems, according to Barthes, is that its mythology is impoverished:

It (the left) does not know how to proliferate; being produced on order and for a temporarily limited prospect, it is invented with difficulty. It lacks a major faculty, that of fabulizing. Whatever it does, there remains about it something stiff and literal…[9]

Narrative, history and myth

One of the problems regarding history is that much of it is presented in the form of narratives or stories. This is not only true of ‘pop history’, as reflected in the ever-expanding history sections in high street bookshops and online, and the ever-increasing number of history documents on TV and other media, along with their ‘celebrity historians’, but applies equally to much ‘academic’ history as well.

Of course, in some ways this is simply part of the ever-growing narrativisation of social life, where every conceivable form of human interaction becomes dramatized and turned into a ‘story’. But this then raises another question: what is so special about historical narrative as opposed to any other kind? One answer is likely to be that historical narratives are narratives about the ‘past’. However, it is not all clear what constitutes the ‘past’ in this context; in fact, it could be argued that the ‘past’ in historical narrative is a product of the narrative itself. This is why it is helpful to explore in some detail the nature of historical narrative (or ‘narrative history’ as it is sometimes described) in order to gain a better understanding of what such narratives actually ‘produce’, and how these relate to the idea of myth. As a way forward, I will outline Hayden White’s argument regarding history, myth and narrative, and then look at two other writers who appear to be more sympathetic to the idea of ‘mythic history’.

White’s view on the relationship between narrative history and myth is quite complex and in many ways, ambivalent.[10] On the one hand he appears to share the suspicion of many ‘positivistic’ historians that the use of narrative as a form of historical writing blurs the distinction between (real) history and mythical writing. On the other hand, he appears sympathetic to the idea that narrative history should be judged on its own merits and in relation to its particular subject matter, rather than being compared (unfavourably) to a somewhat ‘idealised’ version of ‘scientific history’, which claims to ‘tell it as it really was’.

And this idea of ‘telling it as it really was’ is at the heart of the (so far unresolved) dispute between the ‘scientific’ historians and the more ‘hermeneutical’ ones. As White points out, the issue is not the use of narrative per se, but rather the claims by (some) proponents of narrative history that this approach gives an accurate rendering of (historical) reality. But it is precisely this notion of ‘historical reality’ that is the central problem here. Narrative history, according to White, purports to let ‘events speak for themselves.’ However, the difficulty here is that events do not in themselves constitute a narrative, a story:

Narrative becomes a problem only when we wish to give real events the form of story. It is because real events do not offer themselves as stories that their narrativization is so difficult…But, by common consent, it is not enough that an historical account deal in real, rather than merely imaginary events; and it is not enough that the account represents events in its order of discourse according to the chronological sequence in which they originally occurred. The events must not only be registered within the chronological framework of their original occurrence but narrated as well, that is to say, revealed as possessing a structure, an order of meaning, that they do not possess as mere sequence.[11]

In other words, according to the proponents of narrative history, ‘proper’ history must tell a story, even if reality, or perhaps it would be better to say actuality, is not like that. As White argues, there are other, non-narrational forms of history, for example, the annals and the chronicle. However, although the annals provide a basic ‘mapping-out’ of events (White cites the example of the Annals of Saint Gall to illustrate this point), they lack any real sense of human agency and meaning; natural events such floods, hard winters, etc, are recorded alongside acts of human agency (in this example, Charles fighting the Saxons), and both are given equal weight:

Social events are apparently as incomprehensible as natural events. They seem to have the same order of importance or unimportance. They seem merely to have occurred, and their importance seems to be indistinguishable from the fact they were recorded. In fact, it seems that their importance consists in nothing other than their having been recorded.[12]

The chronicle is a step forward in the sense that human agency does occupy central stage (White cites the example of Richerus of Rheims’ History of France), but the ‘story’ is broken off inconclusively. And the ‘conclusion’ that White has in mind is essentially a moral one. Referring to Richerus’ account, White notes:

The end of the discourse does not cast its light back over the events originally recorded in order to redistribute the force of a meaning that was immanent in all of the events from the beginning. There is no justice, only force, or, rather, only an authority that presents itself as different kinds of forces.[13]

And this leads to White’s central thesis: “…that narrativizing discourse serves the purpose of moralizing judgements…”[14] In other words, history should not so much ‘tell it as it is’, but rather, ‘tell it as is should be’, in the sense that the story should not simply be a recounting of events, but rather giving such events a meaning and a structure, that allows the narrator (the historian) to make a moral judgement or set of judgements regarding such events. And this idea of a ‘moral authority’ is precisely what the critics of narrative history, including the Annales group and the post-modernists, were opposed to, because it suggested that narrative history essentially served an ideological or mythical function, rather than a scientific one (‘telling it as it is’.) In other words, narrative history was being used not only to tell stories, but stories with a moral; and, referring back to Barthes, stories that served to legitimate, through a process of naturalisation, particular social and political structures and forms of hegemony.

However, this is not quite the end of the story as far as White is concerned, and this is why I noted earlier that there seems to be an ambivalence (and ambiguity) in his argument. White draws upon the work of Paul Ricoeur in order to develop the idea of narrative history as hermeneutics, based on historicality and allegory.

One of Ricoeur’s key arguments is that human action can be ‘read’ like a text, and rely on the same hermeneutic principles. To quote White on this point:

…the study of the past has as its proper aim the hermeneutic “understanding” of human actions. In the process of attaining this understanding, explanations of various sorts are called for, in much the same way that explanations of “what happened” in any story are called for on the way to the story’s full elaboration. But these explanations serve as a means to understanding “what happened” rather than as ends in themselves. Thus, in the writing of the historical text, the aim in view should be to represent (human) events in such a way that their status as parts of meaningful wholes will be made manifest.[15]

In other words, the ‘explanation’ is only part of the story, so to speak. The key point about narrative is to provide the transition of human events from ‘within-time-ness’ to ‘historicality’ (these are Heidegger’s terms used by Ricoeur). ‘Within-time-ness’ refers to our ordinary conception of time, which is effectively a ‘space’ within which events occur. ‘Historicality’ refers to situating this ‘everydayness’ experience of time within a deeper temporality, which is structured in terms of ‘plots’. The implication here is that narrative is a device for revealing the true historical nature of human existence. Furthermore, it implies that history, in its deeper, historical sense, is ‘plotted’, has a ‘story-line’, that is outside of the influence of the historian. Citing and quoting Ricoeur, White writes:

…this plot is not imposed by the historian on the events, nor is it a code drawn from the repertoire of literary models and used “pragmatically” to endow what would otherwise be a mere collection of facts with a certain rhetorical form. It is a plot, he (Ricoeur) says, that figures forth the “historicality” of events: “The plot…places us at the crossing point of temporality and narrativity: to be historical, an event must be more than a singular occurrence, a unique happening. It receives its definition from its contribution to the development of a plot.”[16]

White also notes that historical narrative should be seen as figurative, as allegorical, in the sense that it tells one story in order to reveal another, deeper one. And this seems to link to the concept of narrative as providing a transition from one mode of temporality (within-time-ness) to another (historicality). At this point, (historical) narrative is no longer an attempt to describe events in the past, but rather to ‘translate’ such events into a wider and deeper world-historical framework.

On the basis of such arguments, White is led to conclude that as a way to speak about ‘real’ events historical narrative is problematic. The very fact that narrative predominates in mythic and fictional discourses makes it even more suspect. In other words, how can one really tell if a narrative is referring to something that ‘really happened’ or not? However, White then argues:

But here the notion of what constitutes a real event turns, not on the distinction between true and false (which is a distinction that belongs to the order of discourses, not to the order of events), but rather on the distinction between real and imaginary (which belongs both to the order of events and to the order of discourses). One can produce an imaginary discourse about real events that may not be less “true” for being imaginary.[17]


But is the idea that narrative history is essentially mythical a problem? As William McNeill points out one historian’s history is another’s myth.[18] Behind this statement, of course, is the idea that the best way to deride another historian’s work is to classify it as ‘myth’. But this simply begs the question as to why classifying a narrative as ‘mythical’ is to deride it in the first place, at least from the point of view of ‘real history’.

McNeill argues that non-positivistic, i.e. narrative, history aims at recognising patterns in events in order to construct meaning, and this usually takes place in the context of trying to construct shared meanings and experiences within particular groups and societies; meanings that ‘outsiders’ might view as mythical. This means that in increasingly complex societies there is a tendency for historians to reflect the dominant values of their own groups:

Thus, the founding fathers of the American Historical Association and their immediate successors were intent on facilitating the consolidation of a new American nation by writing national history in a WASPish mold, while also claiming affiliation with a tradition of Western civilization that ran back through modern and medieval Europe to the ancient Greeks and Hebrews.[19]

As McNeill points out, the Great War and subsequent economic crises and another world war shattered the ‘WASPish’ liberal and nationalistic view of the world, but ironically this collapse of certainties motivated the drive to find new ones, and new ideals, which revolved around new types of group identity. At this point history become mythical, in the sense it creates an idealised version of reality, ignoring contradictions relating to group identity. However, as McNeill goes onto argue, myths can serve a positive, self-validating function.  Amongst other things, they ‘teach’ a group or society how to behave in adverse situations, for example, ‘Britain’s finest hour’ in 1940.

At this point McNeill coins the term ‘mythistory’, which he defines as an attempt to attain a better balance between ‘Truth, truths, and myths’:

Eternal and universal Truth about human behavior is an unattainable goal, however delectable as an ideal. Truths are what historians achieve when they bend their minds as critically and carefully as they can to the task of making their account of public affairs credible as well as intelligible to an audience that shares enough of their particular outlook and assumptions to accept what they say. The result might best be called mythistory…[20]

Joseph Mali is also sympathetic to the idea of ‘mythistory’, which he argues engenders meaning into an otherwise chaotic experience of reality.[21] However, his main argument is that all narrative history is mythical, and, citing Hayden White, that the role of all narrative history is to affirm moral and social authority through the representation of reality as a “conventional, well- made or fabulistic story.”[22]

However, Mali does not see the idea that all narrative history is mythical as a problem. Rather, he argues that myths configure historical reality rather than (simply) ‘distorting’ it:

My cardinal claim is that social reality is made up of historical myths and must be interpreted in their terms. White opines that “stories are not lived; there is no such thing as a ‘real’ story”…and thus adopts a “liberal” philosophy that imparts to the historians the freedom to choose and impose their own narrative forms on historical reality. I, in contrast, would like to raise the more conservative “communitarian” objection and argue that historians actually inherit and discover these forms as already configured in that reality, primarily in their mythical traditions. These traditions are the “real narratives,” possessed not only by the peoples but also by their historians, and their critical duty, therefore, is to be (and make us) more aware of the mythical patterns of thought and action in all historical events and narratives (including their own).[23]

Mali essentially adopts a hermeneutical approach to history and historical narratives – focusing on meaning rather than truth (‘what really happened’). He argues that White and other critics of narrative history do not appreciate the importance of myth, and they would do well to remember Nietzsche’s view of the ultimate use of history, as formulated in his Use and Abuse of History for Life, which is to recover myth for modern history.

Conclusion: can history escape myth (and does it need to)?

Hopefully it has become clear from the arguments outlined above that the relationship between history, narrative and myth is a complex one, and that it is perhaps unhelpful simply to make a crude distinction between ‘real’ history and myth, especially when dealing with narrative history.

The problem here, I would argue, is not so much that the distinction between history and myth is somewhat blurred, but the idea that it could ever be otherwise. Lurking behind the critique of narrative history is the notion of an ‘objective, scientific’ history which can ‘tell it as it is (or was)’. But back in the early 1960s even one of the stalwarts of the history academy, EH Carr, was critical of the idea of such a ‘scientific history’.[24] For example, in his discussion of the nineteenth century historian’s ‘fetish of the facts’, he comments:

…the facts of history never come to us ‘pure’, since they do not and cannot exist in a pure form: they are always refracted through the mind of the recorder. It follows that when we take up a work of history, our first concern should be not with the facts which it contains but the historian who wrote it.[25]

Ironically, perhaps, this is precisely the point that critics of narrative history are making; that is, that all historical accounts reflect the bias of the historian in question. But, of course, this is true of any attempt to establish the facts of any situation: the facts never ‘speak for themselves’, except in the minds of die-hard empiricists. So, what is really at stake here? Perhaps it is not so much the question of the Truth, but, rather, whose truth? And for ‘truth’ perhaps we should read ‘vested interests’. In other words, both the proponents and critics of narrative history have something to lose if their ideas and views become too ridiculed, and too much out of favour. So in the end, history becomes a question of politics and ideology.

But of course, this goes straight back to McNeill’s argument that one historian’s history is another’s myth that I cited earlier.

Coming back to the Myth of the (Great) War that I started with, what light can the arguments that I have explored in this text throw on the nature and meaning of such a myth? Indeed, does it deserve the status of ‘myth’ at all? Perhaps one of the key considerations here is to look at the moment that the history of the Great War became the myth of the War. And I would argue that this process of mythologisation began the moment people started to write about it in a narrative form. On this basis, of course, the war was being mythologised from the very beginning (and in fact, even prior to its beginning). This is because stories, narratives were being constructed about the war throughout the conflict and way beyond.

Hynes’ argument is that this process of mythologisation did not really start until the mid-1920s. However, he links this argument to the fact that prior to this period a number of histories of the war were being written (from around 1919 onwards), which had a shared theme of the decline and collapse of (Western) civilisation. For example, he makes reference to Masterman’s England After the War, a series of writings by Harold Begbie published in the Pall Mall Magazine, and Wells’ Outline of History. All of these texts were essentially exercises in narrative history, so if we take the arguments of White, McNeill and Mali seriously, they are already mythological, or at least potentially so.

According to Hynes’ argument, there was a ten year gap, or ‘silence’, between the end of the War and the start of the mythologisation of it, from the late 1920s onwards. Such a ‘silence’ could be seen as a necessary gestation period before the myth could begin to take shape. And, of course, the general shape and thrust of this Myth is well known: a generation traumatised, disillusioned, betrayed and lost. A generation made old before their time, and for whom there was an unbridgeable chasm between ‘before’ and ‘after’; between a lost innocence and complete disillusionment. Furthermore, the writers and propagators of the Myth are well known too: the artists, the writers, the poets, the film makers, and even, to a certain extent, the historians themselves.

Going back to Ricoeur’s idea, as formulated by White, that narrative enables the transition from within-time-ness to historicality, perhaps it can be argued that whilst particular accounts of the War, both personal and ‘official’, can be seen to be situated within-time-ness, once such accounts are used as the basis for constructing a meaning, or perhaps one could even say a hermeneutic, of the War, through narrative, then it becomes truly historicised. At this point we are on the plane of myth rather than history as such.


  1. Samuel Hynes, A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture (London: The Bodley Head Ltd, 1990).
  2. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, Mythologies, the Complete Edition, in a New Translation (New York : Hill and Wang, 2013).
  3. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, trans. by Roy Harris (London: Duckworth & Co, 1983).
  4. Barthes, Mythologies, p.224
  5. Anders Fagerjord. Notes from lecture 30 March, 2006. https://www.uio.no/studier/emner/hf/imk/MEVIT2110/v06/undervisningsmateriale/barthes.html
  6. Barthes, Mythologies, p.226
  7. Barthes, Mythologies, p.240, italics in original.
  8. Barthes, Mythologies, p.250, italics in original.
  9. Barthes, Mythologies, p.261.
  10. Hayden White, The Content of the Form : Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Baltimore, 1987).
  11. White, The Content of the Form, pp.4-5
  12. White, The Content of the Form, p.7, italics added.
  13. White, The Content of the Form, p20.
  14. White, The Content of the Form, p24.
  15. White, The Content of the Form, p.50.
  16. White, The Content of the Form, p.51.
  17. White, The Content of the Form, p.57.
  18. William H. McNeill, ‘Mythistory, or Truth, Myth, History, and Historians’, The American Historical Review, 91.1 (1986), 1–10 <https://doi.org/10.2307/1867232>.
  19. McNeill, ‘Mythistory, p.4.
  20. McNeill, ‘Mythistory’, p.8.
  21. Joseph Mali, ‘Narrative, Myth, and History’, Science in Context, 7.1 (1994), 121–42 <https://doi.org/10.1017/S0269889700001629>.
  22. Mali, ‘Narrative, Myth, and History’, p.123.
  23. Mali, ‘Narrative, Myth, and History’, p.125.
  24. Edward Hallett Carr, What Is History?, 2nd ed / edited by R. W. Davies.. (London : Penguin, 1990).
  25. Carr, What Is History?, p.22.