RADIO / Wrestling with monsters: The Reith Lectures, more hit than myth? asks Robert Hanks

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The Independent Culture
Three weeks into The Reith Lectures 1994 (Radio 4, Wednesday), Marina Warner has tackled modern myths about men, women and children. Since this seems to cover just about everybody, it's probably fair by now to start asking, what does all this add up to? The answer isn't easy to formulate, partly because these lectures have been, in comparison with most of their recent predecessors, such darn good entertainment. Once or twice the effort to amuse has become wearing - as in an over-long section in last week's programme on childhood in which Peter Pan asks a canned audience to clap if they believe in fairies - but mostly the use of tapes and readings has been discreet and usefully illustrative.

Much of the time, though, it's hard to tell where the entertainment ends and the hard thinking begins. Warner has demonstrated an impressively broad sweep of reference, hopping from ancient Greece to medieval Italy to Blade Runner, Jurassic Park and Mortal Kombat without noticeably pausing for breath; but you do wonder if there's anything behind the sweep, or whether this is just a kind of intellectual parlour-game.

That's not to say that Warner doesn't have substantial points to make. On the contrary, there have been some striking arguments - especially, to my mind, about the coarsening of our view of masculinity: today's heroes, she suggests, are merely musclebound where once they were allowed to be cunning. She has argued eloquently, too, that our society fails to care properly for its children, and attacked with admirable force the stupidity of politicians who complain about the evils of single mothers (although now that point has already lost its topical edge, it feels less weighty). But there's too often a gap between the big polemical points and the fluffier discussion of the role of myth in society.

The other problem is that some of the references fall apart under interrogation. In the first lecture, on femininity, she talks about monsters disguised as beautiful women, citing Ursula Andress in She - 'cracking open like a speeded-up earthquake to reveal the hag underneath'. But that isn't what happens: rather, She ages very fast, like Dorian Gray when his picture is destroyed; it's a myth about the folly of trying to stop time, not about lurking female menace.

Similarly, when she says that the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are presented as 'scientifically accurate', but 'at the same time, their character has evolved to embody contemporary fantasies', she is missing film's central point: it is the portrayal of the dinosaur's characters that constitutes scientific accuracy.

Where we used to see dinosaurs as slow and primitive, now we see them acting like ordinary wildlife, as filmed by David Attenborough - fighting, mating, hunting. And the fact of their femininity is not, as Warner thinks, part of their menace - rather, it's a guarantee of stability; only when males appear do things get out of hand.

When the lectures are founded on multiplication of references, showing how myths persist and recur, it's more than merely irritating when the (embarrassingly) few references you can relate to seem misconceived. But these are, in the end, small niggles; they're not monsters.