Essay Update

For the last couple days, I’ve posted a lot of content. These have all been essays I wrote for Pacifica that belong in my Writing Portfolio. You can visit these essays by going to the Essay section of the Portfolio page. Enjoy!


“The Dude Abides”: The Big Lebowski and America’s Path to Enlightenment

“Way out west there was this fella–Fella I wanna tell you about. Fella by the name of Jeff Lebowski. Least that was the handle that his lovin’ parents gave him. But he never had much use for it himself. This Lebowski, he called himself the Dude. Now, Dude–That’s a name no one would self-apply where I come from. But then there was a lot about the Dude that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, and a lot about where he lived likewise. But then again, maybe that’s why I found the place so durned interesting.” – The Stranger

One of the questions I have toyed with is the understanding Buddhism by a Western mind. The fundamental teachings of the Buddhist doctrine imply that the practice is available to anyone interested in pursuing it. But from an initial survey, it seems difficult for the Westerner to adopt because Buddhism calls for a type of lifestyle not conducive to the on-the-go, nine-to-five culture currently dominating the United States. The 1998 film, The Big Lebowski, offers a character that is popularly became identified as a Zen master (Green 16). Jeff Lebowski is a slacker, a drunkard, and a chronic bowler with a foul mouth and friends of varying backgrounds. “The Dude,” as he prefers to be called, models not only the shadow side of American culture, but also serves as a bridge to a religious practice different from Christianity. Even though following “The Dude” will not bring anyone to enlightenment, he is a cult figure in American popular culture that helps one see the initial stages of mindfulness.

Firstly, the Dude embodies simplicity. He constantly sacrifices the needs of material life– except for a Persian rug that holds the room together–in favor of leading a daily life in contemplation and mindfulness, which manifests through bowling, lying on the floor listening to whale song, or taking bubble baths while smoking marijuana. He lives an austere life, often accepting the handouts of others and begging for them. Jeff Bridges, the actor who plays The Dude, recognizes a degree of wisdom in his practice:

I like to call it the ‘Wisdom of Fingernails’: the wisdom that gives you the ability to make your hair and fingernails grow, your heart beat, your bowels move. These are things that we know how to do, but we don’t necessarily know how we know how to do them, yet we still do them very well. And that to me is very Dude…. He’s not a guy who has figured out the way to be or anything like that, but he is comfortable with what he’s got…. (Green xiv)

Buddhism has long held an attraction to Western audiences who are attracted to alternative forms of mysticism or alternative understandings of the universe. During the 1950s and Sixties, Buddhism and other Eastern traditions entered the American mythos as alternatives to the Christian establishment, and thus became a part of the counterculture. Alan Watts observes the roots of this, when Buddhism was incorporated into the Beat culture of artists and poets. He notes that this was a crucial point in Western conceptions of Buddhism, because the seeming lack of rule and dogma justified the Counterculture’s rebellion.

Understanding the distinction between true Buddhism and Western, modified Buddhism is essential for understanding the Dude. Alan Watts describes a phenomenon called Beat Zen as the Buddhism of Western counterculture that is designed to allow people to take it easy and to justify lazy behavior (Watts, Beat 24). In other words, Beat Zen is used as a justification to screw around. Watts’ criticism of this lies in the fact that it alters the doctrinal message of Buddhism enough that it barely resembles traditional Buddhism. Primary to this thought is how one can overcome suffering, considered by the tradition to be the ultimate problem of human existence. For the counterculture, this “suffering” is repression from “the Man,” “the Establishment” or any set of rules that restrict free will and free-thinking as opposed to facilitating a step towards liberation or some other transcendental experience. This liberation or transcendental experience was induced through various substances, some of which were still in the experimental stages and not yet subject to governmental penalty. The cycle of addiction and self-medication runs long throughout Western religious history, in part because the modes are not in place for one to transcend on one’s own. The fundamental problem with Beat Zen is that it takes the doctrine of Buddhist teaching and tries to fit it into a particular mold that justifies the accepted behaviors of the Counterculture, which are abhorred by the Establishment.

The Dude is not consciously practicing any form of religion, but he does embody the projected ideal of the Beat Zen movement. He is not held by rules, but he does like to stay within a social paradigm to keep things peaceful. This is well-demonstrated by his hobby of bowling. The sport involves rolling a ball down a long, narrow alleyway to knock over ten pins at the end in a sort of triangular formation. The ball is expected to stay within a set of guidelines, demarcated in the two gutters on both sides, but the outcome of the roll is left to skill and chance. The most skillful bowler will not always throw a strike, just as the most skillful Buddhist may not attain liberation, or the most counter-Beat will not be truly free. The Dude is okay with that. He does not assume a competitive view, although his team mates do. For example, his mate, Walter, a Vietnam veteran with a lot of issues, threatens a member of another team with a gun over a perceived foul. The Dude admonishes his behavior for threatening a pacifist:

Walter: “Well, it’s all water under the bridge. And… we do enter the next round-robin. Am I wrong?”

Dude: “No, you’re not wrong.”

Walter: “Am I wrong?”

Dude: “You’re not wrong, Walter. You’re just an asshole.”

Walter: “Okay then. Play Quintana and O’Brien next week. They should be pushovers.”

Dude: “Man, would you just–just take it easy, man.”

Walter: “You know, that’s your answer for everything, Dude. Let me point out something. Pacifism is not …. Pacifism is not something to hide behind.”

Dude: “Just take it easy, man.”

Walter: “I’m perfectly calm, Dude.”

Dude: “Yeah, waving a fucking gun around?”

Walter: “Calmer than you are.”

Dude: “Will you just take it easy!”

Walter: “Calmer than you are.” (Lebowski Chapter 6, 19:15-20:00)

The First Noble Truth: The Truth of Suffering

The first major tenant of Buddhism is recognizing the truth of suffering: All humans suffer, which means they all experience some crisis of life, whether it is physical pain, emotional distress or grief, or existential frustration and dissatisfaction at the outcomes of life. Modern Westerners, especially Americans, do not experience suffering to the same caliber as other cultures. It is very possible and easy for an American to satisfy basic survival needs, even with the country struggling through economic hard times. The difficulty comes when people confuse their primary wants with the basic needs and this leads to existential frustration. The government has systems in place to assist with shelter and food, leaving the other comforts up to the individual. This is very different from a time when food was harder to come by because there was no commercial agriculture, when shelter was not guaranteed because there was no governmental assistance, and, especially, when diseases had harmful effects on a person because there was no healthcare. The culture surrounding Buddhism was a culture that chose to leave the world behind at a certain age and devote oneself to asceticism, a culturally-sanctioned euthanasia disguised as spiritual growth. In an environment where material needs are so uncertain, a spiritual practice becomes more important. In the West, material needs are satiated beyond abundance. One would think everything should be okay, yet we still experience existential suffering.

The Dude serves as a reminder of the distinction between needs and wants. His possessions are few. When the thugs soil his rug or when his car is stolen, he is rightfully upset, but does not feel it is the end of the world. In fact, the only reason he is upset about the rug is because it really tied the room together, and his car because he was afraid of losing the one million dollar ransom money entrusted to him. Overall, he takes all of the crises thrown in his direction with stride.

The Second Noble Truth: the Origin of Suffering

As just mentioned, suffering comes when one confuses one’s needs and one’s wants. There are various cravings that contribute to this confusion, all of which can be experienced within the American culture. There is the craving for something to excite the senses. We need to touch, taste, smell, see, and hear something. Humans cannot function without some form of sensual experience or another, and need contact with things and people. There is the craving for existence, to be reminded that it is not all a dream, and, by extension, the craving to be known as someone, not just another body with no “success” in life. Conversely, there is a craving for non-existence, the opportunity to “check out” when one needs a break from all the stress and tension of living. All of these cravings root people to materiality and in the here and now, or, at least, in the “someday” when success can be achieved.

The Big Lebowski, a wealthy millionaire confused with the Dude, runs a community organization called the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers. These Achievers are given all the resources and support to ensure their success. They are told by the Foundation that they should feel these cravings, thus fueling the hard-working individualism that keeps productivity going. When the Big Lebowski first meets the Dude, he is angered at the Dude’s lack of motivation. He refuses to help the Dude on principle that he is more of a bum than he is a citizen with standing, especially since he does not have a job.

The Third Noble Truth: The Cessation of Suffering through Nirvana

“Because we imprison ourselves in our suffering, we lose the ability to experience the wonders of life. When we can break through ignorance, we discover the vast realm of peace, joy, liberation and nirvana. Nirvana is the uprooting of ignorance, greed, and anger. It is the appearance of peace, joy, and freedom” (Nhat Hahn 234). Alan Watts reminds us that the Western practitioner “must understand his own culture so thoroughly that he is no longer swayed by its premises unconsciously” (Watts, Beat 8). This suggests that the origins of and cessation of suffering are rooted within culture. To achieve liberation is to transcend one’s own culture, which means to achieve awareness or understanding that reaches beyond everyday observation. “All suffering is overcome when we attain understanding. The path of true liberation is the path of understanding. Understanding is prajña. Such understanding can only come from looking deeply into the true nature of things” (Nhat Hanh 233). The four Noble Truths suggest that if one lives rightly by cultivating virtue, pursuing happiness and wisdom, one can be freed from all of the barriers that tie one to the cycle of suffering. Culture makes a deep imprint on the psyche, one that can transcend the personal unconscious. The quest to attain the Self, whether through nirvana or Jungian process of individuation, involves breaking down these psychic barriers, and the possibility exists that one cannot achieve this goal within one’s lifetime. In fact, the cycle of samsara can repeat as often as needed before the soul is ready to break free. This makes liberation more difficult for the Westerner, with the cultural drive to be liberated now, not in a couple lifetimes from now.

The Fourth Noble Truth: The Path to the Cessation of Suffering

“The path I have discovered leads to transcending sorrow and anxiety by looking deeply into their true nature” (Nhat Hanh 234). This is also known as the Eight-Fold Path, which gives simple steps one can add to one’s life to transcend the negativity surrounding suffering. This path is described as “the Middle Way, which avoids both extremes and has the capacity to lead on to understanding, liberation, and peace” (Nhat Hanh 146). Symbolically, this is the bowling alley, and the bowling ball is the individual’s journey down the path. Needless to say, the Lebowski fans, who call themselves the Achievers, see the parallel between bowling and the Eight-Fold Path. “Many times we’ve looked at the Dude and seen a slightly thinner, slightly hairier version of the Buddha. Or, as we like to call him, the Duddha” (Green 16). A diagram of this path is included in Appendix A. The fact that fans use miscellaneous quotes to relate the Dude to the Eight-Fold Path is indicative of Beat Zen and making the doctrine fit the needs, but it is still amusing.

By rooting the individual into the quest for enlightenment, not on some omniscient higher power, Buddhist doctrine teaches devotion to the very inner soul work theorists such as Joseph Campbell or Carl Jung say is missing from central human experience in the West. In Old Path White Clouds, Thich Nhat Hanh describes the path to enlightenment for the Buddha, Siddhartha. The prince, driven by a strong calling, leaves his family and throne to seek the truth. He apprentices with several teachers, only to maximize their knowledge. He attempts asceticism only to become weak, deciding that this could not be the process to enlightenment because it invited too much self-imposed suffering. Why would someone want to live like that? It is one thing to shun material goods, or anything that ties one to his or her primal nature, in the name of holy pursuits, but to the point of denying fundamental human needs? Gotama learns and teaches that it is important not to deny the body, as it is the only an imperfect container for the soul. The Middle Path teaches that it is best to make do with the body and resources available, and to do the best one can with it. Under this model, one maintains a mind and body connection and accepts all of the problems inherent with it.

“In early Buddhism, the ultimate goal of religious striving was to reach the state of arhat, a ‘worthy’ a ‘saint’, one who has overcome desire; passed beyond samsara, the world of suffering and cyclical birth and death; and entered nirvana” (Watson 5). Furthermore, “they chose as their goal and ideal the figure of the bodhisattva, one who vows not only to achieve enlightenment for himself but to assist all others to do likewise” (Watson 6). In contrast to this are the pratyekabuddhas, “‘private Buddhas’, or ‘self-enlightened ones,’ beings who have won an understanding of the truth through their own efforts but who make no attempt to teach others or assist them to enlightenment” (Watson 7). In Lebowski, the Dude’s friend, Walter, played by John Goodman, represents a type of character who tries to pass off as a private Buddha, based on his Vietnam experience, but is severely misguided on his enlightenment. He does not explicitly teach his experience, but will offer advice as the situation presents. This type of character provides grounding, but rarely sound competent advice, which often gets the Dude, or anyone who adheres to the teacher, into more trouble than not. It has been my experience that this category is common in the West for various reasons, which makes it difficult to find a good teacher. I contend that when a physical teacher is unavailable, then one can look to the media to see what is available. Hence the Dude: He is an entertaining embodiment revered as a type of bodhisattva by fans. However, it is up to the student to filter through the excessive information, or lack thereof, to find all of the relevant information.

The good teacher leads the student astray, intentionally give him or her bad advice, in order for the student to come to his or her own realization that the teacher is not really needed at all, but that the student should learn to rely on his or her own inner voice as a guide. In doing this, the teacher hopes the student will learn for him- or herself, thus the teacher is more of an illusion than a real, valid “guru.” By learning to contradict the teacher, the student grows through the ability to see for himself the concepts.

One of Siddhartha’s first teachers taught that his teachings are not a “mere theory. Knowledge is gained from direct experience and direct attainment, not from mental arguments. In order to attain different states of meditation, it is necessary to rid yourself of all thoughts of past and future. You must focus on nothing but liberation” (Nhat Hanh 91). I am convinced that this degree of experience is what is so unattainable in my own life. The best thing I can do is rely on the experience of others to model my perception. To me, the Dude embodies the perfect sense of going with the flow, but it could be that my perceptions have been strongly molded by Beat Zen. “The Buddha felt that philosophical speculation about Reality was a waste of time and even a positive hindrance. Realty or Nirvana lay beyond all definition, and nothing was of importance but an immediate and intimate experience of it, and this could only be had by getting rid of trishna. Reality is here and now, but it is concealed by attempts to grasp it in this form or that” (Watts, Zen 7). Alan Watts describes trishna as selfish craving that attempts to grasp life in some form, more especially in the form of one’s own personal existence” (Zen 5). The Buddha’s goal was to free others from suffering, but he had to free himself before he could do so in order to know that the path worked. Freeing oneself from suffering includes freeing oneself from trishna, but Watts further suggests that this is fundamental to Beat Zen. The Beats were so tied to their cravings that they wanted to use Buddhism as a method to justify these vices.

In keeping with the thought that the Dude is a Buddhist monk of sorts, then his confrontation with a bowling competitor, aptly named Jesus, truly responds to the division between East and West:

Jesus: “I see you rolled your way into the semis. Dios Mío, man. Liam and me, we’re gonna fuck you up.”

Dude: “Yeah? Well, you know, that’s just like, uh, your opinion, man.”

Jesus: “Let me tell you something, pendejo. You pull any of your crazy shit with us–you flash a piece [a gun] out on the lanes, I’ll take it away from you and stick it up your ass…and pull the fuckin’ trigger till it goes ‘click.'”

Dude: “Jesus.”

Jesus: “You said it man. Nobody fucks with the Jesus.” (Lebowski Chapter 8, 28:40-29:20)

The West has a notoriously violent history of conflict with people it does not care for. Although Jesus historically is a genuinely compassionate figure, he has become the symbol for the entirety of Christianity. The character of Jesus reflects this violent history. He has a record as a convicted sex-offender. When he moved to West Hollywood, he had to go to every house in the neighborhood and tell them about his crime. He brings this to the bowling alley, and threatens the Dude for Walter’s flashing his gun during league play. Jesus is projecting onto the Dude perceived wrongs that have no bearing other than discomfort of someone different. The Dude, on the other hand, reflects the Buddhist principle of peaceful non-action. He is a self-identified pacifist. He opts to not fight back under any circumstance. He does not fight back or confront Jesus. His sense of peacefulness extends beyond the bowling alley. The one scene where he drops his calm, go-with-the-flow demeanor, his violent friend, Walter, checks his behavior:

Dude: “He hung up, man. You fucked it up. You fucked it up! Her life was in our hands, man.”

Walter: “Easy, Dude.”

Dude: “We’re screwed now. We don’t get shit. They’re gonna kill her. We’re fucked, Walter!”

Walter: “Nothing is fucked, Dude. Come on. You’re being very un-Dude.” (Lebowski Chapter 9, 33:45-34:06)

The lessons of the Dude exemplify mindfulness under pressure. The Buddhist principles he embodies are not used to justify his ultra-lazy behavior, which is one facet of Beat Zen. Nor are they used to pursue a higher path, as in Square Zen. The Dude just is what he is. Having a character like the Dude helps one understand a doctrine that initially seems complicated. The differences between the West and the East are legitimate, but they are nonetheless perceived. The Dude demonstrates that it is possible to embody mindfulness without needing to live in a monastery and study under a particular guru. Conversely, there is a degree of Buddhism that involves a specialized practice. The teacher helps guide the student, so he or she does not fall into the lure of Beat Zen. The clueless Westerner, such as myself, could very easily fall into Beat Zen, thinking that how easy it is to not be trapped in doctrine. But the Eightfold Path demonstrates that there is some doctrine. At least the doctrine is behavioral and can be incorporated into one’s daily life. As long as one maintains a proper meditation practice, then one can avoid the wrathful deities (Trungpa 57).

Cowboy: “How do you do, Dude?”

Dude: “I wondered if I’d see you again.”

Cowboy: “I wouldn’t miss the semis. How’s things been goin’?”

Dude: “Well, you know, strikes and gutters, ups and downs.”

Cowboy: “Sure. I got you.”

Dude: “Yeah. Thanks, Gary. Well, take care, man. Gotta get back.”

Cowboy: “Sure. Take it easy, Dude.”

Dude: “Oh, yeah.”

Cowboy: “I know that you will.”

Dude: “Yeah. Well, the Dude abides.” (Lebowski Chapter 21, 1:50:21-1:50:53)


“The Dude abides. I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowing he’s out there–the Dude, takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners. Shush. I sure hope he makes the finals. Well, that about does ‘er. Wraps ‘er all up.” – The Stranger

Appendix A: Image of the Duddha and his Eight-Fold Path (Green 16).


Works cited

  • The Big Lebowski. Dir. Joel Cohn. Perf. Jeff Bridges, John Goodman and Julianne Moore. 1998. DVD. Focus Features, 2008.
  • Green, Bill, Ben Peskoe, Will Russell, and Scott Shuffitt. I’m A Lebowski, You’re A Lebowski: Life, The Big Lebowski, and What Have You. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007.
  • Nhat Hanh, Thich. Old Path White Clouds. Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1991.
  • Trungpa, Chogyam and Francesca Fremantle. The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Boston: Shambhala, 2000.
  • Watson, Burton, trans. The Vimalakirti Sutra. New York: Columbia U P, 1997.
  • Watts, Alan W. Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1959.
  • Watts, Alan W. Zen Buddhism: A New Outline and Introduction. London: The Buddhist Society, 1947.

Persephone versus Anti-Persephone in MirrorMask

The film is the 2005 collaboration, MirrorMask, between fantasy writer Neil Gaiman and artist Dave McKean. The story follows Helena, a teenager and daughter of circus performers, who, after her mother falls ill, journeys into the world she has unintentionally created in her drawings to find that the Queen of the Light has fallen into a deep sleep and cannot be awoken without the charm. Helena volunteers to find the charm, and her quest leads her into the Kingdom of Shadow, whose princess has just run away. The charm, the MirrorMask, helped the princess to leave the world entirely and switch places with Helena. Knowing that Helena may eventually find the mask, she slowly destroys the drawings hoping to prevent Helena’s return. Helena outsmarts her, and returns home to a happy ending with her parents.

The archetype present in this film is the mother/daughter relationship between Demeter and Persephone, as told in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. I propose an alternative reading of this myth that implies that Persephone’s abduction was not entirely a plot by Zeus and Hades, but, rather, an opportunity for Persephone to gain independence away from her mother. Under this reading, Persephone’s grief at being separated from her mother was exaggerated to appease her mother, and that she knew with certainty what it would mean for her to eat the pomegranate seeds on her way out of Hades. This reading hinges entirely on a Jungian interpretation as a myth of individuation. The only other evidence that suggests that Persephone’s story was not a simple abduction and rape is that there is no concrete evidence of a child between Hades and Persephone. Myths involving sexual intercourse between a god or goddess often include the birth of a child.

One other central theme to the film is the concept of the shadow. Helena’s adventure is plagued by the chaos left by the princess, identified in the script as Anti-Helena. Similarly, the queens of the Kingdom of Light and the Kingdom of Shadows are both sides of Helena’s perspective of her mother. Helena’s journey involves exploring both sides of her dream world and reaching an understanding that the two sides of her mother (kindly versus possessive) are out of love for her. In order for Helena to succeed on her mission, she has to confront her own shadow self, Anti-Helena, with the MirrorMask and reflect her back into the realm of her psyche in which she belongs.

The shadow is an important theme in Neil Gaiman’s stories, especially to the extent that one must both confront and integrate with one shadow, otherwise one’s personally balance is disrupted in a bad way. In this film, the balance is disrupted with a complete teeter-totter and the shadow lives in the conscious realm, and the ego is forced to live in the unconscious. The unconscious is slowly destroyed in the film by Anti-Helena as she destroys Helena’s drawings. The possibility exists of Anti-Helena’s balance as long as she learns how to better relate to her mother, which is the exact thing Helena has to learn in her own life.

Intro, 0.44-4.54 minutes

This scene establishes the relationship between Helena (Persephone) and her mother (Demeter), and how her mother’s love and worry for her daughter will induce to her do whatever is necessary to find her. Helena, on the other hand, reveals her feelings and desire to get out of the circus. The circus represents the garden of the gods. It is removed from “reality” in a contained fashion. As Helena cries out that she wants to leave this “garden,” her mother remarks that she could not handle “real life.” This scene also establishes the theme of the shadow, as depicted in Helena’s sock puppets playing against each other.

After the end of this scene, Helena’s mother falls ill and is rushed to the hospital to have surgery. This is parallel to Demeter’s distraction when Persephone goes off to pick flowers.

Descent into the Underworld, 20.09-24.34 minutes

In this scene, Helena is lured by some late night violin playing, and is pushed through the door by Valentine, a juggler, trying to escape some deadly black stuff. Valentine represents both Hades and Hermes throughout the movie, but mostly Hades in this scene. He is the one who forces Helena into the dream world and becomes her consort throughout her adventure.

Once through the door, Helena encounters a sphinx, which, much like the Sphinx that guarded the gateway into Thebes in Oedipus the King, represents a threshold guardian between the conscious/unconscious, living/dream, or rational thought/primordial thought. Rather than answer a riddle, however, Helena has to feed him a book. Then she can proceed fully into the underworld.

After the end of this scene, Helena realized that there is a Kingdom of Light, whose queen is sleeping and can only wake with the help of the charm, and a Kingdom of Shadow, whose princess ran away using said charm, the MirrorMask, and who bears strong resemblance to Helena.

Light versus Shadow, 37.17-38.53 Minutes

I wanted to include this scene because it sets up the idea of the shadow, but otherwise has nothing to do with the Demeter/Persephone story.

Following this scene, Helena continues on her journey and winds up in the clutches of the Queen of Shadows, who is really angry that her daughter ran away and really just wants her home.

The Dark Palace, 1:10.27-1:11.39 & 1:19.51-1:20.59 Minutes

This scene shows the extent of the Queen of Shadows’ longing for her daughter, to the point that she will accept Helena as a substitute, giving her full power and benefit of the princess. Helena is transformed into a copy of Anti-Helena, much like how Demeter placed the baby into the fire to make it immortal. Although we see her at the dinner table and talking about food, we never see Helena actually eat, suggesting that she will be able to return home. Helena reminds the Queen that the chaos in the world is caused by Anti-Helena, just like the personal chaos Demeter experienced after Persephone left her.

Meanwhile, Valentine, who all this time has lead Helena around her dream world, returns to take Helena home to the upper world, fulfilling his Hermes role.

The Return and Homecoming, 1:32.10-1:34.45 & 1:36-28-1:38.02 Minutes

Valentine and Helena find the MirrorMask in the Princess’s bedroom and run away from the Queen. When they get to the threshold, Valentine almost keeps her in the underworld (feeding her pomegranate seeds) by keeping the mask for himself. Helena returns to her correct world by integrating Anti-Helena back into her psyche and the world is right again. Her mother wakes up, the two are reunited, and they live happily ever after. Helena now has a better appreciation for her mother.

The Great Debate: Myth Versus Fairy Tale in Joseph Campbell’s The Flight of the Wild Gander

When I was writing my Master’s thesis, I was asked to do the impossible: to define "myth." I had read enough of Joseph Campbell’s works to understand that "myth" in his use of the word is not definable. Further, to define it would destroy the very nature of mythology. Faced with this dilemma, I nonetheless set out to dream up a definition of "myth." My working definition came to me in a dream, one that encompasses myth’s metaphorical nature and its influence on culture, religion and psychology. But I was still faced with one more conflict. My primary research involved analysis of modern children’s and young adult fantasy literature. After reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s landmark essay, "On Fairy-stories," I came to realize that the books I was reading were essentially fairy tales, with strong mythic elements. This lead to an exploration of fairy tales and to my ultimate conclusion being that the distinctions between myth and fairy tale are categorical and distracting from the mission of both forms of storytelling.

In his work, The Flight of the Wild Gander, Joseph Campbell outlines some definitions of myth, legend, folk and fairy tales. In keeping with the trend of his time, he separates myth from fairy tale as sacred text from entertainment. In my research, I exemplified this distinction as metaphor versus simile. The metaphor, like the myth, carries within itself symbolic meaning, whereas the simile, like the fairy tale, draws upon real life comparisons to derive meaning. In other words, myth is and we adapt ourselves around it. Fairy tales, on the other hand, adapt themselves around us.

Campbell recognizes myths as "religious recitations conceived as symbolic of the play of eternity, in time" (Campbell 16). Elsewhere, he is cited as saying that mythology is an "organization of images metaphoric of experience, action, and fulfillment of the human spirit in the field of a given culture at a given time" (Osbon 40). The first definition clearly responds to the research of the 1920s through 1950s mostly from the prominent anthropologists who restricted mythology to the religious sphere. The second definition recognizes mythology from the more practical viewpoint of mythology’s relationship to a culture or society. To restrict mythology by the first definition excludes the vast wealth of practical myths from scholarly study and popular recognition. Because it is my belief that humanity is governed by a composite of myths from all backgrounds, I am inclined to agree with Campbell’s second definition, and have broadly defined mythology as the metaphor that governs the beliefs and behaviors of a group of people when manipulated by cultural mores. These metaphors can be found in various places, not just religions, depending on the needs of a particular culture. The West, specifically Western Europe, the United States and Canada) has allowed its culture to drift away from traditional understandings of mythology, thus forcing a new understanding to achieve the same goals of mythology. I have borrowed these goals from the four primary functions of myth outlined often within Campbell’s works: 1. The Cosmogonic Function, to provide a group of people with a creation myth in which to believe; 2. The Religious Function, which outlines a system of beliefs of a group of people that then helps develop communal cohesion; 3. The Cultural Function, which outlines a system of behaviors to govern the community united under the aforementioned beliefs; and, 4. The Psychological Function, which helps contextualize the individual within his or her role within the community and place within the universe. The failing of traditional myths within the West leaves a void that can be filled by, among other things, popular culture and fairy tales.

Campbell describes fairy tales, used interchangeably with "folk tale," as pastime and as the myths whose meaning has been lost over time. My own definition of a fairy tale is a fantasy story, commonly aimed at children, that serves to both entertain and to model behavior. In his essay, "On Fairy-stories," J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings and popularly identified as the father of modern fantasy, gives as much reverence for fairy tales as Campbell does myths. Tolkien’s primary distinction between myth and fairy tale is the inclusion in the latter of the Realm of the Faërie, understood to be the fantastical realm of magic. Because of the inclusion of the Faërie, fairy tales are often discounted by adults, "relegated to the ‘nursery,’ as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the play-room, primarily because the adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misused" (Tolkien 37). Tolkien argues that adults need fairy tales as much as Campbell says we need myths, in order to retain a link with the imagination and with the Faërie. This can be interpreted as being a link to the mythic, only placed within the context of fantasy rather than sacred settings.

Tolkien’s works led to a new understanding of fantasy literature, which has blossomed into new categories: literature of the Faërie, such as The Lord of the Rings, stories wherein mortals from our world travel into the Faërie, such as C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and more recently stories in which the non-magical world and the Faërie coexist, as in J.K. Rowling’s world of Harry Potter. The stories are absorbed in new, exciting ways that extend far beyond the nursery and well into adulthood: the realm of role-playing video games, live-action and table-top role playing games, and, as in the case of the Harry Potter fan community, creative interactions that include arts and crafts, music, fan-fiction, and lots of costuming. Through these interactions, participants ritualize and concretize the stories with a religious fervor, and it would seem that applies to a fulfillment of the religious function of myth by uniting a group of people under a common set of beliefs and canon. It is not my intention to compare Harry Potter with Jesus, but if the traditional myths are not functioning properly in the West, then it seems to me that the West needs to look elsewhere to find that which the collective psyche is lacking.

This is how I was lead to coin the term, "fairy-myth" for the stories of my research. A story or cultural phenomenon that is clearly on the surface a fairy tale, but that also fulfills the four goals of mythology, cannot be simply disregarded as entertainment. The Western cultures are so hungry for myth that they have grasped for it in these other places. I am limiting my consideration at the moment to fantasy stories because that is the realm I find most personally fascinating, coupled with the collective response to them.

My husband and I recently discussed my concept of the fairy-myth. He said that stories are not religious, and that he seeks "truth" from any religious doctrine above all else. My response was to point out that a central theme of both Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings is good versus evil, which is, in a way, a truth. Delivering truth was one of the initial purposes of the scriptures, much of which has lost its meaning. Plenty of Americans grasp onto Christian traditions, but the groups dominating news and politics do not fully embrace the meaning. For example, the Bible calls for tolerance, and various groups preach tolerance except for “unholy” groups such as homosexuals, abortion doctors, Muslims and Democrats. Also, these groups extend their mission and spread the Word, either using mostly negative language to say what is wrong and what not to do, or preachers, Joel Olsteen for example, base their entire sermon on making people feel good about themselves with scripture quotations to support their message without teaching the lessons of the Gospels. The segmenting of the Christian faith represents a collapse of the Ultimate Truth of the Bible, for how can 1,000 different sects each preach a different Ultimate Truth based on the same source text? The death of a system of symbols occurs "when its references to the field of waking consciousness have been refuted and its notices to the seats of motivation are no longer felt" (Campbell 170). The rise of fundamentalism comes from a fear of this symbolic death, and the extremity of the behavior indicates a degree of unconscious doubt in the truth of the symbol.

My own myth is defined by Harry Potter at this stage of my life. When I initially read the first four books, I was attracted to Harry’s student life because I was likewise being young (20) and an undergraduate. The later three books were released after my graduation and I was able to read them during their first print run. These three are more political than the first group, coinciding with my own blossoming political awareness. I do not pretend that everyone will agree with my mythic reading of Harry Potter, nor do I claim that everyone must read the series for the Ultimate Truth. Harry Potter is simply the myth that works best for me at this stage in my life. Perhaps in five to ten years, something else will play a dominant role in my personal myth-making. I believe it is a tendency of the West to seek a unifying theory, or, in this case, a mythology, a byproduct of the Western "divide and conquer" mentality and the Christian mission to spread Word of the Gospels. The diversity offered by potential mythologies caters to the diversity between psychologies.

As a mythologist, Campbell is very concerned with the preservation of a society’s myth, but not in the same manner as anthropologists, ethnologists, and folklorists, who want to preserve a cultural artifact as it is. Campbell, though nostalgic for older myths, is open to the evolution of new myths, understanding that they are likely to evolve as humans evolve. This evolution is a necessary response to the changes brought about by science and technology. "The propositions of science," he writes, "to which we are referred for our morality, knowledge, and wisdom, do not pretend to be true in any final sense, do not pretend to be infallible, or even durable, but are merely working hypotheses, here today and gone tomorrow" (Campbell 190). The implication is to not rely on science for our mythos, despite it being the natural byproduct of human evolution.

With the recent surge of fairy-myths comes an attempt to preserve society’s myths by combining folk and popular culture with philosophy, psychology, and human interactions. The stories give fundamental "truths" in a way that is entertaining and informative. In doing this, they have created an air of religiosity about them in response to shifting sentiments not globally felt towards the established cultural myths and doctrines. The stories are something new, fresh, and invigorating. I disagree with simply passing fairy tales and similar stories off as mere entertainment, because they are the basis of our understanding of our culture and ourselves. Verily, they are new perspectives on an old concept that needed updating anyway.

Works cited

  • Campbell, Joseph. The Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimensions of Fairy Tales, Legends, and Symbols. New York: HarperPerennial, 1951.
  • Osbon, Diane K. A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.
  • Tolkin, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 1986. 3-84.

Commercial Mythology: Aesthetics, Pornography and Andy Warhol

The Pop Art movement that was made famous by Andy Warhol places common, everyday objects into a new perspective. Famous are Warhol’s large paintings of Campbell’s Soup cans and his repeated screen prints that include figures such as Marilyn Monroe, Chairman Mao, and Coca-Cola bottles. At one point, his studio was known as The Factory and was always full of people operating in Warhol’s shadow seeking their “fifteen minutes of fame.” The Factory collectively turned out paintings, avant-garde and “found art” that tested the limits of traditional art, films and music.

The artistic environment that Warhol established and the works he produced are central to various debates, including the degree of artistic integrity the works possess. Applying James Joyce’s categories, as described in two essays in Joseph Campbell’s The Mythic Dimension, the debates are whether Warhol’s work is pornographic or static and whether it possesses integritas. The debates’ resolutions have no definitive answer because Warhol’s work is both pornographic and static. More important, however, is his role within the cultural mythos as a fringe commentator forcing us to look at our immediate surroundings in a new perspective, leaving little for granted. Because of this new perspective, the role of the mythologist is not to categorize, but, rather, to see the ecstasy in all arts.

Pornographic versus Static Art

In the essay, “Creativity” in the Mythic Dimension, Joseph Campbell describes James Joyce’s two categories of art. He writes, “Improper art moves you either with desire to possess the object or with loathing and fear to resent it and avoid it. Art that excites desire for the object he calls ‘pornographic’” (153). Campbell further notes that all advertising and art that induces desire for the object itself is pornographic. Static art, in contrast, induces feelings of ecstasy, a physiological response that coincides with a moment of mythic arrest and psychic transformation. Campbell praises static art for its ability to move the viewer.

Three conditions must be met in order for a work to induce arrest: integritas (wholeness), consonantia (harmony), and claritas (radiance) (Campbell, “Mythological Themes” 194). Integritas means that the work can be viewed as a whole, not as a conglomeration of aggregates. Consonantia is the rhythm of the work, “the relation of part to part, of each part to the whole, and the whole to each of its parts” (ibid.). Claritas is when the work stands on its own, without reference to something else or as a means of communication. One could argue that Warhol’s work meets none of these criteria; however, that argument does not look below the surface of his work. Firstly, Warhol’s work displays integritas, for, although his work is often a series of common images, the work stands on its own as a whole. Each individual component holds its own meaning, but a new meaning is derived when the components are put together. For example, each rendering of Marilyn Monroe refers to the actress, but the repetition of the Marilyns divorces her from her image, allowing viewer to experience the entire tableau. Because of the several repetitions of an object within a single work, Warhol’s work demonstrates consonantia because the parts work together to become a new entity. As I have just proposed, a single instance of an image maintains a tie to the subject of the image, in this case Marilyn Monroe. Without the synchronicity of the components or repeated images Warhol’s work would be simply photography, possessing a stronger realistic relationship with the subject matter. This leads to claritas because the works stand alone, apart from all others except other incarnations of Warhol’s.

This distinction between these two categories of art is subjective. What moves one to stasis may not move another. Similarly, one may covet the object of an accepted static work that may not have the same effect on another person. It is my opinion that the process which categorizes art is in and of itself pornographic, to use Joyce’s term, and instills in the public a mode of thinking that may not in fact be universally shared. Art categorization leads to elitism, and only those who share the opinion of the elite are considered valid and acceptable.

Warhol’s work forces us to look at common objects differently. A three-foot tall painting of a Campbell’s Soup can removes the common item from the pantry and forces us to notice the composition and the colors of the label. Were his art truly pornographic, we should see his painting of the soup can and desire to consume a serving. The change in size and dimension is Warhol’s way telling us that the soup can is significant, much like how a writer will bold, italicize, or underline a text to set it apart from the rest. It is the role of the viewer to ascertain the meaning of the art.

Warhol as Chronicler of Culture

Joseph Campbell lived and worked in New York City, on the edges of Greenwich Village, New York’s famous home to artists. He was surrounded by artists including his wife. This community lead Campbell to observe: “One of the big problems for young artists today … is that they are all terribly frustrated in the bringing forth of their art, primarily because they have studied sociology. They always think there is a moral to be pointed out, something to be communicated” (“Creativity” 153). The 2006 film, Factory Girl contrasts Andy Warhol with a social folk singer modeled after Bob Dylan, named The Musician, through the eyes of Factory Superstar Edie Sedgwick. The contrast relies on the public personae of the respective artists. According to the film, Warhol makes his art because he wants to, not because he is reacting to a higher purpose or reason. It is the most natural behavior inherent in his being. The Musician, or the other hand, believes he should use his abilities as a poet and performer to instigate social change. He represents the type of artist described by Campbell; he is frustrated by the bringing forth of his art because he is focused on the message and also by others who do not share the same belief. The film gives the impression that Warhol was more concerned with the act of making art for art’s sake, not by any higher purpose, except, perhaps, to make money.

Much is known of Warhol because he kept his life very well documented. Upon his death, his apartment proved to be a treasure trove of Warhol artifacts, including hours upon hours of personal audio recordings, recorded phone calls, almost every pair of men’s and women’s shoes he owned during his adult life, and a highly valued cookie jar collection. He was an isolated person who continued to live with his mother and to uphold his Catholic practices. Despite all the people who followed him around, he kept apart from them. He observed behavior and created art from what he saw. He also lived a lifestyle that resembled poverty, unless others paid the bill. His painted objects were limited by his lack of outward extravagance.

The documentary Andy Warhol: The Complete Picture suggests that Warhol created his art relying on different sizes, colors and repetition to place distance between him and the world. He was a fringe observer of the immediate world, preferring painting and filming to intimate contact. He knew not to take his persona too seriously, but knew how to use it to benefit from all of the social scenes in New York City. Because of these behaviors, coupled with his interest in pop culture and refusal to throw anything away, Warhol chronicled culture. He kept objects, or artifacts, that had been replaced by newer models, he painted the faces of public news figures, and he filmed all manner of person, place or thing. Some of his prints include images taken from the front pages of the newspaper. He is especially famous for his screen tests and for launching Interview magazine, both modes of collecting artifacts of public figures and celebrities, who could be forgotten upon achieving their “fifteen minutes.”

The Mythologist and Art Classification

Classifying art, as Campbell does, crosses the barriers between cultural mythos and the mythologist’s personal interests. In the paradigm of mythological studies established by Joseph Campbell, there is little room for judgment. All myths must be recognized as equal entities regardless of format, because all myth comes from the same fundamental psychological centers. It is easy to allow one’s aesthetic taste to influence one’s judgment. Andy Warhol offers a different perspective. Granted, his work does not produce the degree of religious ecstasy that works of the Renaissance are known to do. Nor does Warhol’s work induce one to consume or covet the item depicted. This does not mean that his work should be written off as simply commercial. The key to understanding art is accepting its subjectivity, which renders classification impossible. Based on Campbell’s definitions, Warhol’s work resembles both pornographic and static art. One thing is certain: he had the integrity of a true artist.

The mythologist is a chronicler of mythos. He or she unlocks the mythic artifacts of a society and places them within the context of the transcendent. Campbell wrote in an era in which all forms of myth were in upheaval, a time when the boundaries between “high” and “low” art were more clearly demarcated. The modern art movement and the collective unconscious both reacted strongly to post-war world events by drifting into new creative territories. During the 1960s, popular culture ceased to be the sole territory of teenagers and bohemians. The transition beyond the mainstream endured until all boundaries are blurred. Post-war American launched into a consumerism that knew no gender, race, creed or class. America’s consumerism, like the boundaries between “high” and “low” art, seem to be falling apart at present. This paradigm shift is gradual as each new generation comes of age, and Warhol was reacting to it. Perhaps Campbell felt the seeds of change, as is implied in The Power of Myth, but, being a member of the generation he was and being so late in life when the tides shifted, he was removed from its immediate effects. Had he been more present, he, I hope, would not have encouraged future mythologists to involve themselves in classification schema.

The arts of Andy Warhol, from screen prints to films to journalistic art, provide a new perspective toward art not considered by Joseph Campbell. Warhol took his role as artist seriously, remaining a voyeur to his surrounding micro- and macrocosms, capturing a visual chronicle of popular culture that relies on well-known or shocking images repeated in various sizes and colors. His films forced us to rethink traditional filmmaking, eliminating story lines, editing and scenery change. His magazine, Interview, asked celebrities the deeply probing personal questions that reduced them to a level of vulnerability and to the profane. His work as an artist provided distancing between the viewer and the content, while maintaining a degree of pornography. It is difficult to fully separate commercial pop art from the distinctions Campbell borrows from Joyce. No matter the times, someone will always see Warhol’s art as simply a repetitive advertisement for the content. But there are those, whether they are enthusiasts, bohemians, beats or hippies (the last three stereotyped as Warhol fans), who are moved to stasis, to aesthetic arrest, by Warhol’s work. As long as there are those who react to Warhol’s work, it will never be simply pornography. It took an artist like Warhol to engage the dialogue of pop culture and consumerism relevant to our times.

Works Cited

  • Andy Warhol: Life and Death. PBS, 2006.
  • Andy Warhol: The Complete Picture. Dir. Chris Rudley. Perf. Andy Warhol, Crispin Glover, Dennis Hopper. World of Wonder, 2002.
  • Campbell, Joseph. “Creativity.” The Mythic Dimension: Selected Essays 1959-1987. Ed. Anthony Van Couvering. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. 151-155.
  • —. “Mythological Themes in Creative Literature and Art.” The Mythic Dimension: Selected Essays 1959-1987. Ed. Anthony Van Couvering. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. 180-203.
  • Factory Girl. Dir. George Hicken Cooper. Perf. Sienna Miller, Guy Pierce, Hayden Christensen. Weinstein Company, 2006.
  • Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol. Dir. Chuck Workman. Perf. Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones, Sally Kirkland. Marilyn Lewis Entertainment, Ltd., 1990.

Re-Visioning the Mother and Father with the Help of Harry Potter

James and Lily Potter represent for their orphaned son, Harry, the ideal Father and Mother. They died in a surprise attack protecting Harry from Lord Voldemort when he was only one year old. Throughout J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Harry learns about his parents, facts that threaten to abolish his ideal, while having to learn to identify the Mother and Father as archetypes in his life. In her book, The Wisdom of the Psyche, Ginette Paris recounts a need to reconnect with the Mother and Father archetypes. Separation from these archetypes manifest on a social level as problems that threaten order, such as a generation of eternal youth tormented by housing, fuel, and food crises that threaten a way of life and basic survival needs. Like Harry, a reconnection with the traditional images that embody these archetypes is in order, due in part to a mythic paradigm shift that has challenged and upturned traditional beliefs and behaviors. Instead, what is needed is a re-visioning or re-imagining of the Mother and Father archetypes. The model provided in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series suggests not only that the new images can be found in unlikely people or places, but also that the archetype can have many faces.

To best understand how this can be accomplished, an understanding of an archetypal approach is necessary to lay the foundations of an archetypal reading of Harry Potter. In his treatise on soul making through archetypal psychology, James Hillman in Re-Visioning Psychology offers methods of seeing and applying archetypes to one’s life. He suggests that archetypes are "the deepest patterns of psychic functioning, the roots of the soul governing the perspectives we have of ourselves and the world" (xix, emphasis original). By this model, archetypes are held to be any universal pattern, regardless of the degree of sacred quality it possesses. They are symbolic metaphors that point beyond the normal framework of the ego-consciousness, and they affect the individual on a deeply personal, emotional level. Hillman goes so far as to compare an archetype with a god in a generic, sacred sense (xix). While Harry Potter does not resemble a god of any tradition, the series is nevertheless full of archetypal characters who influence the reader to behave in comparable fashions, from the hero, Harry, to the Wise Old Man, Albus Dumbledore, and can lead the reader on his or her own fruitful, rewarding journey. Hillman presents four categories of archetypal re-visioning: personifying, pathologizing, de-humanizing, and psychologizing. Some of these categories are more relevant to the reader than to the series’ characters, but an understanding of them makes the reading experience richer.

Personifying “implies a human being who creates Gods in human likeness much as an author creates characters out of his own personality” and is the process of naming the archetype (Hillman 12). Hillman relates this to the naming of experiences and feelings, to giving them a capitalized name. In the world of Harry Potter, archetypal evil is characterized by Voldemort, a power-hungry, dark wizard who utilizes all avenues needed to accomplish his goals. Harry is one of the few in the Wizarding World who is not afraid to speak Voldemort’s name, but he is surrounded by people who cringe at its utterance. Albus Dumbledore, the school’s headmaster, teaches Harry and the reader that the fear of using the name incites fear of the thing. In fearing to use the name, to personify the archetype, the individual is essentially avoiding the archetype itself creating a barrier of fear around it. This is applicable to all archetypes, both positive and negative. Giving the archetype a name and an image brings it to a level with which the individual can identify with by making it represent the observable universe.

Pathologizing is the psyche’s reaction to an experience or behavior that manifests as an “illness, morbidity, disorder, abnormality, and suffering” (Hillman 57). It follows a religions and/or medical model of cause and effect: because of "a," then "b”: “We suffer, it has been customary to say, because we are either sick or sinful, and the cure of our suffering calls for either science or faith” to explain what is ailing the individual, to give it a simple, straightforward explanation with a simple, straightforward cure (Hillman 57). Both of these models “imply that pathologizing is wrong” (ibid.). The discovery of this correlation between archetypal unrest and physical malady is the socio-psychological bridge between the onset of the problem and the path to a new enlightenment and archetypal connection.

The physicality of pathologizing is less relevant to Harry Potter than the tradition that shuns it. Hillman argues that pathologizing is the model for why monotheism is dangerous to the psyche, because, like science, it does not attend to the complex needs of the psyche through its simple, straightforward explanation. Monotheism places a very thick, limited frame around archetypes and their ability to influence the psyche. In his world, Harry, as the archetypal hero, challenges the assumptions held by the Ministry of Magic regarding Voldemort and the nature of evil. The Ministry, tied to the steadfast monotheistic point of view that Voldemort was defeated the night Harry’s parents died, ignore all of the signs of his return. This piece of plot demonstrates the potential damage that can come from a closed mind, or a limited point of view. Like Hillman, Harry challenges the monotheistic mentality embedded in the Western tradition. The Harry Potter Alliance, a social activism organization inspired by the themes of Harry Potter, calls this the “muggle mindset,” using Rowling’s term for non-magical people. To combat the “muggle mindset” means to see the people of the world as equal with equal rights, regardless of religious creed, race, gender or culture. In other words, to break out of the monotheism that limits perspectives towards global and psychological affairs.

Furthermore, Hillman calls for a return to a polytheistic mindset, idealized by the Greeks and their pantheon of gods that describe various behaviors, emotions, experiences, and anything else that could not be explained by immediate observation. The monotheistic mindset has birthed the modern approaches to science that strive to identify the explanation behind everything, reducing the need to accomplish the same explanation through imaginal practices. Science overshadows the imagination, evidenced in the works of Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung and their students declaring myth, mythic thinking and mythic imagination to be either missing or dead. In reading Hillman’s work, it seems to me more like a call to return to the Greek pantheon altogether. I am critical of that approach because the Greek pantheon fulfilled the needs of a specific group of people at a specific time. Studying the myths assists in identifying their psychic power, but the modern mind needs an entirely new approach, one not reliant upon an alterable history. The archetypes Hillman is identifying are idealized within Greek mythology, but also manifest in various places throughout popular culture. In Harry Potter the parallels to the Greek pantheon are non-existent; however, the archetypes manifest in other ways relevant to the modern mind. Time will tell what future generations think about the books and whether they still hold the archetypal significance they hold now.

Because Harry holds his parents in such high regard, especially since they died protecting him, de-humanizing their ideal is crucial for him to accomplish his task. As he gets older, he learns more about them, especially about his father, who was not the pristine hero Harry thought he was. Eventually, he realizes he loves his parents despite all their faults. The lesson for the reader is that the idea of the parents is the archetype projected onto the actual people, and it is important to learn to separate the parents from the projection. As soon as Harry learns this, he is able to use his own voice and act beyond the expectations his parents’ memory forces on him, and, thus, he is able to individuate and say goodbye.

Psychologizing is particularly helpful for the readers of Harry Potter who get caught in the throes of mythopoetic arrest, the "a-ha" feeling in the books. Some readers need to create in response to this feeling, and this has given birth to the "fandom." Fans are linked not only by their love for the books, but also by fan fiction, podcasts, Wizard Rock (or "Wrock"), arts and crafts, group meetings, and many other things. What is missing, in my opinion, is the use of creative energy to create new myths, to live out one’s personal myth as inspired by the archetypes in Harry Potter rather than through those archetypes. Hillman describes psychologizng as mythologizing or as "seeing through," “a process of deliteralizng and a search for the imaginal in the heart of things by means of ideas” (Hillman 136). There is plenty of discussion in the fandom of the "whats" of Harry Potter, but the dialogue falters at the "hows" and "whys". By "hows" and "whys", I am referring to the reasons behind the significance of the series and its popularity. Whether it is through the methods of archetypal psychology, comparative mythology, or any other approach, the "seeing through" of the myth is the most crucial to is continuation, which is essential for a story to be labeled as a myth and not just a really popular story. It is very simple for a myth to be discarded before it passes into subsequent generations. The modern Western mentality of a disposable culture constantly bounces from myth to myth, object to object, person to person. There is little room for mythic blooming in an age of too much information. A recent example is the fever and failure of the Star Wars phenomenon. The original trilogy touched an archetypal need that was otherwise lacking in the culture at the time. Twenty years later, George Lucas re-released the original trilogy, edited and updated, not in response to cultural needs, but because of technological advances. He then proceeded to release a "prequel" trilogy that, to some extent, alienated the original fans that found the new movies void of the mythic qualities they loved in the first trilogy. Because George Lucas has continued to revisit the myth for his own reasons, they have lost their mythic qualities.

Because Harry is constantly forced to revisit the archetypes versus the actual people, Harry Potter acts as a model for the process of reconnecting to and re-identifying the Mother and Father archetypes. The lack of these particular archetypes, or, rather, their weak presence in this country, has created several problems unique to the modern era, ranging from a breakdown of community and communication, an overload of information and net-based globalization, to various "crises" that upset the flow of society, such as the rapid increase in fuel costs to the mortgage fall-out and the resulting banking crisis. The severity of these crises depends wholly on one’s vantage point. Younger people, such as myself, with their lives still ahead have different perspectives of these events than those in the end of their lives, seeing them more as a threat to their overall well-being. Each generation gets progressively "younger," holding onto the myth of eternal youth and dependency, “caught betwixt and between the Child and the Adult, and the consequences of their failure is tragic for them as for the rest of society” (Paris 114). All they are craving is for the love and care of Mother and Father, whom are missing.

Without a stable parental structure, onto whom does one have to project these archetypes? Part of this comes from the need to redefine the general appearance of what Mother and Father. No longer do they resemble "Ozzy and Harriet," the Cleavers, or other iconic couples from early television. Father is not necessarily the male of the house who goes out to earn money to take care of the family. Mother is not necessarily a female who is home all day, baking cookies and waiting for her children to return from school. In some cases, no one is at home at all, dinner is take out, and the only quality time the family spends together is watching TV or driving to school. This is shifting, but not quickly enough to make a smooth, clear transition. It is up to the individual to find someone onto which they can project. Harry has two Father figures: his headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, and his godfather, Sirius Black, both representing an authoritative, loving role model. His friends’ mother, Molly Wesley, most closely resembles a mother for Harry, but he does not identify her with Mother. Instead, Mother is represented by Hogwarts, the magic school he attends. This Mother nurtures and loves him. His ongoing battle with Lord Voldemort is driven mostly to protect the school and the people he loves whom she houses.

Because Harry is forced to separate his parents with their corresponding archetype, he helps readers see archetypal possibilities beyond traditional stereotypes. Perhaps Harry Potter is not meant to survive as a myth beyond the present era. But his story functions at this time as a transition from a traditional mythology to a new, developing mythos.

Works cited

  • Hillman, James. Re-Visioning Psychology. New York: HarperPerennial, 1992.
  • Paris, Ginette. Wisdom of the Psyche: Depth Psychology after Neuroscience. London: Routledge, 2007.

Towards a New Mythology

When the sun has set over Disneyland, Anaheim, California, and the lights are turned down, one can see the expectation for something about to happen on the face of every person looking at Sleeping Beauty’s castle as the nightly, seasonal fireworks begin. The day has been long. Everyone is tired, children and adults alike. Many are grumpy because of the various annoyances and complications that are involved in securing the best possible vantage point for watching the show. Music plays, gunpowder explodes, and people are quickly caught in the spectacle of the twenty-minute show. Near the end, an old, yet somehow familiar, voice welcomes us, reminding us that Disneyland belongs to us and that this is where dreams and memories come alive.[1] Many children have never seen the old television shows and may not recognize the voice as belonging to Walt Disney, but they nonetheless recognize the shift in awe and respect when he speaks. It is as though God is talking, and those bursts of colors are divine, angelic figures. By the end of the show, the mythic experience that Disneyland has to offer is punctuated, secured, and cemented on the memory.

For the American, raised in a century founded upon the rugged individualism of pilgrims, Disneyland is one of the most genuine of mythic spaces. When we imported our myths from Europe, our founding parents emphasized the simplicity of life, the need for hard work, rooting ritual to the family living room. Local church congregations served more as a place for social gathering. The notion of the church as the ritualistic place was left in Europe. As the country grew, local myths and spaces cropped up, but not a single, unifying locale, brought together all things American until Disneyland.

For the younger generations of the modern USA, many of whom are now having their own children, this is the mythos we[2] have to work with. We do not question the validity of “God” or question the archetype, but, rather, question where the ecstatic feeling can be found. For some of us, that feeling is the most potent in popular culture, which is often discounted as “profane” art; however, these images are more potent and resonate more loudly to our imaginations in large part because they are the most familiar images of our childhoods. With everything else being constantly debunked, these are the only images that remain constant, which offers security, and a good place for projection the notion of religiosity, bring with it the God archetype.

In order to have a new mythology, we must first have a poet to express it. By the guidelines laid out by Roberts Avens in his book, The New Gnosis: Heidegger, Hillman and Angels, as inspired by Heidegger and Hillman, Walt Disney is such a poet: “A poet, in his capacity of the mediator (messenger) between sky and earth, between Gods and men, is continually bringing things into the open, showing them in their imaginal essence” (55). Further, “images acquire the characteristic of autonomy, self-referentiality, and simultaneity only when they are watched in a detached way…” (Avens 98). The imaginal space constructed by Walt Disney and his team of Imagineers is one full of images of fantasy constructed in an unnatural way. The unnaturalness detaches the images from the everyday experience while simultaneously drawing the Guests’ attentions to them, bringing them into the open, or conscious realm. These images are those of the American cultural unconscious that have become deeply rooted, in part, because of Disney’s films: images of beloved fairy tales, idealized images of the frontier or small town USA, or romanticized images of the future. Disneyland allows us to experience all of those images. When coupled with the thrill aspect of some of the rides, it brings about catharsis, and the anxieties and tensions of a world confused about its own mythologies are released by the drops and twists of roller coasters or in the story rides that insist that there is a better tomorrow on its way.

One counterpoint to the Disney qua new mythos assertion is stated by Avens: “We prefer to busy ourselves in asserting our identity against the world without realizing that this self-assertion, this search for identity, is nothing more glorious than a futile attempt to remain the same from moment to moment…” (19). Disneyland seems to control every aspect of the experience, so our poesis is limited to how we interact in this controlled environment. In truth, there is evidence all over the park where people attempt to assert their identity. One example of such can be seen in the queue for the Indiana Jones attraction. The first half of the queue is situated outside the attraction entrance, which is decorated to look like the jungle surrounding a ruined temple. All along this stretch of the queue, people have carved various messages, mostly their initials, into the trunks of the bamboo trees growing there. For some of these trees, this has resulted in entire patches of missing bark. Clearly, people are attempted to assert their identity and define their independence on the controlled aspect of the environment. Avens suggests that this is done only to remind ourselves that we are the same form moment to moment – but how can we actually be the same in light of a mythic experience?

In a similar counterpoint, Avens describes how archetypal psychology “supplements this insight [that an image is not what one sees but the way in which one sees] by using the criterion of response: metaphorical and imaginative response to images is better than fanciful or literal because the former deepens and complicates the image instead of dissipating or eventually freezing it into an object that can be manipulated by ratio” (25). Disney and Disneyland have literalized images, and that cannot be denied. When hearing a fairy tale, many imagine the story using the same visualization as the Disney film, and are often surprised to find that the stories are not the same. How can literalized images how any mythic power? This generation is one raised on static, literalized images, and those are the ones transmitting the myths. The imagination is discouraged in all educational sectors from running free on the basis that an imaginative person cannot find a well-paying job. All that is made available are the images someone else thought up, but each person is allowed to do with those images – especially through the toy tie-ins – as he or she desires, even if that means rewriting the story. However, this play is restricted to playtime. Avens reminds us that “the mystery of play is akin to that highest and most absorbing play of which Heraclitus speaks, the play of aion, i.e., of the world as the dispensation of Being” (73). The need for Play emerges from a necessity, which forms an “essential component of the imaginal psyche itself” (Avens 79). This necessity, inherent in the images we play with, is tied to their essential nature. They emerge to fill an archetypal void created by suppressing play. But with enough suppression, literalized images are necessary to remind us how to play and dream.

It is an error of archetypal psychology to suggest that the only way to restore this stagnation is to return to old images in order to unlock the Truth of the Divine Being or Dasein.

Humans are unable to fully unlock this divinity, and it can only be understood through human images, or archetypes that point humanity in that direction. There are no rules as to how the archetypes manifest; Hillman suggests that the most potent archetypes in the West are those shaped by the Greek gods and goddesses. But, just like the Christian system both Hillman and Heidegger write against, this is outmoded and out of date. The archetypes need new faces in order to breathe new life – relying on the same faces that are 3000 years old is what lead us to the existential crisis of the twentieth century in the first place, and we would not be discussing the image of the archetypal God if the archetypes still had relevance.

Mickey Mouse and friends do not possess religiosity in the traditional sense, but they nonetheless fulfill the need for some sort of figure to be in their place. Archaeologists could dig up artifacts from this culture, thousands of years from now after our documents and records are long gone, and will encounter toys and figurines of Mickey Mouse, or even Barbie or Star Wars toys, and what will they think? The only logical conclusion is that there are objects of divinity and they were probably worshipped as some kind of god. It is for this reason that it is important to embrace new mythologies of all categories, since they are the ones that will be remembered.

Works cited

  • Avens, Roberts. The New Gnosis: Heidegger, Hillman, and Angels. Putnam: Spring Publications, 2003. Print.

[1] This refers to a recording played during the fireworks soundtrack of Walt Disney’s dedication of Disneyland in 1955: “To all who come to this happy place, welcome. Disneyland is your land. … Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.”

[2] I am being purposefully inclusive.

Prefabricated Mythologies: Dungeons & Dragons and Myth-Making

It would be very easy to say that role-playing games are popular because of the apparent lack of myth in the society. In fact, from initial observation this would be the case. People flock to role-playing games, or RPGs, in order to interact with fantasy stories, not just read about them. A little further probing reveals that the games are essentially outlets for mythmaking. By assuming another identity, a person can write his or her own myth – the myth latent in his or her psyche. Furthermore, most of these games take place in a fantastical realm filled with characters and creatures inspired by the myths and folktales of other cultures. These games do not yield the myth or fairy tale of a culture; rather, they are exclusive to the player and change from game to game. This a good exercise for psychic health because the avatars players create or identify with helps them explore all aspects of the psyche – the shadow, the anima/animus, and even, to a degree, the ego. In the mid-1970s, Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), the most notable of table-top style games, emerged fusing the two concepts of battle-strategy games with a created character.

In Interpretation of Fairy Tales, Marie-Louise von Franz defines fairy tales as “the purest and simplest expression of the collective unconscious psychic processes” that “represent the archetypes in their simplest, barest, and most concise form” (1). They are able to convey this in their lack of specificity. Time, place, and characters often have only a generic aspect, one that is not tied to a particular culture or age. This helps fairy tales transmit across boundaries, and several have found universal appeal. One of the tragedies of the modern era is that fairy tales are treated as entertainment, primarily for children. As J.R.R. Tolkien observes, “the association of children and fairy-stories is an accident of our domestic history. Fairy-stories have in the modern lettered world been relegated to the ‘nursery,’ as shabby or old-fashioned furniture is relegated to the play-room, primarily because the adults do not want it, and do not mind if it is misued” (34). In their respective works, including those about similar subject matter, both von Franz and Tolkien admonish adults for having this point of view. Both argue that fairy tales are essentially necessary to understand the psychological and literary workings of humanity.

In many ways, role-playing games would not be around today were it not for J.R.R. Tolkien and the popularity of his books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien loved to read fairy tales as a child, notably Andrew Lang’s color fairy books, a collection of a dozen books with different colored covers that gave them their titles, each filled with approximately thirty fairy tales collected from around the world. Tolkien was born the same year as the Green Fairy Book, 1892, and cites that the entire series factored prominently throughout his development as a writer, even though he was not a supporter of Lang’s work (Berman 127). Later in life, he wrote his theories and understandings in the essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” and incorporated these theories into his fiction. Notably, he recognized that all fairy tales take place in a location outside normal reality, which he dubbed the Faërie, or a “perilous land” ripe for adventure (Tolkien 1). The Faërie is another world, in which all sorts of mythical beings, including elves, dwarves, witches, and all sorts of animals are enchanted.

Indeed, The Lord of the Rings was a new kind of fantasy fiction for its time, published in three parts between 1954 and 1956, in part because Tolkien fuses the epic nature of myth with the enchantment of fairy tales, to create a work essentially somewhere between myth and fairy tale. Unlike a traditional fairy tale, The Lord of the Rings is the story about specific characters in a specific setting, but because the setting is entirely fictional, it holds more of a universal appeal than a typical novel. Secondly, The Lord of the Rings varies from traditional fairy tales in that it is a story of epic size and length, filled with many mythic elements, such as a hero’s journey and a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Tolkien’s characters and their adventures inspired his readers to create their own characters and mythologies, and this led to the creation of modern RPGs, beginning with Dungeons & Dragons.

The modern role-playing game comes from a tradition of war gaming, or war reenactments played with miniatures not limited to historical accuracy. In the 1960s, riding on the popularity of The Lord of the Rings, Dave Arneson was playing medieval-themed war games, and began to integrate a fantastical element into his games. “Not only did players now have the control of an individual character with which they could identify, but it became possible for that character to cast spells or yield magic swords against fantastic, mythical creatures, such as dragons and hobgoblins” (Mackey 15). This led him to Gary Gygax, who wrote the medieval game Chainmail in 1971. Working together they devised the rules for Dungeons and Dragons, published in January 1974.

I call them prefabricated mythologies. Like prefabricated houses, these are mythologies manufactured with all of their components already put together, and the player can customize the parts to meet his or her tastes. An initial criticism of this phenomenon is that mythology should come from the collective psyche, and be allowed to develop organically within the confines of culture. By engaging with a prefabricated myth, we are essentially limiting ourselves to a specific sphere created by a few. In this, it is helpful to understand fairy tales as cultural psychic products whose author is unknown and can re-form as the cultural unconscious shifts. While the original authors of Dungeons & Dragons are known, they are not central to the experience of game play, as Tolkien is essential to The Lord of the Rings. This allows each player of the game to take the prefabricated elements and construct their own experience.

The character races that one uses to design a character are clearly inspired from the fantasy Tolkien dappled in. Some of the main character races include Dwarf, Eladrin, Elf, Halfling and Human, examples of which accompanied Frodo, himself a type of Halfling, on the Fellowship in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, whose imaginings, based on collected lore, have defined how these characters have appeared in fantasy literature and RPGs ever since.

As the Player’s Handbook (PHB) describes, dwarves were carved “from the bedrock of the universe” and their “mighty mountain fortress-cities testify to the power of their ancient empires. Even those who live in human cities are counted among the staunchest defenders against the darkness that threatens to engulf the world” (Heinsoo 36). This refers back to lore that links dwarves with short-statured mountain dwellers, famous as warriors and wealthy miners. The PHB advises players to play dwarves if they want: “to be tough, guff, and strong as bedrock; to bring glory to your ancestors or serve as your god’s right hand; to be able to take as much punishment as you can dish out” (Heinsoo 36). Dwarves are recognized as strong and powerful, despite their diminutive size, and they remain faithful and loyal to their charges and causes, seeing a mission through to the very end, crucial to any successful D&D scenario.

The Eladrin are described as creatures “of magic with strong ties to nature” that “live in the twilight realm of the Feywild. Their cities lie close enough to the world that they sometimes cross over, appearing briefly in mountain valleys or deep forest glades before fading back into the Feywild” (Heinsoo 38). The Feywild is equivalent to the land over the sea called the Grey Havens from The Lord of the Rings. These are characters from an even more ethereal realm outside the Faërie, recognized by Tolkien as being closer to the gods. They are distantly related and are often mistaken for Elves, who are forest dwellers, living in such harmony with the trees that “travelers often fail to notice that they have entered an elven community until it is too late” (Heinsoo 40). Both races are adept at archery and magic, making them good characters to have fighting ranged attacks from a distance. Also, given the amount of magic running through the Faërie, characters who can wield magic are handy for counteracting some of the dark magic. The PHB advises players to play either of these races if they want: “to be otherworldly and mysterious; to be graceful and intelligent; to teleport around the battlefield, cloaked in the magic of the Feywild,” or “to be quick, quiet and wild; to lead your companions through the deep woods and pepper your enemies with arrows” (Heinsoo 38, 40). These can be understood as the Western fantastical equivalent of Asian martial artists. They represent an inner balance that is reflected in their relationship with natural surroundings, and strong, agile fighting skills that can dominate a battle.

Halflings are diminutive like dwarves and are “known for their resourcefulness, quick wits, and steady nerves” (Heinsoo 44). Unlike dwarves and Tolkien’s hobbits, they are “a nomadic folk who roam waterways and marshlands. No people travel farther or see more of what happens in the world…” (Heinsoo 44). There are no major advantages in D&D to playing a small character, but, as they would be in real life, these characters are limited on how much they can carry and the types of weapons they can play. A person should play a halfling if they want: “to be a plucky hero who is all too easy to underestimate; to be likeable, warm, and friendly” (Heinsoo 44).

As a final example, humans “are the most adaptable and diverse. Human settlements can be found almost anywhere, and human morals, customs, and interests vary greatly” (Heinsoo 46). Humans in D&D are designed to be the heroes we would all like to be, and the abilities of these characters most closely resemble our own, so they require a little less imaginative exercise. Players should play humans if they want: “to be a decisive, resourceful hero with enough determination to face any challenge; to have the most versatility and flexibility of any race” (Heinsoo 46).

In addition to making the character come to life, by designing it as a full avatar complete with a personality and a persona, the character must have an alignment, which reflects how dedicated the character will be to certain moral principles. The PHB describes the five alignments:

  • Good: Freedom and kindness [to all creation]
  • Lawful Good: Civilization and order [to society]
  • Evil: Tyranny and hatred
  • Chaotic Evil: Entropy and destruction
  • Unaligned: Having no alignment; not taking a stand (Heinsoo 19)

These alignments tie a character to forces larger than the known world, and influence how this character makes decisions. Unaligned characters have not chosen one way or the other and are likely to make decisions that are in their own self-interests and not necessarily for the whole of the group. Most players design characters that are either Good or Lawful Good because “playing an evil or chaotic evil character disrupts an adventuring party and, frankly, makes all the other players angry at you” (Heinsoo 19).

Characters are designed with a degree of unconscious guidance. Players do not necessarily pick a race or class that allows them to play a character opposite to their real life persona. That is a key reason for playing the game in the first place. Some players are more drawn to some races than others. For example, a recent character I developed is an Eladrin. I chose her for the fact that I was mysteriously drawn more to that race than any other. I interpret this to mean that something within my psyche either identifies with or needs connection to some Eladrin traits, for example their ability to jump between the D&D world and the Feywild could be a need to pay more attention to my dreams. Or perhaps their intellect reflects anxiety about my work at Pacifica.[1] My husband, on the other hand, designed a human character during a major shift in his social life. The human is the most adaptable. Perhaps his character choice reflects some anxiety about the new social sphere is he entering.

While building an avatar relies on one’s unconscious, the game play itself relies on chance. The game has three basic rules:

1. Simple rules, many exceptions.

2. Specific beats general.

3. Always round down. (Heinsoo 11)

The Player’s Handbooks are guidelines only, and the rest is determined by the Dungeon Master and dice. The Dungeon Master (DM) serves as the narrator of the game and controls all of the elemental design, monsters, and the construction of the narrative. The characters are responsible for their own duties within that narrative, even influencing the DM to take a different direction that he or she had initially intended. The main element of chance comes from the reliance on dice. There are six die used in Dungeons & Dragons: a four-sided, six-sided, eight-sided, ten-sided, twelve-sided and twenty-sided. Which dice is used when is determined by the weapons and abilities of a character and are dictated by the PHB. The twenty-sided, however, is the one most used for just about everything from determining skills to determining battle encounters.

Because of the nature of Dungeons & Dragons, traditional fairy tale amplification as described by Marie-Louise von Franz is misleading. There is no set story line to amplify, no set characters, and, especially, no set archetypes. D&D is a collaborative story whose outcome is based solely on the players’ interactions with each other, and no one can predict how these will work out.

It has been my observation over the years that during the teenage years, several people play RPG videogames, but some hunger for a more embodied unconscious experience and move to table-top games, commonly D&D before others. Furthermore, it has also been my observation that these players are more often male, but an increasing number of females are entering these games. This suggests to me that something during the course of socialization and identity formation is lacking in male-child development, and this same lack is beginning to emerge in female development. Probably this has more to do with the No Child Left Behind program in schools, which its over-emphasis on the mathematics, sciences, and standardized testing to the detriment of the arts and imagination-driven exercises.

Role-playing games allow these children to assume fantastical roles and connect them with the fundamental elements of fairy tale. According to Bruno Bettelheim, the “fairy tale proceeds in a manner which conforms to the way a child thinks and experiences the world; this is why the fairy tale is so convincing to him. He can gain much better solace from a fairy tale than he can from an effort to comfort him based on adult reasoning and viewpoints. A child trusts what the fairy story tells, because its world view accords with his own” (45). It is more often the case that the people who are attracted to role-playing games are more artistically or creative driven, and are not at the center of the social circle or any of the school sports. Everyone plays videogames nowadays, but “geeks” play Dungeons & Dragons.

Prefabricated mythologies may be the only real mythmaking exercise in American society, because the proliferation of popular culture has cemented a set spectrum of mythic elements within the culture. The myths now blend with fairy tale, forcing a new understanding of both genres. Dungeons & Dragons allows an outlet to actually interact with some of these elements and manipulate them according to the player’s own psyche.

Works Cited

  • Berman, Ruth. "Tolkien as a Child of The Green Fairy Book." Mythlore 26.99/100 (2007): 127-135. Print.
  • Bettleheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. Print.
  • Heinsoo, Rob, Andy Collins and James Wyatt. Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook: Arcane, Divine, and Martial Heroes. Renton: Wizards of the Coast, 2008. Print.
  • Mackay, Daniel. The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A new Performing Art. Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 2001. Print.
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. "On Fairy-Stories." The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 1996. 3-84. Print.
  • von Franz, Marie-Louise. The Interpretation of Fairy Tales. Boston: Shambhala, 1996. Print.

[1] Or maybe I was just hoping for a little otherworldly guidance through the murky waters of the Comprehensive Exams.

The Genres of the Monomyth: Beloved, Moby-Dick and the American Epics of Transformation

Just as there are different types of literature, there are also different approaches to understanding and interpreting them. One method is the Monomyth as outlined by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which has become a dominant model in recent years. A possible reason for this lies in the importance of the hero in social mythology: during the current major paradigm shift in the Western world. Many of these heroes are on an individual quest, paralleling the Jungian process of individuation, rather than a journey to save the civilization of a society. The relevance of this model suggests that the hero’s journey has become the central theme in Western epic. Another method is found in Louise Cowan’s introduction to The Terrain of Comedy in which she models another approach to literature, identified as the Genre Wheel. She uses this wheel to outline a theory of genre, inspired by Aristotle, as applied to literature. The four categories of genre – lyric, tragedy, comedy, and epic – and their subcategories are convenient categories for cataloguing entire works. This wheel can be further applied to individual works, thus creating a system akin to the Monomyth, except that it captures the sensibility, or phenomenon, of each realm of the journey, making it about the experience of being a hero, as opposed to a stair-step process of literary criticism.

To elucidate this claim, I will look at two social epics, tightly linked to the psyche of America: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, published in 1851 during the height of Romanticism in American literature, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, published in 1987 as a response to the lack of adequate narrative literature detailing the difficulties of African Americans faced while adjusting to a life after slavery. Though written in different centuries, both epics are nonetheless set during the same time of American history (1851-1873). Their respective sensitivities to all of the related issues have endeared them to the literary canon.

Joseph Campbell outlines eight steps to the hero’s journey (with embellishments): 1) the call to adventure, 2) the threshold guardian, 3) the threshold crossing, 4) magical helpers, 5) trials and ordeals, 6) confrontation with the boon guardian, 7) the return threshold, and 8) reintegration and sharing the boon. These steps he very nicely diagrams into a circular image, to stress the continuity of the journey (see Figure 1 in Appendix). In the myths that employ this model, they end once the hero has accomplished his or her task, but for the readers life continues. Our own hero’s journeys are on-going and are likely to continue as long as we are living.

This disconnect between literature and reality is brought to a compromise in Cowan’s Genre Wheel (see Figure 2), which also takes the hero on a similar cycle. The lyric realm is the hero’s point of origin. It is a period of implied innocence when the psyche of the hero is untarnished and relatively pure, “the place of origins and sources, the land of heart’s desire, symbolized by the garden” (L. Cowan, “Comedy” 10). The only way the hero gets to return to this realm is by transcending to a state of bliss, the foundation of which are the life experiences built from passing through the other three realms, akin to the Jungian process of individuation, or the Buddhist experience of Nirvana. Only after he or she has found peace, can the hero return to the lyric. From lyric, the hero can proceed to either the tragic or epic realms; however, modern Western literature favors sending the hero through tragedy to experience a cataclysmic event that initiates the journey as though it is essential for the hero to forcefully leave his or her old myth behind in order to embrace the epic myth of society and civilization. Indeed, this reflects the very nature of the United States – and entire country built by immigrants who have to, often, sever ties with the Old World to forge ahead and forage for the American Dream of wealth and prosperity. In contrast, if the hero ventures from lyric to epic, then he or she is willingly undergoing a quest for a something. Presumably, based on the configuration of the wheel, the hero then ends in tragedy. Tragedy is understood to be “marked by the sudden catastrophe of the loss of a garden state” (L. Cowan, “Comedy” 10), and is associated with the death of the hero. Yet tragedy can also be recognized as the inability to return to the lyric state, because something is left incomplete in the hero’s mission, and the narrative concludes before we get to its resolution. Joseph Campbell would recognize this state as belonging to one who does not follow their bliss, and undergoes the epic self-journey for success only to reach a profound state of unhappiness in mid-life or beyond.

Regardless of the direction a hero takes, he or she must inevitably pass through the comic realm, “the realm of faith, hope and love in a fallen world: endurance, regeneration – the community within the city” (L. Cowan, “Comedy” 9). This is the alchemical vessel that prepares, percolates, and performs the hero’s transformation. Every action of the hero affects the community, and in the comic realm, the hero relies on the community for support: they form the helpers who train, arm, and prepare the hero for the Battle of the Boon that stands at the threshold of return and the next realm.

The narrative story of Beloved moves Sethe from lyric through tragedy, comedy, and epic, before attempting to return to lyric. Moby-Dick, however, recounts Ishmael’s journey, inextricably linked to those of Queequeg and Ahab, from lyric, through epic, comedy and into tragedy, and concludes before attempting to return to lyric. The terrain of comedy is diagramed as the underworld, which it indeed is. It can be viewed as a Jungian unconscious underworld where transformation and individuation. It can similarly be viewed as the realm of imagination – the cesspool where all the shit is stirred with the nutrients of life.

The time period that birthed the mythic reality of Moby-Dick and the historical reality of Beloved was one of major transition for the United States. The honeymoon phase of the colonial idealism was ending, and the United States had not yet emerged as a super-power. The issue of slavery very nearly tore the nation in two, while the Romantics and Transcendentalists concurrently wrote of the inherent beauty of the land. No one was keen on addressing the tensions of the cultural shadow. In literature, only the Gothic Romantics, which include Melville, were writing about the shadow, without necessarily writing about the shadow. Melville was writing as the Industrial Revolution took over the nation, and Moby-Dick is not a salute to the beauty of nature, but more of a criticism of human’s attempt to own and manipulate nature. When Toni Morrison wrote Beloved, it was after the post-slavery dust had settled with the collective efforts of all the participants of the Civil Rights era. Beloved recounts the struggle of slavery, as epitomized in the trinity of Sethe, Denver, and Beloved. Sethe is the tragic hero who suppressed and bore the burden, Denver is the voice of progress and healing, and Beloved is the shadow itself that links the two. As long as Beloved is around, healing cannot begin.

It is irrelevant that these two novels are separated by a century. Both are written in the spirit of mythopoesis, which divorces their plots and settings from the actuality of time and history. Furthermore, that Morrison was able to write Beloved when she did suggests that the issues manifest in both novels of the cultural shadow carried through the turn of the century.

Ron Schenk, in his recent article in Spring Journal, identifies Captain Ahab as “American personified,” who, quoting from a different edition of Moby-Dick, piles “’upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it’” (Schenk 12-13). In this way, Ahab is the Anti-Captain America, after the comic book superhero, because he goes after the whale to destroy, not to rescue and restore. This destructive nature is inherent in the American psyche, Schenk further argues, relating to the founding of the nation by Puritans who equated themselves to “God’s Chosen People” in the Old Testament (8). Similarly, Morrison recognizes slavery as akin to this behavior. To the Colonial and Post-Colonial Americans, slavery was quite literally the recipient of the dark shadow projections of the American psyche: “There is no romance free of what Herman Melville called ‘the power of blackness,’ especially not in a country in which there was a resident population, already black, upon which the imagination could play; through which historical, moral, metaphysical, and social fears, problems, and dichotomies could be articulated” (Morrison, “Playing” 37).

For Melville, it is a great, white whale. For Morrison, it is the ghost of the crawling-already? baby. Both of the heroes are haunted by this shadow and either have to conquer or be engulfed. Neither Ishmael nor Sethe is able to conquer their shadow, although Ishmael nearly died trying, and Sethe feel into a lethargic apathy, unable to shoulder the burden any longer. Both offer an image of what can happen if the cultural shadow goes ignored: Ishmael is sucked into and becomes a part of Ahab’s vengeful pursuit of his shadow projected onto the whale, allowing the obsession to overtake him. A modern manifestation of this image is the United States’ “War on Terror,” an obsessive revenge mission to find a figurative White Whale in the desert ocean of ideology. As the years following 9/11 and the quest of the Pequod demonstrate, it really is a futile mission that does more harm to the crew than to the actual whale. There is only one survivor, Ishmael, who is rescued by the wooden coffin inscribed with the life-force of Queequeg, his spiritual brother and protector. Sethe, on the other hand, avoids the shadow until it literally stares her in the face, begging for attention. Even then, she still does not confront it, only spoils it out of guilt and perceived affection. It requires the entire community unified under Denver to exorcise the shadow leaving Sethe without energy to continue. I would offer that this is exactly the environment in which Melville found himself writing, a sort of cultural “Now what?” – “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow” (Morrison, Beloved 322). But the shadow is elusive to time. While both epics attempt “to look away from the past and to see the American future as either a new beginning or a new synthesis” (B. Cowan 227-8), in the end they wind up right back at yesterday, but are hopeful for change.

Turning now to the Monomyth/Genre Wheel journey, the call to adventure comes in the lyric state. For both the journeys of Ishmael and Sethe, we join them in media res, having already accepted their respective calls. Their lyric state is far from being “a realm of love (not law), wholeness, consummation, joy – the right order of being…” (L. Cowan, “Comedy” 9). This state is associated with Edenic qualities, meant to characterize love with the divine and an innocence of the hardships in life. Yet, to an extent for our heroes this is true. Both behave as if they have already seen the worst of the worst, and neither believes that the journey confined within the novel will be in actuality the worst they have experienced yet. Ishmael’s call is driven by his own melancholy and a sense of adventure. He knows that it is time for a change:

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses … and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street … then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. (Melville 18)

For Sethe, on the other hand, her call begins when she sees schoolteacher walking down the drive. One could say that her call comes when she escapes, when schoolteacher’s nephews abuse her, when she hears herself compared to animals, or even as early as the death of Mr. Garner. Rather, Sethe’s time at Sweet Home is what she brings into this new adventure, convinced that nothing she could be worse. In fact, however, it is schoolteacher coming to the house on 124 Bluestone to collect her family that defines, ultimately, the journey of Sethe in Morrison’s novel. She believes 124 is an Edenic paradise and falls into a very lyric state until schoolteacher comes, pushing her across the threshold.

Tragic Threshold Sethe’s journey diverges from Ishmael’s in that she leaves the idealism and hope of the lyric state and enters into the tragic state. When she kills the crawling-already? Baby and nearly kills the other three. She is convinced that killing them is the only way to protect them from the same fate that happened to her. For her, Schoolteacher and his nephews are “the lowest yet” in her life, and no one – especially her children – should have to endure that. Tragedy is understood to be the “realm of suffering – loss, fragmentation, pain…” (L. Cowan, “Comedy” 9). Before schoolteacher’s visit, Sethe bears the marks of a slave, and she is no different than the rest of the community; however, afterwards she is marked as a prideful murderer. She puts up the walls to hide her pain and loss, which only invites the ghost to visit. But like her dress at the hands of Paul D, her walls tumble down and the pain threatens to engulf her. She ignores it, favoring the company of Paul D, forcing it to come back to her. Fortunately, “[d]eep within the wound is the power of healing; the wound is then a paradox because it contains within it the impulse to bring the parts back together – to rememory them” (Slattery 215). “What we see through the body marked and violated is that memory itself is deeply wounded, scarred, and in need of a counternarrative that heals” (Slattery 209).

Epic Threshold Ishmael, in contrast, when he leaves his melancholic state of Eden travels through the epic threshold, aspiring to undergo an voyage such that “the great flood-gates of this wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my innermost soul, endless processions of the whale, and midmost of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air” (Melville 22). He arrives into New Bedford in preparation for his voyage to Nantucket, where he will embark on a voyage. Cowan defines the epic realm as “taking place in some sort of natural surrounding, struggles to build or cleanse or govern this larger order, the just city. Hence, the epic goal … is no longer Eden but the New Jerusalem, the major human enterprise redeemed and made new” (L. Cowan, “Comedy” 10). This is the terrain of civilization as a whole. On the Wheel, it is opposite tragedy, which is the terrain of the individual. Because Ishmael wants to leave the land in pursuit of one of the largest creatures on earth, it can be suggested that Ishmael desires an attack against humanity itself, but, as he lacks the prowess, he goes after leviathans instead, which is ultimately more humane. Clearly, he is unhappy about some aspect of civilization, as he is driven by melancholy to remedy whatever it is within himself that manifests as the conquest: “And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all” (Melville 20). That his path should converge with Queequeg and Ahab reflects the complexity of his epic undertaking. Queequeg is a savage, but “just enough civilized to show off his outlandishness in the strangest possible manner. His education was not yet completed. He was an undergraduate” (Melville 38). But he is “a human being just as I am: he has just enough reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him” (Melville 36). They meet in New Bedford and share a bed together in a symbolic spiritual marriage. Ishmael cannot do this journey alone. Ahab represents the fire within Ishmael for this epic undertaking. His obsession with Moby Dick reflects the conquest of humanity versus nature; he is “the ‘Apollonian’ destructive character undoing the old social contract” (B. Cowan 239). It is his failure that brings Ishmael to a tragic return.

The Comic Underworld Cowan observes that comedy “endures and perseveres in a fallen world … making its way by mutual helpfulness toward a community of love within the larger order of society” (10). Acknowledging the comic underworld as an alchemical vessel, love becomes the catalyst of transformation, represented by the coniunctio. During this cycle of Genre Wheel qua Monomyth, this catalyst represents the development of a new kind of love, as seen in Beloved, or a loss of love, as seen in Moby-Dick and the loss of Queequeg. Following Dante, Cowan divides comedy into three spectra: inferno, purgatorio, and paradiso. If the Genre Wheel is in fact another outline of the Monomyth, then it follows that all heroes must pass through these three spectra before completing the journey. It also stands to reason that if one proceeds through the tragic threshold, then one will pass inferno to paradiso, and vice versa if coming through the epic threshold.

Captain Ahab takes Ishmael on his voyage of vengeance, driven by an unparalleled madness that Ishmael associates with madness fueled from his injury (Melville 156). The journey of the Pequod is, from the outset, one long allegory of the defeat of humanity’s hubris. In the Paradise stage, Ishmael is idealistic and ready to go along with Ahab’s mission – he eyes the doubloon nailed to the mast as a marker of the challenge of the hunt (Melville 138). But the sighting of the squid soon turns Ishmael into a purgatorial state, such that he grows melancholy about his chances of surviving the voyage and rewrites his will with Queequeg (Melville 189). Gradually, he realizes that the sea is more than he had imagined, that to go after the leviathan, specifically this whale, is more than a typical whaling voyage. Like the American movement towards spreading Democracy all over the world, Moby Dick will not be easily converted, and his resistance shakes the foundation of Ahab’s (and Ishmael’s) mission, moving the story into the inferno state, as the legends of the whale actualize in Ishmael’s reality.

Sethe’s story moves in the other direction. Her inferno begins with a devilish red flash as the baby-ghost resists the entrance of Paul D into 124. Though she feels love for the first time in years, she is still tormented by her past. She daily tackles the Sisyphean task of escaping it, only to be shoved right back into the re-memory of it. The reappearance of Paul D after eighteen long years is the most catastrophic reminder she could receive, second to the reappearance of schoolteacher. Morrison’s narration makes it clear that Sethe’s view of the world is skewed, if not a little naive, but driven solely by her pride. Because she had good experiences working for the Garners and was not mistreated by the Sweet Home men, she grew into believing she was entitled to her different treatment, so when the nephews mistreat her, she believes that running away is her only option. When schoolteacher arrives to bring her back, she believes that killing her children is her only option, which it is within the context of Morrison’s narrative. But she never takes the time to work through her experience – she puts on a metaphorical tough skin similar to the scar tissue on her back and thinks no more of it – until Paul D touches her, and the emotions and re-memories of a life she thought was behind her comes back again. Beloved’s appearance marks her entrée into purgatorio, for this “girl” is Sethe’s chance at redemption, to make up for her actions. Is she making amends to Beloved or to herself? Morrison’s narrative is vague on this issue, but through the eyes of Denver, it seems to be a little of both. Paradiso occurs after Beloved is gone and Sethe retires into the Keeping Room. There is not anything left for her, nothing else to run away from, and nothing else to fight. Sethe finds a state of “bliss” while Denver takes her place in the outside world, embarking to complete the journey Sethe cannot.

Epic Return Sethe’s contribution to the community is tied to her legacy in Denver. If the Epic terrain is the mythology of civilization, then Denver’s entering the world marks a “successful” passing/transition from slavery to freedom with the new generation – the first generation born into freedom. This has many American parallels outside the context of slavery, notably the first generation born after the American Revolution, the first generation born after World War II, affectionately dubbed the Baby Boomers, and this novel among the first generation of African American literature post-Civil Rights. This epic transition is at the core of the American mythos: the illusion of freedom and the newness of a new state of consciousness, contrasted only by the realistic hardships and actualities of the past.

Tragic Return Tragedy begins on the Pequod with the near death of Queequeg and the building of his coffin, culminating in the confrontation with Moby Dick. The tragic realm is the realm of the individual, and, as is so often the case, the demise of all the people he or she brings along for the adventure. This is the reality of the American mythos. The illusion of freedom has created a society of individuals, each acting in their own best interest. Ahab tries to conquer the world through Moby Dick, only to realize too late that he cannot. Could Melville have been foreshadowing the failure of the Democratic Gospel?

Both books leave us hanging. Ishmael recounts his story as he remembers it, but we do not know what happens to him next and thus do not know if he made it home to lyric Paradise. Sethe and Denver are starting a new life of hope, but still, there is no assurance they have returned to the lyric domain. Sethe’s retirement suggests that she found some lyric peace, but Denver is just establishing herself in the outer world, and the novel ends with the hope and a sense of redemption for the African American people as a whole, not just the triad of characters. The American civilization needs to recognize its parallels in these novels: we are a country founded on an endless journey, but surely somewhere they have to end, or are we, collectively, destined to walk in the previous generations’ footsteps? Beloved seems to loop right back into Moby Dick, and Moby Dick back into Beloved (like Sethe, Ishmael has a heavy burden to escape from). Is this the ever, never-complete cycle? Louise Cowan comments, epics appear when society is in a transition (L. Cowan, “Epic” 22-3); however, these two epics themselves one hundred years apart, reflect a transition into constant flux, as though our civilization is trapped on a Möbius strip and cannot get off.



Figure 1 – Monomyth


Figure 2 – Genre Wheel

Works cited

  • Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 2nd Ed. Princeton: Bollingen, 1968. 245. Print.
  • Cowan, Bainard. "America Between Two Myths: Moby-Dick as Epic." The Epic Cosmos. Eds. Larry Allums and Louise Cowan. Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications, 1992. 217-46. Print.
  • Cowan, Louise. "Introduction: The Comic Terrain." The Terrain of Comdy. Ed. Louise Cowan. Dallas: Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture, 1984. 1-18. Print.
  • —. "Introduction: Epic as Cosmopoesis." The Epic Cosmos. Eds. Larry Allums and Louise Cowan. Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications, 1992. 1-26. Print.
  • Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Ed. Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford. New York: W. W. Norton, 2002. Print.
  • Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Vintage International, 2004. Print.
  • —. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1992. 36-55. Print
  • Schenk, Ron. "Captain American and His Zealous Blast." Spring: A Journal of Archetype and Culture 81 (Spring 2009): 1-21. Print.
  • Slattery, Dennis Patrick. The Wounded Body: Remembering the Markings of the Flesh. Albany: SUNY P, 2000. Print.

Unbreakable Chains and Immoveable Beds: Marriage in Homer’s The Odyssey

The Odyssey is taught as an early example of epic poetry, recounting the courageous deeds of the hero, Odysseus, who has to find his way home after the Trojan War, but is distracted because he angered the gods. Odysseus is brave, strong and intelligent, appropriate attributes for a noble’s son, but he is also a liar and a cheat that resorts to trickery to get his way, tasks in which he has the support of Athena. His plight reminds me more of a Jobian story, except that Odysseus is easier to appreciate as a classic anti-hero. As a woman, however, I am more attracted to Penelope’s story than I am to all of Odysseus’ deeds and travels. She is the one left behind to raise her son and to protect Odysseus’ home, duties that designate her as a good wife. Her success as a wife is based on two scenes in the epic: one involving Aphrodite and her lover, and the other surrounding Odysseus’ return.

In Book Eight lines 265-366, Demodocos sings to the court of the Phaeacians the marital conflicts between Hephaistos and Aphrodite. By her very nature, she is unable to maintain fidelity to her marriage, and takes advantage of Hephaistos’ long work-days to take a lover in Ares. Helios reveals her infidelity to Hephaistos, who

Went to his bronze works plotting evil in his mind

And put a great anvil on the anvil block and hammered bonds

Unbreakable and indissoluble, that would hold them there fast. (Od. 8. 273-275)

Once the two were ensnared he invites the gods to observe the dishonor done to him. The contrast between Hephaistos and Ares is meant as a foreshadowing to Odysseus’ return. The implication is that while he is away, his wife, like Aphrodite, will take another lover. Indeed, Odysseus is aware of the suitors vying for her hand. Furthermore, the implication is that Odysseus will return home broken from his travels, weary and exhausted, whereas Penelope will have taken a young, strong man as her husband.

While it is true that Odysseus returns to Ithaca a broken, weary man, this is entirely due to Athena’s magic as opposed to a genuine travel fatigue. The disguise is to help him infiltrate his home and assess the situation before he takes action. He learns that Penelope refuses to take another, leaving the suitors to consume his estate. Her intentions are made clear to him during a late night conversation while he is still disguised as the old beggar. In Book Nineteen, lines 130-156, she relates to him her unwillingness to be wooed by the suitors, and of her task of weaving and unweaving a burial sheet for Laertes to detract them. When her plan was revealed, she came under duress as she was urged to marry. Later, after Odysseus is revealed, she tests his identity in Book Twenty-Three, ordering the nurse Eurycleia to pull the bed out of the room for Odysseus to sleep upon (Od. 23. 177-180). Because he gets angry at the suggestion, knowing that the bed was built around a tree and thus immoveable, he reveals himself to her.

Both the chains of Hephaistos and the immoveable bed symbolize the bonds of love. In binding Ares and Aphrodite, Hephaistos is reinforcing their bond, forged by the unbreakable chains. Similarly, Odysseus’ bed symbolizes the steadfastness of the love between Penelope and him. Just as the bed cannot be removed from the chamber, so Penelope refuses to leave her husband’s house.

That said, I do not agree with Penelope’s position. She was left at home, a single mother, while her husband went to go fight a war in Troy, a similar, modern scenario to the wives and mothers left at home while their husbands go fight a war in Iraq. Whereas these soldiers are gone for two to eight years in some cases, Odysseus is gone for almost twenty. In that time, he had at least two divine lovers in Circe and Calypso, while Penelope had to fend off all those suitors jeopardizing her position. She took the symbolism of her marriage bed seriously, while Odysseus played about. Had she made the decision to remarry, she at least would be with someone who could take care of her, rather than people who ravage Odysseus’ home and resources. Her delay is not in the best interest of her husband nor of her son, Telemachos, who would inherit the estate. At the very least, she could have returned to her father and given the property over the Laertes to steward until Telemachos came of age.

Meanwhile, Aphrodite is not only taking a lover, but she is doing it right under the nose of her lame husband. Why would the Greeks establish this conflicting scenario in the society? They go to all the trouble of giving the gods similar attributes as the people, only to make them above any sense of fidelity. Their behavior cannot be simplified to metaphorical archetypes. The stories and attributes had to come from somewhere localized and not the collective. It is more as though they were attempting to give the gods attributes that embodied more of how not to behave rather than how to behave. So maybe Penelope behaves according to her station, but her actions are just as selfish as Odysseus’ divine infidelities. Give me a break.

Works cited

  • Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Albert Cook. New York: W. W. Norton, 1967.