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.
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6 thoughts on “The Great Debate: Myth Versus Fairy Tale in Joseph Campbell’s The Flight of the Wild Gander

  1. I am writing my Master’s thesis on the “Wizard of Oz”. I noticed that while you included “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings” in your analysis of modern fairy-myths, you did not mention “The Wizard of Oz “. Would you mind commenting on that for me? I am so glad that I found your comment here; it is very helpful to me.
    Jeanette Durkin

    1. Hi Jeanette, I’d love to hear more about your thesis! The reason I excluded “The Wizard of Oz” from mine is seems silly in hindsight: I never cared for the movie so I didn’t read the book(s)! Your comment is timely, as I just finished reading the first book yesterday. 🙂

      1. Hi Priscilla: Thanks for your response. I am trying to finish the thesis proposal before Thanksgiving. As soon as I have finished the proposal, I would love to talk to you more about my project! Happy Thanksgiving.

  2. Excellent post. Concise observations on the value of the sacred & the power of the myth & symbol in society and personal life.

    When categorizing fantasy with my students, I would identify Lord of the Rings as Elevated (Epic) or High Fantasy. It is based on Heroic Legends and the quest motif. It ore rightly can be associated with Myth. The Hobbit is structurally based on the folktale and the traditional fairy tale.

    Rings is epic in narrative structure and incorporates elements of tragedy. Seasonally, it is associated with winter. In the end, the Summer lands are across the sea and require a further voyage. You can not go home again, you are too much changed.

    The Hobbit is Summer/youth adventure. You go there and back again. Gaining knowledge that you bring back home with you. Consider Jack and the Beanstalk or Little Red Riding Hood as examples.

    I would suggest that the Realm of Faerie is a powerful level of consciousness and creativity. It overlaps with that of Myth and is part of the basis of all arts & literature ( oral, theatrical & written). I think Campbell’s definition reflects a bias. Because he perceived the role of the fairy tale as entertainment aimed at a general ( less sophisticated) audience/children, it lacked some aspect of psychological depth. A surprising omission on his part.

    I have recently been exploring the Red Riding Hood Tale, taking my cues from Clarissa Pinkola Estes – Women Who Run With the Wolves and her edited edition of Grimm’s Tales. Found your post while doing some online research.

    Here is my post if you are interested. Thanks

    http://impliedspaces.wordpress.com/2014/06/27/implied-spaces-skinning-the-wolf-1/

  3. My understanding of Campbell description of the value of Fairy Tales is quite different from yours.
    I understood Campbell giving tremendous value to fairy tales beyond simply ‘entertainment.’ Simply the numerous reference he makes in his books towards fairy to demonstrate his ideas indicates his recognition of their importance. Yes he does on several occasion speaks of fairy tales as entertainment I believe he is referencing the utilisation of this form, when and in what context they were recounted.

    1. Sorry I’m just now seeing this!

      I agree that Campbell does place a tremendous importance on fairy tales. I think the best approach to fairy tales is that of Marie-Louise von Franz, who wrote about fairy tales as akin to the unconscious. Because they are relatively generic stories, they carry more psychic meaning than a myth, which carries a specific context that carries its meaning. Thoughts?

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