Persephone got legs

Several years ago, as a fresh graduate student at Pacifica Graduate Institute, I wrote a paper about Persephone, interpreting her story less as a mother’s loss for an abducted child, and more as a teenager’s rebellion for the sake of identity formation. My thinking hinges on the very tiny detail that if Persephone really wanted to leave the Underworld and return to her mother, then why did she capitulate and eat pomegranate seeds? Sure, you could say it was because she was hungry, but determined women are rarely bothered by minor inconveniences as hunger. I think that Hades made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. Notice, after all, that the story is written from Demeter’s perspective. The only perspective we get of Persephone’s experience is when she is crying to her mother. Do we really think that she’s telling her mother the whole truth? She didn’t even want to reveal that she ate the pomegranate. Let’s pretend that Persephone donned a leather jacket and jumped onto the back of Hades’ motorcycle early one morning. Of course, her mother would see it as an abduction. The little snot didn’t even say goodbye.

Anyway, the other day I was watching Disney’s The Little Mermaid. I work from home, and don’t have daycare, so my daughter and I watch a LOT of Disney Junior (far more than I’d like). When they broadcast a movie that gives me some relief from Mickey Mouse Clubhouse or Doc MacStuffins that takes me to my Laughing Place, then I’m all for it.

Perhaps it’s because this time I watched the movie as a mother, or perhaps it’s because I’ve been recently giving new consideration to the Princess phenomenon, but I just happened to see Persephone in Ariel, only in reverse–Ariel wants to leave the Underworld for the human world, not the other way around. She wanted to shed her goddess powers (as a mermaid) so she could walk and dance. She, too, made a defiant departure from her father. She felt restricted and confined. He wouldn’t even allow her to dream about the human world. So she left. And got a pair of legs.

The story is far more complex, with a sea witch and losing her voice and such. But the point of any mythic story is that we put our own spin on the details, but the basic structure carries from version to version. Stories such as The Little Mermaid help answer the question of Persephone’s story–just what was her experience while she was gone? Disney’s version tells this story to a modern audience, with Ariel experiencing many of the same growing pains as the American teenager. Even 25 years after its initial release, The Little Mermaid continues to tell the story of the American teenager who is trying to separate herself from parental control and become her own woman. (I’ll save the Eric bit, and the leaving home for a boy bit, for another conversation.)

True Love’s Kiss is today’s pomegranate. It’s a literary symbol that symbolizes union with someone or something else other than a parent, the divine marriage, a key step in the Individuation process. Regardless of what one things about love in the real world, the symbolic marriage in literature and myth speaks on a psychological level, helps elevate the inner reaches of psyche to a conscious level, leading to wholeness.

I contend that Persephone, and Ariel, had to leave. Without the departure, a daughter can’t become her own woman. Disney’s Rapunzel and Pixar’s Brave both illustrate the problems of an over-bearing mother on a girl’s identity formation. Sometimes, it comes with sacrifice, like trading fins for legs, but often, as The Little Mermaid II demonstrates, it doesn’t mean forever.

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Are Girls Princesses or Honorary Boys?

First, a couple disclaimers:

One, I have not seen Brave or any of the new Snow White features as of the time of this writing. I intend to see Brave this weekend, but we’ll have to see what this weekend brings.

Two, as a future parent, I’m not disturbed by the Disney Princesses as they appear in film. They all represent a young woman who is trying to figure out who she is based on who she wants to be OR she is raised not knowing she’s a princess at all. What I am disturbed about is the marketing of the Princesses that seems to communicate the glamour of being a princess, overlooking the journey to princess that these characters take.

So, in light of the release of Brave and the popularity of The Hunger Games, there has been a bunch of discussion going around about female heroes again. This is a particularly troublesome character. In order to follow the hero’s journey, as we know it from Joseph Campbell, she has to do particularly un-feminine things, such as shoot arrows and take no interest in dresses or boys. But in so doing, she is essentially being an “honorary boy,” as Roger Ebert described Merida of Brave. While this is all well and good, it still places these female heroes on a fundamentally male path, and communicates to girls that they have to be “honorary boys” if they want to succeed in their quest. Even the recent incarnations of Snow White show her becoming a Joan of Arc-type of militant vigilante against the evil queen. Again, becoming an “honorary boy.” In this category, Katniss from The Hunger Games stands out because she is not trying to exert any kind of independence, per se. She feels the call to duty upon her father’s death to become the breadwinner for the family. She chooses to become a hunter because she’s not yet old enough to work, and the decisions she makes throughout her adventure are in the name of protecting her family as best as she can. I’ll get back to this point in a moment.

But the contrast to this “honorary boy” character is the princess model. As I mentioned above, the Disney princesses as they are portrayed in the films are not what’s problematic about them. Sure, they seem to come across complacent and passive, but to stop the analysis here misses the point of many of these princesses. There are three types of these princesses:

  1. There are those who know they are princesses, and seek to find their own course in life. These are characters such as Ariel, Pocahontas, and Mulan.
  2. There are those who are princesses, but don’t know it because something happened to their parents when they were children and they were raised in a different life. These princesses have an unspoken quest to reclaim their princesshood. Examples include Snow White, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), and Rapunzel.
  3. And there are those who are not princesses at all, but catch the eye of the prince. By staying true to their own personalities, they are elevated to the level of princesshood. There are several examples in this category, including Cinderella, Tiana, and Belle.

Each princess is asked in the course of her journey to sacrifice something she holds dear in order to complete her quest. This something is ultimately returned at the end of the story. This sacrifice is necessary. Without it, the princess remains tied to the life she knows and loves, like a security blanket. She’s told that she cannot move forward without this sacrifice. In the male hero journey, there’s a sacrifice of home in order to go on a quest. But in the female version of the story, the journey itself is not a necessary component of her mission. It’s the willingness to sacrifice something that starts her quest. If she is launched on a literal journey, she must fulfill her mission without this one item that she identifies with, thus forcing her to dig deep into herself and bring up a part that would likely have remained hidden forever otherwise.

So why does Katniss stand out? Katniss breaks the mold of the girl hero trope. She’s motivated only by her role as protector and breadwinner. She is otherwise a completely ambiguous character. She is neither princess, nor “honorary boy.” She just is. And because the trilogy is told in the first person, we are given a glimpse into her struggle between how she perceives herself and how everyone else expects her to behave. And (small spoiler here) as she caters more and more to the social norm, the less and less grip she has on herself. (end spoiler) See my previous post for further comments about Katniss.

I know a couple of people who are taking on the challenge of identifying just what the female hero’s journey is, because it’s clearly not the same one as the male hero journey. Campbell’s model can still apply, but it gets tricky when you apply this model to a female hero who is not an “honorary boy.” As an example, while one could analyze the journey of Eliza Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice using Campbell’s model, it does feel forced, as though we are trying to fit the puzzle piece into the wrong spot. I’ve long suspected that the female hero’s journey is one of rooting as opposed to one of questing for a boon. Establishing a home. When she’s younger, no girl is thinking along these lines. She is thinking about how quickly she can leave home and become her own woman. Somewhere along the way, however, building her own home becomes important. Perhaps it’s a portable home, or maybe it’s a permanent home. Perhaps it involves are partner and/or children, or perhaps not. Those are secondary elements to the feeling of “planting roots.” Looking through many of the female heroes who have over time influenced our conceptions of women, rooting is the end goal. But finding those heroes in a world filled with “honorary boys” is a challenge.

The Rise of Dark Fairy Tales

It is probably no surprise to the passive reader of this blog (all two of you) that I am a fairy tale enthusiast. It’s a topic I keep returning to time and time again, and it’s a topic that provides hours of academic muddling for this mythologist. That’s what scholars such as the Jungians find so fascinating about fairy tales. In their simplicity, they speak archetypally, deeply, meaningfully… They can become whatever story the reader or listener wants them to be.

And it’s probably no surprise to the passive reader of this blog (all two of you) that I am also a Disney fan, and that Disney’s versions of fairy tales are hands-down my favorites. Why, you might ask? This is a complicated answer, and one that I don’t have lying around, but part of the answer lies in the fact that Disney’s retelling of these stories captures that magic that attracts readers to them in the first place while also translating the stories to a new medium. There’s something that Disney “gets” in its storytelling that makes these stories speak to the culture. Sure, perhaps 200 years from now, Disney’s fairy tales will be shelved along with Grimm’s as future readers try to find the next new gripping version of a tale that’s already been told 1000 times.

Finally, it’s probably no surprise to the passive reader of this blog (all two of you) that I am also a lover of the Disney parks, notably Disneyland since that’s the only one I’ve visited with any capacity to build memories. The parks do for the experience what the films do for the fairy tales. They capture the magic that attracted us to them in the first place. I’ve been to Universal Studios, Six Flags, and my childhood theme park, Eliches (or however it was spelled). But Disney keeps me coming back time and again because of the experience. I trust the rides to not kill me (even with those few scary stories of accidents); I trust the park to be clean and safe; and I trust that, even if I’m tired, sore, and cranky, that the day in the park will still make me very happy.

I am a product of the Disney mythos.

So here’s my point. My love for all three of the above things are combined in the book series Kingdom Keepers by Ridley Pearson, also known for his adult thrillers and his work on Peter and the Starcatchers. The Kingdom Keepers are a group of teenagers hired by Disney to be the models for DHIs, or Digital Host Interactive, digital tour guides through the parks at Walt Disney World. What these kids don’t know is that they have also been recruited to help the Imagineers fight against the Overtakers, who are Disney villans who come alive when the park closes at night. Villains such as Maleficent, Pirates, and Crash Test Dummies. The other Disney characters come alive as well, but they are powerless by themselves to stop the Overtakers from fulfilling their goal of overtaking the park. So the teens at night, when the fall asleep, become the DHIs, and spend their nights in constant battle against the Overtakers, receiving missions from the Imagineers, and trying very hard not to be caught in Sleeping Beauty Syndrome, which occurs when the DHI is prevented from crossing back over at the end of the night and the human teen is locked in a mysterious coma-like sleep.

These books capture the essences of the park and Disney magic and are thrilling for anyone who is either a fan who knows the parks intimately, enjoys a good sci-fi thriller, or even dreams of going to the park one day.

The most recent installment of the series, Shell Game, begins the process of moving the DHIs and the Overtakers to California from Florida by way of the new cruise ship. Having never been on a cruise, let alone a Disney cruise, I was a little skeptical about reading this book. But, of course, I enjoyed it thoroughly (having read half of it on the airplane to and from my dissertation defense). And, of course, in typical Disney fashion, find myself really wanting to take a Disney cruise now to share in the experience.

But that’s still not my point. In one particularly potent scene, the leader of the DHIs, Finn, confronts Maleficent, who is believed to be the leader of the Overtaker operation (though no one is certain about that). Finn and the other DHIs are in an auditorium doing a presentation for the cruise guests when they are besieged by pirates (of the Caribbean). Maleficent appears on the monitors and makes a rather bold statement:

 “Behold the New Order,” Maleficent said in her eerily calm and grating voice. “The dawning of a new age. [. . .] Enough of all this prince-and-princess spun-sugar nonsense. It’s time for the Grimm in the fairy tales to express itself. The woods are dark, my dears. The beasts within them will eat you for supper, not sing you a song. Wake up and smell the roses.” (484)

Remember up above when I said that Disney “gets it?” There is something happening in fairy tales right now, a sort of paradigm shift. In 2010 Disney claimed they were no longer going to make fairy tale animated features. At the same time several, albeit bad, fairy tale features were released by other studios. In 2011, Disney gave us Once Upon a Time. It’s as though the songs of the princesses in the forests have lost their magic for us. And it’s no wonder, given all of the darkness surrounding us as a culture. We are hungry for the magic; we are hungry for the good hero to defeat the dark evil bad person. But we are also hungry for the darkness to become a part of us, because it already is.

There is a shroud of darkness on American culture today, and it is spreading into other parts of the world. Perhaps this is because of the prevalence of our cultural exchanges, or perhaps this is a darkness that has been trying to take over (the Overtakers) for decades (think Great Depression, atomic bomb, and Cold War), but the American optimism has always kept it at bay. That optimism has taken a vacation, it seems. Even Disney, who always gave us a message of hope and happiness in our darkest hour is putting forth messages that this is the time of monsters (KK) or that the fairy tales have forgotten who they are (OUAT).

Meanwhile, fairy tales are being retold with a vigor that we haven’t seen in a while. New Grimm texts were found. Movies retell the stories. Vampires, werewolves, and zombies are everywhere and literally eating us (though occasionally, they may sing us a song to lure us in their charms).

It’s difficult to describe the change that is happening while being in the middle of it happening. Hindsight is always 20/20, but At-the-moment-sight is typically blind. We’re still looking to the past, expecting it to have all of the answers. Oh but wait, you’ll notice we’re looking at the 1950s for those answers. Just because television and the movies painting the decade as Pleasantville, the decade was anything but. Darkness perpetuating darkness.

We haven’t learned anything from our previous encounters with Darkness in the past, which is why it is still bothering us. Call it the shadow or whatever, but until we start communing with this Darkness and learning something from it, we’ll be on this endless cycle for a while yet.

Lessons we’re learning from today’s myths: 1. Believe in magic. 2. Remembering or finding your true identity or self is the first step toward dealing with the darkness. 3. Listen to your elders–you don’t know how much longer they’ll be around to advise you. 4. Don’t listen to your elders if you know they’re advising you poorly. 5. Saving good from evil has no room for EGO.

That said, I’m looking forward to the last two KK books. If the DHIs are successful in bringing down the Overtakers, perhaps we could stand to learn a thing or two from them?

Current Events and Fairy Tales

I have been decidedly quiet about current events lately. One reason is that I don’t actually read/listen to the news, and I try not to make opinions based on headlines. And the other reason is that I don’t often make it a habit to discuss current events in print. That said, there has been a lot over the last couple months that are worth considering, especially considering the idea that there is a “something” (apocalypse, paradigm shift) on the horizon. This is a season of change, and we have known it was happening, but now we seem to be staring this change in the face.

See, what we are witnessing in current events isn’t a new myth or anything like that. Rather, what we are witnessing is the continuation (perhaps culmination) to a mythos that has been in play in the modern world for some time now. We’ve seen uprisings, debates, concern over government control, unrest in the Middle East… None of this is new. Sure, there are some new factors, such as media barrage and social networking tools. Major change cannot happen overnight. Notice how many times “change” has happened overnight and how quickly we revert back to the “old ways.”

The conflict we are seeing is the emergence of a new mythology and the unwillingness to let the old one go. This is indicative of a period of change, which, if history is any indication, can last a couple hundred years (or longer depending on transmission of information and military action).

What is this old mythology, you might ask? It’s the mythology of the hero and the idea of an adventure to destroy a specific evil. I do not need to provide examples of this motif, since it is everywhere. I would venture to suggest that this motif is the result of the utopian dreams that emerged in the Renaissance. Prior to the Renaissance and the conquest of the New World, hero stories involved some sort of epic battle, a dramatic rescue, or the finding of a lost item. Following the discovery of the New World, the hero’s journey gradually morphed into the destruction of an evil (known or unknown) to parallel the utopian goals of Manifest Destiny and American claims to the lands of the West. Once the West was “conquered,” the stories were less literal (cowboys versus Indians) and turned into metaphors of good and evil. English fantasy is an excellent example of this shift. The evils of Tolkien and Lewis deal with archetypal evils, making them applicable to any cultural situation (and thus timeless!). But, I would like to underscore the point that although the American psyche is unique in the world, it is still connected to the Western psyche at its roots, such that the evils of the Old World are the same as the evils of the New World, because that is the tradition we have inherited.

What might the new mythology look like? A friend of mine believes that the new mythology will look something like The Last Airbender. This is a story not about destroying evil, but about restoring balance. The point isn’t to destroy the fire people, but to end the domination of one element over the others. This is very different than destroying a specific evil, such as Frodo’s journey in The Lord of the Rings, because it acknowledges that evil is not something that can be completely eradicated. Evil is a part of human nature. It’s an outdated (Victorian/Enlightenment) concept to consider that we can completely shut down evil forces. This is what Jung was advocating with his emphasis on the shadow. Knowing the shadow is to know that evil exists – within yourself no less. Knowing the shadow also means coming to terms with your own nature, and the nature of all humanity.

*****

In a similar vein, I started watching, at the persistent recommendation of a couple students, Grimm and Once Upon a Time on Hulu this week. I’m not too far into either show yet, but I see the promise of both of them. I’m fascinated by the use of the Disney fairy tales in Once Upon a Time and the crime-solving aspect of Grimm. However, what I am most fascinated by is the recent wave of fairy tale reimaginings that has hit the cinema as of late. The potency of fairy tales is that they can be retold in different times and places, but this wave seems somehow different. While many of the stories are given a modern component, there is something dark and gothic about the approach. As though the hero figure of the story isn’t just having a fairy tale journey toward a happily ever after but, rather, that the story itself reflects the times and our hope that we are nearing the end of the darkness of our cultural suffering. Of course, we’re not, but these stories remind us of the power of hope and belief whenever times are tough, and also the power of story to speak to our deepest fear and give voice to our concerns. Stories speak in a metaphorical language, especially fairy tales, which is why the psychologists (Jung and otherwise) have devoted a lot of time to exploring their psychological power.

If my read on what is happening is even somewhat correct – and I am very open to the likelihood that I’m missing the mark by a gazillion miles – then the new myth will invite revisionings of fairy tales that will make stories very different than what we currently believe the formula to be. This discussion is already happening with regards to the female hero adventure and whether or not her story can fit the mold, which most conclusions deciding that it cannot. Couple this with Campbell’s claim that what happens next is a return to a matriarchal world, the dawning of the age of Aquarius, and the vehement apocalyptic themes in movies, television and video games, we can see that the shift is already happening. And that’s what makes this particular time so fascinating, if not more than a little scary.

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.

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.

Reshaping “Cupid and Psyche” into Twilight: Mythopoesis and the Demon Lover

In Interpretation of Fairy Tales, Marie-Louise von Franz makes a passing comment linking the myth of “Cupid and Psyche” to the fairy tale of “Beauty and the Beast,” citing that they both have the same archetypal story of the extremely beautiful girl who gains the attention of a forbidden figure, whom she is expected to love without ever properly beholding him. In the case of Psyche, the lover is a god, and she suffers tragically for sneaking a peek before finding divine forgiveness with Aphrodite, Cupid’s mother. For Beauty, or Belle, her lover is a beast who forbids her from her family until she learns to love him unconditionally, which helps him turn into a lovely prince and they live happily ever after. In contemporary literature, the fairy tale of “Beauty and the Beast” has morphed into the tales of vampire romance, such as, but not limited to, the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and True Blood and the young adult quartet by Stephenie Meyer, Twilight. It is the Twilight series I am going to focus on, because the series has gripped several readers to the point of obsession.

I first learned of the Twilight series from various Harry Potter fan sources. Twilight was heralded, prior to the release of the fourth book after which point I stopped paying attention, as the next Harry Potter; in other words, as the literary voice to fill the void left after the seventh and final Potter book was released. The mythic qualities of Potter are so strong and compelling that it left readers craving more. Twilight happened to be at the right place at the right time. Allow me to say, for the record, that there is nothing especially “mythic” about Twilight. In fact, it is, on the whole, poorly written and executed. Nonetheless, its cultural impact is essentially of mythic proportions and should not be ignored.

The story follows Bella, a new girl to a small Washington state community. She is not particularly beautiful, but she is new and novel, which quickly gains the attention of the boys and the disdain of the girls. She is a sophomore in high school. In Biology class, she is partnered with a moody and enigmatic guy, named Edward, who is a member of a family that keeps mostly to themselves and are shunned by their classmates for their outward displays of wealth and apparent perfectness. Bella and Edward slowly form an attraction to each other, after a lot of bickering akin to the Elizabeth/Darcy relationship in Price & Prejudice, which borders on obsessive magnetism. Bella learns that he is a vampire – and I am staying away from the author’s redux of vampire lore – and she becomes fully attached to him, while he, meanwhile, moans about how dangerous it is to love him while constantly stalking her to protect her from harm.

Mythopoesis is understood to be the creation of myth and it occurs when the reader interacts with the narrative. It is not when the author writes it down because the relationship between the author and a work is like that of a parent to a child. The author simply brings the narrative into being. A good author will be able to let it go intermingle in the world as it organically must, rather than force it upon others or stringently restrict others from using the narrative in their own projects. It is the reader who brings about the mythopoesis. Every reader will have a different reaction to a narrative – for instance, I love “Cupid and Psyche” but dislike Twilight – and every reader will experience a different connection to the story than others. A successful narrative will lend itself to multiple interpretations, including those of future generations. A narrative that limits itself to one interpretation is essentially escapist fiction, but this does not preclude the possibility of a mythopoetic moment.

Often mythopoesis occurs is when the reader encounters an element of the story and immediately and forcefully finds him- or herself inextricably connected to the moment. For fans of Twilight, this moment occurs (repeatedly) whenever Bella and Edward run into a revelation. For example, as Bella falls in love with Edward she realizes he is more than he seems, as when he rushes across the parking lot to save her from an inevitable car accident, or when he takes her racing through the woods. Both events reveal his supernatural power. Other points of mythopoesis are the times when Edward displays his love and affection for Bella, an ordinary girl who is not exceptionally beautiful. In the years since Pride and Prejudice, hardly any girl does not hope to win the attention of the gorgeous, wealthy man when she herself is ordinary. In reality, this is not common, but the stories provide a fantastical outlet.

A work of literature does not have to be outwardly “mythical” if the reaction it incites in the reader is to move beyond a level of passivity to the point of near obsession. It induces imaginative interactions and desperate needs to either re-read the story or create new interactions. The power of myth lies in the inducement of projections from the reader. Some aspects of the psyche finds fulfillment within the narrative and is therefore triggered. The reader can identify with a character or characters and find some degree of satisfaction and fulfillment within the narrative structure.

Furthermore, given its linear nature, the narrative structure has the ability to lure in the reader gradually, versus having the need to grab the reader during first contact or risk losing him or her forever, through major events or the introduction of compelling characters. This is due in large part to the fact that the narrative form is the primary external mode of the psyche, demonstrated by the universal appeal, both ancient and modern, of storytelling. It has been suggested by numerous theorists that the emergence of the novel during the Enlightenment effectively killed the storytelling form. Rather than make stories a communal event, they are now a solitary experience, and are without pictures. But it seems to me that the novel allows for a more complete process of imagination. Because the stories can go deeper, there are more levels and opportunities available for enjoyment.

Twilight demonstrates that the power of the myth does not lie simply in its reshaping. The stories are mediocre and the presentation is terrible. The real power lies in the ability of the myth to communicate, and the only genuine way to track this is through the popular reaction. Book sales and theatrical ticket sales are fairly arbitrary. Different venues sell products for different prices and the overall sales can be affected by inflation. The real testament these days is found online. Fan websites exist for every topic imaginable, and the more there are is often an indicator of popularity. Furthermore, websites have launched designed primarily as news websites, tracking all news and people associated with the books and films. This has come out of the Harry Potter phenomenon. These websites become safe havens for like-minded conversation, and it is possible to track the number of visits a site receives on a daily basis.

I am fairly confident that readers of Twilight do not consider the parallels between these books and previous myths, certainly not “Cupid and Psyche.” I would even further suggest that the author did not write the series with “Cupid and Psyche” in mind at all. To Meyer, the story just needed to get written, regardless of her inspirations. Clearly the story itself is very powerful, which also attests to the variations that have appeared through the ages. The pervasive message is the degree to which two people can love each other without knowing the true nature of one lover. For example, Psyche is in love with Cupid, but initially has no idea what he looks like. She is convinced by her sisters that he is a beast until she sees him in the light. Beast appears to Beauty as an outwardly beast, and she has to discover his true nature before she can bring herself to love him. Bella learns about Edward’s vampire nature early, and it is the knowledge of this secret that binds the two together.

Fairy Tales and Utopian Ideals

There are some scholars that, as much as I would like to try, I just cannot avoid. They are the ones that add conversation and dialogue to my research, taking it to a deeper level. Sure, it would be easy to ignore them, but then I’d be just as shallow a researcher as the Shallow Researcher “archetype” at the core of my academic shadow projections. Today’s unavoidable researcher: Jack Zipes.

I discovered Jack Zipes when I was doing the Pacifica preview day, which I’d timed on purpose to coincide with my admissions interview. As part of the preview day, they were giving out a $25 gift certificate for the Pacifica bookstore. One of the unspoken secrets of the Pacifica bookstore is that the really good books all cost exactly $25 or more, and that it is neigh impossible to exit the bookstore without spending at least $45. I blew my travel budget many times in that bookstore… Anyway, I chose Zipes’ Fairy Tale as Myth, Myth as Fairy Tale, because the title seemed to be dealing with some residual questions I had lingering from my MA thesis. I read 3 pages before shelving the book to prepare for Pacifica, and there the book stayed for 3 years until one day I brought home his book, Happy Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children, and the Culture Industry from the Pacifica library. Revisiting Jack Zipes revealed two things: 1. he is no lover of Disney and 2. he fails to make the distinction between Grimmified fairy tales and literary fairy tales in his criticism of the Disneyfication of fairy tales. Before leaving this point, I must emphasize how much it annoys me that people criticize Disney for “sanitizing” or “trivializing” fairy tales, making “the one true version” that most kids today know and realize, but fail to criticize the Brothers Grimm for doing the EXACT same thing. AND, I would further point out, that Disney’s fairy tale films until The Little Mermaid were anything BUT sanitized.

Anyway, the point of this post is a couple of questions that Zipes poses in Happily Ever After that I think need to be addressed, though I’m not sure my dissertation is the place to do it.The quote is this:

Indeed, ever since World War II the fairy tale as live-action film or animation has become one of the most successful genres in the culture industry. Perhaps, given the barbarism of World War II, the need for fairy tales in the mass media became greater afterward, for it is through the fairy tale that hope for happy endings is kept alive. The question we must ask, however, is whether it is a false hope. Do fairy-tale films project false utopias through amusement? Have fairy-tale films contributed to the destruction of community and the deception of the masses? (70).

The hope for happy endings that these films project is not limited to the barbarism that upset the American psyche following World War II. In fact, Snow White and Pinocchio were promising us happy endings before we even entered the war. However, the potency of the genre took off following the war, but I don’t think the war is to blame for this. Instead, I suggest turning to the Cold War. After World War II, America was on a high – we had come out of the war the victors and we were one of the most prosperous nations in the industrialized world. But we were afraid of “communism,” a fear of our individuality being compromised and a fear that still resonates today. We projected this fear onto the Russians, and what followed was an absurd decade of drills, bomb shelters and the illusion that if your school gets hit by a bomb then your school desk will protect you. Out of this fear, we get science fiction films, film noir, suspense thrillers and fairy tale films. The first three deal with confrontation with the unknown, while the last on the list deals with the happier side of the imagination. So it makes sense that Disney would experience a surge of popularity, being one of the few media outlets that gave us fluffy bunnies in a time of constant fear. The Cold War fear led to Vietnam, which was a major blow to the American psyche, from which we sort of recovered from after the fall of the Berlin wall. But as we were leaving our fear of communism behind, we were turning it instead into a fear of “terrorism,” which we believe compromises our identity with oil. This is the mode we’re still deeply swimming in.

Do fairy tale films project false utopias? YES, but these false utopias offer hope. The American Dream is a projection of a false utopia. The country was founded on utopian ideals, conquered by utopian ideals, and industrialized under utopian ideals. We have always attracted immigrants who are searching for utopia. Utopia is at the deep, buried core of American mythos. Since World War II, we have seen an increase in apocalyptic films. Cold War films projecting the fear of our destruction. Then after the fall of the studio system and Woodstock, films reflected a dystopian disillusionment. Films since the 80s have tried to offer hope for a savior hero, but that savior hero has yet to manifest in the culture (another discussion for another day). Throughout all of this, fairy tale films have given us happily ever afters. Sure, there is some saving going on – the princess needs some kind of rescue, or more recently the prince does – but what is being saved is hope for new beginnings. As Doug Brode points out in From Walt to Woodstock: How Disney Created Counterculture, Disney films don’t have happy endings. They don’t end. They offer, instead, new beginnings. One that takes place off screen. “And they lived happily ever after” is very different than “The End.”

Have fairy tale films contributed to the destruction of the community? I think asking this question is blowing everything out of proportion. Many factors contribute to the destruction of the community. If anything, fairy tale films reinforce community. Walt Disney said somewhere that his goal was always the family, which is the core of any community.

Have they contributed to the deception of the masses? Again, I think this is blowing everything out of proportion. Sure, they project false utopias, but they speak to the mythic imagination, not to the reality of our lives. If the masses are deceived, it’s a failing of the education system and community network. America does have a propaganda machine, but it does not operate the same way as other propaganda machines have, fully pulling the mask over our eyes. This country benefits from the fact that we allow both sides of the conversation to happen, but that doesn’t mean we’re listening. That’s not Disney’s fault. If anything, Disney films are more subversive than we realize.

Grimmfication

As a Disney-lover, dissertater, and thinker, I find myself constantly defending the Disneyfication/Disneyization of fairy tales. Fairy tale theorists have a difficult time accepting Disney’s films as one version among many, but rather see them as being the harbingers of the death of fairy tale culture. I hold the position that Walt Disney and Disney Corp translated written fairy tales into film to a) translate the fairy tale genre to the new medium that has now become predominant throughout our society and b) translate the fairy tales from an Old World/European sensibility to the American sensibility, making them rich and potent for us today. In this sense, Disney’s fairy tales are just one version adding to a millennia-old tradition of storytelling. What I tend to fail to do, and what theorists fail to see is the Grimmfication of fairy tales. I can’t decide if it should be spelled Grimmfication or Grimmification. So you heard it here first, folks! Let’s see if we can coin a term.

When the Brothers Grimm went around Germany collecting fairy tales, they were setting out to collect German culture and capture it into a handy anthology of story. Unfortunately, what they did was write down a literalized version of the fairy tales. They weren’t alone. It became vogue to do this very thing during the 1800s, in an early process of ethnography.

Fairy tale tradition stems from the oral folk tales that are transmitted from generation to generation, from elder to child. These stories often take a particular flavor specific to the region or era of the storytelling, but this is what makes them so rich and potent. So the Grimm Brothers wrote down a version which has now become to dominant version.

[Marie-Louise von Franz talks about the abstractness of fairy tales, citing this as the cause of their archetypal nature, in The Interpretation of Fairy Tales. Perhaps this abstractness is really more due to the fact that that is how the Grimms wrote down the story….)

So why are the Disney Critics so concerned with the Disneyfication of fairy tales, but fail to acknowledge the Grimmification? That’s the answer I haven’t unpacked yet.

Disney and Sex–A Misguided Interpretation of Princesses

So I’m at the PCA/ACA conference, which so far is a really fascinating experience. Being an introvert, I haven’t made any new professional best friends yet, but I have bought three books, which I will review once I read them because they just sound like the perfect way to spend my dissertation research time. Of course, they’re dissertation-worthy, but yet not dissertation-necessary, which is the case of just about all books.

Anyway, there was this panel about Girl Power, which involved some misguided, shallow approaches to feminist theory. Specifically, looking at girls in literature and how they are awesome. No context, no theory, no analysis. To close the panel was a presentation about Ponyo, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Princess Tutu, three Japanese fairy tales.

But here’s the annoying part: This presentation did not incorporate fairy tale theory, feminist theory or any cultural analysis into its thesis. Instead, it made some grandiose claims about how the images of Disney caused our sexual culture. The presenter specifically looked at The Little Mermaid. The assertion is that a) Disney images portray women as sexy, quoting a study of how much skin between the upper thigh and bust women show, and b) the “Princessfication” it portrays limits women.

In response to A: The portrayal of women as sex objects is NOT Disney, it’s the larger culture. BUT, to read Disney characters as sexual (and only directed at children, hence the problem) is a misreading of Disney fairy tales. Walt Disney retold fairy tales using traditional models, which did include arguably “weak” princess characters, but gave them a voice long before the birth of the Feminist Movement. PLUS, Disney’s goal was to define family entertainment as something adults and children could equally enjoy together, not as tamed down stories that are more palatable to children. It is important, Oh Disney Critics, to define the era of Disney fairy tales in your analysis and to take into account the goals of the company at the time of the fairy tale release, because those factors greatly influence the marketing of the film. The era in question influences the portrayal of the characters, which is the crux of the argument I am making during this conference.

In response to B: really? Just because the Princess is the over-used marketing campaign of Disney does not mean that Disney holds a negative view of women.

Now, the comparison to three Japanese fairy tale films to Disney Princesses is just plain shaky territory in a 15 minute/6 page presentation. In order to make a sound argument (especially if one is relying on films distributed by the Overtakes of the Mouse), it is essential to take cultural differences into account. One could easily argue that Ponyo portrays a fetishized child (thanks Rebekah!), which is far more sexual in nature than the portrayal of a Mermaid, whose bare midriff is a side-effect of the fact that she lives underwater and whose story is about her failure of finding love with only her slim, red-headed figure as her tool.

On one hand, it really bothers me that Disney Critics are so shallow. But on the other hand, I appreciate the opportunity to be the voice of the opposition. There is so much more to Disney than one’s fear for the brand, but this is a different conversation all together. Eventually, I hope that Disney Critics will start to recognize their shadow and work accordingly. Then I might have more respect for their arguments.