The Hunger Games

I read the first book of the trilogy back in 2010, mostly as an exercise to find out what the hype was all about, but also to prepare myself for writing my dissertation. Sometimes some good fiction is a nice mental cleanse. I thoroughly loved the first book: the dystopia of Panem mirroring the dystopia of America, a nod to Theseus and his own Hunger Games as he took down the Minotaur (Peeta even played the Ariadne role), and a level of writing that was neither too young adult nor too adult that kept the book flowing with some openings for the imagination. Here’s the catch: the book felt so complete, as though Collins hadn’t yet secured the contract for the entire trilogy, that I didn’t feel compelled to hurry up and finish it.

So then I got a Kindle as a self-graduation present after defending my dissertation. This itself is insignificant, hut I was motivated by the Prime users lending library to read the remaining two books. Catching Fire was hands-down brilliant.

**Begin Spoiler-ish. Skip ahead if you don’t want to be spoiled-ish.**

The idea of a second Hunger Games, the growing discontent in the districts, Katniss’ own teenage rebellion all helped make this an engaging read. This book helps take the plot away from Katniss’ own struggles with taking care of her family in a poor district and puts the struggle into all of Panem, which is the foundation for Mockingjay. This last book is heavy and written with the tone of “let the adults handle the politics. You just do what you’re told.” It does get whiny, because Katniss gets whiny about having to be someone’s pawn (she had enough of that in the Games, thank you very much). She also gets progressively more injured, mentally and physically, which takes her further and further away from the frontlines. In the end, she rebels and almost all of those closest to her dies. Then she chooses her lover and lives happily ever after. Yep, just like that.

**End Spoiler-ish**

I was okay, tolerant, of Mockingjay right up until the epilogue. I admit, it’s nice having the happy ending secured for Katniss, but honestly it felt a little forced, the way the Harry Potter epilogue felt forced. I feel that epilogues of this sort take the duty of explaining too much to the reader, as though we’re not smart enough to imagine a happy ending for a character we’ve come to know intimately over the course of this epic adventure. A friend wrote about this phenomenon of Authorial Intrusion. Rather than include this epilogue, why not just leave that story for fan fiction or the author’s blog or tour? As we know from Rowling and the Potter fandom, anything the author says in passing becomes canon. Why not leave it there?

Epilogue aside, the trilogy follows what I call–for a lack of better terminology–the Star Wars structure: the first is complete and can stand on its own while simultaneously setting up the rest of the trilogy, the second is dark and perfect, and the third brings the trilogy to an end perhaps a little too anticlimatically.

Young adult fiction has taken a very dystopian tone as of late, but what makes The Hunger Games stand apart is that it’s really not a savior hero story. Katniss only thinks she’s the hero–it’s her story after all–especially after she consciously agrees to that roll. But she’s not Harry Potter. She’s not a Chosen One. Compared to other YA heroes, there’s not much that’s special about Katniss Everdeen. She is an accidental celebrity. No magic powers are bestowed on her. She’s not a Campbellian hero either. She does come back from the underworld with her boon, but never does anything with it. Not even breathing an air of freedom. She just does what she always does: survive.


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?

The Perks of Being a Wallflower?

The trailer for The Perks of Being a Wallflower premiered last night during the MTV Movie Awards:

(Video taken from The Leaky Cauldron)

The idea behind this book is that the main character, Charlie, writes letters to this anonymous reader (presumably the book’s author) about the struggles of being a teenager who is neither sporty nor popular… a wallflower. He makes some friends who help him find himself, but then the book ends on a tragic note. And it’s this tragic note that made me rethink my opinion of the book. In that one moment, what was a wonderful book that I would give to a teenage to read suddenly turned into one of those sensationalist teenage novels in the category of Go Ask Alice. Perhaps I’m exaggerating to myself, but my ultimate point remains the same :

When I was a teenager, I found my solace in Anne Rice. I was attracted to the tone of her novels, which were both dark but possess a sort of Gothic optimism that I needed to read at the time. For this reason, I don’t begrudge teens for reading dark fiction. But I didn’t have Harry Potter as a teen. I was almost at the end of high school and the angsty teenage phase when Sorcerer’s Stone was released. I was more interested in reading the classics for my English classes than I was in current fiction.

Since Harry Potter, young adult and teen fiction took a new turn. The turn was already happening prior to Potter, but these books started to attract a number of adult readers and gained attention for the series. The darkness that only teens can identify began leaking to other demographics. Perhaps we knew that the 90s optimism was only a brief period of calm between the Cold War and whatever would come next.

I’m slowly getting tired of these dark novels dominating our culture. Vampires, zombies, teenage angst, Voldemort… There is little room for happiness, and it seems as though the entire culture has forgotten how to be happy. Messages of empowerment are lost among the popularity of these teenage tales. So rather than write some new, hopeful fiction, we have superheroes we hope will save us. But why aren’t we saving ourselves?

Teens should go through that underworld journey in order to grow, but in our country’s phobia about aging, are we forgetting how to leave the underworld as adults? Or are we just Orpheuses who made the mistake of turning around?

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.

The Literary Alchemy of “The Knight in the Cart”

"Literary alchemy" is a phrase used by John Granger, scholar, writer and blogger, to describe the process by which one can undergo personal transformation by engaging with literature, notably Harry Potter. Indeed, literature provides a mythic metaphorical framework for personal development by being a vessel for our projections and is subject to personal interpretation rather than to a universal collective understanding. This is what makes the hero’s journey as outlined by Joseph Campbell and popularized by Christopher Voegler significant: that through this outlined process, not only can a storyteller tell a compelling story, but the reader is transported to new worlds through the power of the imagination and can become the hero. With the hero, the reader suffers, laughs and cries, and fights the bad guy to earn the boon. While Granger discusses literary alchemy in conjunction with Harry Potter without psychological implications, this process can be applied to any story or archetype that induces mythic and psychic transformation. The prima materia is the individual and the lapis, or Philosopher’s Stone, is the desired outcome.

Much has been explored and discussed about the psychological metaphor of Arthurian Romances and the quest for the Holy Grail. In his book, He: Understanding Masculine Psychology, Robert Johnson notes that the Grail myth functions as both the model for understanding masculine psychology in both men and women and the prescription for curing the psychological ailment of modern society characterized in literature by the lost and abandoned hero (x, 11, 7). Joseph Campbell suggests that the Grail “is a topic that can serve to guide us from the general universal themes of myth into the material that is specifically of the European consciousness that we inherit” (Transformations 209).

The Grail has taken on various images in the different versions of the Grail stories. Traditionally, the Grail is identified with the Arc of the Covenant, and an elaborate collection of legends exists about the Knights Templar and their mission to guard it. Other interpretations include Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal, which imagines the Grail as a slab, Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, which imagines the Grail to be the bloodline begun by Christ and Mary Magdalene, and the Disney film, National Treasure, imagines it to be the entirety of Templar and Masonic treasure housed underneath Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The Grail symbol is parallel to the symbol of the Philosopher’s Stone, and the quest for it is the same as for the boon of the Self. Like the psychological wholeness pursued in Jung’s individuation process, the Grail is long sought and rarely found in the course of a knight’s lifetime. The two changes Parzifal received to enter the Grail castle are more exception than the norm. The romances stress that one only has one opportunity to win the Grail in the knight’s lifetime. This interpretation, however, can lead to a misunderstanding about the Grail/Self quest as a linear, one-time process. To find the Grail is the ultimate quest, but it is regarded in lieu of all the little adventures that occur along the way. Even Parzifal diminishes the meaning of his adventures because of his desire to return to the Grail castle. An alchemical reading of Arthurian romance reminds the reader that the Grail can be found at the end of all quests, because it manifests in the form needed by the psyche when the time is right. Chrétien de Troyes’ story, "Lancelot" or "The Knight in the Cart" is a clear example of the alchemical process at work in Arthurian romance. Lancelot’s quest is not for the Holy Grail, per se, but, rather, for his personal Grail in Guinevere.

The alchemical process is a convenient alternative to both the Jungian process of individuation and Campbell’s model for the hero myth. All three processes involve a transformation from one substance, the prima materia, into another, the lapis or Philosopher’s Stone. The alchemical process concentrates on manipulating a substance to transform it into another, onto which the alchemist can project his psychic wanderings. The hero cycle applies mostly to a recurrent theme in various forms of literature, onto which the reader can project his or her own psychic energies. The process of individuation is a psychic, unconscious transformation that helps bring a person closer to inner wholeness. Because of the unconscious nature of individuation, one has to be guided through a manifestation of it by experiencing myth in order to live it properly. From this perspective, alchemy and the monomyth are fundamentally the same, giving two different languages and perspectives for this transformative process, while individuation is the actual transformation in the physical world. That said, literary alchemy bridges the three perspectives to establish a common language. The thing onto which the reader projects is the literary text, offered as the substance and equipment of the work. The mythic nature of literature links it actively to the reader’s psyches. The power of Harry Potter, for example, is based on the substances and the equipment Rowling provides and the powerful archetypes that tickle the reader’s imagination. Through an alchemical reading, the myth is internalized and acts as a catalyst for or a guide through the individuation process. Literary alchemy transforms the mythic metaphor into something tangible and personally relevant to the reader. Otherwise, literary analysis has no personal meaning.

Chrétien begins Lancelot’s adventure in “The Knight in the Cart” after the abduction of Guinevere and Kay. Gawain initially rides to rescue them, but is joined by Lancelot when Lancelot’s horse collapses from too much intense riding. Desperate to continue on his quest, and without any other available option, Lancelot jumps into the back of a passing cart driven by a dwarf. When Lancelot jumps into the back of the dwarf’s cart, he begins his nigredo phase. Though he is not literally blackened, his reputation is tarnished because the cart is the ride for prisoners and criminals, not knights of the Round Table. Like Lancelot, this phase is necessary for all heroes who embark upon an adventure. The blackening phase is when the prima materia is burnt and is transformed by fire, losing its original luster. Transformation by fire has different affects on different substances: a liquid will be transformed into a gas, or a solid can be transformed either destructively, as in the case of wood, or constructively, as in the case of clay into pottery. In Lancelot’s case, and the case of literary alchemy, the blackening is one of construction. Even though his reputation is tarnished by his actions, the potential remains for redemption, salvation and a personal transformation that will void his actions. Like in the model of Campbell’s monomyth, this is akin to the separation, the threshold crossing through which the hero is plunged into the unknown. It is though Lancelot, the great knight, is dead to the community.

Of the ordeals Lancelot then endures before his sacred (re-)union with Guinevere, the sword bridge stands out among the rest. This would be the rubedo, a metaphorical red death in preparation for the sacred union. On his quest, Lancelot faces the challenge of needing to cross one of two bridges: he can either cross the Sword Bridge, or he can cross the Water Bridge. Advised that crossing the Water Bridge is slightly less dangerous, Gawain chooses that route, forcing Lancelot to take the Sword Bridge. Lancelot accepts this because he is feverish in his desire to rescue Guinevere. The bridge is pictured to be “a polished, gleaming sword… as long as two lances” crossing a “black and turbid” river “as horrid and terrifying as if it were the Devil’s river” (225). Two lions guard the other side. To cross the river, Lancelot crawls over the bridge, cutting his hands and legs on the edges of the sword. He crosses fully into the inner sphere of the underworld. The implications for the reader are those of a combination of unconscious psychic energy with the life force of the realm of pure consciousness. It is in this inner sphere that the final transformation takes place, the final series of vessels through with the substance will pass.

Maleagant, Guinevere and Kay’s captor, welcomes Lancelot’s arrival into the kingdom with combat. Lancelot is further injured in the combat, compounding the injuries he sustained while crossing the bridge. After the combat, Lancelot must re-earn his lady’s good favor, signified by a sacred, forbidden union with Guinevere. Because of his injuries, Lancelot bleeds all over the union bed, which is covered in white. The result of the union is a bed that is both red and white, representing the union between the Red King and the White Queen. Grail romances are mixed on the treatment of their affair. Earlier romances praise their relentless pursuit of their love, while later romances blame her infidelity for the break up of the Round Table.

Hans Zimmer describes Lancelot as "an incarnation of the idea for manhood that exists, not in the world of masculine social action, but in the hopes and fancies of the feminine imagination" (133). Guinevere represents the feminine imagination. If Lancelot is the feminine ideal and Arthur is the social ideal, as suggested by Johnson, then Guinevere’s split between love and duty is admirable, and paralleled in feminine literature and the other Grail romances. For example, this is the debate experienced by Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. She is in pursuit of love, but society demands that she marry for money while her class makes it difficult for her to marry well. The case of Elizabeth Bennet is unique, and has fuelled the femnine psyche since its publication. In the end, Elizabeth does not have to choose. She finds both her ideal and a wealthy social ideal in Mr. Darcy. Furthermore, she won his love by being herself and willing to challenge his class-based behaviors, rather than treated as an object of negotiation by her father. Guinevere’s position is not so fortunate. According to Tennyson, Arthur won her hand and she was thus socially obliged to him. Her true love, however, is Lancelot. An improper union is said to produce a homunculus in the alchemical tradition. The homocunlus is a human-like creature not created by a traditional union (alchemical chemistry). In the practice of literary alchemy, this homunculus can be symbolized as coming from an improper union between two people, a bastard with no genuine, clear father. Guinevere’s son, Modred, is credited as being sired by Arthur, but is suspected to be Lancelot’s son. Since his parentage is called into question, he represents the result of Guinevere’s improper union. Because Modred is conflicted about his birth, he plots and fights against Arthur. Tennyson suggests that if Guinevere and Lancelot had remained loyal to Arthur and respected the royal marriage vows, the Round Table would have continued into future generations.

The other interpretation of Lancelot’s and Guinevere’s union is a symbol of pure, embodied love. Joseph Campbell attributes the rise of AMOR with the rise of the Grail romances. This is when troubadours began to sing of the power of love over the power of duty, exploring the “mystic theme of individual experience in depth, opposed to the sacramental claim” (Campbell, Occidental 509). From the reader’s perspective, this positive outcome of their union is the more transformative. Whether the reader is male and identifies with Lancelot, female and identifies with Guinevere, or cross-gendered and identifies with either one, this reading of the romances is on of a union between ego with either animus or anima, the psychological non-shadow counterpart to the ego. The sacred union is the most crucial aspect of the transformation into the Philosopher’s Stone. After the prima materia is blackened and purified, a new substance must be introduced to it to make it into something else, for example, the introduction of sulfur to lead to make gold. Furthermore, as the new substance is added, the distinction between the inner substance and the end result blurs:

Thus the Philosopher’s Stone, the end result of the process, has the same multiplicity in unity as does the original stuff at the beginning. The difference is that it is now a Stone, i.e., concrete, indestructible reality. … It suggests that a cycle is completed, the end is a new beginning in the eternal circulatio, and that the Stone, like Christ, is both Alpha and Omega. (Edinger 294)

Psychologically, the leaden nature of the prima materia represents the nature of the person as he or she stands at the beginning of the work. The transformation is a purification and cleansing process, bringing all of the elements within one’s psyche to the surface, and thus awakening the Philosopher’s Stone from within the prima materia.

Following Lancelot’s union is a period of isolation, a period of percolating while the effects of the transformation come to be. He is kept captive in a tower by Maleagant. Captivity in the tower forces Lancelot to reflect and to heal from his injuries. Through the course of the hero cycle, the hero must, at some point, heal from his or her injuries in order to be fully prepared to enter into the final battle. Maleagant represents Lancelot’s nemesis and his psychological shadow. Engaging in a literary battle allows the reader to acknowledge and thus satiate the shadow before it boils to the surface and causes potential damage. Like Lancelot, he has declared love for Guinevere and is willing to fight to keep her. Conquering Maleagant is the final step before Lancelot’s Philosopher’s Stone can rise to the surface. This union is a union between sun and shadow and is distinct from the sacred union between Red King and White Queen, or sun and moon (Fabricius 194). Without this union, Lancelot would always have to fear extra competition other than Arthur for Guinevere. The light from the sun is only so bright when it has darkness to provide contrast. The boon Lancelot receives from Maleagant makes him more complete, and thus more symbolically heroic.

The literary alchemical tradition laid out by the Grail romances continues through the subsequent generations of literature. Some works directly explore the Holy Grail as the central goal of the quest, others explore the hero as chivalarous questor in search of a something Grail-like though not necessarily the Grail itself, and others explore the romance, AMOR, as seeking to experience either new, true or forbidden love. For the modern Western reader, these are crucial, vital methods for making sense of his or her place in the universe because of the distance now placed between the reader and sacred traditions. Stories in the Grail tradition connect a reader with the unconscious, personal and collective. Alchemy is about transformation. Sacred traditions incited transformation through rituals. With the separation from sacred tradition comes the loss of community. Some might claim that this coincides with the death of myth, or more appropriately, its own alchemical transformation from sacred to profane. This is why modern myth can be understood as any outlet that communicates to a person, usually within literature and film or television, and is more psychologically driven. An alchemical reading of a literary text, such as “Lancelot,” helps the reader internalize myth by connecting with it on a personal level.

Works cited

  • Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology. New York: Penguin Compass, 1964.
  • —–. Transformations of Myth Through Time. New York: HarperPerennial, 1999.
  • Edinger, Edward F. Ego and Archetype: Individuation and the Religious Function of the Psyche. Boston: Shambhala, 1992.
  • Fabricius, Johannes. Alchemy: The Medieval Alchemists and their Royal Art. London: Diamond Books, 1994.
  • Johnson, Robert A. He: Understanding Masculine Psychology. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.
  • Tennyson, Lord Alfred. Idylls of the King and a Selection of Poems. New York: Signey, 2003.
  • de Troyes, Chrétien. “Lancelot.” Arthurian Romances. Trans. D. D. R. Owen. London: Everyman, 1993.
  • Zimmer, Hans. The King and the Corpse: Tales of the Soul’s Conquest of Evil. Ed. Joseph Campbell. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1975.