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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works cited

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

Commercial Mythology: Aesthetics, Pornography and Andy Warhol

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

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

Pornographic versus Static Art

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

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

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

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

Warhol as Chronicler of Culture

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

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

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

The Mythologist and Art Classification

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

The Power of Myth: The Hero’s Adventure

I constantly find myself revisiting this episode in the Power of Myth series. It’s one of the best interviews between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers, probably because it plays into Campbell’s expertise much better than the other ones. Or maybe it’s because I’ve seen it so many times, it just seems this way because it is so familiar to me. So a bunch of us gather in the living room to view and discuss this chapter of PoM. This is essentially part 2 of the Mythopoetic Workshop from last month. The points in italics are from the show.

The hero evolves as the culture evolves. I think this is a forgotten point. Heroes of today are not the same as heroes of 100, 1000, 10000 years ago. Our needs are different. Notice that even the most successful hero remakes (ex: Marvel Heroes, O Brother, Where Art Thou, Star Wars, etc.) update the stories for the current era, and less successful hero remakes (ex: Troy), don’t. This is one of the points I find myself making over and over again these days: Cultural context is important. If you understand the culture, you can understand the heroes. For example, heroes today fight against something that is a little more difficult to identify. This is a result of a culture that is constantly battling against an ideology. We don’t have a clear-cut example of who our enemy is, who or what we should project our collective shadow on to, what actually constitutes as “evil.” Oh sure, we try to give a face to this “evil,” but then we make so many exceptions to the rule, that it is near impossible to keep up with who this silent enemy is. “Terrorism” has no single face behind it. “Recession” neither. The end result is name calling and backstabbing, meanwhile Hollywood and the literary world churns out some potent heroes who are constantly fighting this unknown shadow. It’s no accident that Sauron has no body, that Vader has no human face, or that Voldemort has no body (and the one he does wind up having is a magical homunculus body, not a real one).

Outer space as a whole new realm for the imagination to open into. I agree with this. The birth of true science fiction coincides with the modern era. However, along with the birth of true science fiction comes the idea of the fairy-myth. I don’t recall if I’ve written about this on the blog yet, but this is a term I coined when I was writing my MA thesis to describe stories that are mythic in magnitude, but content-wise more resemble the literary fairy tale, borrowing from Tolkien’s definition of a fairy-story. If outer space is the void, just waiting for our projections, then the fairy land is the realm of the inner imagination. Both story modes work in conjunction to address the complex nature of the modern Western inner life. One mode appeals to some more than the other, and within each mode is a ton of material. Speaking of this complexity, it’s also interesting to note that many of the more potent modern myths come in multiple volumes.

The world is a wasteland and the only way to bring life into it is to bring life into yourself. I agree with this, but only to an extent. While I do think that there is some truth to this – happy people are less likely to want to blow up other people – I do think there that there does need to be some extraverted work with the collective. When a bunch of people get together, no matter how centered they are, the possibility exists that they will fall into group think, for good or for bad. Working in a group of people takes effort, and this effort is just as important as the individual effort. Now, the part about the world being a wasteland. Campbell points out that humans have become the voice of the earth. This gives us the added responsibility of tending to her needs. See the point about the planet below.

You can tell what informs a society by the tallest building in a town. This is one of my favorite points in the entire hour. In a medieval town, the cathedral is, by law, the tallest structure in the entire town. In an Enlightenment town, it’s the political building (capitol, city hall, etc.). Though in some Enlightenment towns, the tallest structure is the bell tower from the university. In the modern world, it’s the skyscrapers, filled with offices and dwellings. So as a civilization we’ve gone from being informed by the church, to politics/reason, to corporations, to the individual at his/her computer. With each progressive era, those buildings get taller and taller, as though to negate any questions of their authority. Indeed, in Austin, Texas, where I spend a lot of my time, this can be seen in the downtown: The oldest building was at first the state capitol building (Austin is a post-Enlightenment city). Then the next tallest is the UT bell tower, which is often lit up to let the city know whether or not the Longhorns won a game. This was later trumped by the Frost Bank building. But now the tallest building is a high-rise loft building. From politics, to education (football?), to corporate finance, to individuals at their computers.

You can’t predict what a myth is going to be. True. Case in point: no one actually expected Star Wars or Harry Potter to be as successful as they are, but the reason for their success is that they gripped a whole bunch of people in the mythic moment. They speak to that unconscious level that myths speak to. The flip side to this point is that you can’t predict what a myth is going to be by recycling the same old formula. I think this is part of why Marvel heroes, Michael Bay movies, and sequels aren’t more successful. A good myth should speak to the psyche in a fresh way, giving new face to the old archetypes (if not creating new archetypes altogether, but this is a point that some in the Jungosphere might argue).

The only myth that is going to be worth thinking about in the immediate future is going to be the planet and everybody on it. —“Until that gets going, you don’t have anything.”  This one single statement is usually taken to mean “let’s be green!” What I think Campbell is trying to push at is recognizing the global nature of the world we are currently living in, and working together collectively to transcend national boundaries and concentrate on humanity as a whole organism, rather than on our own cultural egos. Nations are arbitrary, and he highlights this point by looking at a picture of earth taken from the moon (I think). From space, there are no national boundaries. Physically and psychologically, we are essentially the same. The new mythology should bring us together. And I suspect that somewhere someone recognizes this, and finds their shadow triggered by it, which is why the liberal arts and humanities are currently suffering from budget cuts. These subjects emphasize our similarities rather than differences.