Sunday, September 26, 2010

12: The Return (VI, VII)

VI: Sleepy

Stories seem important.

Certain kinds of stories seem to be particularly important or important in particular ways.

Star Wars did seem more important that Candleshoe or Herbie Goes to Montry Carlo or One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing.

I didn't like Wagner's Ring more than I liked Remember You're A Womble: I liked it differently.

Asking whether I preferred the Eternals to the Beano (or even to 2000AD) would simply have been a non-sequitur. (Does anyone want to go looking for Oedipal complexes or Castration images in the Beano? Please don't.)

"It's, y'know, mythic" seems as a good a way of putting it as any other.

Was C.S. Lewis onto something when he said that a myth was a story which transcended any particular telling of it?

If I tell you the story of Oedipus, then you know the story of Oedipus, in the same way that if I sing Yesterday to you, you know the turn of Yesterday, and Yesterday is a great song because of the tune, the notes and the order in which they come, and you can probably tell it's a great song even though I am singing it really badly.

But if I tell you the story of Great Expectations, then you only know the story of Great Expectations; which doesn't really tell you anything at all about Great Expectations. The only way to find out about Great Expectations is to read Great Expectation. Dickens isn't terribly good at plots. Its the way he tells 'em. (Someone could probably use my synopsis to writ a novel, but it wouldn't be Great Expectation, it would be a different book which happened to have the same plot as Great Expectations. This is why a movie version of Lord of the Rings was fundamentally silly idea.)

But is it really the "tune" of Star Wars which made Star War seem so important? And has Hero With a Thousand Faces really revealed that tune? And are Star Wars and Harry Potter and the Passion of the Christ really just different ways of singing the same tune?

Lots of the stories in the Bible would look distinctly mundane if you found them anywhere other than the Bible. They are sacred stories because we have agreed to read them in a sacred way. (I'm thinking of Elisha and the bear or Esther and the beauty pageant. Elijah going up to heaven in a chariot would be pretty sacred wherever you found it.) I wonder if stories have "mythic" qualities because we have agreed to read them mythically? Maybe the solemn music and the fanfare and the opening caption tricked us into a state of mind in which we would allow all the other swords we'd ever read about (and all the one's we hadn't) to whisper to Luke Skywalker's lightaber.

Yeah. But some stories let you do this more than others. It's no trick to read the Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the Durbevilles as myths, is it? Henchard is like Job and Cain and Tess is every wronged woman in history and every time anyone walks past a field, it's not just guys growing crops, it's Nature with a big N, even if the text doesn't actually say so. I suppose we could say that the Harvest Festival scene in next weeks Archers makes us think of John Barleycorn and Attis and Mondamin, but we'd sound pretty silly if we did. We just don't approach radio soap operas in that way.

It seems sensible to apply mythical readings to Thomas Hardy because Thomas Hardy is the kind of text which it seems sensible to apply mythic readings to.

That isn't as helpful as I hoped it was going to be.

VII: Bashful 

My English teacher thought that Thistles meant whatever Ted Hughes said it mean, and there was an end to it. If Ted Hughes hadn't said what the poem meant, then it was our job to work out what he would have said if we had asked him.

Campbell thinks that symbols mean what they mean, and there's and end to it. All stories have a meaning, and it's our job to learn the language or crack the code or remove the mask so the One Truth is revealed.

I think that this is a silly, reductive, limiting way of reading stories.

Vogler doesn't mind what stories "mean" so long as they contain a quality which he calls "magic" or "power". Just reading them has an effect on you.

I think that this is simply silly.

A couple of readers, presumably unfamiliar with my oeuvre, have said that they are waiting to see what my point is. As should now be clear, I don't have one. Gavin and Andrew wrote about Joseph Campbell a little while ago, and I thought I would try to write down my thoughts. I took the argument for a walk in order to find out where it ended up. At one time, the idea that all stories were the same story and all heroes were the same hero was really very attractive; but now it seems like a load of tosh.

And yet.

And yet...

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider buying a copy of George and Joe and Jack and Bob >which contains all of  my essays on Star Wars (going right back to the opening night of the Phantom Menace!) and related subjects.
Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.