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...

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Gavin Burrows said...

VII: Dopey

Please excuse me for jumping back at bit...

”When I got to college, I discovered that this sort of thing was a positive menace. It kept sprouting up in out of date academic lit crit textbooks, particularly in the Medieval Studies department...

...the totemic text during my English degree was not The Golden Bough or Hero With a Thousand Faces or The Interpretation of Dreams: it was Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory. I can't remember if I read that, either.”

IIRR, I once worked out that I was a Sussex student the same time as you. And while I wasn’t an English student, I would be surprised to learn that any of these things were on the syllabus by then! I’d assume that Structuralism (which you also earlier alluded too) would by then have had its moment and retreated to it’s home base of Anthropology (if that even). And I’d be surprised if ’Golden Bough’ or ’Hero With a Thousand Faces’ were mentioned at all! I would have thought it was pretty much all Terry Eagleton.

(Which of course you could argue to be as reductive as any of the others. Some people who like to think that they are Marxists do seem to think they are being “materialist” when they are simply being reductive. I’m just trying to picture the chronology...)

”But it won't. There is no possible way that any amount of study of the Stork could possibly tell us what really happens in the maternity ward...

...I don't believe that Star Wars and The Philosopher's Stone and Spider-Man all point to (or disguise) a single archetypal truth in the same way that The Stork, The Gooseberry Bush and the New Baby Train all point to (or conceal) a single biological fact.”

I’m not sure that you’re just picking on a poorly chosen example by Campbell here, to make him seem more Freudian than he really is.

You can at times study myths to try and ascertain material truths. I believe we still don’t understand how Maoris first came to be in New Zealand, and study their myths for clues. But Campbell isn’t after material truths so much as idealised psychological states. He’s not like one of those Grail Myth headcases who believes the Original Grail is out there somewhere, waiting for us to track it down. He’s more Jungian than Freudian. (Again, none of this is to suggest that he’s right.)

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

Maybe certain kinds of stories are like stem cells, which we can keep adapting and readapting and yet still feel like we have some sense of the original?

When the David Lean film of ’Great Expectations’ grafted on a happy ending, it induced gales of mirth in our O-Level viewing class. Yet Oedipus has generated (off the top of my head) a Pasolini film and an episode of Morse.

Gavin Burrows said...
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Gavin Burrows said...
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Gavin Burrows said...

Apologies, Blogger kept insisting I repost then I ended up repeating myself four times....

Unknown said...

Hey Andrew,

My name is Mike Phillips, and I'm the Editor-in-Chief over at Sequart Research & Literacy Org.

I like a lot of your comics essays, and I was wondering if I could get in contact with you.

You can email me at