Friday, September 03, 2010

2: The Call to Adventure

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 It kept sprouting up in out of date academic lit crit textbooks, particularly in the Medieval Studies department. It kept turning out that the legends of King Arthur made total sense once you spotted that the Maimed King (or Arthur, or Merlin) was really a representation of the Corn which dies each winter and comes back to life each spring.

Well. It isn't too much of a stretch to say that The Green Knight (as in "Sir Gawain and the") is a John Barleycorn figure. Gawain chops the Green Knight's head off one Christmas, and by the next solstice he (the green chap) has grown another one and is demanding the right to decapitate the king's nephew in recompense. And he's, like, green. But this insight ("the Green Knight is one of those dying and rising Nature Gods") doesn't tell you anything at all about the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – which is about courage and honour and promise-keeping and the tactful procedure if your host's wife comes into your bedroom while you're in the nude. And in the poem, the Green Knight is emphatically not a god of any kind – he's a knight named Sir Bercilak, under one of Morgana Le Fey's encosrcellments. The poem certainly leaves you with all sorts of unanswerable questions: did Gawain fail in his quest because he lied to Bercilak about the Girdle of Invulnerability? Or is the Round Table right to welcome him home as a hero? Surely the message can't be "It's all right to tell fibs when it's a matter of life and death"? (And anyway, why does Gawain's knightly honour compel him to keep his appointment with the Green Knight but permit him to lie about the magic item?) None of these questions are particularly clarified by the insight "Ah, well, you see, the Green Knight is a Corn God."

And that's precisely why these kinds of theories are so attractive to students. They enable them to discover all sorts of erudite hidden meanings in literary texts without actually bothering to read them. Once you know the Great Secret – that all literature is really about Corn Gods – then you don't need to study any actual books. Just skim through them, say "Ooo, look a Corn God!" and your work is done. In fact, the actual text can be a bit of a distraction. One critic (his name may have been "Zimmerman", but don't write in) went so far as to complain that the anonymous Gawain-poet had added a lot of extraneous baggage about the Round Table, honour and chivalry to a story which was "really" about the annual death and rebirth of nature. So don't waste your time on the medieval story – go back to the source. And when there is no extant source, make one up. The original poem must have been about a Corn God, so the bits of the poem which aren't about Corn Gods must be later additions. So take the poem we have and delete everything that doesn't look like a Corn God and – hey presto! – what you are left with looks exactly like a Corn God.

Or take Hamlet. Unfortunately, Shakespeare carelessly added lots of extraneous digressions about ghosts and vengeance and madness to his version of the play. But if you cross all that out, you will see that the heart of the story is the moment when Hamlet jumps into Ophelia's grave (symbolic death); fights with her brother (like Hiawatha); and jumps out again (symbolic rebirth). Everything else in the play is a more or less redundant superstructure to provide a rationalisation for this crypto-ritualistic scene. Hamlet is about crops dying in the winter and coming back to life in the spring.

Even if this were true, which it plainly isn't, it's hard to see what it helps us with. Why spend twenty pages proving that Hamlet is a corn god if you already know, a priori, that a corn god is what every character in literature is?

Not that students studying literary theory in the 1980s were expected to pay much attention to the Golden Bough. And I never got my head round proper 1960s structuralism. I expect I once knew what post-structuralism was, but I have forgotten. No, my personal vice was Sigmund Freud. He had long ago been kicked out of psychology departments but remained very popular with literary theorists. It's not hard to see why. The "talk cure" involved patients telling Dr Freud about their lives and then telling him what they dreamed about last night. He then revealed the secret pattern which made sense of both their lives and their dreams. So it isn't too far fetched to say that Freud's theory of the mind was really a theory of story-telling: what stories are, where they come from, what they mean. And – astonishingly – Freud discovered that all the stories his patients told him followed a very similar plot. But his One Big Story wasn't about John Barleycorn being killed and coming back to life. Freud's One Story was old and scarier and ruder:

"Once, there was a King; and when his son was born it was prophecies that when he grew up he would kill his father and marry his mother. So the king ordered his huntsman to take the baby into the woods and kill it. But the huntsman let the baby live. And so it never knew who its real parents were. And as a result, in an unexpected twist of fate..."

Once I had skimmed through those multi-coloured Pelican editions of Sigmund's non-technical works, there was no stopping me. I raced through Chaucer and Malory with my Spotters Guide to the Unconscious at my side. I drew circles around phalluses and underlined Oedipus Complexes. For half an hour in 1985, I believed I understood what Lacan was going on about.

Once you realise that Shakespeare had also studied Freud there is really no limit to what you can prove. Sir Laurence Olivier believed that Freud provided the resolution to all the obscurities in Hamlet – and it's hard to deny that there could have been a teeny tiny Oedipus complex going on in Elsinor. But you can apply it to less promising texts as well. You probably think that when Viola fetches up on Illyria she disguises herself as a boy. In fact (Twelfth Night, Act 1, Scene 2 line 56) she disguises herself as a eunuch. And everyone knows that in Shakespeare's theatre, girls were played by boys. So what you have is not so much a girl dressed up as a boy, but more a boy dressed up as a girl dressed up as a boy with no willy. There's also a comic duel in which neither side is prepared to pick up a sword, which is finally stopped by the intervention of a homosexual male. How big a castration complex is that?

And what about Macbeth? He can't tell if the witches who tells him that someone is going to rob him of his "sceptre"are girl-witches or boy-witches and spends the play grabbing at invisible "daggers" which slip right through his fingers. Prithee, unsex me here! What, quite unmanned with folly? I am a man again! Come, let me clutch thee.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.


The other thing that Freud taught us to do is pay attention to the thing which is not mentioned or left unsaid. That's probably the most important thing of all.


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  1. Just saying I love this series so far. I've spent so long arguing with people (usually comics and SF fans who've never read anything else) who claim that Joseph Campbell was The Way, The Truth And The Light, that seeing someone else talk about this sensibly is a huge relief.

  2. That's nothing - I once saw a piece on Gamasutra by someone who thought you could turn the Monomyth into an algorithm and use it to generate stories procedurally.

  3. Oh, I'm sure you could. I'm equally sure the stories would be worthless. I'm *not* sure that certain writers don't already do that ;)


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