Sunday, October 17, 2010

Olden Days

Bob Fox
Landsdown Pub, Bristol
9 Oct

It's not even that good a song. I first encountered it as a nursery rhyme. It's repetitive. No-one could call it poetry. So why did I find it so very moving when Bob Fox started to sing – as natural as anything, as if no-one has ever sung it before –

Come here little Jackie now I've smoked me baccy
Let's have a cracky til the boat comes in
Dance to thy Daddy, sing to thy Mammy...

"Authenticity" is a risky word. It smacks of middle-class anthropology: I had a positively spiffing evening observing a strange species called 'Geordies' who apparently believe that everyone should "fettle reetly." But it's the best word I can think of. I mean that it's a live song, made out of live words that mean something. The singer says he's recently become a grandfather, and his affection for his grand-daughter comes through in his singing. (It's a dandling song, he says, one to sing while you bounce little children on your knee.) The words and the tune speak of a particular world, a particular place in time: a world of extended families, heavy manual labour and beer. Lots of beer. ("Yonder comes your Daddy / So drunk he canna stand.") It's not a world I ever experienced; not a world I would have felt comfortable in, as different as can be from the Olde Englande of, say, Martin Carthy. These aren't songs in which knights court ladies who sew silken seams: they're songs in which clumsy men trip over ladies' skirts and end up making small-talk with them. (" She mentioned confidentially that her uncle was a grocer / and her mother's father's cousin was a fiddler on the shore...") Not my world: it's hard for me to identify with the nostalgia of a song like Big River – which takes for granted that a river without industry is a dead river, or even Taking On Men in which workmen dream that the idle times are over and the shipbuilding industry is starting up again. ("Gone are the days they were taking on men / the quayside's a drunken man's playground". I get that bit: I've walked around the Bristol waterfront on a Friday night.) But a world which Bob Fox brings almost agonizingly to life. Can you feel homesick for a time and a place you never lived in?

Bob is a great humorist; almost a stand-up comic. He's well aware of the irony of the situation. He says he's the first generation of his family not to have been a miner: his father wanted him to stay at school and do something better with his life. "So here I am, singing about mining to people in Clifton." But the resentment about what was done to British industry in the 80s is still real and raw and current. He doesn't refer to Mrs Thatcher by name: he talks about what "she" did. He claims he once told an audience that she had a face like a sheep's arse, and two people walked out. "I ddn't realise there'd be any Conservatives in tonight". "We're not Conservatives; we're shepherds". Boom-boom.

No-one walks out tonight, which is just as well. It's a tiny audience, and it's clear that half of them are friends of the support act. (Which is an improvement on the last gig I saw in this venue, when half the audience was the support act.) Bob pushes on through two long sets and an encore telling jokes and anecdotes, teaching us the choruses, and reassuring us that if we don't want to sing the whole thing we can always join in on the last word -- but you feel he doesn't quite get the atmosphere going he'd have achieved with a fuller house. (What is it about Bristol folkies? Is the Landsdown to obscure a venue for them to venture into?)

It's hard to pick out a favourite song. Bob said afterwards that he aimed to alternate between serious and comic songs, and I had a sense of the whole evening building up a tapestry. I like the big Ewan McColl radio ballads, of course, oral histories set to music. But the song I'm still singing to myself two days later is the corny old music-hall waltz about the man who missed his chance to ask his sweetheart for a dance: "Now as often is the case / you'll find others in your place / if ye fail to shove ahead and fettle reetly..."

Authenticity. These songs are old, and in dialect, and emerging from a way of life I never knew and which hardly exists any more. But it's more than that. They're done without irony or preciousness; Bob Fox loves them and knows then and wants us to sing along and enjoy them and like them too. But there's no trick to them. No lying. No cleverness. It's the opposite of political language, newspaper language, bishop language. They're songs which use plain words to plainly say what they actually mean. These miners and railway men and long distance lorry drivers are under no illusion that the girl they met in the pub last night is the most beautiful in the world. She isn't. But still (all together) :

she's a big lass, she's a bonny lass, and she likes her beer
and they call her Cushy Butterfield and I wish she was here.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

This Week, I Have Been Mostly Listening to Songs About Highwaymen

Andy Irvine
Jazz@FutureInns Bristol
22 Sep

Andy Irvine ended his first set with his own version of that old poem about the Highwayman (you know, the one who came riding, riding, up to the old Inn door). It took eleven minutes. I have rarely been so totally caught up in a piece of musical storytelling. I caught my breath when "her musket shattered the moonlight...and warned him with her death" as if I had never heard the story before.

"That's the way to sing a ballad!" said Ian Storror who runs the Future Inn gigs. The man in front of me wanted to know if the Tim the Ostler got his comeuppance. It was one of those performances which left me literally lost for words.

I must admit I'd almost overlooked this show -- I didn't recognise Andy Irvine's name and Irish folk music isn't always my favourite cup of extremely strong tea. Fortunately, Ian's write up (which contained the expression "Woody Guthrie, who was to become an enduring influence on his music and outlook") alerted me to the fact that this was the kind of thing I might like. There were, indeed, several songs about people whose hearts are tonight in Ireland and who have left someone or other behind in Galway – but it was the long, traditional, meandering narrative ballads which made the evening for me.

He does "Arthur McBride" to a jauntier, folkier tune than Bob Dylan. His introduction is almost as funny as the actual song. ("...and they tell him they're pacifists. He doesn't believe them. So they make an exception and beat the shite out of him.") His version of "The Demon Lover" (another song which Bob had a shot at) goes back to an older, scarier form of the ballad, which leaves us in no possible doubt as to the identity of the ship's carpenter. (They had not sailed a league, a league / A league but barely three / Until she espied his cloven foot /And she wept right bitterly.) Every folk singer has at least one song about a man being robbed by a prostitute. Irvine does a variation of "Barrack Street", re-imagine by a New Zealand folkie named Bob Bickerton. Same set up: gold-digger comes to town to spend his hard earned cash, but foolishly goes up to girl's room after imbibing whisky and strong porter – but a completely different punch line, in which the tables are turned, and turned again. It brings the house down. Andy says he was very reluctant to release it on record, because that would mean all his live audiences would know the punch line already.

I didn't feel that any Guthrie influence was particularly in evidence tonight. (His records do, indeed, have stirring anthems about unions, strikes and people on long dusty roads, and very good they are too.) But he does have a nice line in turning personal experience directly into song: almost a kind of musical journalism. His signature track is a glorious, rambling, indulgent, autobiographical account of a pub he frequented at the beginning of his career. In a sense, its not much more than a litany of anecdotes about his mates; but the voices are so perfectly observed, and the tune so infectious, that you almost feel you've been transported back to August 1962 (At closing time we didn't go far / Down the road to the Pipe coffee bar/ "The usual suspects there you are / Have you'se no homes to go to?")

And he finishes with "The Boys are On Parade" a wonderfully nuanced anti-war anthem, containing several sides of several arguments, razor sharp language and a string of clever Gilbertian internal rhymes, all counterpointed by a light, jaunty march tune that I literally can't stop humming:

Merely the whim or intuition of an elected politician
Makes a melee without conditions as the monster quits the cage
Its a machine that knows no quarter dealing death and sowing slaughter
Raping mothers, wives and daughters in an all consuming rage....

Why, I sometimes ask myself, does anyone ever listen to any other kind of music?

Steve Tilston
St George's Bristol
23rd Sep

I've heard Steve Tilston a couple of times before, but I'd never heard him do "The Naked Highwayman" live. And the reason becomes clear: those tongue-twisting rhymes and rhythms must be incredibly hard to sing. Steve ostentatiously gargled water before embarking on it, and still got tangled up in verse 4 (Your money or your life I'll have it's all the same to me / It's hanging for deciet or murder in the first degree.) Doesn't matter a bit: he just goes right on and sings it again. Wonderful, silly song. Set in Brizzle, too. He's just written a novel about Bristol pirates.

He finished with Slip-jigs and Reels. He always does. It's a great sing-a-long ballad which has almost nothing to do with the life of Billy the Kid. It's been covered by – well, everybody. There's a story that he was once in a Whitby cafe when the question "Who wrote the Fairport Convention Song, Slipjigs and Reels?" came up on Mastermind. He spilt all his chips in his excitement.

Thursday night was an anniversary concert: 40 years since he made his first record. An extensive collection of wives, friends and grown-up children joined him on the stage. Martha rushed down from her own gig in Cheltenham to join them for the second half. (I have never heard her before, but she has a voice, as the young people say, to die for.) The Tilston clan were raised near the Worth Valley Railway, and son Joe sings a song called "We Were The Railway Children" which demonstrates that song writing talent is at least partly inherited. All four children bring a cake onto the stage and sing "Happy 40 years in show business to you". "Awww...." say Steve. It looked to me as if Joseph was restraining Brizzle bluesman Keith Warmington from going into a harmonica riff until the last chorus of Slipjigs, so as not to drown out Dad's delicate lyrics. (Well, there's talk of a pistol: some say a knife / But all are agreed there was somebody's wife.) Genius. I used to think it was by Trad. Peter Bellamy recorded it, for goodness sake.

You could mistake a lot of Steve Tilston's output for traditional songs, but he does seem to have become less overtly folky as his career has progressed. He opens the night with "Rocky Road", an early crie de couer about life as a touring musician: it's pretty much a re-write of Prickle Eye Bush, which is part of the joke. But his song-writing seems to me to have improved with age. This isn't one of those gigs where you listen politely to a lot of songs off the new album in the hope he'll eventually do one of the famous ones. The new songs are highlights of the evening. "Pretty Penny", of course; an evisceration of the banking industry, written (Steve swears) before the credit crunch hit. How can you squeeze so much well aimed invective into a song with such a pleasant, lilting tune which drifts into a "la-la-lai" refrain without sounding either corny or forces? (And behind their hedge, they don’t plant wheat /They don’t cut corn, they don’t pick tea / They don’t dig coal, they don’t forge steel /They just push numbers all about /They push too far, we bail em’ out / To keep their fingers firm on fortunes wheel.) Genius. Possibly the highight of the evening for me was "Speaking in Tongues" a spine tinglingly ambivalent patriotic anthem. (First I'm human being then I'm European but I've got to get back home to England...) This is the work of a man who has thought and considered and put both sides of an argument to a catchy tune. And the heart breaking middle-aged waltz, "The Road When I Was Young"; and "Madam Muse", a thought provoking contribution to the "song about not being able to write a song" genre.... the list goes on and on.

For the encore, his current wife joined the informal ensemble to do that Cuban revolutionary thing that Pete Seeger sings in what sounded to me like passable Spanish. Good one to get the audience singing along to. But then Steve and his guitar were left by themselves on the stage to wind up the evening with a work-in-progress called "The Reckoning" about how all the things were are doing to the world and the environment right now are going to have to be paid for by future generations. Another big, moving, thoughtful, intelligent piece.

I left the theatre reminded of the blurb on the back of my copy of Dylan's collect lyrics: the nicest thing about this evening is that there are still more new songs to look forward to.

Martin Carthy/ Dave Swarbrick
Bristol Folkhouse
Sep 26

It's the modesty and the professionalism of Martin Carthy that blows me away every time I hear him (fourth time this year, if anyone's counting).

He comes onto the stage and starts tuning, and adjusting the mic until it is just so, and making those signals which sound-men are so adept at interpretting, drawing a little smiley face in the air when he's happy with the pick-up; while Dave "Not Dead" Swarbrick is doing something with his fiddle which might be tuning or might be improvisation but which turns out to be a melody, and then unannounced, while the audience is sill settling, Martin, with that serious, humble face, as if the song is singing him, declaims "Sovay, Sovay, all on a day, she's dressed herself in man's array...." I have always loved this song; I think it may be my favourite English traditional number; a strange, melancholy tune; a rip-roaring story, economically told.

As I have said before - I don't play or read music myself, so when it comes to the purely instrumental my ear isn't good enough to distinguish the excellent from there merely very good. I'm told that Swarbrick is the best folk fiddler alive, the one everyone else copies, and can well believe it. He seems to be in good health, propelling himself around the venue with a single walking stick, although he did complain that his seat was uncomfortable. Someone provided a cushion for the second half. His enthusiasm for his instrument and the tradition is absolutely infectious: he keeps smiling at particular riffs, like a comedian telling a favourite joke, and the fizz when the two performers catch each other's eye ("again?" "again!") is a joy to look at. At one point Carthy starts to expound the virtues of a particular tune ("like a lot of English folk songs, it's in the time signature of "one") Swarbs looks puzzled and says "Oh, are we doing that one?" "Diddly, diddly dee" sings Marin. "Not "Dee diddly dee?" he replies.

They take it in turns: Martin and Dave together; then a song with just Martin and his guitar; than a set of jigs or whatnot from Dave. (I do like the way that folk fiddlers describe the things they play, not as "piece of music" or "numbers" but simply as "tunes".) In a funny way, the most spell-binding moment was Dave's description of the writing of the Bunting collection of traditional Irish harp music. (It seems that at the end of the eighteenth century, the city fathers of Belfast held a harp festival in order to make a record of the near extinct Irish tradition. Ten harpists – mostly blind, and one over ninety years old – attended, and the last vestiges of the ancient music was written down.) His account of Blind Mary, a tune possibly written by legendary harpist Turlough Carolan was so exquisite that I could almost forgave it for not having any lyrics. (I, of course, now now regard myself as an expert in this stuff, having listened to all seventeen hours of Ron Kavana's musical history of Ireland on the coach to York the other week. Gosh, wasn't the Times beastly to Parnell?)

Martin did a depressing thing called "The Treadmill Song", not at all like his normal style, which is apparently one of only two authentic prison songs in the repertoire. (He claims to have personally collected the other one from an old school friend who had had a career in the burglary business.) But possibly my favourite song of the evening was "King Willie", a fairy tale about a woman whose mother-in-law curses her always to be pregnant but never to give birth. It was Martin Carthy's own idea to match one set of traditional words to another traditional tune (originally about cider, apparently) but the combination sounds exactly like what a strange, celtic fairy tale ought to sound like.

Sitting in a room with beer while two men sing world-old stories about lady highwaymen, Irish harpers and witches. It really doesn't get much better than this.

Spiers and Boden
Bath Folk Club
Sep 30th

The best thing about this evening was Jon Boden's announcement that Bellowhead are doing a second night at Bristol Old Vic in November. (The first night sold out pretty much immediately.)

The best thing about this evening was John Spiers introduction to the medley of hornpipes. "In the middle, there's sea-shanty. It's a sea shanty sandwich. You can sing along. It's called 'Haul away.' The lyrics are: 'haul away.' " I actually laughed for five minutes at that.

The best thing about this evening was also Jon Boden's introduction to "Captain Ward".
Jon: "We'd like to do a song about a pirate."
Member of audience: "Arrr!"
Jon: Well, I suppose we could do a song about a farmer if you'd prefer that...

The best thing about this evening, indeed the best thing, about every Spiers and Boden gig, was "All a Long and Down a Lea" – in which, as regular readers will remember, Bold Sir Rylas kills an Old Lady's spotted pig. The relish with which Boden sings "And now the wild woman Sir Rylas fell on / And split her head down to the chin" becomes more over the top every time he performs it.

The best thing about this evening was the opening set by Jon Boden's taller brother Tom, who turns out to be a most decent folk singer in his own right, offering a funny Barrack Street and a touching version of Stan Rogers' wonderful Lock-Keeper. And also when his brother joined him on the stage and they did Oats and Beans and Barley off the Folksong a Day Project.

The best thing about this evening was the two John's going into Prickle Eye Bush without announcing it, and everybody joining in. But then, everyone joined in everything. How can you not join in Sing High Sing Low and So Sailed We? Or Sailing Down To Old Maui?

In short: the best thing about the evening was everything about it.

And I got to say "Thank you" to Jon at the door on the way out. Bob Dylan doesn't shake hands with the punters, does he? He doesn't even shake hands with the President.

They really are the best live act in the world, and (I still say) much better when they are being nuanced and intimate on a small stage than being over the top and expansive on a big stage with Bellowhead. This really is the folk act for people who think they don't like folk music.

Also heard Eliza Carthy in an open air gig at Bristol Zoo back in August. She's good: lovely voice, good band; but I have to say I find myself a little underwhelmed by some of her material. It's clever, all right. "Mister Magnifico" is, come to think of it, another variation on the "being robbed by prostitute" theme: a middle aged man tries to score with some French students and gets cleaned out by them; "The Rain in Spain" is a weird silly piece which she wonders if the whole of England will become a car park when the population moves to Spain. I couldn't help feeling that the set contained a lot of clever musical jokes I wasn't getting. But I'll have more to say when I hear her and her Mum in more traddy mode next month. I understand her father, whose first name is apparently Martin, will be there as well....

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Thought for the week before last

The saviour came especially from on high
So he could face the punters eye to eye
No sooner have they nailed him up, there's blessed pulpits full
Bestride the holy lamb, behold the bull...

Monday, September 27, 2010


"Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all; again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself, I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god… similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose 'what it meant'.

'Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth, where the others are men’s myth....

'The 'doctrines' we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that what God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning.

'I am also nearly certain that it really happened"

Letter from one Clive Staples Lewis to Arthur Greeves, October, 1931

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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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Saturday, September 25, 2010

12: The Return (V)

V: Mars

You knew if you waited long enough that I would get back to that bloody film.

You may remember that, at the end of the Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader reveals that he is Luke Skywalker's Father, and cuts off his hand. In a single moment, the Hero (very definitely the Hero) is deprived of his right hand, his much revered paternal role-model, and his only weapon. This scene is widely regarded as "quite good". Some people (for example, me) have said that the scene "means" that Darth Vader has castrated Luke.

But what does "mean" mean?

If we read, in a medieval legend, that a certain King has been wounded in the bottom then we probably spot that "bottom" is a euphemism for "genitals" – especially if the injury makes him and his land infertile for seven years. The fairy tale Rapunzel simply makes more sense if we assume that when it says that the Prince fell from the tower and lost his eyes, "eyes" really means "balls". And people like Fred Astair and Elvis Presley wouldn't have had careers if we couldn't easily see that "dancing" usually means "having sex".

So: George Lucas is using one terrible injury (the loss of a hand) as a euphemism for a different terrible injury (the loss of a penis).

Well, no, obviously not. On at least two occasions, James Bond is literally threatened with being emasculated. And you can sort of see why. When a man is so thoroughly defined by his masculinity and has such a big collection of guns, motor cars and ladies then threatening his penis with a whip or a laser beam seems appropriate – even funny. It makes him even more masculine when he pops up again. It's a sort of an apology to the ladies in the audience for the existence of a character called Pussy Galore. It really doesn't make much sense to say that Casino Royale said plainly what George Lucas expressed coyly – that the film would have been essentially the same if Vader had taken Luke to a torture chamber and attacked his gonads with a knife.

So: all that happens at the end of the Empire Strikes Back is that one character sustains a nasty injury and silly people have read all sorts of silly meanings into it in order to justify their enthusiasm for what is, after all, only a kids movie.

No, that won't do either. The scene isn't just about a boy having a fight with his dad, any more than Moby Dick is just about a man chasing a whale. It's about a Son having a fight with his Father. It is about Fathers and Sons with Capital Letters. Darth Vader fighting Luke Skywalker packs an emotional punch which Sherlock Holmes fighting Moriarty simply doesn't.

Does it resonate with us because many of us have experiences of idolizing our fathers and being scared of our fathers and being disappointed with our fathers all at once? Or does it seem particularly significant because this is the kind of story in which particular significance is attached to Fathers and Sons? Because it is like other stories about Fathers and Sons? You would, I am sure, be quite upset if someone murdered your Dad; but then you'd be equally annoyed if someone bumped off your Mum. (A lot of people would regard the loss of Mummy has an even worse tragedy for a child than the loss of Daddy.) But in literature – in stories – the Death of the Father is a specially big deal. Lots of heroes are motivated by the deaths of their fathers. Can anyone think of one who is mainly motivated by the death of their Mother? [*]

The Empire Strikes Back isn't about fathers and sons nearly as much as its about stories about fathers and sons. (Move on to the next point quickly, Andrew, they may let you get away with that one.)

When a hero does something Heroic, it is very likely to make us think of other stories where other heroes have done other heroic things. If you want to make your hero seem extra-heroic by all means make him re-enact the exploits of other heroes. When Spider-Man carries the whole weight of Doctor Octopus's base on his back, it's a bit like Atlas [**] holding up the Sky and a bit like Samson bringing down the Philistine temple. But it would be an act of reckless lunacy to say that Spider-Man "means" Atlas, or that we can sort through all the irrelevant Christmas Pudding of Spider-Man and get to the precious little sixpence of Samson or that even though Stan Lee was Jewish and Martin Goodman was Jewish and Steve Ditko was Jewish its obviously a Christian allegory. [***]

Spider-Man and Atlas and Samson and Jesus and nine hundred and ninety six other heroes are all a little bit like each other. That's not because there's a deep underlying Jungian meaning to strong guys lifting things which are a bit too heavy even for them to lift. It's because people who tell stories draw on the stories which other people who tell stories have told and people who listen to stories associate stories they hear with other stories they have heard whether the story teller meant them to or not.

And there is my whole quarrel with Joseph Campbell, or maybe just with Vogler. ("Campbell was all right, but his followers were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it which ruins it for me.") Of course we can say that the life of Harry Potter is a bit like the life of King Arthur. And of course "his parents were killed when he was a little boy, for reasons he doesn't know yet" sets up expectations in our heads about what kind of story this story is going to be. And of course those expectations are one of the things which J.K. Rowling uses, well or badly, depending on your point of view. (The fact that he's called "Harry" sets up some expectations too: it's both a common, working class name and a royal name. The fact that he wears little round National Health glasses make us think that he'll be a nerd, and shy, but maybe one day he'll become a famous rock and roll star like that other shy orphaned nerd who wore cheap National Health glasses. Everything in a story allows meanings from other stories to pour into it. You can't say "It was a beautiful summers day" or "It was a dark and stormy night" without making the reader think about other beautiful summers days and dark and stormy nights.) Some stories are like other stories and the whole point of Star Wars was that it was like lots and lots of other stories. But 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 to (or conceal) a single biological fact.

C.S. Lewis noted that that the original point of Sorhab and Rustum was that it reminded classically educated English readers of Homeric diction. But most English schoolboys, reading the Iliad for the first time, say "Oh! It reminds me of Sorhab and Rustum." Nowadays, they probably say "Oh, it reminds me of the Empire Strikes Back." I know I did.

The more times a scene has happened the more times it has happened. When Obi-Wan gives Luke his father's lighstsaber, it reminds us of Prince Arthur taking the sword from the stone. Or Father Christmas giving Peter the magic sword in Mrs Beaver's house. Or Lion-O taking up the Sword of Omens for the first time. But it might very well be better to say that it reminds us of every scene in every story where a hero is given an important sword. Even the ones we've never heard of. And that might very well be all "archeype" means. 

("So, Andrew, archetype really is only a posh word for cliché.")

But do you really think we can strip away all the particulars of all the different stories until you are finally left with "Hero Getting Sword From Mentor" or "Hero Getting Weapon From Weapon-Giver" or "Person Getting Thing From Person Who Gives People Things" and then say that we've arrived at the original form of the image? And that this "original form" is more important than the scene in the cave with Mark Hamill and Alec Guiness? That the image somehow contains the true kernel of meaning and the eternal energies of the cosmos?

Freud thinks that boys can't turn into Men because they are afraid that their fathers will Castrate them. Freud seems to have meant this quite literally: kids and neurotic grown ups have a real (but unconscious) fear that their bits will be chopped off; lots of guy's hangups go back to standing next to an older man in the shower and wishing theirs was like that. But it works better as a metaphor. If "your penis" is literally "your manhood" -- "whatever makes you a man" -- then "castration" is simply "losing whatever it is that makes you a man". The "castration complex" is "the feeling that whatever it is which makes you a man is going to be taken away".

And it is by no means far fetched to say that Star Wars (and Harry Potter, and Spider-Man) is a Growing Up story; and that for Luke Skywalker Growing Up means "Becoming a Jedi, like my father before me."

And it is quite true that Obi-Wan Kenobi is a sort of father figure, and that he give Luke the lightsaber and that Darth Vader, in the great primal scene, stops Luke from growing up by violently removing the exact thing which will make him a man.

And if you put George Lucas's growing up story alongside Freud's growing up story you'll probably spot that they have things in common. And some of those things were probably put there by Lucas who had probably read Freud or met people who'd read Freud, or seen films made by people who'd met people who'd read Freud. And some of them were probably not there until the first time we put the two stories side by side, and that's fine too.

Freud's story of how Little Hans' Daddy said that if he didn't stop playing with his widdler he would chop it off is a good story. Lucas's story of how Luke rushed in to confront his enemy before he was prepared and learned truths he wasn't ready for is also a story. I think that George's story is like Sigmund's story in some ways, but unlike it in other ways. I don't think that George's story "means" Sigmund's story. I like George's better.

[*] Joe Chill and/or the Joker killed both Bruce's parents. The Orestia involves a bloodbath in which Daddy kills daughter, Mummy kills Daddy (to get back at him for killing her daughter), Son kills Mummy, (for killing his father for killing his sister) and so one until everyone is thoroughly dead or the Furies intervene. Greek tragedy and comic books: with this footnote you are spoiling us, Mr Ambassador.

[**] Steve Ditko. Ayn Rand. Atlas Shrugged. Bang. Bang. Bang.

[***] Spider-Man is bearing the sins of the world on his back. He goes through a whole series of deaths and resurrections. He wins an elixir of life which brings Aunt May back from the point of death. And it all happens in issue #33. See how easy it is?


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