Tuesday, September 07, 2010

6: Tests, Allies and Enemies

I recently watched Mythos – a series of (apparently amateur) recordings of lectures which Joseph Campbell himself gave towards the end of his life, with links by a hippy lady who hasn't yet worked out the correct way of sitting on a chair.

They horrified me.

In episode 2, the Spirit Land, Campbell reads out the entire text of a speech by a Native American leader named Chief Seattle. The gist of the speech is that the Suquamish were prepared to sell their ancestral homelands to the white settlers, but only on condition that the white folks loved and cared for all the trees and fish and wild horses and buffalo as much as the Indian did.

I think we have to be very careful of ascribing timeless natural wisdom to the Indians or the Gypsies or the kinds of Jews who play violins on people's roofs; of saying that they are more in touch with the natural world than us sophisticated people, and, what's more, that they have a wonderful sense of rhythm. In even savage bosoms there are longings, yearnings, strivings for a good they comprehend not, don't you know? I think that the native Americans probably had their own, culturally specific way of looking at the world, and that if we take particular poems and speeches out of context we are likely to misunderstand them. I also wish to ask questions about precisely what kind of timeless natural wisdom it is which tells us love the wild horses and if they are the same wild horses introduced to the Americas by the Evil Spanish Catholics, less than a century earlier.

This is by the way.

I am uncomfortable about the romantic environmentalism of the message. How many of us are prepared to live in a world without trains, cars, and telephones? I know I'm not. So in what way is it useful to beat ourselves up about how our "talking wires" have made it hard for the redskins to see the pretty landscape? (Do modern native Americans, in fact, wish to go back to living in their aboriginal, pre-Columbian state? And why would that kind of nostalgia be any more respectable than that of a white European who wishes we could all go back in time and live in a pure, pastoral, organic, pre-industrial-revolution society with happy rosy-cheeked peasants and bubonic plague?)

This is incidental.

Campbell is moved to tears when Chief Seattle asserts: "One thing we know, which the white man may yet discover: Our God is the same God". "Compare that with Genesis 2" exclaims uncle Joe. Joe thinks that Seattle's view, in which the whole of the world is sacred and in which "to harm the earth is to heap contempt on the creator" is preferable to the Biblical view in which God is separate from the created universe, and in which He kicks the human race out of Eden and places the land under a curse. I struggle to square Campbell's universalism in which all religions of the world really say the same thing with his apparent belief that the hippy god of the Injuns is different to and better than the nasty deity of Old Testament.

But even this is not really my point.

My real point is this.

Everybody knows that the speech which so desperately moves Uncle Joe was not written by a native American leader in 1854 but by a white, Christian screenplay writer in, er 1972.

Well; it's pretty speech, and it contains a lot of stuff which is true for Campbell. ("A noble heart embiggens the smallest man – regardless of who said it.") But given that Campbell's original academic background was in studying native American mythology, this sort of thing makes me jittery. It implies a scarily gung-ho attitude to his source material.

In the same series, Campbell purports not to understand what the word "God" means. He apparently once asked the famous Jewish theologian Martin Buber to define the term, but didn't stay for an answer [MODERATELY GOOD THEOLOGICAL JOKE]. He thinks that "God" probably means the incomprehensible mystery that lies behind the galaxies.

I am not sure how helpful this is.

What does Campbell mean by "mystery"? Does he mean "the bits that science hasn't worked out yet, but which will probably weird us out when we do know about them"? In this case, he's a bog standard western materialist, pointing out that the universe is not only queerer than we imagine, but in all probability, queerer than we can imagine.

Or does he mean "The Thing or Things which we can't weigh or measure or quantify or detect, but which nevertheless exists in some way, and which came before the galaxies and caused or intended them in some way"? In this case, he's a bog-standard agnostic, reluctant to be tied down on what's going on in the universe, but thinking that there's probably a Force or Spirit running the show.

Or is the thing or things that we can't weigh or measure or quantify in some way analogous to a human mind? In that case, he's simply a theist, albeit an atypically non-dogmatic one.

In the book Masks of God, he comes over all Kant and says that the Final Incomprehensible Mystery is literally un-knowable. The Final Incomprehensible Mystery is not God: rather, God is our cultural symbol for "that which is absolutely unknown and un-knowable." In Western Mythologies (a Bad Thing) the F.I.M stands in some kind of relationship to the universe. All mythology and philosophy and religion is about defining that relationship, which you can only do by analogy. If you think that Humans are to the F.I.M as children are to their parents this does not (NOT) mean that the F.I.M is anything like your father. It only means that there's a quality in the F.I.M which is in the same relationship to the universe as a father is to his children.

Eastern Mythology (a Good Thing) on the other hand, says that the F.I.M and the Universe are the same thing. This is Good because it allows the universe and everything in it to be sacred. "Everything is sacred" is another phrase I suspect of being literally meaningless. "Sacred" means "set apart, special, separated out". What does it mean to say that "everything" is special? ("When everybody's somebody, then no-one's anybody.") "Everything is sacred" translates to "Nothing is sacred" or "There is no such thing as sanctity". I suspect that "All Gods are one One God" and "There are no Gods" also come out the same.

I seem to recall once hearing an orthodox Jew patiently explaining that you could, if you liked, say that Judaism had no sacraments; and you could equally well, if you liked, say that in Judaism, everything was a sacrament – but really it was a silly question because "sacrament" was a Christian concept with no Jewish equivalent.

Towards the end of Mythos (the TV show) Campbell remarks that he is sometimes asked how modern people can get some sense of "ritual" back into their lives. Aha, says the sage: but we eat, we drink, we make love to our wives – what more "ritual" do we need?

And this is the inexhaustible whassisname that is crying out to us through all the stories in the world? This the One Truth which the Sages call by many names? "Mythic living" turns out to mean "doing whatever it was we were going to anyway, but applying the word 'mythic' to it" The great secret is that from now on we should eat our Weetabix more respectfully.

Follow your bliss. Whatever you do take pride. Keep calm and carry on.

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Monday, September 06, 2010

5: Crossing the Threshold

Shortly before Star Wars (and shortly after the Eternals) there was rather a good comedy series on Radio 4. You may remember it. You've certainly read the (much less good) book that was based on it. One of the main jokes was about the search for the "the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything".

Douglas Adams seems to have constructed his scripts in reverse. He seems to have dreamt up absurd comic reversals and then worked out some even more absurd comic back story which allowed those reversals to make a kind of sense. At any rate, I can't believe that he worked out how matter transportation beams worked, and then worked out what kind of effect they would have on the human body, and then deduced that the best source of salt and protein would be a bag of peanuts. I think that he decided that "I've got some peanuts" would be a comically incongruous thing for Ford Prefect to say after the destruction of the Earth, and then worked out a quasi-logical reason for him to say it.

The phrase "the Question to the Ultimate Answer" is dropped in, almost in passing, at the end of episode 3. It's a delightfully meaningless reversal. The explanation – that a race of people spent millions of years discovering an Answer which is useless to them because they didn't know the Question – is essentially a shaggy dog story. The revelation that the great Question to which the Answer is 42 is "What do you get if you multiply six by nine?" – is as good a punch line as a shaggy dog story ever has.

But I don't think that we took it like that at the time. I think that those of us who wore out our copies of the Pan paperback; wore "XLII" badges on our blazers; and treated towels as significant objects (if only for a single summer) thought that the idea that the Secret of Life, he Universe and Everything was contained in two digits was Very Profound Indeed.

The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy says that no-one on Earth ever realised that the whole planet was a big computer intended to calculate the Ultimate Question: "which was odd, because without that fairly simple and obvious piece of knowledge, nothing that ever happened on the earth could possibly make the slightest bit of sense." When Arthur Dent discovers the truth, he immediately says that it explains a lot things: he's always thought that something big, even sinister, was going on in the world "and that no-one would tell me what it was."

But the "fairly simple and obvious piece of knowledge" which makes sense out of history also has the effect of rendering history pointless and senseless. Once you know that human civilisation is actually a big question-seeking computer programme, it's quite hard to work up much enthusiasm for studying, say, the life of Cardinal Wolsey. Once some helpful person has identified all the drawings of UFOs in the Pyramids, there's no real need to visit them. Once Eric has informed you that the Bible is really, really important because it contains incontrovertible proof that the human race has been visited by extraterrestrials the last thing you want to do is re-read the story of Balaam's Ass. Whether we are talking about Freud or Frazer or Forty Two, Great Big Structuralist Secrets represent the incredibly appealing idea that there is an answer -- a simple answer -- that you can know, and wear on your lapel, without all that tedious mucking about with scholarship.

Some Christians believe that the Bible, and in particular, the book of Revelation, contains a fairly simple and obvious piece of knowledge without which nothing that happens on earth makes the slightest bit of sense. Human history is a great big battle between Christ and Darkseid Satan, and it's all going to culminate (real soon now) in the Rapture, the Tribulation, the Millennium, and the Second Coming, though not necessarily in that order [VERY GOOD THEOLOGICAL JOKE]. As the Ship of Fools website points out: this has the unintended consequence that between 70 AD and 1948, nothing whatsoever happened.



There was Star Wars, the big meta-story.

And there was the Eternals, the story that was the grain of truth hidden in all the other stories.

And there was Van Danikin and the other conspiracy theorists, explaining that there was one very simple and obvious fact without which nothing much which happened on earth made the slightest bit of sense.

And, of course, there was the Eternal Champion, and never mind that Elric is as dull as pigshit, no book in the world is ever quite as exciting as the First Book of Corum is the first time you read it; and there was John Carter of Mars, which I was just finishing with; and there was E.E "Doc" Smith which I was just starting with; and all the superheroes who'd been around for ever and ever; and then the BBC transmitted the Ring Cycle live from Bayreuth and more or less ruined the rest of my life.

So obviously when I finally obtained a copy of Hero With a Thousand Faces it was was going to become a talismanic book.

I mean. There I was I spending summer holidays going to Glastonbury (the town, that is, not the festival) in order to commune with the Holy Grail at Chalice Well. Seriously. There was I voluntarily reading Malory in the original, including the Tristran sections, which god knows I wouldn't do now. People talk about "spirituality" as if they know what it means. I don't. I never have. (They won't tell me. I've asked them.) But pretty clearly, I had a something shaped hole, and discussions about unemployment and nuclear weapons with vaguely earnest lady vicars were not making any serious attempt to fill it. Hero With a Thousand Faces exclusively revealed that Jack Kirby was right about all mythologies having a kernel of truth, but wrong in thinking that that truth was about space aliens. And George Lucas was right about there being only one Story, but Star Wars wasn't that story. And all that stuff about civil war slavers on Mars and Venture Scout kids bringing western democracy to green aliens whether they wanted it or not – all that pulp fiction wasn't, as everyone was always telling me, a waste of time that a clever lad like me ought to have grown out of: it was the only worthwhile thing you could possibly be reading. And it was no longer necessary to pretend that "42" or "I know where my towel is" were the icons which represented the Simple And Obvious piece of knowledge without which Nothing Much made Any Sense. There was a simple, easily photocopyable and pinable upable diagram on page 212 which represented the big secret. Which was the big secret.

Owning a copy of Hero With a Thousand Faces represented the fact that all stories were one story; that all stories were true; and that Star Wars and the Eternals and comic books and Dungeons & Dragons were not merely important, but actually the only important thing there was.

I can't remember if I actually read it or not.


Sunday, September 05, 2010

4: Meeting With The Mentor

Had Jack Kirby read Joseph Campbell? He might have done. He was one of those autodidacts who read un-systematically and uncritically absorbed what he read. But the source (or possibly The Source) that Kirby claimed for the Eternals was not Campbell but Eric Von Daniken.

Ah, Von Danikien, Von Daniken! Spinners in cheap seaside bookshops: Gold of the Gods alongside Our Mysterious Spaceship Moon, The Jesus Scroll, Dune Messiah, Jaws and the Bermuda Triangle. Self-evident truths that NASA, the Pope and the Evil Archaeologists have suppressed, revealed for 25p on very cheap paper.

He's still alive, apparently. His latest book is called History is Wrong.

Kirby seems to have taken Chariots of the Gods very seriously indeed. He didn't believe the specific conspiracy theories cooked up by Daniken, of course, but the idea that mythology and religion and civilisation are one vast cargo cult, based on confused, garbled memories of encounters between ancient human beings and extraterrestrials is one he seems to have found plausible. (Why else, he asks, do all mythologies agree that the gods live in the sky? Don't native Africans in jungle movies always think that the white man and his aeroplane is some kind of deity?) He returns to the idea over and over again. His widely derided Devil Dinosaur includes a story in which a cave woman called Eev is imprisoned by an alien computer called the Demon Tree. He produced an unpublished portfolio of science fictional interpretation of famous Bible stories, and did the concept designs for a movie (or possibly theme park) based on Roger Zelazny's unreadable Lord of Light.

He doesn't seem to have regarded any of this as particularly in conflict with his Jewish faith. The Ancient Astronaut theory seems, if anything, to validate the Bible for him. These old stories: maybe they aren't literally true - but maybe they aren't just something that some guy made up, either. And my stories, well, they're only guesses about what might really have happened but who is to say I am not on the right track?

It may only be a grain, but it's a grain of truth.

George Lucas had definitely read Joseph Campbell. According to the Making of Star Wars, he came across him while working on the third draft of his space opera.

"I spent about a year reading a lot of fairy tales – and that's when it starts to move way from Kurosawa and towards Joe Campbell...I started to realise that I was following those rules unconsciously. So I said, I'll make it fit more into that classic mould."

It isn't quite clear what Lucas did with Star Wars to make it fit in with Campbell's template. The Making of Star Wars points out that in the older drafts, Luke had brothers and sisters, where in the final version he is a loner. The figure of Ben Kenobi - as the Old Man who pops up just after Luke's first adventure and gives him advice and a special weapon - first appears in the post-Campbell drafts.

What is clear is that between Star Wars and the Empire Strikes Back, Obi-Wan's treacherous apprentice had morphed into Luke Skywalker's daddy, and the driving force behind the trilogy was re-envisioned as the redemption of this Dark Father and his reconciliation with his Son. (One rather assumes that Harrison Ford wouldn't have taken Sean Connery along with him on the quest for the Holy Grail if Campbell hadn't revealed that all quests stories are really about Atonement With The Father.) Regular readers will know that I prefer the Wild West, Fairy Tale cosmos of the original Star Wars movie to the heavily mythical stuff in the sequels. But a lot of people seem to think that the Empire Strikes Back is quite good. Would a pre-Campbellian version – in which Vader is simply the murderer of Skywalker Snr – have sunk without trace?

By the time you get to Return of the Jedi, the films have completely bifurcated: Luke and the Emperor and Darth Vader act out their mythological psychodrama on the Death Star, while, in another part of the forest, Han Solo and the the Ewoks rather half-heartedly go through the motions. The prequel trilogy exists purely in order to make sense of this section: to explain why Luke's father turned to the Dark Side; why he turned back; and why it mattered. The raison d'etre of Episode One is to retrofit Star Wars to Campbell's "monomyth". So if Campbell can take quite a lot of the credit for the Empire Strikes Back, he must also take the majority of the blame for the Phantom Menace.

Lucas seems to have had strong ideas about what kinds of scenes he wanted in his movie; but to have struggled to work out how they fitted together. There was always going to be a desert planet and some sort of race or chase and a scene where big, or possibly small, furry creatures destroyed or helped destroy an indestructible armoured battle station. But how or when or in what order changed from draft to draft. In the early versions, our heroes were going to visit the Empire's throne world called (confusingly) Alderaan. Quite late on in the proceedings Lucas realised that you don't need a world-city in a movie which has already got an indestructible armoured battle station. The two or three scenes in which the baddies explain their plans to each other could just as well happen on the Death Star itself, and that could also be the place from which the goodies have to rescue the princess. (The best place to imprison the spy who stole the plans to the Ultimate Weapon is on board the Ultimate Weapon itself. Obviously.) But he liked the scene where the heroes approached the baddies' lair through the disgusting sewers, so he transferred that bit to the garbage masher on the Death Star. You can see the join, but only just.

The process of writing Star Wars was a process of chopping: of cutting away foliage until a very simple, classical shape emerged. So you could see why Lucas would have found Joseph Campbell and his theory of the monomyth so attractive. If you chop and delete hard enough, said Campbell, you will find that there really is a pattern, a simple pattern, underlying every story: and that that pattern is Really, Really Important.

It's said that in order to make a carving of a duck, you take a lump of wood and cut away everything that doesn't look like a duck. It must save a lot of time if a man turn up at your door with a supply of duck templates.

Structures and templates can be terribly helpful: of course they can. Every bookshop can sell you a shelf full of books that will teach you the correct structure for a blockbuster novel. And if you don't quite know how to start your masterpiece, then it must be terribly useful to be told that a 70,000 word novel must be divided into 60 scenes, and that scene 56 should wrap up the romantic sub plot to leave the hero free to encounter his worst failure (scene 57), moment of hopelessness (scene 58), and saving act (scene 59) before wrapping everything up as quickly as possible in scene 60. It's not the only way of writing a book; but it's certainly a way and it gets you past the "how the heck am I going to start this thing?" stage.

So if young George was struggling with the question "When should Obi-Wan give Luke his father's magic six-gun?" it may have been very helpful for Joe to say "Right after he leaves the homestead: because the proper mythical time for The Hero to encounter Supernatural Aid is after he has crossed the Threshold Of Adventure."

Structures are easier to stick to if they have some kind of "belief feelings" attached to them. That's why fad diets which have discovered that you can become instantly thin if you eat, or give up, one particular flavour of food are so much more popular than ones to say "Eat less food". If it's a miracle breakthrough, it's easier to obey. So it may be that Campbell's assurances that the Heroes Journey was not only quite a useful structure for writing to but "the secret opening through which the the inexhuastible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation" gave Lucas the confidence to pick a structure for his film and stop damn well picking at it.

It must be said that when Star Wars came out in 1977/8 no-one particularly spotted the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos, but a lot of people did notice that it was a fairy tale in science fiction dress. The critics made a big deal about how it quoted and incorporated previous movies – a bit of Wizard of Oz, a smidgeon of Lawrence of Arabia, a generous tablespoon full of the Dambusters. This really was the key thing which people took away from the film. The review page in my local newspaper kept using the word smorgasbord. I recall a prophet of acupuncture (or, as it may have been, homoeopathy) on Pebble Mill At One explaining that all the different forms of mainstream and alternative medicine ought to form a big happy synthesis – in the same way that all the different kinds of movies had come together in Star Wars.

And I really do think that this was a big part of the appeal of the film: not that it was full of robots and spaceships and that Harrison Ford got some good lines and shot first but the sense that when Obi-Wan gives the lightsaber to Luke, it's an old familiar tale happening all over again for the first time.

So perhaps Campbell did not "influence" George Lucas. Perhaps he merely confirmed something which George Lucas already felt. Perhaps, in fact, he became a convenient icon, an ideogram which represented what the movie was always going to be about. You don't need to agree with Joseph Campbell. You don't even need to have read Joseph Campbell. All you know on earth, and all you need to know, is summed up in five magic words.







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Saturday, September 04, 2010

3: Refusal of the Call

Jack Kirby had pretty much created Marvel Comics in the 1960s. But the organisation has and had deeply ambivalent attitude to its founding father. On the one hand, they obsessively emulated him: to draw in "Marvel Style" was to mimic Jack Kirby; to use "The Marvel Method" was to collaborate as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby collaborated; the "Marvel Universe" was and is an ill-fitting patchwork of Kirby Koncepts. On the other hand, the company tried very hard to pretend that Kirby didn't exist. Every single Marvel comic bore a copy of Stan Lee's signature, but Kirby's name was hardly ever mentioned. When the company changed hands in 1968, the new owners were led to believe that Kirby had been a hired illustrator of concepts wholly originated by Stan Lee. There is a persistent oral tradition that staff in the Marvel archive were required to destroy priceless pages of Kirby artwork as an initiation rite. Kirby had been a mainstay of Marvel Comics when Stan Lee was only an office boy – in a classic parapraxis in his book Origins of Marvel Comics Lee actually refers to Kirby as "my boss". Little Stanley Lieber clearly felt that in order to grow up, he had to slay and thereby become the founding Father of the company which would soon become an extension of his own ego. But the grown up Stan Lee knew only too well the punishment for Patricide. So he overcompensated. He insisted on always being photographed with a cigar. And his cigar was bigger than Jack's! He obsessively signed himself Stan "the man". Stan Lee's castration complex was


When Jack Kirby returned to Marvel Comics in 1976 after a self-imposed exile at DC he worked on half-a-dozen new series including Captain America, the Black Panther, Devil Dinosaur and the Eternals. He, of course, believed in every one of them absolutely: but none of them were terribly good.

People like me are prone to say that since Kirby created the Black Panther and Captain America, he couldn't really be expected to know or care about the sophomoric literary edifices that others had erected on his foundations. (Who reads Steve Englehart or Don McGregor nowadays?) He had a prefect right to clear the ground, go back to basics, and do his characters his way. Unfortunately, "his way" turned out to involve time travelling frogs and evil royalist mind control bombs. And rocket powered skateboards. "Kirby's way" at this time in his career, was to treat all characters as men in superhero suits and throw whacky Kirby stuff at them. I happen to like whacky Kirby stuff. But I can't deny that Kirby's heroes were increasingly interchangeable. The Panther could have been Captain America and Captain America could have been the Panther and Ikaris was clearly Orion.

Possibly, that was the point.

During his years at the Distinguished Competition, Jack Kirby had created a mythological comic called the New Gods, a work of insane genius from which the American comic book industry has never recovered. The New Gods pointedly begins with an "epilog". The Old Gods – which a lot of people assume must mean Thor and his Marvel buddies – are wiped out in one of those Ragnorak Gotterdamerung thingies, and a new race of hippy superheroes emerge from the ashes. Some of them are good and some of them are bad, and they have fights.

Back at Marvel, the Eternals was a new take on some very similar material. But if the New Gods was an epilogue or sequel to all the mythology that there had ever been, the Eternals was more in the nature of a prologue or a prequel. The New Gods had been derived from the Gods of Olympus and Asgard: the Eternals were what those gods had been derived from.

You remember the set-up. In the Fantastic Four, Kirby had created the inscrutable Galactus to fill the God-shaped hole in the Marvel Universe. In the Eternals, he proposed a whole race of Galactii, giant faceless aliens who were the secret originators and manipulators of all human history. A gadzillion years ago, they had performed genetic experiments on primitive ape-men and turned a few of them into immortal super-heroes (the eponymous "Eternals"). Their first experiment went wrong and produced a race of hideous mutants (the "Deviants").

The concept that this is the mythology which lies behind every mythology was hugely compelling. But the concept was a whole lot stronger than the actual comic book. After the mythos is established (by the end of issue 3) the series grinds to a halt. The New Gods was really only ever one big extended fight scene: the warring planets of New Genesis and Apokolips primarily existed so that an endless stream of superheroes and super villains could flow into Metropolis and have big battles without exposition or explanation. But Kirby seemed to be actually interested in his Fourth Host and his City of the Deviants: the back story matters more than the one at the front. Once you've grasped that all human legends about gods and demons are based on the doings of the beautiful Eternals, the ugly Deviants and the cosmically cosmic Celestials you've really experienced all the Sense of Wonder which the series has to offer. It isn't clear where, left to himself, Kirby would have taken it. (I'm guessing not a three issue long fight with a robot replica of the Incredible Hulk.)

In issue 13, the Eternals bugger off to perform the ritual of Unimind (you don't need to know) leaving only Sprite, the Eternal child, behind. While they're away, the Deviants decide to nuke the Celestial's mothership, which Sprite feels is a bad idea. So he elicits the aid of "the forgotten one"; who is "like an ancient myth no longer remembered".

"Once," explains the Forgotten One "I roamed the world among the humans and shook it to improve their lot. I toppled the palaces of tyrants and slew the beasts they could not conquer. The humans knew me by many names, but here I have none."

So the hero (or very possibly the Hero) goes off on one final adventure. The last we see of him he is being taken on board the Top Celestial's starship. Kirby had a genius for turning up the volume: the Eternals are the gods; the Celestials are the gods who the Eternals look up to; so the One Above All is the gods' gods' god. The Forgotten One was – literally was – Hercules and Samson and Gilgamesh and every other hero in history; but compared with the top Celestial, he is only a flea.

But (all together now) "he is a flea who has proven worthy of the gods."


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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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Thursday, September 02, 2010

1: The Ordinary World

When I was in the lower sixth form, I accidentally invented structuralism.

I was writing one of those lit crit essays you had to do for English A level, on a gloomy Ted Hughes poem about Thistles.

Every one a revengeful burst
Of resurrection, a grasped fistful
Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up
From the underground stain of a decayed Viking

"Aha!" I thought. "He's making an Allusion." In the Lower Sixth, allusions are good things to find. Teachers underline them and put red ticks in the margin. "He's Alluding to Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha," I thought. "The thistles growing out of the body of the dead Viking are sort of kind of like the corn which grew out of the body of the youth who Hiawatha wrestled with."

My teacher said that it was indeed a Good Thing for me to have stuck my neck out, but that when spotting Allusions, one should ask oneself: "Is this Allusion likely to have been in the head of the writer when he wrote it?"

Nowadays I would say that it doesn't matter a thinker's cuss what was or wasn't in the writer's head since it is currently buried in a pretty church yard in North Tawton and inaccessible. Hughes may or may not have been thinking of Hiawatha's Fasting when he wrote Thistles. But a connection between the dead Viking and the dead demi-god there most certainly is.

Mr Martin Carthy, who I may have mentioned before, sings a folk song called John Barleycorn. Mr Chris Wood, who I may also have alluded to, sings the same song, rather more slowly. You remember how it goes?

There were three men come from the West
Their fortunes for to try,
And these three made a solemn vow:
"John Barleycorn must die."

They plowed, they sowed, they harrowed him in,

Threw clods upon his head,
'Til these three men were satisfied
John Barleycorn was dead.

They let him lie for a very long time,

'Til the rains from heaven did fall,

When little Sir John raised up his head
And so amazed them all...

Anyone can see that this song is about beer. What's being buried alive, beheaded with a scythe and crushed between stones isn't a person called Sir John, but the actual barley. Sir John isn't being executed: he's being harvested and brewed. You don't particularly need to decode or interpret the song to spot this. It isn't a metaphor or an allegory: it's just a way of speaking.

In Hiawatha's Fasting the process of personification has gone quite a bit further. The mysterious youth who comes to fight the hero (or, very possibly, The Hero) can walk and talk and fight like a man – we aren't supposed to imagine Hiawatha wrestling with a tin of sweetcorn. Longfellow says that our hero fights with the mysterious stranger on two consecutive nights, and kills him on the third. After he has buried his opponent, Hiawatha keeps watch over his grave:

Till at length a small green feather
From the earth shot slowly upward
Then another and another
And before the summer ended
Stood the maize in all its beauty...
And in rapture Hiawatha
Cried aloud: "It is Mondamin!
Yes, the friend of man, Mondamin!"

It doesn't need any clever insight to work out that the Mondamin "is" the corn, just as much as John Barleycorn "is" the barley. But suppose Hiawatha had returned to the grave in the spring and found, not sprouts of sweetcorn, but Mondamin himself, returned to life? I think that most people would still have spotted that the youth –

dressed in garments green and yellow
plumes of green bent o'er his forehead
and his hair was soft and golden

-- who dies and is buried in the winter, but who comes to life and and steps out of his grave in the spring is a personification of the maize.
Extend the line a bit further and you will find that any hero (or, indeed, Hero) who dies (or apparently dies) and comes back to life can be seen as the personification of the Corn or the Grapes or the Maize or the Barley or the Rhubarb. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty and the Turkish Knight are all equally personifications of Nature. And characters like Orpheus and Theseus and Alice in Wonderland and Bilbo Baggins who go down into the earth and come up again are obviously undergoing symbolic death and rebirth, so they are vegetables too. And even that "going down" and "coming up" doesn't need to be literal. If I get knocked down but get up again – or just go through a period of bad luck and then improve – you can be pretty sure I'm re-enacting the annual death and rebirth of Nature. And since it's pretty hard to imagine a literature character who doesn't go through some kind of literal, symbolic or metaphorical death and rebirth, it follows that all stories are the same story and that story is the story of John Barleycorn.

This theory was extremely popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and was one of the principle causes of T.S. Eliot. Whatever my English teacher thought, I am pretty certain that Ted Hughes would have come across it.


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Wednesday, September 01, 2010


"I know that astrology isn't a science...of course it isn't. It's just an arbitrary set of rules like chess or tennis. The rules just kind of got there. They don't make any kind of sense except in terms of themselves. But when you start to exercise those rules, all sorts of processes start to happen and you start to find out all sorts of stuff about people. In astrology the rules happen to be about stars and planets, but they could be about ducks and drakes for all the difference it would make. It's just a way of thinking about a problem which lets the shape of that problem begin to emerge. The more rules, the tinier the rules, the more arbitrary they are, the better."

Douglas Adams


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Alternatively, please consider making a donation of £1 for each essay you have enjoyed.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good?
Will it buy you forgiveness?
Do you think that it could?
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you've made will never buy back your soul.

Bob Dylan 'Masters of War'

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Blogger has spam filter. Comment moderation off again. Not that you care.

Monday, August 09, 2010

For the next seven days, all words will be occurring over here www.folk-diary.blogspot.com

If anyone with Blogger-Fu can tell me how to make the posts pop up here by posting not more than three lines of HTML, could they let me know? Otherwise it will probably all migrate en masse at the end of the week.

No, I didn't see Sherlock, but I've ordered the boxed set.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

This Land

West Yorkshire Playhouse
July 16

The expression "not a dry eye in the house" gets massively overused, and Interplay's musical drama about the life of Woody Guthrie deserves better than to be summed up with a cliché. I, at any rate, did not cry all the way through this performance. I didn't so much as sniffle until Woody started singing about the big ol' sign sayin' "Private Property" at the beginning of Act Two. And I'd calmed down within an hour or two of leaving the theatre. You know how sometimes at the end of a gig or an opera everyone stands up and claps because, dammit, this is the kind of gig or opera where everyone stands up and claps at the end? This was the kind of gig where about a third of the audience stood up and clapped spontaneously because they couldn't help it.

So far as I can tell, the play is constructed entirely out of actual quotes from Woody Guthrie and all the good people who travelled with him. The programme implies that the writer had access to the (vast) archive of unpublished writings; but a lot of the vignettes were based around fairly familiar scenes and quotations. We get a convincing re-creation of Alan Lomax talking over Woody's guitar improvisation at the beginning of the Library of Congress tapes. The cast perfectly capture the contrast between Guthrie's oakie dialect and the cut-glass elucution of the BBC announcer when he appears on Children's Hour during the war ("Mr Guthrie is a very well known singer of folk songs in the United States of America" "Yes ma'am, but now I'm washin' dishes on the good ship Liberty..."). We see Woody learning harmonica from the black hobo by the railway ("just about the lonesomest music I ever did hear" ); and there's a big round of applause (from me at any rate) when he tells the audience that his songs are protected under U.S copyright and anyone caught singing them without permission "will be mighty good friends of ourn, cos we don't give a durn."

It's one of those non-naturalistic bits of total theatre, in which six actors play Guthrie at different times in his life, leaving the one woman in the cast to be all the mothers, sisters, daughters and wives who come into his story. The action starts with the dying Woody in Brooklyn State Hospital, and for the rest of the production the metal frame hospital bed is dragged around the stage to represent doors, tractors, automobiles (with en-gyne trouble) and trains (which are bound for glory). For the first half of the first act, I thought things were going to be maybe a little bit precious, like one of those over-earnest student drama groups. Maybe the show did linger too long over the shocking story of Guthrie's childhood -- his sister and father die in house fires, and his mother ends her life in an insane asylum. Things lift notably when the teenage Woody teaches himself to play guitar while selling bootleg whisky ("I thought it sounded awful purty") and really take off when Dan Wheeler takes over the role of the adult Woody during his career as performer, recording artists and left wing agitator. I didn't know the story about him tearing up a copy of a song called "Nigger Blues" on live radio and promising never to sing it again: the naivet̩ of not realising that the title would give offence, and the unselfconscious apology when this is pointed out to him speaks volumes about the man. The famous songs aren't milked: we only hear a couple of verses of "This Land" ; if anything the climax of the production is a set-piece "Union Maid" on a stage suddenly full of Stars and Stripes banners. I could probably have done without "Jesus Christ" being presented as a bit of a Gospel number, complete with a "hallelujahs" Рit's clearly a Communist Jesus, not a Christian one, that Woody is celebrating. But I loved the moment when Woody, faced with the terrible possibility that he's inherited Huntington's Cholera from his mother, says that he is a religious man, but can't decide which one he likes the best. "Either Jesus Christ or Will Rogers" he suggests.)

Because the text is based on documentary sources, there is perhaps an absence of drama: we are shown what happened but there can't be any playwright's speculation about the man's off-stage or interior life. It stops short of being mawkish, but apart from a very brief reprise of "This Land" before the curtain call, there's no attempt to soften of create an upbeat ending for what's actually an appallingly sad story. The impact of the show depends heavily on the manner of the production: the choice of vignettes, the appropriate incorporation of songs into the action, the playful use of the hospital bed; the way in which all the famous and less famous people who cross Woody's path are briefly channelled by members of the cast. The production is going to go on tour (if it doesn't it will be a crime against theatre and music) so I don't want to reveal how too many of its theatrical conjuring tricks are done. Let's just say that in the final moments, Woody -- so crippled with Huntington's disease that he can only communicate by moving his eyes -- is visited in hospital by a certain young man with mussed up hair and a harmonica, who starts to sing "I'm out here, a thousand miles from my home..." It's one of the most affecting dramatic moments I've seen this year. Or, indeed, ever.

I didn't quite believe the review linked to from the WYP's website, which complained the production was little more than a tribute act for the benefit of fans. The clever construction of the show and its perpetual theatrical inventiveness makes it far more than that: it not only tells the life-story clearly and powerfully, but gives the audience the sense that they've spent the evening in the company of a living personality – about the best tribute you could pay to a musical biography.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Fortune Cookie say: Time to switch on comment moderation.