Posts Tagged ‘Collective Unconscious’

Understanding and Using Fairy-Stories (pt. i)

December 20, 2012

Understanding and Using Fairy-Stories:  J. R. R. Tolkien versus Joseph Campbell on the Origins and Function of Fantasy

“But this story is supreme; and it is true.  Art has been verified.  God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—–and of elves.  Legend and History have met and fused.”

J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”

My generation knew J. R. R. Tolkien as the great writer of that delightful fairy tale, The Hobbit, and that grand epic cycle The Lord of the Rings.  Future generations will probably know him as the writer of the book on which those great movies were made.  Real aficionados will know he also wrote something called The Silmarillion, and an even more fanatical core will have actually read it.  But I think it is a much smaller number that remember that Professor Tolkien was a serious and accomplished scholar, known for his teaching and learning.  He did not merely write fantasy; for him it was both an object of serious study and a holy exercise.  Since the late 1970’s, American film has been largely dominated by producers and writers who are devotees of the theories of Joseph Campbell; and at this point, I think Campbell’s outlook on mythology probably dominates our culture in ways even I do not realize and most cannot begin to suspect.  But with three blockbuster films based on the writings of Tolkien, and three more on the way (one due for release three days from the time of this writing), perhaps it is time to look more closely not just at the mythology Tolkien wrote, but at the reasons he gave for writing it.

As I said, Campbell’s view of mythology is more prevalent today, so I wish to summarize it first as a contrast.  Campbell has been a powerful influence on George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg and the Wachowskis, among others, and thus has had an impact on more than a dozen of the biggest films in the sci-fi/fantasy genre.  Joseph Campbell’s scholarship was primarily in the area of comparative mythology:  looking at the myths of cultures from many times and places, looking at differences and seeking similarities, parallels and points of contact between them.  Campbell commented that when he was a student in the 1950’s, everyone “knew” that mythology was dying and would soon give way to the rational understanding of the world.[1]  However, as time went on it became clear that mythology was not in fact dying.  The only answer, Campbell believed, was that modern humans need myth:  but why?  Turning to the psychological theories of Carl Jung, Campbell theorized that the religious myths of the world are all retellings of the same basic human stories, using the same universal symbols or archetypes.  For example, one prevalent archetype is the “Finding the Father” myth.  The hero (who may, at the start of the story, not be heroic at all) discovers that his father has been wounded, bound or something of that sort, and needs to be rescued and restored.  The hero must undergo many trials and overcome many obstacles, but in the end he finds and heals his father.  The father is thus restored to his former glory; and in the process, the son too becomes a hero, as great or perhaps greater than the father.  Anyone who has seen the original Star Wars trilogy cannot fail to see this myth reflected in that story arc.  In other versions, finding the father can lead to disaster, as for Oedipus and Phaeton; but either way, the search for the father is an archetype.  To search for one’s father is to search for one’s source, which is to search for oneself.  To find the father is to find one’s true self, and to fulfill one’s true nature (Lucas included that element in The Empire Strikes Back, where the hero has a vision of killing his enemy, only to find he has killed himself; later he comes to know that his hated enemy is also his father whom he must redeem, not destroy).  In Jung’s psychology, which Campbell appropriates, mythology represents the “collective unconscious” of the human race.  We all have a shared store of dream images and symbols, whether this is because all humans face many of the same life-events (such as the journey from childhood to adulthood) or whether (as Jung seemed to believe) we actually share consciousness on some level.  Jung called these symbols “archetypes” to convey the fact that they are universal patterns we all follow.  Campbell felt his own surveying of world cultures demonstrated the truth of Jung’s theory, and that all the different religions were simply cultural variations of the same basic archetypes.  The similarities between the stories of the Buddha and the Christ, for example, were not merely coincidence or even direct influence; they were signs that both stories were simply retellings of a more primordial story, the Hero myth, and that the true reality of each religion lay in that ancient myth.

While Campbell was a scholar of comparative religions, Tolkien was a philologist.  His primary scholarly background was the study of words and language, the origins of concepts in the language of the past, and how past words resonate into the present.  His interest was not in finding the similarity between disparate phenomena, but rather in finding one object of study, defining it, and tracing it all the way back to its roots.  When it comes to understanding their contrasting approaches to mythology, this is clearer nowhere more than in Tolkien’s treatment of Beowulf, which is still considered seminal.[2]  Tolkien complains that in his day, most scholarship treats the book as a barely interesting historical record, cluttered up with a lot of silly monsters.[3]  What is interesting is not the story itself, as a poem, but only what can be deduced from it; and generally, this means looking at what it has in common with other sources, rather than considering it in its uniqueness.  It is thus said to be a bad imitation of Virgil, essentially aping the great epics of the Greeks and Romans, recast by ignorant Anglo-Saxon Christians.  By contrast, Tolkien argues that the story of Beowulf is fine on its own merits, that it achieves exactly what it was intended to achieve, and that when it is understood on its own instead of judged for not being what the critics want it to be then it can be seen to be a true classic with truly timeless insights.  However, before one can see what the poem has to show, one must stop tearing it down to examine its building-blocks, and instead look out to see what is revealed from the vantage point at its summit.[4]     The author of the poem has something to say, something particular, which is revealed in the particular way he or she has assembled these elements; to understand the story, one must look at the final product, not simply disassemble it to better see the parts.  Tolkien continues this image in his essay on fairy stories, when he writes:

Such studies are… using the stories not as they were meant to be used, but as a quarry from which to dig evidence, or information, about matters in which they are interested…  They are inclined to say that any two stories that are built round the same folk-lore motive, or are made up of a generally similar combination of such motives, are “the same stories.”  We read that Beowulf “is only a version of Dat Erdmänneden”; that “The Black Bull of Norrway is Beauty and the Beast,” or “is the same story as Eros and Psyche”; that the Norse Mastermaid (or the Gaelic Battle of the Birds and its many congeners and variants) is “the same story as the Greek tale of Jason and Medea.”

Statements of that kind may express (in undue abbreviation) some element of truth; but they are not true in a fairy-story sense, they are not true in art or literature.  It is precisely the colouring, the atmosphere, the unclassifiable individual details of a story, and above all the general purport that informs with life the undissected bones of the plot, that really count.[5]

A Campbellite understanding of Beowulf would look to the story as an example of the great monomyth, the hero story which has been and will be retold incessantly.  It would look at how the hero comes to the place of conflict, how his liberation of Hrothgar’s mead hall compares to Jason’s liberation of King Phineas or his ripping off of Grendel’s arm compares to the myth of Luke Skywalker disarming  the wampa of Hoth.  Tolkien instead urges us to look at the particularities of the story and consider what the impact is of those details.

To be continued….


[1] I do not now recall whether this was in the preface to Hero with a Thousand Faces or Myths to Live By, but I’m fairly certain it is in one of those two places.

[2] J. R. R. Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics,” Proceedings of the British Academy, 1936, pp. 245-95; reprinted in Beowulf:  a verse translation, translated by Seamus Heaney, edited by Daniel Donohughue (New York & London:  W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2002) pp.  103-130

[3] “The Monsters and the Critics,” pp. 103-7

[4] “The Monster and the Critics,” pp. 105-06

[5] J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in Tree and Leaf; reprinted in The Tolkien Reader, by J. R. R. Tolkien, (New York:  The Random House Publishing Group, 1966) pp.  45-6