Posts Tagged ‘Hero With a Thousand Faces’

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. xvi)

June 25, 2013

CONCLUSIONS

            For Campbell, mythology, psychology and metaphysics are all of one piece.[1]  Religion reveals the structure of the unconscious as this is collectively expressed, and this in turn expresses our understanding of the nature of reality; or to read it backwards, the structure of reality gives rise to psychological themes and symbols that are expressed, codified and institutionalized in religion.  Since virtually every role-playing game will express the monomyth, every such game will be an individual’s using those symbols drawn from the collective unconscious to understand himself or herself, to understand the cosmos, and to understand how the one fits into the other.  Perhaps that is one reason why these games can be so powerfully attractive.  Knowingly or not, players are manipulating the deepest symbols of the human condition, and of their own unconscious.

For Tolkien, any act of creativity is an expression of the imageo Dei.  That does not mean that every such expression is good or healthy; he says that much of human history has shown the perversions of this creative nature, whether in ancient human sacrifice or modern fascism and leader-worship.[2]  But when done properly, fairy-stories present a kind of gospel, a eucatastrophe, that reflects the deep human thirst for the true gospel; and perhaps they can whet the appetite for that true Consolation.  Most sorts of role-playing have the potential to express Fantasy, Recovery, Escape and Consolation to some degree.  One major difference is that a reader or hearer of fairy-stories must imaginatively enter into another’s Secondary World; in role-playing, everyone plays a part in creating the shared Secondary World together, so the experience is more immersive and active.

Many years ago, I read an article on the psychology of gaming, examining the question of whether or not role-playing games were dangerous (again, this was before the MMORPG, so the study was concerned primarily with Dungeons and Dragons).  In most cases, the conclusion was “no;” but the author did note that in a group home for boys with behavioral/psychological problems, gaming made them more resistant to therapy and particularly to group therapy.  I think that Tolkien and Campbell show us why this might be so.  In a sense, all fantasy is therapy, an expression of one’s deepest creative impulses, shared together and validated by the participation of others.  If one’s deepest nature is self-destructive, one will create a Secondary World that is hostile and destructive; or to put it another way, one will choose symbols and stories that thwart the hero and embrace chaos and destruction without rebirth.  Role-playing is a therapeutic technique, although therapeutic role-playing generally has little of what makes genuine role-playing games so popular and satisfying; and role-playing games can be a sort of self-medication or self-therapy.  Compared to the other sorts of self-medication that are common, RPGs would seem to be safer and more effective than most.  But having played various games for over thirty years, I can say that they can have some negative effects as well.  Their psychological and religious power can also lead players to compulsively play, to avoid reality rather than using the games as a tool to grow to face reality.

To be continued….


[1] Hero with a Thousand Faces, pp. 256-59

[2] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 75

Is Role-Play Gaming a Religious Exercise? Thoughts on Tolkien, Campbell and Role-Playing Games (pt. ii)

March 14, 2013

Joseph Campbell published The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949, but his theories have roots in the earlier writings of Carl Jung.  As an avid gamer, Jung’s Psychology & Religion fascinated me from the moment I read it, because of how it resonated with my own experiences.  Before I began playing Dungeons and Dragons, I suffered from frequent nightmares; within a year of beginning role-playing I found the nightmares were under control.  I say “under control” because I literally learned how to take charge of my dreams, at least sometimes, because instead of being my own powerless and anxious self I would switch to being my D&D character.  I found too that my friends frequently recounted dreaming they were characters or were in their D&D world or something of that sort.  Jung offers an explanation for why this would be, by linking dreams and mythology to the unconscious.  In dreams, one’s unconscious speaks through symbols and images.  The man who is seeking a pattern for his own life dreams of a “world clock,” a geometrically harmonious construction keeping time by strict ratios of rates of rotation for its hands.  Jung links this image both to the patient’s earlier dreams, which incorporated many of these symbols, and to such religious symbols as the Tibetan mandelas, to pagan mythology and to Christian dogma.[1]  The patient himself was unaware of these connections, Jung reports; but still, even in his private psychological storm he is part of a worldwide atmosphere, which Jung terms the “collective unconscious.”  Campbell largely works by adding his considerable knowledge of the mythologies of the world to Jung’s original discussions of religious symbolism and the collective unconscious.  Campbell says that certain symbols are “collective” because they reflect universal aspects of every human existence:  birth, growth, maturity, moving from the family collective into a larger social world, the struggle for individuality and for social integration, and eventually death.  Because there are biological and social patterns that are common to all human beings, there are stories and symbols that represent these in every culture.  If these were not known, the individual would have to invent them, as Jung’s patient seemed to; but in fact they are common in every culture and every individual can borrow and adapt those symbols to tell himself the story of himself (or herself).  All religions, Campbell argues, are variations on the “monomyth,”  as he writes:

            The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage:  separation—-initiation—-return:  which might me named the nuclear unit of the monomyth.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder:  fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won:  the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.[2]

Campbell argues with Jung, however, claiming that psychologists err when they see religion as merely expressions of the unconscious, collective or otherwise.[3]  The symbols may spring from the unconscious, but the myths are public and intentional attempts to understand life and the universe.  The unconscious is the metaphysical realm; the “collective unconscious” is the universal awareness that all things come from one source (God, mana, Being or whatever) and return to it again.  The monomyth is the product of monism.

Campbell’s theory says that mythology is inescapable and essential, even to the “modern” person, because it is the deeper attempt to reconcile oneself with one’s own self, with one’s social identity, and with the universe as a whole.  But as Jung himself said in his treatise on UFOs, the modern person often creates new “scientific” symbols to replace the fantastic and mythological symbols of the past.  Once we told stories of visitors from the divine realm who came with gifts of healing and gifts of love, who worked miracles and were persecuted and died but rose again to return to their former glory; now we have E.T:  The Extraterrestrial.  Campbell’s theories have influenced George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, the Wachowskis and others; if any filmmaker for the last thirty years has made a fantastic film that owed nothing to Star Wars or Indiana Jones or The Matrix, I am unaware of it.  Campbell’s theories are ubiquitous in film, and the influence of film is ubiquitous in gaming.

To be continued…..


[1] Carl Gustav Jung, Psychology and Religion, (New Haven and London:  Yale University Press, 1938) pp. 79-114

[2] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Bollingen Series XVII (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1973) p. 30

[3] Hero with a Thousand Faces, pp. 255-60

Review: The Hobbit: an unexpected journey (pt. ii)

January 4, 2013

The Hobbit and the Monomyth:  Joseph Campbell taught that all myths are basically the same story with different details.  They originate, as dreams do, in the unconscious; but myths are communal, so they represent the collective rather than the personal unconscious.  They are tales made from symbols and plots that represent universal life events, such as the transition from childhood to adulthood; and these universal psychological events themselves reflect the great metaphysical unity of all existence.  The Story of the Hobbit is in some ways a myth, and in some ways more like a dream.  Like a dream, it is the creation of a particular individual, not the historical product of a culture; but it was an attempt to write a myth in new form, and given its widespread resonance it would seem to have succeeded.  Now it has become as widely known as many “real” myths today, and has even reached the stage that it is being retold and reinvented by new generations of storytellers.

Campbell writes:

 

 

 

The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage:  separation—-initiation—-return:  which might me named the nuclear unit of the monomyth.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder:  fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won:  the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.[1]

 

 

How does The Story of the Hobbit fit into the form of the monomyth?  First, let us consider our hero.  Tolkien begins:

 

 

            In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.  Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat:  it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle.  The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel:  a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with paneled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats—-the hobbit was fond of visitors.[2]

 

 

With the first sentence, Tolkien sets up a distance between the reader and the hero.  He is not a human, he is a “hobbit,” whatever that is, and he lives in a hole as might a badger or mole.  But immediately after that, Tolkien sets a scene to show that the hobbit is in fact very much like you or me; he enjoys comforts and visitors, bright colors and polished furniture, and he lives in a hole very much like one we would want to live in, if we lived in holes.  Despite being called “hobbit,” he is Everyman, so much so that he is even more a blank slate than that, and we can come to him with no preconceptions beyond what the writer himself tells us.  And Tolkien tells us that he is a well-to-do person, from a very respectable and unremarkable family, famous for their conformity and predictability, with no magic about him.  He is so far from being “heroic” that he is smaller, shier (his country is even called “The Shire”) and more soft and self-indulgent than most of us.  And having established that, Tolkien pointedly says, “Now you know enough to go on with.”[3]  He leaves his canvas blank for the moment and lets the story reveal the rest; we know what we are meant to know:  that this is a very unremarkable person, an unportentous and reluctant hero.

As Campbell points out, the hero is often unexpectant and even reluctant.[4]  Some seek a quest, and others have the quest thrust upon them.  Bilbo’s unexpected quest is not so different than that of the princess who loses her prized golden ball and encounters a talking frog, the Arapaho girl who chased a porcupine, the knight who chased the white deer or a thousand other examples.  And insofar as the hero’s story is meant to be our own, it is fitting; we are not expecting any momentous transformation, but life will generally send us one.  The only question will be whether one embraces destiny and opportunity, or attempts to flee it; one can refuse the god and end up birthing a monster (as Minos did the Minotaur when he tried to cheat Poseidon), or one can answer the call to adventure and become the hero who slays his monsters.

The hero is called out of his former life into a higher existence, often by an old wise man or woman.[5]  And often, the hero has companions as well:  Heracles and Iolas, Jason and the Argonauts, Jesus and the Twelve.  Bilbo goes Jesus one better (or worse) and has the Thirteen:  dwarves, that is.  Their leader, Thorin Oakenshield, is a hero in his own right already, and thus considers Bilbo a mere hanger-on in The Tale of the Returning Dwarves; but as Gandalf points out in the book, Bilbo is essential since otherwise the group will consist of thirteen members only and that is an unlucky number. Thus, in the original version of the story, the wizard is not really a member of the group, but rather a protective and advisory figure (as Campbell says, more a symbol of a protective destiny than a colleague).[6]  The dwarves will strike any reader as “different” and special, and Thorin in particular shows that the dwarves represent those who have already crossed the line between Ordinary and Hero worlds and now have come to accompany the soon-to-be hero as he takes up the call to adventure.  There are always thresholds to cross, symbolizing the departure from the ordinary world into the supernatural or transcendent realm, and usually several thresholds showing still deeper penetration into the great mysteries.  However, the first threshold is the most important, as it symbolizes the real beginning of the hero’s journey.  It is the point where before the hero was just one in the crowd, the undifferentiated social/cultural womb, and now is both born and laboring to give birth to himself or herself as an individual.  It is hard to say where the first threshold is in The Story of the Hobbit.  His first brush with the really fantastic seems to be the encounter with the trolls; the dwarves are mysterious and Other, but still depicted as people more or less like the hobbit himself—-a tiny bit taller and more experienced in the ways of adventure, but not truly alien.  Meeting them is only a call to adventure.  Trolls are so fantastic and alien to the normal world that even the merest touch of it—the least glimmer of sunlight—-turns them to stone.  But if this is the first threshold, then Bilbo fails to cross it; he is caught with the dwarves and must be rescued.  In the original story, Gandalf must intervene to magically rescue the party so the adventure can continue (“benign, protective power of destiny,” as Campbell would say); in Jackson’s version, it is Bilbo who keeps the trolls quarreling and thus stalls for time, which gives him a part in their eventual rescue.  However, they still are only saved by the deus ex machina of a timely arrival of the wizard.  The real threshold, then, seems to be the Descent into the Underworld, again a common mythological theme—-here, a capture by goblins.  The dwarves are rescued by the wizard, but Bilbo must save himself, by his own wits and luck.  As Oedipus had to answer the riddle of the Sphinx (to give one mythological example of the riddling monster motif), Bilbo can only escape from the dark underworld by defeating its guardian, Gollum, in a riddling contest.  In the course of his escape, Bilbo finds a magic ring that gives him the ability to become invisible; as Campbell wrote in describing the monomyth, “the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”  The movie ends before Bilbo has actually used the Ring to bestow any boons; but clearly he now has a magic power that even Gandalf does not display.  He was recruited by the group as a “burglar” (the book also allows the euphemism, “expert treasure finder,”) but he vigorously denied any qualification for that task.  Now, he is a burglar par excellence; an invisible person can go anywhere, take anything, and never have to worry about capture or even blame.

The book continues on through many more adventures, but Jackson has saved those for future films.  There is also the visit to Rivendell, which Jackson has greatly expanded from the original book, but which serves the same main purpose:  to give the adventurers secret knowledge that will enable them to fulfill the quest.  At each step, Bilbo is venturing further into the realm of the Other World:  from dwarves (only a little taller, scarcely more magical, but experienced in the wider world) to trolls (stupid but definitely magical, if only magically vulnerable) to elves (wise, ageless, and naturally magical, even beyond the wisdom and power of Gandalf).  But still, the most important threshold is the one he has crossed alone, symbolically escaping from the power of Death and capturing magical power for himself.

To be continued…..


[1] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Bollingen Series XVII (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1973) p. 30

[2] The Hobbit, p. 15

[3] The Hobbit, p. 16

[4] Hero with a Thousand Faces, pp. 49-58

[5] Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 69

[6] Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 71-72

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