Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Campbell’

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

Understanding and Using Fairy-Stories (pt. ii)

December 20, 2012

The differences in their approaches to myth is based largely on different theories about the origins of myth and fantasy.  To Campbell as to Jung, fantasy images emerge from the same place that dreams originate:  the collective unconscious of the human race.  There is a psychological if not a metaphysical monism implicit in Campbell’s thought.  Scholars dispute whether Jung thought that all minds are connected; certainly, some of his discussions of ESP seem to suggest as much.  In any case, for Campbell as for Jung, the origins of fantasy are essentially one, whether it be one shared well of archetypes or many individual minds that still have essentially the same structure.  And for Jung, this one source is what all religions call God; so it is true to say that God is in all of us, and essentially it is the same God in all of us.

Tolkien, by contrast, emphasizes the role of the individual storyteller.    Myths do not merely flow from either the world-soul or the common resources of the deep recesses of individual minds; they are created.  They are intentional.  They are free, conscious acts, not spontaneous or inevitable upwellings of the unconscious.  As he writes:

All three things:  independent invention, inheritance, and diffusion, have evidently played their part in producing the intricate web of Story.  It is now beyond all skill but that of the elves to unravel it.  Of these three invention is the most important and fundamental, and so (not surprisingly) the most mysterious.  To an inventor, that is to a storymaker, the other two must in the end lead back.[1]

Just as Campbell’s interest in the search for a monomyth rests in a tacit monism, Tolkien’s interest in the creative individual is rooted in his metaphysical commitments.  Campbell, like Jung, asserts a certain universality of human nature, whether that “universality” results from some sort of shared consciousness or merely a common structure that causes all humans to generate essentially the same mythic archetypes.  Tolkien asserts a Catholic understanding of human nature; while there is a universally shared “essence” of humanity, all humans are unique and free individuals.  While it is true that all are capable of generating fantasy, not all choose to.  Those that do choose, choose to do so in their own unique ways.  Tolkien refers to this as “sub-creation.”  The sub-creator presents us with an alternative reality, and invites us to rest there for awhile.  This Secondary World can be better or worse than the actual one; but when the sub-creator does his or her task well, we fully immerse ourselves in it, not forgetting that it is not the Primary World but temporarily ceasing to care.  Tolkien refers to this as Secondary Belief.  He distinguishes it from what is usually thought of as “suspension of disbelief,” because that term implies that the one suspending disbelief is working at it; true Secondary Belief is spontaneous and effortless.  It is not always limited to fantasy, either; Tolkien uses the example of a cricket match to illustrate what he means by Secondary Belief.[2]  His friend, a true sports enthusiast, can really lose himself in the game; for a time, the match is his reality; Prof. Tolkien, on the other hand, can only muster something more approaching “suspension of disbelief” as he intentionally focuses on the game rather than thinking about the “real world.”  To carry this thought further, it seems that in fact, any creative activity, even a sporting event can be an act of “sub-creation.”  However, it is also clear that for Tolkien, fantasy and fairy-stories are the most pure and complete Secondary Worlds.

As a Catholic, Tolkien was of course aware of passages such as 1Cor. 3:9 and 2 Cor.  6:1, where the faithful are said to be Christ’s “co-workers.”  More than Protestant theology, Catholicism has traditionally emphasized the need for human free will to cooperate with God (see the debate between Luther and Erasmus in “On the Bondage of the Will” versus “On the Freedom of the Will”).  His metaphysical assumptions, then, are that humans have free will, that they can cooperate or withdraw from God, and that this has a very real impact not only on themselves but also on the world.  That is not to say that Tolkien believes humans act independently of God, but rather that they act, and God empowers them to do so and allows their actions to have consequences.  Tolkien illustrates that in the fairy-story he attaches to his essay, “Leaf by Niggle,” where a would-be painter finds that while his own efforts in life never measure up to the creative impulse he feels, in the afterlife his work is given reality and becomes a place of rest and healing for many weary souls.[3]

Not only are all humans free; all are creative.  They may have different talents and different levels of talent, but all are essentially creative.  As Tolkien writes:

Fantasy remains a human right:  we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made:  and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.[4]

Fantasy is part of the imageo Dei, the image of God which makes humans unique among all God’s creatures.  Furthermore, “fairystories offer also, in a peculiar degree or mode, these things:  Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people.”[5]  As being created in the image of God, we have need of the creative power of fantasy; and as finite, mortal creatures, we need recovery, escape and consolation from the apparent trials and burdens of this Primary World to enable us to go out to face it again.  For this reason, Tolkien bristles at the idea that fairy-stories are primarily beneficial only for children; it is adults who invented them, adults who need them and only a rationalist, self-important age that thinks it has moved beyond fantasy and should leave it to the weak and immature.  Fantasy reflects both the highest calling and the deepest need of all people.  It presents what Tolkien calls the “eucatastrophe,” the unexpectedly happy ending, the sudden turn that veers from disaster.  In doing so, it calls us to the hope and faith that in the Primary World too, no matter how dark things are, they can be redeemed, the captives can be liberated, the blind healed, the poor hear good news.[6]  He writes:

            The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending:  or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale):  this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist” nor “fugitive.”  In its fairy-tale—-or otherworld—-setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace:  never to be counted on to recur.  It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure:  the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.[7]

For Tolkien, fairy-stories are a kind of gospel.  They are an expression and affirmation of the hope of all humanity, the hope for Joy despite all the pain and despair around us.  And it is also true, Tolkien says, to see the Gospel as a sort of fairy-story.  The primary difference is the we sub-creators can only create Secondary Worlds; God creates the Primary World, and so what he creates is real.  God fulfills the deepest hopes and needs of humanity, through the Incarnation and the Resurrection, the ultimate Eucatastrophe.  What human storymaking could only aspire to and artistically create, God can make Reality.[8]

Campbell’s explanation for the similarities between the Gospel and other tales is that there is some primordial psychological wellspring from with all these tales flow, more or less on their own.  His philosophical influences are the psychological determinists Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and the greatest psychological influence on him is Jung; for all of these, myth is the inevitable fruition of forces greater than the individual and beyond all choice.  Tolkien’s explanation is that the Gospel resembles fairy-stories because they are hopeful expressions of the human desires fulfilled by Christ, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”  As bearers of the imageo Dei, we naturally strive to imitate God’s primary creation in our own sub-creation.  Sometimes we do it badly, with arrogance and selfishness, and create monsters, false gods (whether wrathful pagan deities or banners or economic systems), and other tales that debilitate and destroy us; but when we work with humility, we become not rebels but co-workers with God, enriching the Primary World through our secondary contributions.


[1] “On Fairy-Stories,” pp. 47-48

[2] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 60-61

[3] J. R. R. Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle,” in Tree and Leaf; reprinted in The Tolkien Reader, by J. R. R. Tolkien, (New York:  The Random House Publishing Group, 1966) pp. 100-20.  Interestingly too, Niggle’s friend Parish, who never had any artistic impulse, is revealed to be equally essential for the creative task due to his down-to-earth practicality and organizational zeal, which Niggle lacks.  This suggests again that it is not just the artist who is the sub-creator; anyone can be a sub-creator in his or her own manner.

[4] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 75

[5] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 67

[6] “Fairy-Stories,” p. 85-87

[7] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 85-86

[8] “Fairy-Stories,” pp. 87-90