BOOK REVIEW: The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Hero with a Thousand FacesThe Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book was written to explore the intriguing cross-cultural similarities between various heroic mythological and folk tales from around the world. However, it’s had a second life on writers’ bookshelves because it nicely explains a story arc, commonly called “the hero’s journey,” that serves as one of the most popular approaches to narrative plotting. Many of the most celebrated works of fiction and film, from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” to the first “Star Wars” movie, explicitly follow the hero’s journey arc. Campbell draws examples from a wide range of traditional hero stories. These involve central figures who must leave their familiar life in the world they know in search of some objective or change that they will bring back to their everyday life. Campbell doesn’t stick to well-known systems of mythology — such as Greek, Norse, Egyptian, and Hindu — but delves into small and less well-known tribal stories from Africa, Latin America, indigenous North America, and other far-flung lands. [That said, he does pull heavily from the world’s major religions, as well as from the most broadly known systems of mythology – e.g. Greek Mythology.]

The book is divided into two parts. The first of these parts is the one that will be of greatest interest to writers and other storytellers because it describes the hero’s journey story arc in great detail and using a variety of traditional stories. Part I is divided into four sub-parts and – within them – eighteen chapters. The first three sub-sections each investigate about a-third of the seventeen stages of Campbell’s monomyth, i.e. his name for the hero’s journey. [It should be noted that there’s no claim that all heroic myths contain each and every one of these elements, but only that if one wants to capture the bulk of all heroic stories, one needs to consider some formulation of each of these categorizations.] The first subpart consists of the five stages that take the hero from his work-a-day world into the new world [that is typically of a supernatural nature.] These stages include: a.) the call to adventure; b.) refusal of the call; c.) the supernatural aid or guide; d.) crossing the first threshold [into the supernatural / foreign world]; and e.) the belly of the whale (i.e. being swallowed into the unknown / self-annihilation.)

The second sub-part is called “Initiation,” and it covers the six stages within this strange, new world — including the attainment of the hero’s objective. This section begins with a “road of trials” to challenge the hero. This maybe the stage most associated with the heroic journey in the popular mind. The other stages of initiation include; meeting / marriage with the goddess (i.e. mastery of life,) temptation by a woman, atonement with the father, the elevation to an enlightened or divine state, and the ultimate boon (e.g. immortality or a great bounty.) [The middle portion of this section is where Freudian influence is most intensely felt.]

The third sub-part is about the hero’s return trip back to the familiar world. This section also includes six chapters including: 1.) refusal to return; 2.) the magic flight; 3.) rescue from without; 4.) crossing the threshold into the regular world; 5.) as a master of both worlds; 6.) with freedom to live. This idea that the hero returns not only with a great boon but as a master of two worlds is central to the hero’s journey.

The final sub-part / chapter recaps the entire process in a restatement and summary. Given the complexities and wide variation of the matter at hand, this is beneficial. This section opens with a helpful diagram that summarizes and depicts the stages of the hero’s journey in a cyclical format.

The second half of the book, Part II, takes a step back to look at the cosmogonic cycle — i.e. looking at mythological approaches to the story of the universe from its origin to destruction, though still with special focus on heroes. Again, Campbell finds many consistent elements among a broad and disparate collection of cultures and religions. Part II also features four sub-parts, this time including twenty chapters. The first sub-part (6 chapters) focuses on the origin of the universe. The four chapters of the second sub-part delve into mythology surrounding virgin birth among heroes, which is much more widespread than the well-known Christian story of Jesus’s birth. The third sub-part considers the lifecycle and varied roles of a hero, starting with the origins and childhood of the heroic figure, ending with the hero’s demise, and in between examining a number of the facets of a hero including: warrior, lover, leader, redeemer, and saint. The final subpart discusses how mythology and folklore treat the world’s end.

This book has many pages devoted to front- and back-matter including an introduction, a prologue, an epilogue, and an annotated bibliography. There are graphics throughout. Besides the explanatory diagram mentioned earlier, these are mostly renderings of artworks depicting events in mythological stories.

The broad sourcing of myths is necessary to tell the tale that Campbell sought to convey – i.e. that there are common narrative elements seen among varied cultures that had little to no interaction. With regard to one’s reading experience, the inclusion of myth and folklore unknown to most readers is a mixed bag. On one hand, it ensures that everyone – except perhaps professors of Mythology and Folk Studies – will learn about new stories and cultural traditions. On the other hand, it’s not always readily apparent what Campbell’s point is when he launches into a myth or folk story because it’s frequently done without any preemptory remarks that would clarify said point. This can make for some clunky reading in which one has to reflect and reread — as if reading a textbook as opposed to a popular work. This book sits near the edge between popular and scholarly reading. The reading isn’t terribly dense, but it does jump around from myth to myth in a way that presumably felt logical to the author but isn’t always readily so to a neophyte reader.

One quickly notices that Campbell was heavily influenced by Freudian ideas that haven’t weathered scholarly scrutiny well over the past several decades. It’s hard to be too critical about this as, when the book first came out in 1949, Campbell wasn’t alone, by any means. And, more importantly, Freud’s influence only really undermines certain ideas about what undergirds mythological tales. It doesn’t adversely impact the central argument that there are these common story elements across a diversity of cultures. In the chapter on “Woman as Temptress” one will see the most explicit examples as Campbell discusses “Hamlet” and the “Oedipus Trilogy.” Still, one could argue that Campbell’s ideas have survived more intact than did Freud’s.

I’d recommend this book for individuals interested in learning more about either mythology or story crafting. It’s extremely thought-provoking throughout, if – sometimes – a slog to read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Heathen, Vol. 1 by Natasha Alterici

Heathen, Vol. 1Heathen, Vol. 1 by Natasha Alterici
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The protagonist is a lesbian Norse warrior, Aydis, who is living in exile in the wilderness. After she was discovered making out with a girlfriend, two unappealing fates were offered: marriage (to a man) or death. Her father, recognizing that neither of those options was acceptable to his daughter or himself, pretends to accept the death sentence, but instead of killing Aydis he helps with her escape. The story is set in a period in between the heyday of Norse Mythology and modernity. The story refers back to mythological events (and since many of those characters are immortal it includes a few of them,) but it’s during a time when Christianity is spreading in the region and some of the old ways have been forgotten or dismissed by many.

The four issues contained in this book follow a quest that involves Aydis going to rescue a Valkyrie named Brynhild who was long ago imprisoned on a mountain in a circle of fire for defying Odin. Then – once Brynhild is freed –the quest continues in order to keep the rescue from being reversed and becoming meaninglessness. [Brynhild must be married to a mortal to escape imprisonment, but since that means she must repeatedly see her mortal spouses die only to go back to her prison. Aydis intends to see this reversed.]

I found the writing engaging and action gripping. While I’m no expert on art, I was able to follow the action in the panels and found it stylistically interesting and distinct – though I couldn’t tell you anything about what that style is.

My primary criticism revolves around my own preference for a volume having a self-contained satisfying narrative arc. This volume had plenty of great action and relatable character objectives. Admittedly, this is a tough standard for work that is by its nature serialized. However, at the end of the book one feels the set up for the continuation of the story (the cliffhanger) much more intensely than one feels there was any kind of conclusion and resolution. For readers who are predominantly series readers, this may not be a problem, but as one who reads one book at a time, I need to feel that something was resolved over the course of the story.

I think the book was bold and successful in turning conventions on its head. The primary convention under attack is the distressed damsel – a helpless character who needs a man to come along to rescue her. The book also takes the social issue of persecution based on sexual preference in a scene within Brynhild’s parallel (but intersecting?) quest.

Overall, I found this to be an enjoyable read. If you like the story idea and tend to read in series, then this is a great volume to pick up. If you’re not sure you want to be drawn into another series, you may decide to exercise more caution.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Perfect Nine by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and MumbiThe Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gikuyu and Mumbi by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: October 6, 2020

 

As Homer did for the Greeks, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o does for the Gĩkũyũ people, using epic poetry to convey morals by way of gripping stories that are rich in both action and symbolism. The story revolves around a slew of suitors who travel from near and far with interest in the gorgeous and talented daughters of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi – the daughters being the titular “perfect nine.” [Lest one take the allusion to Homer too far, the problem faced in this story is not how to be rid of the suitors, but how to find the best of them and have the daughters each have a husband she desires. Also, in the case of this myth, the answer to the question of how to deal with the suitors is not to murder them all — on the contrary, discouraging the use of violence as a problem-solving tool is among the major morals taught throughout this work.]

I’ve long been meaning to read works by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. I have a policy of reading literature from each country I visit, and when one looks into literature from Kenya his name stands above all others. He’s not merely one of the major figures in Kenyan literature, but of African and global literature as well. However, before I got around to reading one of his novels, I was lucky to have the opportunity to read his latest work, which is due out in the fall of 2020.

The story takes the Nine and their prospective suitors on a journey of adventure that will test their mettle as they carry out a mission, traveling through perilous territory that Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi once traversed, themselves. As in Greek and Norse Mythology, the enemies are often supernatural, as is necessary given how capable the Nine are shown to be. Most of the suitors – certainly the ones that live through the early adventures — are no slouches themselves.

The morals that are conveyed through the story are non-violence (whenever possible), opposition to misogyny and patriarchal norms, a variety of virtuous attitudes and actions, and a kind of tribal attitude. By tribal attitude, I don’t mean tribalistic in the sense that that they suggest attacking or even denigrating those of other tribes, but Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi insist that all the suitors and daughters live nearby — with none allowed to return to the homeland of the suitors. However, as this plays out in the latter part of the story in a way that I’ll leave to the reader to discover, there is an opportunity for learning that modifies the strong tribal norm. [It also leads to the teaching of another important virtue which is to avoid the “you’re dead to me” attitude that one often sees in stories when two parties are at loggerheads.]

I was fascinated by this work. Because — in the manner of mythology — it has some preliminaries to get through at the start, it felt a little slow out of the gates. [Though it was much quicker to delve into the adventure than were the early chapters of “The Odyssey” in which Telemachus goes out looking for his father.] So, don’t worry, the story gets into a taught journey of heroes in no time.

I highly recommend this book for readers of fiction and mythology.

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POEM: Orpheus Twisted [Day 30 NaPoMo: Ballad]

He played his way to the underworld,
capturing every ear.
Even the gods couldn’t move to fight,
but stood stock still to hear.

The musician made his merry way
to the throne of the gods.
And boldly made a petition
that defied rules and odds.

Ye, gods! There’s been a huge mistake.
My wife, she died too soon.
If you’ll let us go on our way
I’ll play THE most dulcet tune.

The gods conferred and reached a verdict:
“If our terms are heeded
and your tune is dreamy enough,
she Will be conceded.”

Tuning his lyre, the artist asked,
“May I, Now, hear the terms?”
“Lead her above — without a peek,
or t’s back to food for worms.”

The dulcet tune was as he claimed,
and Two had leave to go.
From Styx out to the burning sun,
he itched, her place, to know.

When almost out, he heard a thud
and his name feebly called.
He stayed true to the gods’ strict terms,
as her blood puddle sprawled.

As she was retaking bodily form,
she’d tripped upon a rock.
Maybe direct pressure on the wound
and she’d not bled into Shock.

So if god or man makes you a deal
contingent on ignorance,
you might think twice before taking
up residence inside that fence.

BOOK REVIEW: Odyssey by Homer [A. Pope translation]

The OdysseyThe Odyssey by Homer

Translated by: Alexander Pope

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This epic poem tells the tale of the action-packed return of the King of Ithaca, Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin,) from the Trojan War, as well as, of his resumption of the throne. The return home is harrowing because, early in the journey (though not in the story,) Odysseus blinds a cyclops that turns out to be the son of the sea god Poseidon (a.k.a. Neptune.) Because he incurs the wrath of Poseidon, the journey which – even in the rickety sailing / rowing ships of the day – would have taken a few weeks, took ten years, most of which he was the guest / hostage of the nymph Calypso. Retaking the throne was challenging because he was enshrouded in a disguise by Athena (a.k.a. Pallas) so he couldn’t just walk right up and say “remember this face, I’m the boss.” The disguise is donned so he can make sure his wife, Penelope, is being faithful (despite the fact that he’s been schtooping nymphs, witches, and probably a few human women that don’t bear mentioning) and since throngs of suitors have descended on Penelope’s castle who would rather see Odysseus dead (in hopes of acquiring his kingdom) it’s safer all around to check things out in disguise.

The poem doesn’t take a linear approach. It begins twenty years after the war at Troy. Everyone who survived is back, except Odysseus and his men, and so a plague of suitors vies for Penelope’s hand in marriage so that one of them can acquire Ithaca’s wealth. Penelope, the picture of matrimonial virtue, is not having it, but Greek hospitality says you’ve got to feed and look after visitors (because they might just be gods in disguise.) The first few books not only set up the problem of the suitors but also follow Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, as he travels around trying to find out from those who returned from Troy whether they know anything about Odysseus’s whereabouts.

The poem then skips to where Odysseus was at the time of Telemachus’s travels, which was stuck on Calypso’s island. The gods intervene to force Calypso to let the King go, but Poseidon is still upset and swamps Odysseus’s ship. Odysseus washes up onshore and makes fast friends with the local king and queen. It is through friendly discussion that we hear about all the trials and tribulations of Odysseus’s journey up to that point. He tells the couple about how he blinded a cyclops with clever word play and a flaming stick, how Poseidon first tempest-tossed him, how he ended up on the island of the nymph / witch – Circe, how Circe turned his men into swine, how he survived the Sirens by plugging the ears of his men and tying himself to the mast, how he survived the horrifying monsters Scylla and Charybdis, how he visited the underworld and met with some comrades from the Trojan War, how he got stuck on Calypso’s island, and then how he ended up on the island on which he tells the story. The king and queen are big fans, and send Odysseus off with best wishes and some parting gifts.

Odysseus makes it back to Ithaca, is summarily dropped off on the shore with said gifts – while he’s sleeping. That’s when he gets his disguise from Athena. He reveals himself to Telemachus, but otherwise keeps it all on the down-low, even keeping his return from Penelope. Telemachus also has to be careful because many of the suitors would love to assassinate him because he’s the only male opposition to their plans (if you haven’t noticed, Ancient Greece was misogynistic.)

Odysseus checks out the town in his beggar disguise and is enraged that the suitor’s have overstayed their welcome, are eating all the island’s livestock – not to mention trying daily to get in his wife’s knickers. It all comes to a climax when a festival banquet takes place, and Penelope (who is always looking for creative and / or polite ways to put off her suitors) says that she’s willing to marry any among them who has the strength and skill to string Odysseus’s bow and shoot an arrow through a dozen axe heads (battle-axes with a hollowed out blade so the weight is reduced.) They all fail. Some have arms too puny to string the bow; others lack the accuracy to shoot through the rings. That’s when disguised Odysseus says he’d like a try. The suitors object that he’s a beggar and couldn’t possibly run a kingdom. Telemachus, who knows what is up and who is – with his mother – hosting the event, agrees to let the disguised King take his shot. He succeeds, and then goes on a killing spree of the suitors.

After the bloodbath, he has to take great efforts to convince Penelope that he is actually her husband, the King. The god-given disguise is only part of what makes Penelope doubt. Odysseus has convinced everyone else by then. However, Penelope has had men trying to get in the sack with her for a decade, and to her mind it wouldn’t be above some skeezy god to play this gambit to try to bed her. She thinks the killing spree smells of god-like activity. [Even by Hollywood standards one guy killing 108 suitors (plus who knows how many of their groupies and hangers-on) strains credulity.] But eventually she is convinced.

Then Odysseus has to go see his father, Laertes, who is not long for this world. It’s during this visit that a second wave of attackers comes, and the “feeble old man” Laertes puts a javelin through the chest of the first of them. Then there’s a divine intervention that keeps the bloodbath from rolling on.

The most commonly stated moral of the story is: don’t run afoul of the gods. [Put more broadly / secularly, this could be restated as: behave morally.] Of course, Odysseus is not particularly moral, and he ultimately does alright despite being a liar, a trickster, a cheater, and a hypocrite (not to mention the murderousness.) So, there might be an additional clause, i.e. “behave virtuously, but – if you can’t – be on good terms with a few choice gods.” In truth, “use deception skillfully” may be more of the true moral of the story. Being tricky is a major part of what gets Odysseus through when all about him are dying. Modern critics sometimes take as a moral: “If women be nutty, then men are stark, raving lunatics.” This is consistent with what we see in the story (and, perhaps, in life,) but it would probably be attributing more progressiveness to the blind poet, Homer, than was the case.

I read the Alexander Pope translation, which is surprisingly readable given that it’s from the early eighteenth century (1720’s.) There were a few turns of phrase that I couldn’t find anywhere in dictionaries or search engine, but nothing that caused a major misunderstanding. It is a metered and rhymed translation, so it’s fun to read. Still if one isn’t comfortable with reading archaic English (for example if one doesn’t like reading Shakespeare,) one might not find it as enjoyable and easy to follow. That said, the edition I read had a short prose synopsis at the start of each book (i.e. chapter,) and reading that increases comprehension of the verse [if you don’t mind spoilers, which – if you’ve read this far, you presumably don’t.]

I’d highly recommend reading the Odyssey, and I was pleased with the Pope translation.

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BOOK REVIEW: Circe by Madeline Miller

CirceCirce by Madeline Miller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Circe is a minor goddess / sea-nymph in Greek mythology. While her father is the powerful Titan sun-god, Helios, she is the runt of the litter. She has a weak voice by godly standards, has few and limited powers, and is sympathetic to the fates of humans in a way that is considered ungodly. (The latter was strengthened by her affinity for Prometheus, the god who introduced fire to humanity and was subsequently punished by having his liver eaten each day by an eagle.) Circe’s underdog status would only go so far in producing an interesting story, but things become more intriguing when she begins to develop her skill as a witch. This makes her more powerful, and the increasing power of a minor deity threatens greater gods. Some of her abilities as a witch may result from her divinity, but it’s made clear that even mortals can practice witchcraft. Her gift for witchcraft is especially prominent in her abilities of transformation.

Circe’s adverse reaction to the Cinderella treatment she gets at home in addition to the increasing and unexpected threat she presents as a witch – seen when she turns a mortal into a god and another nymph into a monster — gets her exiled to an island. While it would seem that her story would get uninteresting while she’s exiled to a remote island, she’s visited by a number of mythic figures – mortal and god alike – who keep her tale fascinating, these include: the master craftsman Daedalus, the messenger deity / trickster god Hermes, and – most crucially to her story – the heroic king of Ithaca, Odysseus. She also makes a couple of trips off the island, such as when her sister, Pasiphaë, gets a special dispensation to temporarily break the exile in order for Circe to attend to the birth of Pasiphaë’s child. (This might make it seem that the siblings were close, or at least liked each other, but that’s not the case at all. The only family member she has a decent relationship with is her younger brother, Aeëtes, but he is not so much warm to her as he is tolerating of her affections, and even that alliance of convenience is doomed.)

Miller presents readers with a Circe who is both sympathetic and intriguing because she’s no match for the forces arrayed against her and can only survive by her wits and self-knowledge. Circe’s diligence in practicing her craft and her knowledge of her strengths and limitations allows her to persevere in the face of great dangers. She faces hordes of horny sailors, familial dysfunction, and, most crucially, a dire threat to the child who results from her dalliances with one of her most prominent visitors. The story features the many twists, common in Greek Mythology, resulting from gods and men trying to outwit the Fates, but it’s also the straightforward story of a mother who’ll do anything to keep her child safe against a hostile world.

I’d highly recommend this book for all readers of fiction, regardless of whether they have a specific interest in Greek Mythology. It’s a great story, well written, readable, and featuring characters who one can love and others who one can loathe.

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Around the World in 6 Myths

6.) Thor & Loki in the Land of Giants (Norse): There’s no shame in putting a mere dent in the impossible.




5.) Rama & Sita (Hindu / from the Ramayana): Careful with your assumptions. You may end up looking like a jerk even if you’ve proven yourself generally virtuous.




4.) Anansi the Trickster (Ghanan / Akan): Don’t do favors for tricksters.




3.) Arachne the Weaver (Greek): Don’t be arrogant, even if you’re the best.




2.) Izanagi & Izanami (Japanese [creation myth]): Hell hath no fury…




1.) White Buffalo Calf Woman (Native American / Lakotan): Don’t let your lust get away from you and be careful in your assumptions.