Myth-making in the Movies

Since the earliest years of the cinema, fantasy has been one of the most common filmic modes — and it is no coincidence that many (or indeed most) fantasy films feature significant elements of myth and/or tragedy.  For your final Blogpost of the semester, you have three options: 1) In the wake of our fun-filled ‘Star Wars’ screening on Wednesday, it would be interesting to hear some more words on the mythological (or tragic) elements, characters, or themes of George Lucas’s influential film. Alternately, if you want to address some of the ideas, heroes, or symbols in one of the other ‘Star Wars’ films that we did NOT watch, that would be useful as well. 2) On the ‘Wizard of Oz’, just how does the film fit with some of the key archetypes or heroic adventures we have seen so far this semester? Again, if you’d like to address some characters or themes in another early American movie with “mythological” elements, that would be just fine. 3) Finally, what do you make of the myth-making in J.R.R. Tolkein’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy and/or the Harry Potter franchise? I have deliberately left this final Blog a little bit open-ended, but I’ll be interested in hearing your thoughts on some of the most famous “myths” created in the (post)modern world!

Folktales of the American Frontier

Having examined fairy tales from the European tradition, we are now moving on to the folklore of America.  There are countless “tall tales” from far and wide in the fledgling United States, and the folktales of this country are simultaneously exceptional and unusual while also being discernibly connected to prior tales and traditions.  To examine these fascinating stories, you have two options:  1)  In response to the stories assigned for Monday, you should identify and choose a significant theme or image from a specific tale that you find to be particularly intriguing.  Then, I’d like you to do a little (research) reading into the historical time period in question and the issue in question as it relates to that age.  Next, move on to examine the issue as it appears in the story and offer a brief interpretive analysis of  just what the author seems to be doing by way of rendering that issue for the reader in this tale.  2)  The second option for this response is offered in the spirit of light-hearted fun that infuses these American “tall tales.”  For those of you with a creative spirit (and/or those who simply to try out something a little different), I’d like you to write a short “story” of a kind.  Specifically, put together a brief excerpt that presents another “story” featuring one of our three characters for Monday — Davy Crockett, Paul Bunyan, or Daniel Boone.  In your story, try to adopt the tone, diction, and narrative style of your chosen source, and then offer a tale that may somehow seem “authentic” in its representation of this character and type of story.  If you would additionally like to give us any overview of your thoughts and approach in writing your story, of course you may feel free to outline that for us as well.  Have some fun with this!!

Exploring ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales’

Folktales and fairy tales are fascinating documents that speak to primal urges of survival and selfhood, while also highlighting the beliefs and social anxieties of people living in particular times and places. Arguably the most famous collection of fairy tales ever produced was Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which was published by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in 1812 (originally under the German title of Kinder und Hausmärchen, or ‘Children’s and Household Tales’).  Grimm’s tales offer intriguing resources for historical subjects, most notably issues related to families and childhood.  This makes perfect sense, given that it was in this general time period that the genre became frequently used for the moral education of the young.  Previously, these tales were typically meant for a more general, adult audience, and thus we see that Grimm’s tales are somehow poised between adulthood and childhood, maturity and innocence.  This helps to explain the content in these works that is often seen as shocking, ,harsh, and unnecessarily violent in the eyes of many post-modern readers.  But this was NOT really the view of most nineteenth-century readers, and rather than trying to somehow sanitize them (like Walt Disney would eventually do) we should try to understand them in the context of their time and place.  Consequently, for this response I want you to pick a single tale from the Grimm’s collection and share with us your thoughts about it.  You might consider why these arguably gruesome and disturbing tales were included in the volume, and examine just what defines them as fairy tales.  What are they about, and what stood out to you in reading the text?  What did you find shocking or surprising, and why?  Finally, what is the “moral” of the story, and more importantly, what social or political ideas relative to the early nineteenth century does your selected story seem to subtly highlight and comment upon?

(A Comparison of) Joan of Arc, Othello, etc.

As you all know by now, Essay #2 is going to be a compare and contrast paper on a ‘premodern’ mythological hero (or idea, theme, etc.).  Hence, to practice the skills involved in comparison, I thought it would make some sense for your final Blog post of Unit Two to be comparative in nature.  Accordingly, for this response I want you to compare Othello (or another character from Shakespeare’s tragedy of the same name) with some other figure we have encountered of late.  Alternately, you may choose to compare Joan of Arc with some other heroine or character explored in our recent readings.  Whichever figure(s) you choose to use as the basis of your comparison, the key is not just to note that there are similarities and differences at play but to illustrate them, and investigate them.  In so doing, you must demonstrate how bringing your two characters together reveals something about them (their beliefs, their world, etc.) that would not have been clear otherwise.  Thus, much like your second major paper, this response is asking you consider how bringing the two characters helps to illuminate their (respective) meaning and significance; it highlights why it is important to read them together and explains what gets learned through this comparative and analytical negotiation.

The Value(s) of Viking Myth

Viking mythology is jarring, weird, dark, and awe-inspiring.  In putting together the syllabus for this class, I was reminded of how lively some of these Scandinavian stories are, texts that make it clear that the oft-cited assessment of 8th Century English Aethelweard chronicler was way off base.  Aethelweard famously concluded that the Vikings were “a most vile people”, a claim that seems questionable at best.  Yes, life could be hard for those inhabiting Northern Europe in the Middle Ages, and yes, there was often violence at hand – but the same was true for virtually all peoples of this era, from all global regions and cultures.  In fact, the Vikings were remarkable craftsmen and intelligent mariners, and they have left us one of the most rich and rewarding literary legacies of the “ancient” world.  Thus, I want you to somehow “enter” that world for this Blog post.  My own favorite Viking myth is probably the story of ‘Sigurd, the Volsung’, a tale so riveting that it inspired one of the most well-known literary series of all time:  J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy.  Tolkien recognized the power of Viking myth, and I’m hoping you can do the same in this response.  This time around, I want to leave the subject of your response fairly open.  So, pick a particular element from one of our selections, and discuss it.  Explain how your chosen theme, character, or idea fits within the long trajectory of mythological storytelling, and also how it moves these stories forward and offers us something new and provocative.  You may even share with us what you find moving or fascinating in these stories, and why.  Even “vile people”, it seems, can tell vigorous stories that can stand the test of time – and I’ll be curious to hear your own “stories” in response.

Words on ‘Beowulf’ from Seamus Heaney

For your Blog post on the fantastic Old English epic ‘Beowulf’, I want you to respond to the words of its most famous translator: the Nobel-Prize winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney. You may pick and choose his words as you will, and I would like for you to use/apply them to particular elements in the text in order to provide some fresh insights into the meaning and significance of this work – a poem that is simultaneously similar to other mythical works we have seen while being very, very different. In Heaney’s words, readers of the poem “are bound to feel a certain “shock of the new.” This is because the poem possesses a mythic potency. Like Shield Sheafson, it arrives from somewhere beyond the known bourne of our experience, and having fulfilled its purpose (again, like Shield), it passes once more into the beyond. . . . The “Finnsburg Episode” envelops us in a society that is at once honour-bound and blood-stained, presided over by the laws of the blood-feud, where the kin of a person slain are bound to exact a price for the death, either by slaying the killer or by receiving satisfaction in the form of ‘wergild’ (the “man-price”), a legally fixed compensation. The claustrophobic and doom-laden atmosphere of this interlude gives the reader an intense intimation of what ‘wyrd,’ or fate, meant not only to the characters in the Finn story but to those participating in the main action of ‘Beowulf’ itself. All conceive of themselves as hooped within the great wheel of necessity, in thrall to a code of loyalty and bravery bound to seek glory in the eye of the warrior world. . . . It has often been observed that all the scriptural references in ‘Beowulf’ are to the Old Testament. The poet is more in sympathy with the tragic, waiting, unredeemed phase of things than with any transcendental promise.”


On Mythological Tricksters, Warriors, and Lovers

For our final Blog post for Unit One, I want you to run with one of three broad options, which are inspired by the content of our latest readings.  Specifically, you may consider and respond to the following:

1)  The very first line of Virgil’s Aeneid gets right down to the heart of the matter.  In my translation, the famous line reads, simply, “This is a tale of arms and of a man.”  In other words, the story of Aeneas is a story about a man at war, a warrior-hero who will fight bravely and who will be, in essence, defined by his valor and prowess on the battlefield.  Hence, I’m interested in seeing what you can do here to address the war-making that is so common in mythological stories.  Using the Aeneid as a test case, offer some thoughts about the meaning and significance of war in the world of myth (and, please, give us some specific examples or quote some passages to help support your case!).

2)  The Roman poet Ovid was widely known as the quintessential love-poet, and indeed one of his masterpieces was appropriately titled the Ars Amatoria (‘The Arts of Love’).  Accordingly, I would like you to use the excerpts you read from Ovid as a way into the question of the “arts of love” (to borrow his title) within a mythological context.  If you go with this prompt, then, I’d like you to provide some commentary on the meaning and significance of love and sex in mythical narrative – in what ways is Ovid’s verse typical of the handling of these topics, and in what ways is his writing utterly unique within the context of mythical storytelling?

3)  For the third and final option, I am curious to hear your thoughts about the mythical Trickster-figure.  The Trickster is a commonly-found character who takes great pleasure in breaking rules and playing tricks on both humans and gods.  Tricksters are often shape-shifters who flaunt the rules of society, but they also frequently play an important role in the creation of the world or the establishment of important human traditions.  They are, in other words, complex figures that raise many questions about the role of the hero and the morality of a specific mythical society.  Your response should pick out one of the Tricksters read for class and use him to discuss the general importance and impact of this common character type.

Orphan Train Response

In the Prologue to ‘Orphan Train’, by Christina Baker Kline, the narrator’s very first words state that:  “I believe in ghosts, They’re the ones who haunt us, the ones who have left us behind. . . . Sometimes these spirits have been more real to me than people, more real than God.”  This passage might be spun in interesting ways and made to tie into both of the classes I am teaching this semester.  For my ‘Myth, Tragedy, and Politics’ class, the words of Vivian (the first-person narrator of the above lines) throughout the novel offer some potent ideas about personal history, memory, writing, the “legends” of the past, and the myth-making we all do to order and understand our lives.  For my ‘Power and Society’ class the harrowing story of the orphan Vivian (who endured her ride on the orphan train in 1929 and the harsh events that followed) and her modern-day counterpart Molly (who has a hard time navigating and tolerating the challenges of the U.S. Social Services) speaks to interesting issues of power, such as the authority of the state, the politics of parenting, the dire state of many orphanages and foster-parent arrangements, and the role of schools in adolescent lives.  Bearing in mind such issues, this Blog post is going to be a little different than what we have done so far this semester.  In this case, I want you to carefully respond to the common reading for Stockton freshman (that being ‘Orphan Train’).  Your response may do one of two things:  1)  Offer some commentary in the wake of the author’s lecture at the Freshman Convocation (on Thursday the 25th ).  Tell us, what did Christina Baker Kline say that really touched a nerve with you?  What did you find interesting about her lecture, and what was invigorating about the entire Freshman Convocation event?  Why?  I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts about this talk!  2)  If you aren’t able to attend the lecture or would rather discuss the book, then I’d like you to do just that.  So, choose a particular moment in the book that brings rise to a particular issue, and tell us how/why it ties in with the topics and themes of your Freshman Seminar.  You might quote from the book itself, and then discuss what the book seems to suggest in your chosen moment about the issue (relative to power, on the one hand, or myths/legends/heroes on the other) – what is Baker Kline saying and doing in your selected moment, and why?  Also, what thoughts do YOU have about the subject – how do YOU respond to the issue based on your own knowledge or experience?

War & Peace in the ‘Odyssey’

The importance and influence of Homer’s works to Greek culture and history simply cannot be overstated.  He has been labeled the “teacher of Greece” and he was widely lauded in his own day, as he continues to be in our day and age.  Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ is a monument of world literature, and it is a vitally important example of Greek mythological writing.  It is also fascinating as a kind of political document, a manifesto about war and peace, imperialism, violence, hatred, and so on. Although the Trojan War was an imaginary  conflict, its depiction by Homer (in both the ‘Odyssey’ and ‘Iliad’) is vivid and harrowing, and this may be because, depending on when Homer was really writing, the horrors of war might have been all-too-real in a land where civil strife and conflict amongst city-states were common.  With this possibility in mind, I want you to think about the ‘Odyssey’ not strictly as a mythological text but as a kind of political document, a creative act that negotiates the day’s crises of power and authority.  Hence, I would like for you to explore something related to war and peace as depicted by Homer and articulated through his many character dialogues and speeches.  Specifically, I want you to address a particular war-oriented theme – such as violence, hatred, justice, mercy, authority, violence, surrender, and negotiation – and examine that theme as presented in a particular passage from the ‘Odyssey.’  Pick a quotation or two from the text and then discuss it in terms of its political content.  In your discussion you should identify the central issue of your chosen lines, and detail the challenges and logic of characters concerning the subject; then, you must offer some thoughts on what YOU think about the topic within the context of the story (if not the culture of Greece more generally).  To borrow from one translation of the opening lines of the text:  “Tell me, O Muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy.”  Tell ME, fair students, about the trials and tribulations of this hero, and tell US what you think the text has to say about war and peace in the context of Greek myth (and/or Greek society).  I shall be curious to see where the “muse” takes you in this response!

Epic vs. Myth, Gilgamesh vs. Hesiod

As discussed in class, the Epic of Gilgamesh is widely recognized as being, perhaps, the earliest masterpiece of world literature.  Writing hundreds if not thousands of years later, Hesiod is widely credited with helping to establish the immensely influential tradition of Greek mythical writing with his Theogony.  One of these is an anonymous text carved onto clay tablets using cuneiform script, the other is often seen as amongst the earliest examples of alphabetic literary writing.  One of these was mostly hidden from view for over a millennium and is from the ancient, mysterious, and often undervalued society of Mesopotamia, the other comes from the later, well-documented, and widely praised culture of Greece.  Yet despite tremendous differences of time, place, subject matter, and textual form, there are some remarkable similarities between the Epic of Gilgamesh and Theogony, not to mention some telling differences.  Thus, I’m interested in seeing what might happen if we bring these ostensibly distant and divergent works together in very precise ways.  In particular, what might get revealed about the differences between early “myth” and “epic” by comparing, for example, the trials and tribulations faced by Gilgamesh with Hesiod’s tales of his favorite god Zeus?  To see what might come out of a focused exploration of these two monumentally important work, please pick two characters (one from each text) and compare/contrast them.  What does this interaction suggest about the characters themselves, and more importantly, about key elements of each masterpiece (if not their respective societies)?  What does your comparison reveal about the two works, and the two different types of work in question??

Applying the Ideas of Aristotle and Joseph Campbell

This week, we are working to lay more intellectual foundations for our studies by considering the classical theories of Aristotle (on the subject of tragedy) and the recent scholarship of Joseph Campbell (on the “monomyth” and the mythical hero).  And at last, we have gotten to our first mythical narratives of the class, myths of creation and flood/apocalypse stories from the ancient past, as depicted in various cultures.  Thus, to fully understand the theories in question and the first stories on the syllabus, I want see how you can tie them together in a very specific way.  You have two options for this exploration.  In the first case, you may apply certain ideas from Aristotle’s theories of tragedy to a specific myth (assigned for Wednesday) of your choosing.  I was primarily thinking that it would be interesting to see how the plot of your chosen tale fits certain “tragic” modes (such as leading toward a “catharsis”), or how the characters fit Aristotle’s ideals — especially of the “tragic hero.”  Alternately, you can work with and through key ideas from Campbell’s influential output.  If, for example, you would like to explore the notion of a “monomyth,” you might compare/contrast the similarities between several of the creation tales; on the other hand, it might be interesting to think about how a given story depicts the stages of the hero’s journey according to Campbell’s terms (i.e. separation, initiation, return).   It’s all about applied critical thinking here, and it will be intriguing to see what kinds of intellectual connections you can make and the interpretive suggestions you might draw out by utilizing the ideas of Aristotle or Campbell.

Initial Thoughts About Myths, Legends, and (Tragic) Heroes

It has been said that “all cultures. . . are founded on myths” while “it has always been the prime function of mythology. . . to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward.” These are the sage words of Joseph Campbell, the renowned scholar of myth and legend. As Campbell knew well, myth permeates our very lives – even if we are not always explicitly aware of the presence and influence of mythical stories, characters, and ideals. With that reality in mind, for the first Blog writing of the semester, I would like to consider the meaning and significance of several concepts with ample modern-day currency and usage. Specifically, I want to explore the following concepts that will be crucial to our work this semester: myth, legend, tragedy, and hero. What IS a myth, and how are mythical elements present in your life in the twenty-first century? Similarly, what makes a legend, and where have you found “legendary” stories to have meaning and influence in your experience? OR, what defines a “tragic” figure, and how is “tragedy” understood today?  Lastly, just what IS a hero? Like the first three concepts, the term “hero” frequently gets used and over-used in our modern-day popular media, but it is questionable as to whether its usage is always valid or helpful. In your response, you should answer one (or, at most, two) of the above questions, working to define, discuss, and illustrate concepts that are inherently ambiguous but also highly important to us all because, as Campbell noted many years ago, the characters and ideas of mythical tales are absolutely foundational to our society, central to our very ways of life.