Myth-Making and Fantasy in (Post)Modern Film

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) Returning your attentions to the early days of the cinema in America, pick another popular and influential film from, say, sometime before 1970.  Much like with have done with the ‘Wizard of Oz’, I’d like you to consider:  just how does the film fit with some of the key archetypes or heroic adventures we have seen so far this semester? What are the “mythological” elements of your chosen film, how does it fit with the monomyth, and what lessons does it teach?  Be specific and detailed in explaining your answer.  2)  In the wake of our fun-filled screening on Friday of ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’, it would be interesting to hear some more words on the mythological (or tragic) elements, characters, or themes of George Lucas’s influential film.  However, given that we spent our time on Friday with the original ‘Star Wars’ film, it might also be especially interesting to see you address some of the ideas, heroes, or magical symbols in one of the other ‘Star Wars’ films that we did NOT watch in class.  Alternately, you could do something similar with the ‘Star Trek’ series if that interests you.  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?  Since it is your final Blog of the semester, I have deliberately left this prompt a little bit open-ended, but I’ll be interested in hearing your thoughts on some of the most famous (cinematic) “myths” created in the (post)modern world!

Folklore, Fairy Tales, and Film in Early America

In recent classes, we have been examining fairy tales from the European tradition.  Now, we are moving into folklore and “myths” from our own country of America, and getting closer and closer to our own day and age.  Historically, there are countless “tall tales” from far and wide in the fledgling United States, and the folktales of our land are simultaneously exceptional and unusual while also being discernibly connected to prior tales and traditions.  America is also home to Hollywood, which established new legends and myths during the rise of the cinema in the early twentieth century.  To examine these uniquely American developments, you have two options for this Blogpost:  1)  In response to the stories assigned for Monday (11/13), you should identify and choose a significant theme, idea, or image from a specific tale that you find to be particularly intriguing as a window into the beliefs, behaviors, politics, or social developments of early America.  Then, I’d like you to do a little research 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 thematically 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.  As it relates to your chosen social subject, just what is the “moral of the story”?  2)  The second option for this response is intended for all you movie lovers out there.  On Wednesday (the 15th) we will be discussing one of the most famous movies of all time:  The Wizard of Oz.  In the story of Dorothy, this film may offer a new kind of hero for a new age.  On the other hand, Dorothy is simultaneously a hero of old, with traits that are kindred to those of the great heroes of ancient myth, such as Odysseus, Aeneas, and so on.  With this in mind, your second option is to consider how, specifically, The Wizard of Oz connects with some of the key archetypes, traits, behaviors, or heroic adventures we have seen so far this semester? What kind of hero is Dorothy, exactly?  How is her story similar to – or different than – the myths of old?

Comparing Fairy Tales, Old and New

In both the German and English-speaking worlds, the most influential collection of premodern fairy tales was Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which was originally published by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in 1812 (under the German title of Kinder und Hausmärchen, or ‘Children’s and Household Tales’).  Grimm’s tales offer fascinating resources for considering various historical subjects from the early nineteenth century, but especially topics revolving around childhood, gender, family, class, and socioeconomic hardship.  It may come as no surprise, therefore, that these themes are writ large in what has become the most famous series of fairy tales ever produced: the various films by Walt Disney and his company that are based upon earlier fairy tales.  On the date when this Blog post is due, you will be moving past the Grimms and Disney to consider how several well-known literary authors have re-imagined fairy tales for a modern audience, especially for a more mature and cynical twenty-first century reader.  And in class we will be watching clips from several films that work in a similar manner, taking well-known fairy tale material and offering a modern spin on it.  For this response, then, I want you to have a little fun with these various tales, which ARE simultaneously meant for entertainment while also being intended to intrigue and educate readers/viewers about certain moral ideas.  I thought it would be interesting to see what might happen if you precisely and directly bring specific tales from different times into conversation.  Thus, I want you to somehow compare a single, specific story (or character) from Grimm’s Fairy Tales with a particular movie (or character) from the Disney universe.  OR, you could compare one of the modern literary versions — or even filmic reimaginings for adults — with either Grimm’s tales or the Disney fairy stories.  You might consider:  What are these stories and versions about, and in what ways are they notably similar and different?  What did you find shocking or surprising in these stories, and why?  Do these “texts” ultimately suggest different ideas and definitions of “fairy tales”?  How/why so?  Finally, what is the “moral” of the story for your chosen “texts”, and more importantly, what social or political ideas relative to the various time periods in question do your selected stories seem to subtly highlight and comment upon?

Comparing the Knights of the Round Table to other Medieval Mythical Heroes

In a way, this Blog post is meant to introduce you to, and invite you to practice, skills that you will be using for your upcoming Hero Paper – which will be a comparative account of a premodern mythological hero (or theme, etc.).  For this Blog, then, I want you to compare a specific character from Malory’s Morte D’Arthur with a character from another text we have read lately in Unit Two.  So, you could compare King Arthur or one of his companions (Lancelot, Gawain, Guinevere, etc.) to such figures as Charlemagne, Joan of Arc, Sigurd, Roland, Thor, Culhwch, Deirdru, and so on.  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, behaviors, society, 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.

Truths about ‘Trust Me, I’m Lying’

The 2017 Freshman Convocation lecture will be given by Ryan Holiday, the author of ‘Trust Me, I’m Lying.’  If you are in my Critical Thinking course, you will have spent some class time exploring some of the key ideas in the book.  If you are in my ‘Myth’ course, you will not have studied it directly, but the hope and expectation is that you have read it, since this was asked of all incoming freshmen.  In fact, Holiday’s book might actually speak in interesting ways to myths and myth-making (when seen from a twenty-first century perspective).  Whichever class you are taking, in this Blog post I want you to carefully respond to the common reading for Stockton freshmen.  Your response may do one of two things (or both!), and should be at least two paragraphs long:  1)  Offer some commentary in the wake of Holiday’s lecture at the Freshman Convocation (on Thursday the 28th ).  Tell us, what did the writer say that really touched a nerve with you?  What did you find interesting about his lecture, and how/why does it connect up with the themes and topics of your class?  Also, 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 simply rather discuss the book itself, then I’d like you to do just that.  So, choose a particular moment in (or idea from) ‘Trust Me, I’m Lying’ and make some insightful connections between this text and our course themes, or assigned readings.  To make these connections, you might quote from the book itself, and then discuss what Holiday seems to be saying and doing in your selected moment (relative to truth, lies, and journalism) – and why?  Also, what thoughts do YOU have about the subject – how do YOU respond to the issue(s) raised in the book based on your own knowledge or experience?

On Violence, War, and Peace in Sophocles and Homer

The significance and influence of the works of Homer and Sophocles cannot be overstated, and there is no doubt that the ‘Odyssey’ and ‘Oedipus Rex’ are both masterpieces of world literature.  These texts are crucially important examples of Greek mythological writing, but are also highly interesting when seen as political documents of a kind, texts about war and peace, kingship, imperialism, xenophobic hatred, and so on. Although the violent conflicts depicted in these works are fictional, they may well have been inspired by the real-life fighting that was persistent among the city-states of Greece.  Therefore, in this Blogpost, I want you to think about the ‘Odyssey’ and ‘Oedipus Rex’ not strictly as a mythological texts but as political documents, as creative acts that negotiate the day’s crises of power and authority.  To do so, I want you to address a particular war-oriented theme – such as violence, hatred, justice, mercy, authority, surrender, and negotiation – and examine that theme as presented in a particular speech or passage from the ‘Odyssey’.  Then, I’d like you to do the same with regards to the political content in a vital moment from ‘Oedipus Rex’.  In your discussion, you might bring the two texts into conversation and, at minimum, should identify the central issue(s) of your chosen lines, and detail the challenges and logic of the characters regarding the subject.  You should also feel free to offer some thoughts about what YOU think about the topic within the context of these stories (if not the culture of Greece more generally).

The Epic Gilgamesh vs. the Myth(s) of Hesiod

The Epic of Gilgamesh is widely recognized as being, perhaps, the earliest masterpiece of world literature.  Hesiod, who wrote his Theogony hundreds if not thousands of years later, is widely credited with helping to establish the immensely influential tradition of Greek mythical writing.  One of these is an anonymous text carved onto clay tablets using cuneiform script, while the other is often seen as amongst the earliest examples of alphabetic literary writing.  One of these works 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 “epic” and “myth” 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 (i.e. epic vs. myth) ??

Tragedy, the Monomyth, and Stories of Creation/Destruction

This week, we are working to lay important intellectual foundations for our class by introducing the classical theories of Aristotle (on the subject of tragedy) and the recent scholarship of Joseph Campbell (on the “monomyth” and the mythical hero).  To more fully comprehend the theories in question and the first mythical stories on the syllabus – myths of creation and flood/apocalypse stories from the ancient world – I want see how you can tie them together in a very specific way.  You have two options for this exploration.  1)  In the first case, you may apply specific ideas from Aristotle’s theories of tragedy to a specific myth (assigned for Wednesday) of your choosing.  I was particularly 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 to consider how the characters fit Aristotle’s ideals – especially of the “tragic hero.”  2)  On the other hand, you might work with and through key ideas from Campbell’s influential scholarship.  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.  Alternately, 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).   For this first Blog post of the semester, it’s all about applied critical thinking – and it will be interesting to see what kinds of intellectual connections you can make by utilizing the ideas of Aristotle or Campbell.

Myth Making in the Movies (version 2.0)

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) Returning your attentions to 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? Be specific and detailed in explaining your answer.  As an alternative here, if you’d like to address some characters or themes in another early American movie with “mythological” elements, that would be just fine.  2)  In the wake of our fun-filled screening on Monday of ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’, it would be interesting to hear some more words on the mythological (or tragic) elements, characters, or themes of George Lucas’s influential film. Again, 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 (or maybe even ‘Star Trek’), that would be useful as well. 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?  Since it is your final Blog of the semester, I have deliberately left this prompt a little bit open-ended, but I’ll be interested in hearing your thoughts on some of the most famous (cinematic) “myths” created in the (post)modern world!

Folktales of the American Frontier (Version 2.0)

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 Wednesday (4/8), 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!!

Fairy Tales: The Brothers Grimm vs. “Uncle Walt”

Probably the most famous collection of premodern fairy tales 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 fascinating resources for various historical subjects, but especially topics revolving around childhood and family.  It may come as no surprise, therefore, that these themes are writ large in the other most famous series of fairy tales ever produced: namely, the various films by Walt Disney and his company that are based upon fairy tales.  For this response, then, I want you to have a little fun with these tales, which ARE simultaneously meant for entertainment while also engaged with educating readers/viewers about certain moral ideas.  I thought it would be interesting to see what might happen if you precisely and directly bring the tales of the Brothers Grimm and the films of “Uncle Walt” into conversation.  Thus, I want you to somehow compare a single, specific story (or character) from Grimm’s Fairy Tales with a particular movie (or character) from the Disney universe.  What are these stories and versions about, and in what ways are they notably similar and different?  What did you find shocking or surprising in these stories, and why?  Do these “texts” ultimately suggest different ideas and definitions of “fairy tales”?  How/why so?  Finally, what is the “moral” of the story for your chosen “texts”, and more importantly, what social or political ideas relative to the early nineteenth century (vs. more recent times) do your selected stories seem to subtly highlight and comment upon?

Tragic Shakespearean Characters vs. Medieval Mythical Heroes

By now, you are all aware that your next paper 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.  Among the possibilities, then, would be some kind of comparison featuring Charlemagne, Joan of Arc, Sigurd, Roland, Thor, Odin, King Arthur, Lancelot, or maybe Guinevere.  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.

Celtic Connections

In a classic study of the Origins of English History, Charles Isaac Elton offered high praise for the wonders of Celtic mythology.  In a notable passage, he proclaimed that the writing and “religion of the British tribes has exercised an important influence upon literature.  The medieval romances and the legends which stood for history are full of the ‘fair humanities’ and figures of its bright mythology.  The elemental powers of earth and fire, and the spirits which haunted the woods and streams appear again and again as kings in the Irish Annals, or as saints and hermits in Wales.”  Having just begun our second unit with the powerful Anglo-Saxon legend of Beowulf we have made a transition in our course, not only moving forward in terms of our chronological timeline but also addressing texts written in Britain – a place, as Elton suggested, with a rich literary legacy and a place from which we trace our own “mother tongue.”  In this Blog post, then, I want you to do the following as a way to forge some meaningful connections between various legends written in Great Britain.  Specifically, I want you to present a single quotation from one of your assigned Celtic myths, and use it to draw thematic connections with Beowulf.  How does your chosen quote offer us a window into understanding not only the Celtic myth itself that you are drawing from, but looking back, how might it provide an interesting way into making sense out of the complex text of Beowulf?  Drawing on your chosen quotation, what connections can you make between the great Anglo-Saxon legend and the much shorter Celtic tale in question?  In what ways are these two works similar, and in what ways are they noticeably different, and what might we learn about the myths and legends of Britain from these similarities and differences?

Observations on Ovid

In the Art of Love, Ovid writes that “He who has enjoyed kisses, if he does not also enjoy other things, deserves to lose even those that were given to him.”  This whimsical line perfectly embodies much of Ovid’s verse:  playful and provocative to the very core.  Ovid was willfully suggestive in his writing, and he found himself in “hot water” in his own lifetime, as he was exiled from Rome in part (it seems) because of the controversial nature of his (often satirical and sexually-oriented) verse.  No one can be sure what happened to him after his death, but the great medieval poet Dante places Ovid in Limbo in his Divine Comedy, found in the first circle of hell in a “splendid school” of writers who lived before Christianity and thus cannot ascend to heaven.  But one might well wonder whether Ovid would have been divinely blessed had he been born at a later date, given the controversy and tumult he seemed to create/invite during his own day and age.  Bearing in mind the mixed reactions that have greeted Ovid for thousands of years, in this post I want you to offer your own two cents’ worth about this important and influential poet, a writer far more controversial than any others we have considered in Unit One.  What is YOUR impression of Ovid as a writer?  More to the point, how does he fit the overall arc of our study thus far in class?  In what ways do his works serve to continue and further cultivate key ideas and approaches to mythological writing that we have seen over the first few weeks?  On the other hand (and perhaps more importantly), what marks him as an author who is doing something different, something that pushes the very bounds of mythical writing and takes this generic type in new and fresh directions?  When answering such questions, it would be useful if you cited lines from his writing in order to illustrate and support your over-arching perspectives on the writer whose full name was Publius Ovidius Naso.

War & Peace in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ (version 2.0)

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!

The Myth (or Epic?) of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh is often hailed as the earliest masterpiece of world literature. More to the point, it is often seen as one of the finest myths of the ancient world.  Yet the title that is typically used for this (historically un-named) legend specifically suggests that this story is an EPIC, and not a myth per se.  With this in mind, your first possibility for this Blog post is to view and frame the story of Gilgamesh as an epic.  Just what IS an epic, exactly, and why does this text qualify?  How does it compare to other epics you know about, and what important things do we learn about the tale when viewing it through an epic lens?  For your second and third options, you might hearken back to our work from last class, when we discussed the all-important theories of Aristotle (on tragedy) and Joseph Campbell (on the “monomyth” of the hero).  More to the point, I would like to see you carefully and critically apply the ideas of these thinkers to The Epic of Gilgamesh.  If you are interested in the key notions of Aristotle, you might show how the plot of this Mesopotamian masterpiece fits certain “tragic” modes (such as leading toward a kind of “catharsis”), or work to view Gilgamesh (or perhaps Enkidu) as a kind of “tragic hero” according to the terms laid out by Aristotle.  Finally, you might tell us about how Campbell’s theories regarding the hero’s quest help us to understand the journey undertaken by Gilgamesh.  What key ideas or issues get raised via a careful application of Campbell’s ideas about the stages of a hero (i.e. separation – initiation – return) to this ancient myth/epic?

First Myth Post of 2015 — What IS a Hero?

In today’s day and age, the term “hero” frequently gets used and over-used in our popular media.  In fact, one may question whether or not the use of this term in popular discourse is consistently accurate or even useful.  As you shall learn via your class readings, the great scholar of myth Joseph Campbell offered a vital template for heroes and heroism, and once said that “The achievement of the hero is one that he is ready for and it’s really a manifestation of his character. . . The adventure that he is ready for is the one that he gets.”  In his scholarship, Campbell provides a model for the hero and his adventure that is sweeping and highly convincing.  But it also suggests that the heroes of myth and legend are, in certain fundamental ways, discernably different than those “heroes” we see in everyday life.  With this idea in mind, for your first Blog posting of the semester, I would like you to offer your own definition and justification for a real-life “hero.”  This concept is crucial to mythical writing and thus central to our studies this semester, yet it truly is often misunderstood or misperceived.  Hence, I’d like you to answer the following question (taking care NOT to rely on Campbell in your own unique explanation):  in simple terms, just what IS a hero?  In answering this question, you should define, discuss, and illustrate your notion of hero and explain what it means to be heroic.  In time, we will test these ideas by seeing how your notions are similar to – or different than – the ideas of Campbell, as well as the actual heroes depicted in myth and legend throughout the ages.