PICKING ATTEBERRIES PT. 3 (2024)

Since I'm not sure I'll finish STORIES ABOUT STORIES, I skipped Chapter 3 and read Chapter 4, at least in part because it concerns Attebery's antagonistic relationship to Joseph Campbell.

But before getting to anything about Campbell, it occurred to me to relate Attebery's definition of myth as "any collective story that encapsulates a worldview and authorizes belief" to one of the first "mythographers" I evaluated on this blog, Eric Gould. In the work referenced here, Gould coined a term I've often used, "mythicity," but he did not share Attebery's broad valorization of any mythic tale simply because it "authorized belief."

The fact that classical and totemistic myths have to refer to some translinguistic fact-- to the Gods and Nature-- proves not that there are Gods, but that our talents for interpreting our place in the world may be distinctly limited by the nature of language.

In my own essay I registered my disagreement with Gould on that point. Nevertheless, Attebery seems to have vaulted over the epistemological question, "what authority does religious 'belief' possess, even if it expresses the collective worldview of a given tribe, nation, or ethnicity?" I would be the last to validate the Doubting Thomas fallacy of the materialists, "If you can't dissect the risen body of Christ, that means no such body ever existed." But I think belief can be epistemologically valid insofar as its narratives reproduce epistemological patterns that are, in a sense, common to all human experience, not just to particular human groupings. For me at least, that transcendence of particular cultures trumps the "limits of language" that Eric Gould finds so disconcerting.

At base, I believe that Joseph Campbell shared this belief in such patterns, though he was, as I've said elsewhere, rather scattershot in his hermeneutics during his unquestionably distinguished career. But since Campbell and some of his fellow travelers are not validating myth based only upon whether the myth-narratives "authorize" a particular group's "belief," it's not surprising to me that Atteberry implicitly dismisses many comparativists that came into prominence in the 1960s, lumping together "Claude Levi-Strauss, Joseph Campbell, Northrop Frye, and Mircea Eliade" as proponents of "myth criticism." Attebery is initially a bit circ*mspect about pinning down what he doesn't like about myth criticism, though immediately after these citations he brackets the myth-critics as sharing "the assumption that all myths are psychically available to modern writers and readers." Attebery does not at first raise the Barthesian specter of "appropriation," the idea that it's wrong to pilfer cultural artifacts from cultures not one's own. The author's initial reticence may come about because he segues from talking about the cultural influence of the myth-critics (presumably in America and Western Europe, though Attebery doesn't specify) to discussing the concomitant rise of the mass-market proliferation of the fantasy genre in the same decade and thereafter. But when he turns his attention to Campbell's HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, it's clear the author has that devil Appropriation on his mind.

The problem with Campbell's monomyth as an analytical tool is that it always works because it simplifies every story to the point where nothing but the monomyth is left. It ignores the many mythic stories that do not have questing heroes, and it leaves out the culturally defined values and symbols that make each tradition unique.

I disagree with only one part of this statement. As I may have said elsewhere on this blog, I have not read HERO in several years, and have not ever reviewed it, but I think it the least epistemologically valid of his works. If I had my way, Campbell would be much better known for his "four functions." But I must admit that Campbell's concept of an over-arching "super-myth," while fallible in many ways, had the effect of getting a lot of people to check out that particular book, including (allegedly) George Lucas.

Yet Attebery makes the opposite mistake. When he bestows upon traditional myths a uniqueness that sets those stories apart from other cognate stories, he makes the same mistake Barthes did in MYTHOLOGIES. Long before there existed either "capitalist" or "post-industrial" cultures, so-called "traditional cultures" constantly swapped or stole story-ideas from each other. Did Norse Odin precede Germanic Wotan? No one knows, and no one should care. The same principle should apply to the intermingling of elements from disparate cultures in order to craft modern magical fantasies. We would not have a LORD OF THE RINGS if Tolkien had not synthesized many myth-traditions, not least the very disparate traditions of Celtic tales and medieval Christian religion. Alan Garner's WEIRDSTONE OF BRISINGAMEN is nowhere near the greatness of RINGS. But Garner's synthesis was a good one, and does not deserve to be downgraded because (according to Attebery) he "mixed mythologies indiscriminately," with "Nordic dwarves, Celtic elves, a Tolkienian evil force named Nastrond, and a Merlinesque wizard who guards a cave of sleeping warriors like those of the Germanic Frederick Barbarosa." It's odd that Attebery should invoke a 12th century German ruler in concert with a "Merlinesque wizard," rather than referencing the "sleeping warrior" myths about King Arthur, who's more frequently associated with Merlin.

In the end, the argument comes down not to logic but taste. Attebery clearly prefers modern fantasy authors to pick some corpus of culturally related myth-stories and to build from that corpus. But as I said, Tolkien himself did not do this, and as yet I have not seen the author critiquing the Oxford don on the same terms he uses toward both Campbell and Alan Garner. I too can think of many bad admixtures of disparate traditional stories, but that does not prove that "mix and match" is a bad strategy in itself. I also think Atteberry wants authors to stick to particular mythoi so that he can judge better if the creators do what he thinks most valuable: ringing in modern interpretive changes to traditional lore.

If I make it through another chapter, I plan to address one of the major omissions in Attebery's schema: the differing dynamics of oral culture vs. written culture.

PICKING ATTEBERRIES PT. 3 (2024)
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