Myths, legends, and lost tales

If you like ancient tales, I highly recommend the Myths and Legends podcast. It’s a funny and occasionally irreverent journey through world mythology taken thirty minutes at a time. Jason Weiser, the host, perfectly captures how absurd these stories can sound to well-adjusted modern ears like yours and mine. On the other hand, I think he understands that they have survived for so long because they resonate deeply with human experience. I’m not one of those who thinks these stories are just a load of crazy stuff that never happened; they have symbolic and psychological value. But then, it sure can be fun to grin through the batshit crazy parts. I laughed my leg off when a warrior bard version of Merlin randomly rode a stag to his ex-wife’s wedding, pelted the new groom with pieces of snapped-off antler, killing him, and thus conceding he was not quite ready to accept the situation.

That’s your aural mythological fix sorted but what about eye-candy? Well, if you pick up a copy of Adam Murphy’s comic, Lost Tales, you’re in for a rare treat. These are beautiful stories, beautifully drawn. Like Weiser, Murphy has a talent for retelling folklore from anywhere and any time in a modern medium. His anachronistic dialogue really suits the comic form.

 

The Hero’s Inner Journey

This morning I belatedly saw a connection between two ideas I’m interested in: the hero’s journey and attachment theory.

The hero’s journey is a fundamental narrative that’s claimed to be at the root of all stories. It was proposed by the mythologist Joseph Campbell in books such as The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The theory goes that in every quest the hero progresses, or fails to progress, through a series of common stages: the call to adventure, initiation, mentoring, journeying beyond the bounds of their world, trials and tests, ordeals, defeats and victories, and a final return to the world with a boon. Campbell and others have proposed various heroic archetypes who undertake this journey. Campbell noted that these heroes are frequently orphans or those whose parents are conspicuously absent. For modern reference points, think of Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins.

Attachment theory is a widely accepted psychological model of human development. Developed by John Bowlby and others, it emphasises the importance of parental, particularly maternal, love and connection for the healthy development of identity. This connection should be neither abandoning or engulfing: ‘good enough’ is best. Bowlby was sent to boarding school aged seven during the bombing raids of the Second World War. It was a terrible time for him and he would later investigate the psychological effects of separation on infants and young children. Bowlby found that children with unmet emotional needs carried them into adulthood. As adults we then try to satisfy these needs through certain behaviours and strategies – some healthier than others.

Could it be that the hero’s journey is fundamentally a quest to resolve a deeply rooted childhood fear of abandonment? Do our mythical heroes respond to the call to adventure because of the desire to resolve an unmet need for connection? Notice that nearly always, the hero undertakes a project for the good of society and returns to society – if he or she can – at least briefly to bestow boons. Similarly, the quest nearly always involves mentoring, a kind of reparenting, in which the hero participates in a special bond with a teacher who initiates (or births) them more fully into previously hidden ways of the world. I was encouraged to make this connection by hearing therapist Mark Epstein talk about his book, The Trauma of Everyday Life, in which he reinterprets the Buddha’s journey in light of his mother’s death one week after his birth – Epstein describes this as almost a passing detail in the canon, but perhaps a crucial one.

Perhaps these stories resonate with us so deeply because – regardless of how well we were parented, and how fully our emotional need for secure connection has been met – we all carry unresolved needs. Life, then, is the enactment of the hero’s journey as we find a mode of living, connecting, being in the world that enables us and those around us to identify and meet those needs in mutually constructive ways. This is indeed a heroic quest requiring much courage and fortitude.

The Girl Who Didn’t Exist

It’s common for children to have disagreements with their parents. However, it is not so common for them to disagree about whether or not anything exists.

So begins the latest fable to be compiled in The Book of Almost Truths. ‘The Girl Who Didn’t Exist’ follows the journey of a young girl sent to the woods by her parents to live with a cranky sage. Under his guidance, she learns a valuable lesson about what it might mean to be alive.

The story was influenced by Buddhist sutras and philosophy, and inspired by the jacket of Edward Conze’s translation of ‘The Diamond’ and ‘Heart’ sutras, which shows a large stone Buddha head seemingly growing out of a tree.

Read ‘The Girl Who Didn’t Exist’ here.

A strange fork in the road

A certain ghost walk guide here in Cornwall finishes his tours with an enigmatic proverb:

A person often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it.

This is the opening line in Jean de la Fontaine’s fable, The Horoscope. On the one hand it seems paradoxical to say that by departing from your destiny you may realise it; on the other, fatalistically, whichever road you take then becomes your destiny. The latter reading suggests free will but the meaning of the proverb might simply be that destiny is something inescapable. In his account, de la Fontaine dismisses the art of fortune telling and proposes that destiny is always in flux but this slippery phrase illuminates how cryptic and mysterious our idea of fate is.