Thursday, August 28, 2014

"The Hero With A Thousand Faces" by Jospeh Campbell (1949)

The last time you read a book by Joseph Campbell, your review said that you'd always wanted to read a compendium of human mythologies and that his stuff seemed like a good place to start. You were right. Campbell is a great place to start. But once you start something, you should keep going.

"The Hero With A Thousand Faces" is another exploration by Campbell comparing the stories humans have told one another for thousands of years- our myths, legends, religions. It is a masterful endeavor to find the common threads that link these stories all together. The book examines the themes and patterns that become visible to a scholar whose life was dedicated to studying these things. He acknowledges from the outset that there are obvious differences, not every myth follows in lockstep with every other. But Campbell does not concern himself with those distinctions. Rather he spent a lifetime cultivating a passion for pointing out the uncanny similarities.

In describing the extraordinary similitude of the world's greatest stories, he has to tell some of them. And Campbell teasingly doles the stories out in bits and pieces over the length of the book, giving parts of some of them in one chapter and picking the thread back up again later. A bit of a Japanese tale here, an Apache myth there, the beginning of an ancient Australian Aboriginal story here. This makes the book, which could have a very ponderous or scholarly tone, feel charmingly readable and perfectly addictive. It's reminiscent of sitting around a campfire with someone who knows all the great ghost stories, or playing music with someone who knows all of your favorite songs. For an unabashed story teller like you, it was an absolute joy to read.

Campbell makes extensive use of the footnotes system, as was popular in the mid 20th Century. You barely flipped one page that didn't have a note or two along the lower margin. Some even rivaled your translation of "Mein Kampf" for their length. The most memorable footnote, one on the various aspects of the idol depicting the god Shiva, went on for three full pages, and has the dubious honor of being the only footnote you've ever seen with it's very own footnote! Quirky details like this, and Campbell's natural charm and enthusiasm, made the book an instant favorite of yours.

In "The Hero With A Thousand Faces," Campbell observes that many of humanity's heroes go through remarkably similar journeys: a separation from the ordinary world, a connection with some kind of awesome, supernatural power, and a return back to the world with the knowledge or ability to save it or improve it in some way. The hero must be removed from the world he has known and filled with greatness in order to save that world.

It is a familiar story. It is the story of Prometheus and Icarus, of Gilgamesh and Ulysses, of Buddha and Moses, of Frodo Baggins and Luke Skywalker. There seems to be a recognition written in the human heart that our world is not the way it was meant to be. We instinctively know that the world should be and could be a less cruel and sorrowful place. For eons we have told ourselves stories of heroes who have transcended this broken reality and been endowed with a power to return again to set our world right. 

Many cultures share aspects of their mythologies which most of your fellow Christians believe to be exclusive to the Bible. Stories of world-ending floods abound across the globe. Heroes from every corner of the map end up in the bellies of whales. Saviors from countless cultures are born to virgin mothers and call themselves sons of God. These saviors often die for the sake of others (often for just three days) only to return to the world of the living with new powers of salvation. You knew most of that before you read this book, but you had no idea how many similarities your own faith shared with pagan myths of ancient (and some modern) religions. In fact, some early missionaries believed that Satan had preceded their journeys into heathen lands in order to seed the indigenous stories there with enough similarities to the story of Christ that the natives would not be able to accept the Gospel as anything new. (They were wrong. Christianity is still the number one religion on Earth, with almost 1/3 of all humans firmly in it's fold.)

None of this discouraged you from your own beliefs, your faith in God and in Jesus' sacrifice for your sins. You are not that insecure in your beliefs. You've long read many of the accounts in the Bible with the understanding that they were likely not meant to be taken literally. These biblical stories contain deep truths nonetheless. Why else would so many peoples be telling the same kind of stories? You aren't scared of knowledge. Holding your ears from hearing these other stories does not make them untold. Learning about other myths, and maybe especially the ones that echo your own religion, did not weaken your faith at all. In fact, it deepened it. It helped you feel more connected to the long history of human experience. Luke Skywalker may be the new version of Buddha, or Neo from "The Matrix" may be a re-telling of the Christian gospel, but that doesn't cheapen the original stories at all. The Greeks didn't abandon their own religion when they found out the Zeus/Poseidon dynamic had been inspired by the Sumerian gods Enki and Enlil. Neither did "The Hero With A Thousand Faces" inspire you to abandon your faith.

What was remarkable to you though was the realization that these stories are not simple warnings, they are not some caveman guideline for survival passed down from our shared ancestral dark ages, when life was nasty, brutish, and short. There is no caution in them to avoid the alien or exotic, no reminder to always be afraid. Instead, they are soaring and insistent reminders that we all have a deeper connection to a greater reality, that we are more than animals made of meat struggling to survive in a brutish and cruel world, more than ugly bags of mostly water. To quote the great sage Yoda, "Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter." These stories are written into our souls, innate in our unconscious minds. These stories are intended to remind us of a truth that is deeper than the details of dogma. Or as Campbell says,

"And so, to grasp the full value of the mythological figures that have come down to us, we must understand that they are not only symptoms of the unconscious (as indeed are all human thoughts and acts) but also controlled and intended statements of certain spiritual principles which have remained as constant throughout the course of human history as the form and nervous structure of the human physique itself... The universal doctrine teaches that all the visible structures of the world -all things and beings- are the effects of a ubiquitous power out of which they rise, which supports and fills them during the period of their manifestation, and back to which they must ultimately dissolve. This power is known to science as energy, to the Melanesians as mana, to the Sioux Indians as wakonda,  the Hindu as shakti, and the Christian as the power of God. Its manifestation in the psyche is termed, by the psychoanalysts, libido. And its manifestation in the cosmos is the structure and flux of the universe itself."

This is not a book purporting some hopeless nihilistic atheism. There is a deeper meaning to all human life and we are all striving towards the search for the truth. We all realize that there is something there worth finding. Campbell simply offers a transcript of that search. The mythologies of the world tend to share one overarching theme: we are all connected to a greater power, and that connection binds each of us to one another in a way that humans throughout history have been innately compelled to revere.
It's the same old story. We may not each be gods, but we all have a bit of God in each of us. That's why we tell all these stories in the first place.

On to the next book!

P.S. Here is a handy dandy chart plotting out every step of the mythic hero's journey.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

"His Majesty's Dragon" by Naomi Novik (2006)

Your friend Andrea gave you this book and told you that you would love it. She summarized by describing it as, "The history of the Napoleonic Wars... but with freaking dragons! It's perfect for you." It's good to have friends who totally get you, you know?

Andrea was right. That is exactly what this book is. It's like a work of historical fiction set in England in 1805, but instead of doing what historical fiction traditionally does, instead of imagining what famous historical figures might have been privately thinking, instead of using an established history as an opportunity to see familiar events through new eyes, Novik uses European history as a jumping off point to see what differences might have arisen if human history had included massive mythological flying beasts. Novik is unapologetic. There is no hint of irony or guilt. It's brilliant.

And these beasts are massive, big enough to support not just one lone rider but whole crews of men (and women, despite the cultural taboo of women actually doing anything). The flight crews are trained to move around their dragons, securing their positions with carabiners snapped onto the leather harnesses trussed all around their dragons. The teams fire vollies of rifles against enemy dragons and their crews, drop crude bombs on targets below, signal allied flight crews to coordinate plans and maneuvers, and render first aide to the dragon if the need arises. Each dragon is trained to fly with flights of others in mutually supportive formations, allowing the strengths of different breeds (and there are many different breeds) to compensate for the weaknesses in others. Tactics and strategies for the use of these dragon flights are reminiscent of the fledgling air forces of the two World Wars that wouldn't be fought for over one hundred more years (at least, in our dragonless reality).  Novik has created a completely new and surprisingly modern way to imagine these familiar mythological creatures, not to mention that she tells one charming story along the way.

The main characters in the book are not initially members of the British Aerial Corps. William Laurence is captain of the HMS Reliant, a 36-gun British frigate engaged on the high seas. Laurence is a consummate Naval Officer. The book opens with he and his crew boarding and capturing a French ship just west of Spain. On board the French ship is a prize unlike anything Laurence had expected, an unhatched dragon egg. When the dragon hatches and chooses Laurence as his rider (a choice that is not really negotiable) the two make their way back to the British Isles to be formally trained in the arts of aerial warfare.

It soon becomes clear that Laurence's dragon, named Temeraire, is not an ordinary breed of dragon. He is smarter, more curious and more independent than the other beasts. As fascinating as the concept of the novel is, as thrilling as the few battle scenes are, the thing that made "His Majesty's Dragon" so enjoyable to read was the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire. Laurence is mired in the gentility of 19th Century England and the professionalism of the King's Navy. The book has some of the best shades of Jane Austen. Laurence feels obligated to behave every inch the gentleman at all times and finds the informailty of the Aerial Corps confusing and off-putting. He finds himself out of step with his society for the first time and leans upon his closest relationship, that with his dragon.

Temeraire loves to be read to, and before long, he understands even advanced mathematics and physics better than Captain Laurence. The massive black dragon loves music and baths. He appreciates respect and becomes fiercely loyal towards his friend and rider. He does not tolerate injustice or cruelty and ultimately becomes a more endearing character than any human in the story. The relationship between Laurence and Temeraire is what defines the book, not the actions they take.

Having dragons in the world does not significantly change the timeline of history in this book. Admiral Nelson is still wins the battle of Trafalgar. King George is still the monarch of England. Napoleon Bonaparte still becomes the emperor of France after their bloody revolution. The concept is intriguing; is history fixed? Is the book already written? Would adding huge dragons have changed who won what battle during the Napoleonic Wars, or the American Revolution, or the American Civil War? What if the Comanches had ridden on the backs of dragons, or the Zulu, or the Vietcong? All things being equal, would the fabric of history have been radically changed at any point if something as fundamental as the notion that "dragons aren't real" were turned on its head.

It may seem like a silly question, but it's not. Historians and anthropologists often point out how horses were instrumental the the conquest of the Americas, how radically different warfare became after the advent of flight, how guns and steel define the difference between the conquerors and the conquered in Earth's history. Books like this make you wonder if it has ever really been the technologies that were employed that were so important in human history, or if it was truly the content of the characters of the people involved, if it was the relationships that they valued that made all the difference. Thankfully, Novik leaves this lingering question tantalizingly unanswered.

However, in "His Majesty's Dragon" Napoleon does eventually alter our timeline after his defeat at Trafalgar. Novik thinks of a clever and unexpected way to innovate a new strategy and use these mythical beasts of the air to attempt another invasion of England, and she kept you on the edge of your seat as you read how the dragons of the Great Britain tried to stave off disaster. It is perfect fodder for an arm chair general like you to try to out-think this author on how else the history of the Napoleonic Wars would have changed with a newly added, aerial dimension. Will Novik keep true to the rest of the history of the 19th Century or will Laurence and Temeraire go on to alter the course of the world in ways that will forge an entirely new timeline?

This was the first in an ongoing series of books (the ninth is due out next year) and you are sure you will end up reading as many of them as you can as fast as you can to see how your questions will be answered.

On to the next book!