Monday, July 27, 2009

The Language of Mythology, the Fairy Tale and the Fantastic: “The Native Speech of Dream”


One of the foundations of Joseph Campbell’s mythic writing is his recognition that our times lack a tenable, global mythology. The religious myths still in use among varied human cultures are unable to provide comprehensive or credible insights for our modern world. They were formed thousands of years ago, well before the knowledge explosion that followed the discovery of the New World. Campbell rhetorically asks of these religions, if “…anyone has a right to pretend to a knowledge of eternal laws and of a general moral order for the good of all mankind” (The Mythic Dimension 224-225). His answer, that no religion does have this right, is the basis of much of his later work. That knowledge is what mythology is, and it comes from within each individual. He writes, “For it is simply a fact – as I believe we have all now got to concede – that mythologies and their deities are productions and projections of the psyche. What gods are there, what gods have there ever been, that were not from man’s imagination?” (Campbell, Myths to Live By 253). The enticement in his work, as well as the problem, is in discovering what a relevant mythology for our times might look like and where it will come from.

Campbell focuses on the artist. One such artist is the fantasy genre fiction writer. The literature of modern fantasy has driven me into a deeper fascination with mythology and a desire to explore the connection between the two. However, a formulation of the actual relationship between fantasy and myth has been elusive. There seems to be a general dismissal of modern fantasy, claiming the work as a whole is not laden with enough internal meaning to actually qualify as mythic. A similar prejudice has kept fantasy as a genre from being acknowledged as literature, in the artistic sense. Fantasy writers are often seen as “hacks”. So what is the relationship between mythology and fantasy narrative? Campbell’s work has provided a thread to hold onto for further exploration. In pursuit, perhaps the thread will become a rope. In his discussion of the fairy tale, or the “tale of wonder” (Campbell, Flight of the Wild Gander 24), the focus is on the language of mythology as a language of symbols. This symbolic language is drawn from the psyche, our internal reaches that Jung terms the unconscious. Campbell writes, “…myth is a picture language…this language is the native speech of dream…it has been studied, clarified and enriched by the poets, prophets, and visionaries of untold millenniums” (Flight 22). This symbol language arises from our unconscious and is made available to us in our dreams. Myth can be made when these symbols are used in the conscious creation of a story. Modern society seemingly has taken direct relevance out of ancient myths. However, we are still able to gain insight from those myths because what live on, utterly relevant to us today, are the archetypal symbols and the language used to weave those symbols into a tale. Culled from our collective unconscious, the symbols are the building blocks of myth and are still recognizable to our modern, conscious selves.

These symbols also are used in fantasy fiction, one mode of the modern tale of wonder. “Myths… break up to let their pregnant motifs scatter and settle into the materials of popular tale” (Campbell, Flight 22-23). To begin an extrapolation forward from Campbell, the dream symbols of our unconscious are also deeply embedded in the mythologies of past cultures. As well, this language of symbols is found in the folk tales that have spread internationally. The stories are changed and tweaked depending on who is doing the telling, but the symbols at the cores remain the same. This symbolic language of the unconscious is still in use today, being called up, reflected upon, worked with and written down by the writers of today’s fantasy literature.

Since this symbolic language does remain in use around the world, from the tales of old religions to the fictions of modern fantasy writers, there may already be a modern, global mythology, though perhaps in a formative stage. The motifs and symbols of the tale of wonder, taken out of the collective unconscious, are the basal layer of our ancient and modern myths. “The ‘monstrous, irrational and unnatural’ motifs of folk tale and myth are derived from the reservoirs of dream and vision. On the dream level such images represent the total state of the individual dreaming psyche. But clarified of personal distortions and propounded by poets, prophets, and visionaries, they become symbolic of the spiritual norm for Man the Microcosm” (Campbell, Flight 23). Because these images from the collective unconscious are not only contained within us all, but also consciously passed down through historic tales and myths, we are all powerfully familiar with the elements of this symbolic language. In today’s world, myth, along with fantasy and folk tale, may be dismissed as childish. However, speaking of children, Campbell writes, “For it is a curious characteristic of our unformed species that we live and model our lives through acts of make-believe” (Campbell, Myths 55). These symbols, the basis of children’s make-believe and a way in which they learn, are actually the same building blocks adults can use to forge collective notions of who we, as individuals of a global Diaspora, are. As Campbell writes, “And so we find that in those masterworks of the modern day which are of a visionary rather than of a descriptive order the forms long known from the nursery tale reappear, but now in adult maturity” (Campbell, Flight 25). The question may be what will be considered as “masterworks of the modern day”?

In further writing about the tale of wonder, Campbell says “Its world of magic is symptomatic of fevers deeply burning in the psyche” (Campbell, Flight 24). In our post-modern era, the writers of fantasy literature are often consciously aware of the connections between those fevers and the stories they are relating to readers. The writer forges new tales using that symbolic language, the native speech of dream. They take the symbols being sent forth from their own unconscious and apply their craft by forging connections between their personally derived images and the images from tales already told. One well-known author that can be used as an introductory example is J.R.R. Tolkien, whose works The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are so well known. One of Tolkien’s aims in writing these works was to create a specific mythology for England because he felt there was none existent. However, in writing in the fantasy genre, it seems he was well aware of the native speech of dreams, even if he used different words to describe it. “An essential power of Faërie is thus the power of making immediately effective by the will the visions of ‘fantasy’. Not all are beautiful or even wholesome, not at any rate the fantasies of fallen Man” (Tolkien 109). In this quote from his influential essay “On Fairy Stories”, Tolkien is acknowledging the combination of the “visions”, what we are calling the symbols of dream speech, and the “will”, or the author’s own consciousness being used to craft the tale. Though his work may not exactly be a mythology for England in the historic sense, it does seem that he created a mythic work that resonates with a large population worldwide. As one Tolkien commentator analyzes, “Myths develop a link with the past, a continuity that helps people weather the present and look forward to the future. In an era of unprecedented change, the links to the past are stretched to the breaking point, and a people without roots are likely to become, analogously, a people without branches or flowers” (Grotta, 85). This popular resonance stems from the author’s use of the native speech of dream, which contains the symbols which make up the content of mythology. They connect us not only to historical myths, but also to the possibilities of future stories, myths and actual changes in our lives.

It seems a difficult task to imagine a mythology being invented in the modern world that will serve the needs of the disparate, global cultures. Religion has been one of the organizing myths of our modern societies. However, now that religion is so culturally defining and dividing, spiritual insight has become peripheral to its organizational power. The foundational core of any religion has always been a dreamer, looking directly inside him- or herself to the unconscious, and relating what they find there to others. However, the political organizations of religions allow their leaders to manipulate and focus the shape of their official teachings. The actions and words of various churches have moved far afield from the original insights that were the basis for religions. As Campbell says, “But wherever systematizing theologians have appeared and gained the day…Mythology is misread then as direct history or science, symbol becomes fact, metaphor dogma, and the quarrels of the sects arise, each mistaking its own symbolic signs for the ultimate reality” (Flight 53). The native speech of dream becomes used for something unintended, namely, a dogmatic set of organizational ideas whose major aim seems to be the defining of a united group. The individual symbols that are the basis of that speech, the actual ideas of those formational dreamers of the past, are misunderstood and often completely ignored.

At a time when myth is overshadowed by religion, the writers of fantasy fiction are one subset of artists interacting with the symbols of dream language. In a manner similar to those of dreamers past, on whose individual inspirations much of our historic myth follows from, they present stories in the native speech of dream. Symbolic language is used to help the reader understand something about themselves and their place in the universe. Tolkien wrote of these tales of wonder, “Not all are beautiful or even wholesome” (109), but as Campbell says of any new mythology, it must be “addressed, that is to say, not to the flattery of ‘peoples,’ but to the waking of individuals in the knowledge of themselves” (Myths 266). The solitary work writers undertake to produce fiction is a mesh. It combines a historic trail of myth and tale with personal symbolic language articulated from out of their own unconscious. This work is done alone, just as the work of any dreamer is done alone. As written work, their art is then experienced alone, when the symbolic language of the writer is read by a solitary reader. Symbols, the native speech of dreams, transfer from the writer to a reader, who then allows the symbols to interact with the internal forms of his or her own native speech of dreams. When this speech is used to “constellate a mesocosm – a mediating, middle cosmos, through which the microcosm of the individual is brought into relation to the macrocosm of the universe” (Campbell, Flight 123), there is the creation of a fertile ground on which mythology grows.


Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimension. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2002.

Campbell, Joseph. Myths to Live By. New York: Penguin Compass, 1972.



Campbell, Joseph. The Mythic Dimension: Selected Essays 1959-1987. Antony Van Couvering. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2007.



Grotta, Daniel. The Biography of J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle Earth. Running Press: Philadelphia, 1992.



Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy Stories.” A Tolkien Miscellany. New York: SFBC Science Fiction, 2002.

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