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Homeless Cinderella, Murdered Toad Kids, and Other Non-Western Non-Archetypes

Monday, February 23rd, 2009 | Posted by Judith Berman

As an anthropologist specializing among other things in myth and folk literature, and as a writer who has sat on many a con panel on myth, fairy tales, quest stories and the like, I often have to wrassle the monsters Monomyth, Universal Archetype, and their lesser-known littermates, who have been spawned by Joseph Campbell and other Jung-influenced writers.

The monomyth, a word Campbell took from James Joyce, is essentially a proposed universal structure underlying the hero’s journey, with phases that include The Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Supernatural Aid, Crossing the Threshold (into the magical realm), and so on. What’s wrong with the monomyth? There’s no doubt that pieces of it are found not only in a huge percentage of fantasy fiction, but also in widely scattered mythic and folk literary traditions all over the world.

However. Is it universal?

Methodologically, what both Campbell and Jung have done is cherry-picking, and often from texts that have already been translated and/or rewritten to conform to Western notions of what makes a satisfying story. Let me start with an example of the latter.

You can find online a tale called “The Indian Cinderella” taken from a book called Canadian Wonder Tales by Cyrus Macmillan. Geez, it really does resemble the classic Cinderella story! Macmillan’s source was a tome by Charles Leland of seeming scholarly authenticity, called The Algonquin Legends of New England, first published in 1884 and reprinted by Dover a couple of times over the last 25 years. There, the story is titled “The Invisible One,” and Leland cites his source, Silas Rand’s Legends of the Micmacs. Rand was a missionary and scholar who lived among the Micmac, and he collected his version in the Micmac language from one of his parishioners–in the 1860s, if my memory is serving me correctly. His version was originally titled “The invisible boy: Team’ and Oochigeaskw.” (I don’t think it is online anywhere.)

Many changes in language and structure took place as the story was progressively re-anthologized. The biggest single change is that Leland’s version left off the whole second half of Rand’s original English translation. Now, one widespread formal characteristic of North American indigenous literature is that stories often have two halves, with the second one being a commentary or reflection on the events of the first. The half of the story that has been anthologized and cited as proof that the Cinderella story is to be found everywhere does indeed have a despised heroine who nevertheless wins the most desirable husband; she proves to be the only one who can see what the great hunter with the spirit power of invisibility is carrying. This half is about acquiring. But the second, omitted half of the story is about what happened next: the hunter with spirit power dies, and first the “Cinderella” girl and then the sister of the hunter, through carelessness, violating taboos, etc., manage to lose everything. This was the point of the story to the original story teller–the importance of proper behavior with respect to the spirit world–not the happy Cinderella ending.

The Cinderella version is much more satisfying to Leland and Macmillan’s intended audiences and, we could presume, to them as well. But it wasn’t what the original story was about. This kind of rewriting is more the norm than the exception when Native American traditional stories get anthologized, and I would bet it happens with other non-Western traditions as well. Stories that can’t be wrestled into a satisfying pattern don’t tend to even make it into the anthologies. Everyone knows some version of the Frog Prince story, right? On the north Pacific coast a widespread story has a high-ranking girl, who has refused all suitors. insulting a frog or toad. Then she meets a most handsome young man and goes away with him, vanishing from the sight of her people. Later two small frogs/toads come hopping into her father’s town and for one reason or another, according to the version, are clubbed to death because they aroused human disgust. They prove to be the girl’s sons; the handsome prince actually was a frog. The Native story is a tragedy not a romance, and the lesson is about the importance of treating even frogs with respect.

What about non-Western heroic quests? This post is getting long, and I’ll continue on that topic next time. The short version is, even stories that seem familiar might be about something quite different.

4 Comments »

  1. My favorite example of this is “Shakespeare in the Bush.” It’s all about the witches!

    I once read somewhere (I think in a Francis Parkman book) a description by a white man of an Iroquois lodge meeting. Every man who was allowed to speak would stand and summarize, individual by individual, what each speaker before him had said. The speaker would then offer his own opinion, commenting on and critiquing the previous speakers’ opinions. This would go on for hours. It shows the necessity of having a good memory if you live in an illiterate culture, but from what you say it would also seem to speak to the binary, two-part structure of American Indian narrative (in the northeast, anyway).

    Comment by Jackson Kuhl - February 23, 2009 10:15 am

  2. This is interesting stuff. I don’t find Campbell super-reliable on European mythology either. I remember gently slamming the book against the desk four or five times after he compared Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven” to Ovid’s account of Apollo and Daphne. Any chance similarity that suits his argument is evidence; anything that appears to run contrary to his thesis is chaff.

    I sometimes recommend Hero with a Thousand Faces to people interested in fantasy, as a way to think about one kind of story. But I never recommend it as mythography.

    Comment by James Enge - February 23, 2009 1:11 pm

  3. Yeah, I’ve never been a huge fan of Campbell. I tend to think that Joe, and many of his followers, kind of missed the important point of what his research shows: not that there are universal myths but that myths are universal. That is, it’s not the story that’s the same across cultures, it is the process of making historical, social, or otherwise pertinent data into mythologically significant story. That is true across cultures, and that tendency is something that can be usefully used to apprehend both story and storyteller; but, in fact, studying myth in this way relies on the fact that mythic structure is not necessarily universal–if it were, there’d be little point in immersing yourself in an unfamiliar tradition.

    Comment by braak - February 23, 2009 4:57 pm

  4. Gah, have been sick all week. Some thoughts:

    1. Iroquois oratory is a topic I know little about, but I have been in the audience during Tlingit events where it can seem as if everyone in the room has to stand up and speak at length. One of the things going on there is, it’s about protocol and indicating respect. You do this in part by showing yourself, saying who your parents and grandparents were (and what clans they belonged to), thanking your host, expressing your appreciation to everyone else who has already spoken… It was traditionally a society with no formal political institutions above the clan, and you needed to make very sure you showed respect, because lack thereof could lead to conflict and war. (For societies that never had writing, the word ‘non-literate’ is preferred over ‘illiterate’–it has a somewhat different meaning.)

    2. European mythology… wouldn’t there be something to say about Ovid’s own mythographic choices? I mean, he never struck me as much of a believer.

    3. No universal myths, but myth-making is universal. Absolutely. Malinowski talked about myths as charters for social institutions, and the reverse seems to happen–whenever people start thinking about the origins of their society, or institution, or lineage, etc., they start making myths. You see this in historical writing, alas, where it is painfully difficult for many historians to separate themselves from such mythic thinking. I sometimes wish we had two words for history, one that meant, “symbolic narrative about the past that is told to justify something in the present,” and the other that was, “critical thinking about the past that puts observation and evidence before ideology.”

    Comment by Judith Berman - March 2, 2009 2:51 am


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