The Pity of the Wolves: Joseph Campbell, part 2

The Pity of the Wolves: Joseph Campbell, part 2

wolf-and-sisiutlsmall1A few years ago, for one of Brian Swann’s anthologies of traditional Native American literature, I translated a quasi-historical story from Kwakwaka’wakw oral tradition that contained in it an episode in which a dead man is brought back to life by wolves. One of the English word choices I struggled with was the term the revivified character later used to describe why the wolves had done it.

Stories about wolves resurrecting the dead permeate older bodies of Kwakwaka’wakw story, and range from ancestor myths to first-person accounts of shamanic initiation. The myths have a subgenre featuring adolescent heroes who go out into the wild, enter the spirit realm, encounter dangerous and beneficient beings–not infrequently dying and resurrecting in the process–and return home with spiritual treasures. Does that not sound just a little bit Campbellian?

One problem with seeing this subgenre as more evidence of the universality of Campbell’s monomyth is that the genre as a whole also has stories featuring magical children and stories featuring mature heroes, each of which has a characteristic structure that is distinct from the adventures of the adolescent hero. All of these functioned the same way in society. In the study of communicative systems, of which languages are one kind of example and narrative genres are another, covariation of form and meaning is required before you can say something is structurally significant. And you can’t construct a legitimate argument about universal grammar by taking the English present progressive and the Russian past imperfective and the Kwak’wala form for repeated action as your evidence and ignoring all other tenses and aspects. Each of those is part of a particular system (English, Russian, Kwak’wala) and has a function and meaning within the system.

But there are other problems. A crucial one in my mind is the moral construction of the universe that myths and other stories exist to provide–what they tell us about why things happen. In one of the adolescent-hero stories, a boy guarding his salmon trap is abducted by the grizzly who has been wrecking the trap and stealing the fish. Back at home, the grizzly kills his “slave” and feeds him to a group of invited guests, who are various predatory animals of the forest. But after the meal, the wolves feel badly for the boy and have everyone vomit up their meal. They bring the boy back to life and he returns home with spiritual treasure from the bear’s house.

If how you make your living becomes your model of cosmology, and all over the world it usually is, one model for Native American religions is hunting. A hunter has to show agency by going out into the forest or onto the ocean to search for game, but some days the animals show themselves and sometimes they do not. The word ‘hero’ in English has connotations of power and domination, but that is not the moral framework within which the wolves decide to exercise their power of resurrection. The animals are the powerful ones, spiritual beings whose masks of flesh and fur are only a portion of their whole selves. The salmon come to the human realm with all their wealth because they choose to.

My dictionary glossed the Kwak’wala root describing what the wolves had done as ‘to pity.’ My adviser, Dell Hymes, who was in his own way a committed Christian, used the word “grace” to talk about this kind of encounter with the spirit world in Native American myth. I eventually chose “show mercy” in part for syntactic reasons. At any rate, I would venture to say that in the Western moral framework–what Campbell is essentially dealing in–the pity and mercy shown by the powerful supernatural for the powerless hero is not the core of what heroism means.

For those interested in universalism, one place to start would be Marcel Mauss’ Rites of Passage and the work of Victor Turner on liminality that takes off from Mauss. With regard to heroism and adventure fantasy, the moral frameworks within which stories construct and convey meaning are ones that we might pay closer attention to. I say that in part from having lived so long with some Native American traditions trying to understand what the stories aimed to say about the world–about balance, for example, as opposed to acquisition and domination. Dell addressed some of this in his several articles on Charles Cultee’s story “The Sun’s Myth” (no links outside of JSTOR, alas), which he took in part to be a devastating commentary on the consequences of embracing the white man’s materialism. It’s a story in which the hero’s heedless quest for the Magical Object brings about the destruction of his entire people.

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James Enge

The merciful wolves reminded me of Psyche’s story. She shows courage and determination, but in the end she succeeds because people (used in the widest possible sense, i.e. including ants) have mercy on her.

Jason, in the classical version, is another figure whose success depends on the intervention of others (although I’m not sure mercy is the applicable concept here). And, come to think of it, he also brings destruction home with him, in the form of the classical Medea (apparently a much more malevolent figure than she was in preclassical versions of the story).

Mythology strikes me as being a lot like biology: the field of evidence is incredibly complex, and that inspires the impulse to systematize, organize. But this impulse tends to be destructive of the evidence it’s meant to explain. (“If it swims in the sea, it’s a fish. Get out of here with your porpoises, Aristotle! You can’t even count teeth. Okay, now if it flies in the air, it’s a bird. Why is Mr. Wayne looking upset over there?”)

[…] don’t really get this.  Is it a legacy of Joseph Campbell,** and his peculiar desire to make all stories structurally […]


It’s funny, because it’s got the same kind of sound to it as Tantalos and Pelops–but you plainly can’t make any but the most general statements about it without looking at actual texts.

And even if you had the actual texts, you’re still kind of stuck, because you’re working not with direct knowledge of the language, but with a translator’s interpretation of it. Whatever your glossary says, it’s not true, it’s only as close to true as the guy that wrote it is able to get.

The error propagation in comparing the syntax and vocabulary of two works that are themselves translated must border on the astronomical.

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