Some scholars have proposed that the number of stories we can tell each other is finite, surprisingly small in fact, and the task of a creative writer is to retell old stories in original ways, or in ways that will prove coherent and meaningful, perhaps even essential, to new audiences. They point to basic similarities that obtain among stories from different times and different cultures as a compelling justification for their belief.
Some scholars note the presence of story elements—sometimes called archetypes—that are so widespread among the world of story they seem universal. Some even claim to perceive the outlines of ancient story types from which hundreds or even thousands of other stories have developed: if these types are not quite ‘the Big Bang’ of stories, then they may at least merit the status of supernovas from whose glorious expiration vast galaxies of story have spun free. In his poem, "To Juan at the Winter Solstice," Robert Graves asserts "There is one story and one story only/ That will prove worth your telling." For Graves, this "one story" is the personification of the yearly cycle, the passage from spring to spring made by the Goddess’s chosen lover-hero. The meta-story (or perhaps we might insert the term ‘meta-myth’) for Northrop Frye concerns a "golden age . . . [and] how that world was lost, and how we some day may be able to get it back again."
In my own work I have found both Graves and Frye enormously helpful, and it is Graves’s translation of "Cupid and Psyche" that forms the home base of our exploration of myth and legend in children’s literature.
"In Search of Cupid and Psyche" will look closely at the characters,
plots and sub-plots, settings and structures within the second century
story of Cupid and Psyche and follow their various transformations within
a broad compass of children’s literature. We will also look at relevant
Greek, Middle Eastern and African mythologies, standard critical analyses
of the Cupid and Psyche story, and modern interpretations of myth and mythic
criticism to better enable us to consider the production of meaning in
children’s texts, how mythic elements function within a story to compel
us to believe the story is "worth" the author’s telling, to question the
ways that we as readers unconsciously react to story and what makes an
ancient Roman love story so crucial to children’s literature.
After reading Graves’s translation of the relevant chapters of Apuleius’s
Transformations of Lucius, or The Golden Ass, we will be reading retellings
and adaptations of "Cupid and Psyche." While the retellings are apparently
straightforward recreations of the story, the adaptations are deceptive:
the myth is implicit rather than explicit. Adaptations include fairy tale
and folktale, as well as retellings of fairy tale and folktale, colonial
American children’s literature intended for the instruction of Puritan
children, postcolonial African children’s literature and contemporary YA
novels. While the assigned texts assume priority in our discussions, students
will be expected to adapt our discussions of these materials, and the critical/analytical
material, to their own critical examinations of other children’s literary
texts as well.
What Is A Myth?
To intelligently discuss myth and legend in children’s literature, we will need to have a collective understanding of what we mean when we use the term myth. With this in mind, I have made several essays available I have found insightful and lucid, such as Bryan S. Rennie’s discussion of "Myth and Mythology" in his Reconstructing Eliade: Making Sense of Religion (New York: State University of New York Press, 1996), and chapter 1 of Mircea Eliade’s Myth and Reality, trans Willard R. Trask. (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), and suggested other readings in mythology (see chapter1.html). The following are some additional meditations that should also be helpful.
In the Western world, myths have traditionally been tales of pagan (i.e. non-Judeo-Christian) religions. We speak of Egyptian and Greek myths and sometimes of Hindu and Buddhist myths, but until recently even atheists have rarely spoken of Jewish or Christian myths. Yet if "myth" has always implied falsehood, if we have not believed in Zeus or the Golden Fleece, we have accepted the mythical tales of cultures we value—especially Greco-Roman culture—as somehow important and worth teaching our children. One of the assumptions of this book is that Greco-Roman myths (and those of other cultures) are not only worth teaching but are essential to our education.
The English word "myth" is derived from the Greek mythos, meaning
word or story. Human beings have traditionally used stoires to describe
or explain things they could not explain otherwise. Ancient myths were
stories by means of which our forebears were able to assimilate the mysteries
that occurred around and within them. In this sense, myth is related to
metaphor, in which an object or event is compared to an apparently dissimilar
object or event in such a way as to make its otherwise inexplicable essence
clear: Thus, when Yeats speaks of "Two girls in silk kimonos, both / Beautiful,
one a gazelle," the girl in the poem is, in fact, not a gazelle; but something
true about her grace and her presence is conveyed when the image of a gazelle
is substituted in our minds. In the same way, something of the sense of
loss and death we may feel in winter is conveyed by the story of the abduction
of Persephone. In short, both s story and as extended metaphor, myth is
the direct ancestor of what we think of today as literature. The meaning
of myths, like the meaning of any literature, is, as Northrop Frye has
said, "inside them, in the implications of their incidents" (Fables
of Identity, p. 32).—page 3-5.
Something of the same progression may be traced in Classical literature too, in a greatly foreshortened form. Where a religion is mythological and polytheistic, where there are promiscuous incarnations, deified heroes and kings of divine descent, where the same adjective "godlike" can be applied either to Zeus or to Achilles, it is hardly possible to separate the mythical, romantic, and high mimetic strands completely. Where the religion is theological, and insists on a sharp division between divine and human natures, romance becomes more clearly isolated, as it does in the legends of Christian chivalry and sanctity, in the Arabian Nights of Mohammedanism, in the stories of the judges and thaumaturgic prophets of Israel. Similarly, the inability of the Classical world to shake off the divine leader in its later period has much to do with the abortive development of low mimetic and ironic modes that god barely started with Roman satire. At the same time the establishing of the high mimetic mode, the developing of a literary tradition with a consistent sense of an order of nature in it, is one of the great feats of Greek civilization. Oriental fiction does not, so far as I know, get very far away from mythical and romantic formulas
We shall here deal chiefly with the five epochs of Western literature, as given above, using Classical parallels only incidentally. In each mode a distinction will be useful between naïve and sophisticated literature. The word naïve I take from Schiller’s essay on naïve and sentimental poetry: I mean by it, however, primitive or popular, whereas in Schiller it means something more like Classical. The word sentimental also means something else in English, but we do not have enough genuine critical terms to dispense with it. In quotation marks, therefore, "sentimental" refers to a later recreation of an earlier mode. Thus romanticism is a "sentimental" form of romance, and the fairy tale, for the most part, a "sentimental" for of folk tale. Also there is a general distinction between fictions in which the hero becomes isolated from his society, and fictions in which he is incorporated into it. This distinction is expressed by the words "tragic" and "comic" when they refer to aspects of plot in general and not simply to forms of drama..—page33-35
Graves, Robert. The White Goddess: A historical grammar of poetic myth. Amended and enlarged edition. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1948, 1980.
One of the most uncompromising rejections of early Greek mythology was made by Socrates. Myths frightened or offended him; he preferred to turn his back on them and discipline his mind to think scientifically: ‘to investigate the reason of the being of everything—of everything as it is, not as it appears, and to reject all opinions of which no account can be given.’
Here is a typical passage from Plato’s Phaedrus, (Cary’s translation):
Socr. So it is said.
Phae. Must it not have been from this spot? For the water hereabouts appears beautiful, clear and transparent, and well suited for damsels to sport about.
Socr. No, but lower down, as much s two or three stadia, where we cross over to the temple of the Huntress, and where there is, on the very spot, a kind of altar sacred to Boreas.Phae. I never noticed it. But tell me, by Jupiter, Socrates, do you believe that this fabulous account is true?
Socr. If I disbelieved it, as the wise do, I should not be guilty
of any absurdity: then having recourse to subtleties, I should say that
a blast of Boreas threw her down from the neighbouring cliffs, as she was
sporting with Pharmacea, and that having thus met her death she was said
to have been carried off by Boreas, or from Mars’ hill; for there is also
another report that she was carried off from thence and not from this spot.
But I, for my part, Phaedrus, consider such things as pretty enough, but
as the province of a very curious, painstaking, and not very happy man,
and for no other reason than that after this he must set us right as to
the form of the Hippocentaurs, and then as to that of the Chimaera; besides,
there pours in upon him a crowd of similar monsters, Gorgons and Pegasus,
and other monstrous creatures, incredible in number and absurdity, which
if anyone were to disbelieve and endeavour to reconcile each with probability,
employing for this purpose a kind of vulgar cleverness, he will stand in
need of abundant leisure. But I have no leisure at all for such matters;
and the cause of it, my friend, is this: I am not yet able, according to
the Delphic precept, to know myself. But it appears to me to be ridiculous,
while I am still ignorant of this to busy myself about matters that do
not concern me.
All the problems that Socrates mentions have been faced in this book
and solved to my own satisfaction at least; but though ‘a very curious
and painstaking person’ I cannot agree that I am any less happy than Socrates
was, or that I have more leisure than he had, or that an understanding
of the language of myth is irrelevant to self-knowledge. I deduce from
the petulant tone of his phrase ‘vulgar cleverness’ that he had spent a
long time worrying about the Chimaera, the horse-centaurs and the rest,
but that the ‘reasons of their being’ had eluded him because he was no
poet and mistrusted poets, and because, as he admitted to Phaedrus, he
was a confirmed townsman who seldom visited the countryside ‘fields and
trees will not teach me anything, but men do.’ The study of mythology,
as I shall show, is based squarely on tree-lore and season observation
of life in the fields.—page 9-11.
(Traditional Literature & Transcendent Realities)
("Cupid and Psyche" by Lucius Apuleius)
(to accompany "Cupid and Psyche" by Apuleius)
(to accompany "Cupid and Psyche" by Apuleius)