Friday, February 15, 2008

Fairytales, Folklore and Myth

This semester I have to write a research paper.

I hate research papers.

Not because I mind writing - obviously I don't. Not because I mind researching - I actually enjoy it. No, I hate research papers because of the thesis statement. I can write a thesis statement, that's not too terribly hard. It's the fact that I can never just research something - my thesis statement has to be debatable.

I've decided to write my research paper as a study of fairytales, folklore and mythology - and it's impact on modern American culture. As I'm an anthropology major I have a fairly broad spectrum to choose from as far as topics go. Being a fan of Joseph Campbell, cultural impact of myth sounded like it would be fun to read up on. However, I'm not certain this is a debatable topic. *sigh*

Here's my idea - I'd like to look at today's literature (including comic books) and possibly today's films and evaluate how many of these things have been influenced by myth. I'm thinking the debatable part is the idea that myth has an current value to society. In showing how much of our literature and many of our films come from far older stories, or are heavily influenced by them, I'd prove that myth is still important to us today.

This is what I have so far:

Literature and Comic Books (which are really the same thing in this case):
American Gods, Annansi Boys, Stardust and Sandman by Neil Gaimen
Fables by Bill Willingham
Crossing Midnight by Mike Carey
Wicked, Mirror Mirror, etc by Gregory Maguire
Grendel by Thomas Gardner
Grendel and Mage by Matt Wagner
300 by Frank Miller

I was also thinking about 'The King Must Die' by Mary Renault, but I don't think she counts as a contemporary writer. Maybe the Life of Pi? Or even better, Red Earth and Pouring Rain.

If anyone wants to suggest anything feel free!

As for movies, there are tons - the problem will be narrowing down the list =/

I'll also be pulling quite a bit from Joseph Campbell's work, such as the Power of Myth. I think with work such as Fables and Greg Maguire's books, as well as other stories (which I'm not going to use in the paper) such as Grimm's Fairy Tales and X-Men Fairy Tales, we've seen a renewed interest in folklore and myth. Of course I believe Cinderella is still the most prevalent story worldwide! In fact, some of the best comic books today (if you check the list above) seem to come from myth. Even Kingdom Come is heavily influenced my Christian mythology. Of course I still hold with my personal theory that comic books are the mythology of today, but I think that topic may have been harder to pull off for a class where I need many different types of sources for my paper.

Sorry to submit you all to my school work, but this is along the same line as all my posts about comics as literature. I've been making an effort to pull comic books into my school work not only to make my assignments more enjoyable, but also because I want comic books to earn more appreciation in the academic world. I believe this idea is making more and more headway and this is my way of putting my money where my mouth is.


  1. I don't think you have much debate to work with. There's little to dispute in the hypothesis that myth and fable maintains a strong influence on popular entertainment and literature. Perhaps a more interesting thesis is what influence popluar and traditional myths and fables have on the larger society. For instance, how much of the cowboy fables and legends of Hollywood was an influence on the development of neo-con philosophy and the resultant invasion of Iraq?

  2. Um, yeah, thanks Thomm, but this is for my Freshman English 2 class so sticking with the literature and story theme makes more sense. Also, have you ever read any of Joseph Campbell's work? While his themes were more general, we're encouraged to choose more specific topics to have a focused piece of work. Campbell's ideas focused more on the impact myth had in our everyday lives - and that's more relevant in a book anyone can pick up and read than in exploring the ramifications of neo-con philosophy. At least that's how I feel.

  3. Also, as a side note - Hollywood bases much of their work off of myth, and is not so much a producer of myth.

  4. I can't comment on Campbell, as I've not read him. However, Hollywood has produced many myths. Chief among them are the all white westward expansion, the noble savage, the obligatory happy ending (often now called the Hollywood ending), and, if you'd like a specific film's example of myth, try Birth of a Nation. Of course, there are positive myths that have come out of Hollywood, too, such as the idea that anyone can overcome whatever circumstances to achieve their heart's desire, as long as it's "good and true".

    Anyway, it's not my assignment, so take it or leave it as you will...

  5. perhaps there is a difference between myth as in folk myth and mythology...

  6. What do you mean by the "cultural impact of myth"? Are you talking about the ways in which Myths from older cultures continue to influence our world view? I think you could make a argument here. But you need to get a little more specific. Are you talking Roman myths or Nordic ones? Native American or Mayan? And then are you talking American popular culture (comics and literature) or are you trying to generalize for the WHOLE world? I would be careful with Joseph Campbell. He's much more of a pop icon than a real academic. I know his ideas can be very appealing, but that may be because he likes to use a lot of sweeping generalizations, one of which is the belief that myth functions the same way in every culture across time and that's just not true. Honestly, in the academic world of myth and folklore studies his ideas don't hold much weight. Still, you could use that as a place to go from, just make sure you say that. Thesis statements often look overwhelming when we start out because they're usually so general. It's when you get into the specifics that it becomes interesting - as far as developing an argument goes. Good luck!

  7. I disagree about Joseph Campbell. Many of my professors at both schools I've attended find Campbell's ideas to be very valid.

    As for the paper, you're absolutely right - if this was some sort of thesis paper I'd have to be much more specific than I'm being at the moment. However, it is for an undergraduate English class and I'd prefer to stay on more general terms. This is my way of doing preliminary research in case I'd like to pursue this line of inquiry more specifically further in my academic career.

  8. I have to agree with what Tomm said above -- not sure there's much debate in whether or not myth affects culture/society/literature/whatnot. If you're set on using Campbell (I would be, too), then an interesting take could be how each distinct culture differently inteprets the mythical archetpyes from their own points of view (see Tomm's second comment about American traditions of happy endings, perseverance can win any battle, the good always defeat evil).

    But similar stories when told by other cultures aren't always interpreted the same way. Perhaps a Japanese movie based on some ancient legend/myth ends very differnetly than an American novel or European comic with a similar premise. This example is compromised because it's a kid's movie, but compare Disney's happy ending in "The Little Mermaid" to the actual ending in the original H.C. Andersen story -- that's what I'm talking about.

    Then again, I'm not sure I proposed a debate paper -- just a thesis. Sounds fun though.

  9. if you must use campbell, you should at the very least look at Propp and Jung, as that is where Campbell gets most of his ideas. His mythic structures are catchy, but he assumes as an underlining principle that the structures of myth are the same across cultures when in fact "myths" have a number of different functions within different cultures. Perhaps you have used Campbell in a literary class? I would be surprised to see him in an Anthropology or Myth/Folklore class. What about Barthes' Mythologies? Are you talking a quantitative "how many of these things have been influence by myth"? Clearly that's next to impossible, but perhaps looking a very specific way in which certain "myths" have influenced certain literary Arthurian legend on the modern romance. That's a very obvious and general one, of course, I'm sure there's a theme that specifically interests you. I'm playing devil's advocate here for a few reasons. I've been in your shoes, an undergrad writing developing a thesis topic and I was always the in-way-over-my-head student. I always wanted to deal with the big ideas, but when you think so broadly...well, it usually doesn't make any sense. But i feel you, i really do. Also, i think you really are inspired here and having someone not agree with you always helps you form an argument...and that's exactly what you need - a specific argument. Again, good luck.

  10. Ok, just to start off - my teacher emailed me to approve my thesis statement, so if he counts it as debatable that's good enough for me at the moment.

    I appreciate everyone's feedback, but I think you all are taking this paper more seriously than I am! :)

    B&M - thanks for the suggested sources, I'll definitely look into them. I agree that myth has many different functions in a culture but from what I've read by Campbell I don't think he generalizes as much as you're implying. I've only actually 'used' Campbell's work in a Religious cross cultural death ritual class. However, several of my anthropology professors has discussed his work with me outside of class.

    I'm trying to look specifically at the impact myth has had on literature. I can't pick a specific myth or culture because most of the work I'm looking at has been influenced by more than one of these areas. American Gods for instance - while the main character is mostly involved with Norse mythology there is a plethora of other myth throughout the book. Egyptian, Hindu, Celtic etc. As I research more I'll probably narrow the topic a bit.

    Again, thanks for the feedback, I appreciate it.

  11. Hi Gwen.
    First off, I find you subject very interesting. I'm writing the thesis for my bachelor degree in literature at the moment, with focus on the fairytale-influenced personas in a popular Swedish book for children/young adults. I would, as B&M already mentioned, look up Carl Jung's Man and his symbols as well as Vladimir Propps Morphology of the Folktale.

    Apart from that, I would also like to recommend other books that may go well with your work:

    Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle and Castle in the Air, are heavily based on and influenced by folklore and tales from the western and eastern traditions.

    Terry Pratchetts Discworld-series spans too many books to be worth your while, but an example is Wyrd Sisters, a witty parody on Shakespeare’s MacBeth, as well as The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, a charming and highly amusing re-make on the story of the Piper from Hamelin.

    I also recommend taking a look at Charles de Lint’s books on Newford (especially, Someplace to be flying, Onion Girl, Forests of the Heart and Widdershins) which are seeped in Native American – folklore and myth, as well as hinting on Irish legends (on account of the immigrants traditions and beliefs following them to the New World and therefore clashing with the Native spirits, a theme also used in American Gods).

    Good luck!

  12. Nahal,

    Thanks for the recommendations, I appreciate it! I hadn't even thought of Terry Prachett - and the other suggestions are fantastic as well. It seems like you and I share quite a few favorite books so I'm fairly certain I'll have fun reading up on your suggestions. Thanks again!

  13. Gwen, glad to be of help!
    Especially as we, as you say, seem to have a similar collection of favorites =)

    Btw, Hope Mirrlees - Lud -in-the-Mist. Recently bought it, haven't read it, but from what I've heard, I think it's something you might like to include =)