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Myth as Fictional Fabrication

Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus. J. M. W. Turner, 1829. Creative Commons.

Published by New World Library for the Joseph Campbell Foundation in 2012, Mythic Imagination: Collected Short Fiction witnesses many of Campbell’s favorite themes encasing myth spread out through seven stories ranging from 1931 to 1943. Reading the volume, I jotted down a handful of these constants in Campbell’s later writings, including the monumental The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949): seeing anew; being transported from the familiar to the unfamiliar; an ordinary life becoming strange and mysterious; the inspiration to begin a quest; a life transformed and re-mythologized; self-discovery; the presence of the grotesque, the monstrous; entering sacred space and returning to narrate the adventure.


I can only make the briefest of comments about so many stories in this limited space. Doing so will reveal to the reader the kinds of stories the young fiction writer gravitated towards. “Moonlight in Vermont” reveals Freddy Bliss from Brooklyn who takes on a new job on a farm. At one point he is led by one of the farmer’s cows across the fields. He is led to Jennifer, the farmer George Waterford’s daughter who loves to pick corn by moonlight. By her guidance Freddy is led to his own interior life and finds his purpose; from there he is transported back to the ordinary reality of farming. What began as a temporary employment becomes a permanent home for him.  In “Moth and Rust: A Story Cycle” (1942-46) Campbell writes four stories under this umbrella. “The Forgotten Man” has a surreal cast. A white president wakes one morning to discover that he has transformed into a black man. His death is feigned, and he travels to the South and connects with the black population; they in turn see him as a savior and label him “the Marvelous Wanderer.” His contact with so many feminine figures contributes to his transformation from the president to a voice for the black community: “Something epochal had happened. He had found himself, come into himself again.” (Mythic Imagination, 48) 

In “The Belly of the Shark” (1942) George Ambrose Fitzray is on his way by steamer to New Guinea when the ship sinks. In the water with other men, George spies a shark approaching him: “The harsh gullet had yawned; he was gone.” (63) His return is as miraculous as was his disappearance. One of the characters he meets on his journey through the shark tells him: “Food is life and life is food,” (67) echoing one of Campbell’s refrains that life feeds on life. That is a law of life itself that myths reveal repeatedly. 

“The Lord of Love” (1945), set in a different narrative voice, is the only story with a female hero, Lilian Copeland, twenty-seven, whose sexuality is fiercely attractive to most men. She is attacked by her boss in his office but escapes before he is able to rape her. Lilian begins her own quest, beginning at a Buddhist Temple; she admits to her mother: “I have to look for some. . .something I lost.” (118) On an island in Polynesia she descends into the Palolo Valley; in this serene, solitary landscape she finds  peace and “a simple, direct contact with the untroubled quietude of the elemental dark.” (121) 

“Voracious” (1945-46) is the most extravagant of all the stories. It depicts the death of Arnold Hopper, severely wounded in combat. Of his death his mother tells a friend: “This loss is honest, the only honest thing in our lives.” (141) Arnold then appears sometime later in his bed at home, where he undergoes a radical physical transformation. In this new guise his appetite is as powerful as the Cyclops Polyphemos in Homer’s Odyssey. He becomes a victim of all human appetites and exhibits intensely sexually aggressive behavior towards a host of women. The story widens to a conflict between two mythologies: that of the Native Americans living in the town of Indian Hat and members of the white population. 

“Last Paradise” and a story in the Appendix, “Strictly Platonic,” end the collection. The former is one of the most sustained quest narratives in the collection. Tom Waller, a librarian, discovers an island that no one knows about and is called to it. On his journey he is stripped of all vestiges of his previous life, even his glasses that allow him to see.  There, he discovers through Hima, a young native girl, a “lava tube” (228) that runs through a mountain. Tom sees a chance to become wealthy by growing sugar cane by siphoning a water supply through this mountain tube. His quest descends to little more than a trivial pursuit for wealth. The final story is the most tightly written. Joseph Campbell’s own life is most overtly threaded throughout it. Jim Weston is a new college teacher who flunks the most popular and talented football player on the team at Welton College, Larry Cobb. He will not budge when pressured by a wealthy board member to inflate the athlete’s grade. In his classroom, Jim and Larry physically fight and Larry is injured, now incapable of playing his last game at the college. Jim’s moral center remains intact under repeated bombardments to abandon his principles. 

An admittedly quick overview; nonetheless, many of the themes that occupied Campbell in his subsequent writings are explored in this volume. He tells us that “the hero journey is a night sea journey. . . where the individual is going to bring forth in his life something that was never beheld before.” (The Hero’s Journey, 76) Each of these narratives by a young, developing writer reveals the power of the quest to transform a life into one of deeper meaning through discovering one’s authentic bliss.

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