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Separating Lambs from Goats

Courtesy of A24 Films.

One of the many magical qualities of stories is that we can go to them again and again, discovering something new with each return. As we mature and grow, we find new lenses for a story that may previously have become all too familiar to us. We now resonate more closely with different characters than we did previously. We understand possibilities in the story with new, yet older, eyes. Joseph Campbell’s classic story about the tiger raised by goats (The Mythic Dimension 264-266) is a narrative that has resonated with me since the first time I heard it. I wrote about it previously through the lens of mentorship (see The Tiger King). However, I recently read the story again and was drawn not to the perspective of the tiger, but of the goats. In Campbell’s narrative, the goats are not central characters. The young tiger and the elder tiger take center stage. The goats find a young, orphaned tiger cub and raise him as a goat, which is all they know. After all, they are goats. When an elder tiger finds the young tiger cub, the goats conveniently exit the story altogether. The elder tiger spends the rest of the story trying to help the young cub see who he truly is: a tiger.

It’s easy to quickly gloss over the fact that these admirable goats raised the son of a tiger that died trying to kill them. They taught him all they knew. They tried their best. They adopted and loved a creature completely unlike them, who bore the face of their mortal enemy, and made him one of their own. I can’t help but feel some empathy towards the goats in the story. Their character is inspiring. I’ve been considering what else we could learn from these noble goats—they who took in one not of their own kind.

Though the earliest versions of Campbell’s tale originated in India, similar stories appeared throughout history in different geographic regions. Campbell tells us, “One of the most effective ways to rediscover in any myth or legend the spiritual ‘tenor’ of its symbolic ‘vehicles’ is to compare it, across the reaches of space, or of time, with homologous forms of other, even greatly differing traditions.”(201)  An amalgam of similar Nordic myths and folktales about parents raising a creature not of their own kind recently appeared in the world of cinema. Lamb, directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson, is the story of a childless couple in rural Iceland that make an alarming discovery one day in their sheep barn: a newborn unlike anything they've seen before, a baby creature with human qualities. They decide to raise the girl, Ada, as their own, but sinister forces—including one very angry ewe—seem determined to return Ada to the wilderness that birthed her. The couple soon faces the consequences of defying the will of nature. Enchanted by myths and folklore from an early age, the filmmaker claims his film is sui generis, its own rough beast. “Lamb takes elements from different folktales but is not rooted in one particular story,”Jóhannsson said. “Icelandic folklore is firmly rooted in our culture and mentality.” The motifs, questions, and themes in the film, however, have been wrestled with by similar myths around the world for centuries.

Lamb subverts the mythic story of the tiger cub by forcing the tiger parent to witness her child being raised by the goats (or in this case, humans). The story also subverts Christian mythology, where lambs are symbological motifs. Early on in the film, the radio tells us it's Christmas before a quick cut to an image of a pregnant sheep, in a stable no less. Since Christ is represented in Christian mythology as the lamb of God (John 1:29) and his birth is celebrated on Christmas Day, when he was said to have been born in a manger in a stable, Jóhannsson is setting the table for a mythic feast early on in the film with Christ symbolism. Of course, the story of Christ is one of many from a long line of stories about magic or supernatural children born to earthly parents, like the lamb in the film. Often the child in these stories, like Christ, becomes the “sacrificial lamb” and is killed. Lamb concludes by again subverting every mythic assumption we might have while still honoring the undergirding fabric of the story of the tiger cub that Campbell was so fond of. 

I find it tempting to favor the perspective of either the goats or the tigers in Campbell’s story. I am equally drawn to side with either the sheep or the humans in Lamb. The tension created by the subtle resistance to do so, and instead look for a third perspective, is characteristic of mythic stories of the past and those that arise in our midst now. Myths avoid the simplistic moral conclusions of other story forms, like fables, which is why we need stories like Lamb more than ever in our world. The ability to hold conflicting ideas in close quarters, much less inside oneself, is becoming increasingly rare in our culture of binary thinking. It is this third way approach offered by myth that can lead us to return to our own stories, again and again, with new lenses and a different perspective. 


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