Monday, December 3, 2007
Mythology in the Third Age, Part 1
I generally prefer to show rather than tell when explaining a concept. If, as the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, then perhaps a word picture of a thousand words is exponentially larger. My plan here is to look at a couple of different modern mythologies and follow them, using Joseph Campbell's work as a sort of guidebook to the monomyth so that I can illustrate my point rather than try and explain my sense of what a modern myth should look like. My first myth is a relatively popular television show from several years ago. It had a primetime slot on a major network, lasted something like ten seasons in its original run and, as of the last time I checked, it still lives on in syndication. It also happens to be one of my all-time favorite TV shows. The show in question? Boy Meets World. (Beware, spoilers abound.) I'd be willing to bet that when the subject of modern mythmaking comes up an ABC sitcom from the nineties starring Fred Savage's little brother doesn't generally register on the list of possibilities. Joseph Campbell himself looked to Luke Skywalker, not Cory Matthews. To be perfectly honest, Luke Skywalker is the more obvious choice, anyway, but that doesn't mean that Cory didn't face all of the dangers of the hero's journey himself. We have to go back to Campbell's arguments that the myth points toward to the journey we all face in order to begin this examination. That fact is at the very heart of the story of Boy Meets World. It's the name of the show, after all. Over the course of the show's run, Cory was successively introduced to new possibilities and experiences. He went to junior high, high school, college, and, ultimately, was cast off in to the real world. With each new place he was faced, as we all are, with new challenges. He met new people, learned new things, made new mistakes, and had to learn how to cope. With each of those new places, there was an invitation to adventure. We don't often think of going to a new school as a mythological call to adventure, but, by the same token, graduation is often labeled as a "rite of passage," a term that hearkens back to the mythological days of yore. Still, throughout all his levels of education, there's one thing that stays constant. In every single school he goes to, Cory's primary teacher is Mr. Feeny, a wise old man who also happens to be his neighbor. Although the setup is a bit difficult to believe, in its capacity as a mythological locus, Mr. Feeny's classroom takes on the role of the World Navel. The World Navel is, as Campbell describes it, the point of entry, from which all of the ineffable pours in to the world we see and understand. It was often represented as a wellspring of knowledge, like where the world tree Yggdrasil grew in Norse myth, touching all three planes of the world and fed at its base by Mimir, the well of knowledge. Sometimes, though, myth took on corporeal form. In ancient times, the World Navel was marked by altars or temples built to mark the place where the gods or spirits walked with men for a time. Those places of commemoration became gathering places. Similarly, in the modern age we often refer to universities as temples of higher education. The university or college, like the high school, junior high, and grade school that feeds in to it is a meeting place where people gather to be touched and blessed by the collected knowledge of those who came before. In the case of Boy Meets World, that concept of the classroom as the World Navel is made manifest in Mr. Feeny's room. At the very end of the series finale, Cory, his wife, Topanga, brother Eric, best friend, Shawn, and friend/Shawn's girlfriend, Angela, walk out of Mr. Feeny's classroom one last time. As the door closes, Mr. Feeney whispers, "I love you all," to them. It's a moment of benediction, one last blessing offered forth from the World Navel. Over the course of the series, Cory was annoyed by, fell in love with, broke up with, was reunited with and finally married Topanga. In all categories that seemed to matter, Topanga was Cory's superior. She was smarter, more talented, and had more prospects for success than he did. In this, Topanga took on the role of the goddess, a prime object of Cory's journey and, for all intents and purposes, an emanation from on high offering blessing. Upon graduating from high school, she rejected a chance to go to an Ivy League school Cory could never hope to get in to so she could stay with him. As the series wound down, Topanga was then offered a chance to take a job in New York, a place Cory didn't want to live. He decided, however, to repay her sacrifices to him over the years by going with her. That decision was important, but for reasons I will have to revisit in a later installment of the Project. Still, although we could not see it, the series ended at the beginning of a greater adventure. The nature of all of Cory's adventures is an important issue to consider. In classical mythology, the adventure is a great journey, marked by a departure at the beginning, a return at the end, and the meeting of gods, demons, obstacles and treasures at many points in between. Mythology's epic nature, I suppose, is what makes it more difficult to identify with the mythological hero. That difficulty is at the root of the dichotomy David Brin wrote about in the essay I discussed earlier in the Project. It's much easier to understand the nature of Cory's adventures than it is to understand, say, Perseus's or Luke Skywalker’s. For whatever it was that he did, whether it was facing the school bully, helping his friend deal with the loss of his father, or simply trying to figure out why he should bother with school, Cory's call to adventure came from friends or relatives. When he departed, the threshold was the door to a suburban home he shared with his parents or the apartment he shared with his wife. His return, similarly, was across the same threshold. When he needed help, it was his parents or Mr. Feeny who responded to the call, not Zeus or Odin or Yen-Lo-Wang. The mythological journeys themselves were somewhat less epic, too, as is the unavoidable nature of most such journeys taken by those of us who live in the modern age. Still, the aggregate of the many small journeys Cory took ended up giving us something close to epic in scope. Too, over the course of the run of Boy Meets World, Cory Matthews learned the same lessons and passed through the same portals as the mythological heroes of old. We just don't necessarily realize that due to the fact that we, too, have faced the same journeys he did. This neither diminishes the concept of mythology nor elevates each and every person to the status of some sort of modern-day Achilles. It indicates something that must be looked at in greater detail. It also means, however, that in order to more completely discuss the nature of a modern myth, I must look at a modern tale that more obviously takes on the form of classical myth. Fortunately for everyone involved, I have one in mind. And, um, it’s far less silly than the one above. Hang in there, this will all start to make sense soon. I hope. Up next, Mythology in the Third Age, Part 2.