On the Necessity and Perils of Fun Reading

Sometimes being a professional literature academic has its hazards. You try to read something for fun, and you end up getting all academic on it. I personally believe that too much ‘high literature’ is not good for anyone (too much Beowulf or Chaucer would make anyone cranky), and that which is often called fluff can be surprisingly literary in some ways.

I present here a re-envisioning of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” which has been highly influential in fantasy (and other forms of) fiction ever since it was first published. I’m going to use two major components of the theory: the ways tragedy and comedy fit in, and the structure of the narrative itself. Both are presented in full in the “Monomyth” prologue of The Hero With a Thousand Faces (first published in 1949). The original theory states that tragedy and comedy together are necessary for a total life experience, and that both are needed for catharsis, the Aristotelian goal of tragedy involving the release of negative emotions of pity and fear. The journey itself has 3 stages (separation, initiation, return) each of which consists of 5-6 steps or episodes. These 3 stages represent the trilogy structure as used in fiction, both literary and cinematic.

This theory first came to me when I was working my way through False Idols (Dragon Lords #2) by John Hollins. As of now, this series is a trilogy; I have no idea if the author will keep it that way or continue with further installments. I read the first one (Fools Gold) a while ago, and found it entertaining, if at times vulgar, fantasy fluff. I was in a bookstore, saw book 2, and picked it up because I felt the need for something of that sort. I was in for a surprise. Book 2 contained little of the screwball comedy between the characters and winning by the seat of their pants or in spite of themselves. The happy ending had not stayed happy; everyone was miserable and unlikeable, and the rest of the novel kept up the misery. By the end, the bad guy essentially had won and nearly all the heroes had been murdered. I was not pleased, but at the same time I hoped that book 3 (Bad Faith) would redeem things; I haven’t read it yet, and though it is literally sitting on my TBR shelf, it may be a while before I get to it. If I’m going to be reasonable, the final stage of the initiation sequence is “passage into the realm of night” which means that things will get metaphorically dark, and that the return (to the world of the first part) has to wait until the third stage. This would explain logically why the second installment would be considerably less happy and entertaining, as it is all about the trials of the hero.

This got me thinking about how this seems to be the eternal problem of the trilogy. Book 1 is a rousing, entertaining adventure, book 2 is depressing and not fun, makes you hate everyone and everything in the story, and then book 3 tries to create a balance of the seriousness of book 2 and the fun of book 1 but is rarely as good. I say ‘book’ here but very similar things can be seen in the original Star Wars trilogy, which was explicitly based in part on Campbell’s ideas. The original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles trilogy of movies follows the same general patterns as well. This visible influence of Campbell’s pattern on movies has been heavily criticized, and movie series rarely stick with trilogies anymore. Consider Lord of the Rings, a trilogy of books (which I have not read- so there!), which was made into a trilogy of movies, but then followed by The Hobbit (I have read this one), one book, made into a second trilogy of movies. Or Toy Story, left for 9 years a trilogy, which will become a quartet in 2019. The Campbell trilogy has been parodied as well, for example by the cartoon show The Fairly Odd Parents with aired three tv movies (1 hour each) as the season 6 finale, collectively titled Wishology! In addition to being a parody of the hero’s journey in terms of plot and characters, the episodes were titled “The Big Beginning”, “The Exciting Middle Part”, and “The Final Ending”. That’s another analysis.

Some contemporary novels series illustrate some of the trickiness of trilogies as well. V.E. Schwab’s recently concluded Shades of Magic series comes to mind. It managed to follow some of the structural rules of the Campbellian trilogy without getting too depressing or terrible in the second installment {this is another discussion in itself), but it will not remain a trilogy for long. The author has made known that she will be writing another series or two that includes some of the same characters and takes place in the same world, the first of which is already in publication (The Steel Prince comic volume 1 was released Oct. 8, 2018). Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles is a trilogy of novels, two of which have been published thus far (I haven’t gotten to The Wise Man’s Fear yet), but already has a fourth book which presents a side story about a side character. Brittany Cavallaro’s Charlotte Homes series seemed to be a traditional trilogy, but now has a forthcoming fourth installment labeled as the conclusion of the series. Which I will not be reading. Book two was such a turn-off in terms of character and plot, that book three could not redeem the series. The only novel series that I can think of that will remain a trilogy, at least as of now, is the Rotherweird series by Andrew Caldecott, currently at 2 books with a forthcoming third labeled as the “thrilling conclusion”. This one I have some hope for, since it illustrates many of the qualities of the Campbellian hero’s journey, but because of some good decisions concerning point of view, and character and plot development in the first two novels, has generally avoided the complete and utter alienation of the reader, namely me, in book two; again, this will be another discussion in itself.

So, the re-envisioning suggests first that most modern novel and screen writers can’t or won’t stick to the standard trilogy structure. Second, the hero’s journey 3 parts in most current hands leans toward this pattern: 1-complete in itself and fun, 2-all dark and despair and no fun at all, 3-trying to get the fun back or at least have the good guys win. A lot of modern fictional narratives prefer to forgo the happy or at least conclusive ending. I’m all for literary complexity, but sometimes tradition is good. And desired.

This comes back to the balance Campbell requires of comedy and tragedy. What gets me is the general trend of leaving out the comic ending. Campbell himself argued that by the conclusion of the hero’s journey, the comic is redeemed and the tragedy is overcome. Granted, in the context of myth and fairy tale, this conclusion makes sense, but if modern narratives are going to follow the patterns noted by Campbell, why is this last bit so often left out? While comic technically in the Aristotelian sense only requires the double ending of good guy wins – bad guy loses, and nearly all the narratives noted above that are complete do observe this factor, the level of comedy in the more modern sense of entertaining and fun is not present nearly as much. Campbell required redemption of the comic and the world; escapist though it might be, I wish that part were a bit stronger. The damage done by the tragic seems to stick with the characters and their worlds too much for comic redemption to really take place is a lot of literary fiction. Note that nearly everything I’ve named above falls more into the ‘fantasy’ category, save the one I ended up hating. What that means is yet another discussion entirely.

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To Really Get Medieval, Go Beyond the Literary

One of the benefits of medieval literature (loosely defined as anything written between 1000-1500 CE) is that you often end up going beyond the traditional ‘literary’. I’ve noticed that a lot of scholarship done on fantasy literature is done by people who originally specialized in medieval. For example, Kathryn Hume has written both The Owl and the Nightingale: The Poem and Its Critics and Fantasy and Mimesis. Science Fiction is a bit different, since many argues it got its start during the Victorian (or later) period and scholars of those time periods or later are most likely to address it. That does not stop the occasional medievalist from getting involved. If you study medieval books though, you’re likely to come into contact with a lot of other disciplines. While this is true of other times, places, and languages, it’s especially apparent in the study of medieval Europe. If you study the medieval, you will likely run into the following in some way, shape, or form:

Classics, especially Latin: Since Latin was the main language of education and official communication for several centuries, this makes some sense. If you need to read something in its original form, and it’s official, it’ll be in Latin. On the more literary side, since Latin was a big part of education, Roman poets and theorists and philosophers were hugely influential on the Middle Ages, including Virgil, Cicero, and Ovid.  Famous works of ancient Greece like Plato and Aristotle were known mostly through Latin translations (done largely by Middle Eastern scholars), and were similarly influential on literary theory, philosophy, and more.

Religion: The Church (there was only one recognized until about 1517) was a big part of medieval culture throughout Europe. Ideas and issues of faith made their way into poetry, fiction, politics, philosophy, etc. If you need to recognize what the main practices were, who key people were, how the law worked, how education was done, key philosophical practices and argumentative strategies, ad more, you need to have a reasonably good understanding of the medieval Church and faith.

History: Much like religion and faith, history relates to a lot of issues that often get brought into literature, including poetry and fiction. Political goings on often influenced culture, but also everyday life, and if you want to understand and dedication in most any work of medieval literature written by and/or for the upper classes, then you need to know the ruling families and their policies including international relationships and economics.

Science: The history of science is of course much older than the Middle Ages, but science in the modern sense was becoming more publicly recognized beyond the academy and specialist scholars between 1300-1500. If you want to read medieval poetry, a working knowledge of astronomy and astrology is useful to understand a lot of common love poetry phrases and tropes. Science also connects with history and religion, since certain practices and beliefs were sometimes at odds with traditional Church teachings. Alchemy is a medieval example, and later, Galileo and other scientists would run into trouble with Church authorities on account of scientific ideas. There is also the occasional text that includes references to botany or biology or physics or medicine as they were understood at the time.

Material Culture, such as clothing: Descriptions of what people wore, ate, or objects used in everyday life are common in many kinds of written material of the literary sort. Knowledge of clothing for example can help identify if a character is an ordained or lay member of the Church, which could have implications in the narrative. A woman’s clothing or jewelry could give an indication as to her status or her values. There’s even a poem “The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools” which provides a major source of knowledge of how carpentry might have been done in the 14th-ish century.

Mythology and folklore: As with science, a lot of poetic and fiction tropes come from folklore and mythology. Some of the mythology is from classical sources, but much of the folklore is more localized. Being able to identify a particular character or event in folklore is often handy when trying to understand some of the more fantasy-influenced chivalric romances like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Lanval or Bisclavret, or Sir Orfeo. Poetry requires some similar knowledge, and extends into medicine and magic. The Middle Ages also made a lot of use of proverbs which often have folk elements or origins.

Logic: Logical reasoning and argumentation were a key part of medieval education, and as such poetry and other written works often make use of the rules of Aristotelian logic, which became popular during the 12th century. Religious poems or texts would borrow exegetical techniques which were derived from logic, dialogue was a popular argumentative and teaching tool both in fiction and non-fiction, and university staff and students often themselves were writers of poems and stories, which means that they were likely to include techniques with which they had a lot of familiarity.

Modern Cultural Theory, including gender and queer studies, and media studies: If you go to a large medieval conference that has a more multi-disciplinary focus like Kalamazoo, then you are likely to find a lot of panels that deal with the medieval in video games or films. This type of study goes back to the medievalist connections to fantasy literature, which also connects with mythology and folklore, which also connects with the history of the Church and politics, as well as elements of medieval narrative. Generic medieval Europe is a common setting for a lot of video games for example, and knowing any and all of the above noted can help in understanding some of the finer details of storytelling and world-building that area  part of media studies. On the gender and identity side of things, the Middle Ages to some extent deserves its reputation for stuffiness about such things as sex but only in the official, often religious, sense. In practice, there are records of all sorts, including the literary, that suggest that gender and sexuality were in fact a lot less standardized and strictly practiced as is often presented in modern visions of the medieval.

And that’s not even going into things like bibliography, grammar, rhetoric, and art of all kinds. Knowledge all of these subjects is useful or necessary to really get into medieval literature. They are more traditionally connected with ‘literature’ but particularly for the Middle Ages also constitute a unique branch of knowledge, separate and distinct from the literary applications.