Myth and Folklore towards a Theory of Superheroes

There’s an old saying that to learn something thoroughly, you have to teach it. For me the past few weeks, that’s been mythology and folklore that’s affected literature (and culture), and the theories that have been applied to them. I’ve been familiar with many of the basic stories since childhood, but I hadn’t gone very in depth in terms of context or interpretive strategies. With a little research, context isn’t hard to find, but interpretation when it comes to this kind of literature has a varied history, not to mention, literary theory is not something I have a lot of practice with using and neither is contemporary literature.

In retrospect, I first learned about literary theory in my senior year of graduate school. At the time, I wasn’t really clear what ‘cultural studies was or why it mattered. I later had two semesters of theory surveys in graduate school. I enjoyed those courses. The ‘problem’ was that my general scholarly specialty, medieval literature, is traditionally most often studied via close reading, source use, or historical context. It probably might also have something to do with the fact that I had an advisor who doesn’t believe modern theory has much applicability to older texts.

Not only then have I not used a variety of theory in my own scholarship, but I also have not taught it. That’s where things got interesting the past few weeks. I taught a 5-week short summer term course on ‘Myth and Folklore for Literary Studies’. I didn’t plan this initially, but as it turns out, theory was unavoidable. I knew the name Joseph Campbell from my senior year of high school, when I think we watched an episode of two of the series of interviews that he did with Bill Moyers, “The Power of Myth”. I don’t remember learning or understanding much from that, especially not in terms of using those kinds of ideas to interpret stories.

What I ended up doing was starting with definitions of ‘mythology’ and ‘folklore’, then adding a new theorist each week. My students and I ended up with Campbell twice (once for archetypes, and once for modern utility and applicability), Karl Jung, Vladimir Propp, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Otto Rank. Not that I’d tell them this directly, but I probably learned as much about theory over the past month as they did. We also ended up going into pop culture more than I had planned, but it was something the students could relate to and they also (hopefully) now know that there can be academic value in using scholarly tactics with things like anime or comic books. For example, we looked at a translation/prose rendering of the first section of Journey to the West, which covers the backstory of Sun Wukong the Monkey King, which has been very influential even in American popular culture. We used that story as the basis to try and formulate a theory of the American superhero story. We ended up with something that looked an awful lot like Rank’s breakdown of the hero story. I admit I was a little disappointed things didn’t get more creative with putting together a new theoretical framework derived from the examples of heroes that the class had been reading and talking about, but it was a start. In any event, it was entertaining to see the class try and reason how well their ideas fit a range of contemporary hero characters, like Batman and Wonder Woman.

I was also a bit inspired by some of the work done for their final projects. The assignment was to take a classic adaptation of myth or folklore like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Beowulf, or The Hobbit, and compare/contrast the treatment of the identified source material with a modern adaptation like Krampus by Brom, The Immortals by Jordanna Max Brodsky, The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski, or The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. After seeing what a small group of English majors about halfway through college managed to work out, I now rather want to see what might be done if I applied Otto Rank’s ideas of the family romance and his 10 step hero journey to the likes of V.E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic trilogy. Or, once the sequel to Vicious, Vengeful, comes out in September (9/29- not that it’s not on my calendar or anything), using any and all of the theories previously noted to determine once and for all the good guy-bad guy dynamic, since I have long questioned the common blurb that comes with Vicious that it’s a twist on the superhero/supervillain story.

After some brief checking, it looks like most scholarship on modern (ie- 20th century-ish) American superheroes deals with their cultural origins and meanings, and very little on structural or morphological characteristics that theorists of centuries past have constructed. While I readily admit this kind of approach is old-fashioned and not terribly fashionable at the moment, it does have its uses, especially for introducing students to interpretive possibilities. Frameworks that include things like concrete patterns (ex-7 basic archetypes) and lists (ex-31 functions) are far easier to start working with than ideologically-based theories. Not that ideologies are bad as interpretive bases, they just seem a bit harder to start with for most. Techniques that allow for patters to appear seem a good half-way point between theories that start with a pattern to apply and those which advance a more philosophical approach.

For example, if I wanted to use Vicious and Super Powereds (by Drew Hayes) as my primary basis for contemporary treatments of heroes, a basic comparison and contrast such appears in Levi-Strauss’ “The Structural Study of Myth” provides a technique for gathering information and looking for potential patterns resulting in something like:

Super Powereds is far more traditional in some ways (capes, secret identities, lairs, etc) than Vicious, but there are overlaps in things like concerns for ethics and individual moral choices/reasoning, starring college age individuals who must learn how to use their abilities, the perceived gaps between those who have powers and those who don’t, and the question of created vs naturally super-powered individuals.

Now that I’m thinking about it, there’s a lot of ways this could go. I’ll have to work on this further.

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Further thoughts concerning the medieval and modern fantasy

NB: I have yet to do any serious scholarly investigation on this subject; right now, I’m concentrating on working out my own ideas and reasoning.

It seems to me that a lot of scholars who specialize in medieval literature also end up working with fantasy, both as creative writers and as scholars. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor of medieval literature at Oxford, and he wrote (among other scholarly things) a book on Beowulf. Although I haven’t looked for it, I know from other scholars that Tolkien ‘borrowed’ extensively from Beowulf and other medieval literature in his creation of the Lord of the Rings series and its companion works. Perhaps lesser known, but no less important in some ways, Kathryn Hume first wrote a scholarly book on The Owl and the Nightingale. She later went on to write another scholarly work on fantasy literature, Fantasy and Mimesis. One of the founders of the Monty Python comedy troop, Terry Jones, has written several books on Chaucer.

Clearly, you don’t need to be a medievalist as an academic specialty to create good fantasy literature. The late great Terry Pratchett includes medieval elements in his Discworld series, but he himself once said, his learning was broad, not deep. Patrick Rothfuss was an English major who went to graduate school, but I have no idea what he may have specialized in or if he took an advanced degree (his website says “I don’t’ want to talk about it.”). If I had to speculate, if not a specialty, Rothfuss has at least done some in depth study of medieval literature and/or history. There’s too many accurate parallels between medieval realities and the world of The Kingkiller Chronicles to be coincidence. Then again, maybe I’m overanalyzing.

Similarly, successful fantasy does not need to be terribly medieval or academically based. Take The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks. This book has a lot of classic high fantasy elements like the unwilling hero, the journey, the band of friends, the elves and humans, the magic, demonic bad guys, etc. The world is generically medieval but there’s not much detail about the world itself; that’s not really the point of this series. It’s more about the characters and the plot. I have to admit, I only read the one and half of the novels, but I could already tell that there was a pattern, and I got bored.

Fantasy also doesn’t need to be medievally-based at all. V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic and its sequels hints at some research into the history and culture of Renaissance and Victorian England, but that’s not medieval. Likewise, Naomi Novik’s Temeraire dragon series is built on historically accurate life during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century.

Then there’s fantasy that’s built on mythologies, which often places them in somewhat medieval times or settings. Again turning to Naomi Novik, Uprooted is clearly based on Eastern European folklore; the Baba Yaga references give that away, as do some of the character names (I’d never heard of the names Agnieszka and Kasia until I met my Polish now aunt). The general time and place have a medieval feel, although not nearly as detailed as the likes of Tolkien and Rothfuss. I love Uprooted for many reasons, but it’s not as detailed in the same way.

Then there’s the fantasy that is based on myth but set at least partially in the modern world. For example, there’s Neil Gaiman’s adult novels, including Anansi Boys and American Gods, which are heavily based in African and Norse mythology respectively, though not exclusively. Then there’s the YA versions, most notably Rick Riordan’s series Percy Jackson for the Greek myths, and Magnus Chase for the Norse.

Eventually I’m going to need to get into the actual scholarship done on these questions, but for now I think it’s safe to at least say that modern fantasy literature has a serious debt to medieval literature and culture and probably history too.