"Setting the Lands in Order": Retelling the Fisher King Myth in Twain, Maugham, and Hemingway
© Denise C. White 2000

Excerpt from Chapter One: Myth, Archetype, and the Fisher King

Myths are the most powerful influences on works of literature.  They connect
us with our past and provide us with explanations of the mysteries of nature.  Joseph
Campbell described myths, which he also calls legends, as “bits of information from
ancient times, which have to do with the themes that have supported human life, built
civilizations, and informed religions over the millennia, have to do with deep inner
problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage” (Power of Myth 2).

If, as Joseph Campbell contends, myths are literature and archetypes are the means with which to communicate the essential knowledge of a culture to its descendants, then it is logical that literary analysis would involve a study of the archetypes and their meanings contained in the myths. The literary critic Northrop Frye became famous for "archetypal criticism." Frye states that

the myth is the central informing power that gives archetypal significance to the ritual and archetypal narrative to the oracle. Hence the myth is the archetype, though it might be convenient to say myth only when referring to narrative, and archetype when speaking of significance. (qtd. in Richter 648)

While Frye was clearly influenced by Jung's work, Jung provided "a grammar of literary symbolism" (Richter 641) that helped Frye explain that "the power of literature comes out of its evocation of archetypes that have a permanent place in human life" (Richter 641). Literature is, like other ancestral traditions, passed from one generation to the next, either directly or in pieces that eventually become "new" stories. If mankind first used stories and myths to explain his existence on earth, then it makes sense that the stories would reflect the "cyclical patterns of life on a planet that spins circling the sun" (Richter 641), and that "each generation rewrites the stories of the past in ways that make sense for it, recycling a vast tradition over the ages. The great myths of the gods, created in the vast dream of mankind in an almost prehistoric past, are converted into legends of semidivine heroes, then into stories of people very much like ourselves" (qtd. Richter 641-2).

Carl Jung, who began his career as a student of Sigmund Freud, discovered that the human psyche was not, as Freud had described it, a study in neurosis. Rather, Jung viewed the inner life of man as a "pursuit of a lifelong task: the achievement of individuation, including the harmonious wholeness of conscious and unconscious" (Richter 504). Jung spent the majority of his life doing psychoanalysis and dream analysis, and it became apparent to him that the same motifs kept re-appearing in his practice. Eventually, Jung formulated a theory that evolved from psychoanalysis-he called the recurring motifs archetypes and attributed them to the collective unconscious. Jung described the collective unconscious as the "racial memory, through which the spirit of the whole human species manifests itself" (qtd. in Richter 504). Further, he believed that this deep layer of the unconscious is not accessible through the techniques of analysis; we understand its existence through our profound response to universal symbols that appear both in dreams and in our waking lives. (Richter 504)

Jung's study of the human psyche was also aided by his work in comparative mythology and anthropology. Jung's "discoveries" were not new, and in fact, James Frazer's 1890 work, The Golden Bough, "revealed striking similarities between the myths and rituals of primitive peoples around the globe, peoples who seemed too distant to have influenced each other directly" (Richter 504).

In his introduction to The Golden Bough, Robert Fraser states that Frazer's extensive study of culture and belief came about because

the human mind, across a variety of cultures and times, and especially when trained upon the religious and magical, showed certain constancies. . . . [the purpose of the book] was to examine the refinements of such universal thought-processes, and their different ways of expressing themselves in a variety of places and periods. (The Golden Bough xx)

. . . . Jung concluded that the collective unconscious did indeed exist and that the similarities in mythologies in the world's cultures was "merely differing manifestations of structures deep in the human unconscious" (Richter 504). Jung defined the symbols as archetypes and said that they "manifested themselves not only in myth and in dreams but in the finished art of cultures like our own" (Richter 504). However, Jung "distinguished very strictly between the archetype itself, as a purely psychic structure, and its images: the representations the archetype takes within the symbolic fantasies created by the individual, and which then reappear in various forms in art and literature" (Richter 504). Myths are the stories that come out of the collective unconscious. Archetypes are, according to Joseph Campbell,

the common ideas of myths. They are elementary ideas, what could be called "ground" ideas. . . . "Archetype" is a better term because "elementary idea" suggests headwork. Archetypes of the unconscious means it comes from below. . . . All over the world and at different times of human history, these archetypes, or elementary ideas, have appeared in different costumes. The differences in the costumes are the results of environment and historical conditions. (Power of Myth 60)

A similar discussion of ancient forces and their continuance through the ages appears in Caitlin and John Matthews' study of Celtic wisdom and shamanism wherein they discuss the importance of ancestors. The Matthews say that

we inherit everything from the ancestors. They have gone before us and remain the repositories of the wisdom and knowledge of our tradition. . . . Who are the ancestors? This was something all Celtic people could answer, harking back many generations, for the genealogical memory was a common heritage. One of the major duties of poets and storytellers was to be a genealogical guardian, keeping the memory of long-dead ancestors fresh in praise-songs. The ancestors were those who had gone before-the brave, the disreputable, the holy and the beautiful. (115)

Clearly, there is a common theme in Jung, Campbell, and the Matthews-whether they are described as "ancestors," "elementary ideas," or "archetypes," the meaning is the same-the human psyche has evolved from many places and many times, and contains all of the elements necessary to make its possessor a potentially profound being.

Archetypes are not visible, nor can the psyche consciously "summon" them. They present themselves to the consciousness in the form of images which are characterized as the shadow, anima, animus, and spirit. Jung defined the shadow as "a demonic image of evil that represents the side of the Self that we reject" (Richter 505). Further, it is "a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort" (Richter 518). In The Grail Legend, Emma Jung cites Aion to complete the definition of the shadow:

psychologically the term "shadow" denotes the inferior and for the most part, darker or poorer character traits of a person which, though not much noticed by the conscious ego, coexists with it. Most often it is made up of traits of an emotional nature which possess a certain autonomy and which occasionally overrun the consciousness. These contents are partly of a personal nature and could, with moral effort, be observed in the light of self-knowledge. (56)

The anima is the feminine side of the male self, and "for men, the Anima, the Great Mother, is characteristically split in the shadow of the Shadow into the nurturing Mother, the tempting Whore, and the destroying Crone" (Richter 505). The anima "possesses all the outstanding characteristics of a feminine being" (Richter 521). The animus is the corresponding masculine side of the female self, and it is represented by a male form. The spirit is "symbolized by a wise old man or woman" (504). Together, the archetypes form what Jung called a syzygy, which is "a quaternion composing a whole, the unified self in which people are in search" (504). The syzygy is an equal balance of shadow, anima, animus, and spirit. Emma Jung states that "four-foldness is one of the most universal of symbols for the quaternity often appears as the expression or representation of the growth of consciousness" (84).

The growth of consciousness, or more simply, the process of achieving a balance of the four archetypal symbols, is called individuation. Individuation is

the process of becoming conscious, a process which evolves conjointly with the confrontation of the individual with the outer world on the one hand and of the individual with the objective inner world (the unconscious) on the other. (Jung 85)

Individuation does not take place because of a personal, conscious effort or decision. Rather, individuation comes about because the shadow presents itself in the form of a problem and the conscious becomes uncomfortable and seeks resolution. The result is the quest. In his introduction to Carl Jung's essays on archetypes, David Richter states that the

very search for unity can take the archetypal form of the Quest, in which the Self journeys to encounter the various elements that make it up, thereby forming relationships that constitute its individuality. . . the Quest itself often culminates in another archetype, the Night-Sea-Journey, a voyage from life through death to a new rebirth. (505)

The quest is the vehicle by which the conscious and unconscious become balanced when the psyche makes progress toward individuation. The psyche on its journey toward individuation is represented in literature as the hero and his quest.

The hero is the central figure in literary quests, and Joseph Campbell has dedicated many years of his work on mythology to the hero's quest and its significance to the collective unconscious. Carl Jung says that "taken purely as a psychologem the hero represents the positive, favorable action of the unconscious" (Symbols of Transformation 374). Emma Jung elaborates further by stating that when the hero becomes a knight, which will happen in the Fisher King myth, he "embodies the image of the higher man" (54). Further, he becomes "a superimposed ruling principle of consciousness" (55), an "energetic representative of worldly power" (60), and finally, the hero as knight "represents a higher, more differentiated form of warrior" (61). Every hero must perform a deed while on his journey (quest). One of these deeds, according to Campbell, is the physical deed "in which the hero performs a courageous act in battle or saves a life" (Power of Myth 152). The other is the spiritual deed "in which the hero learns to experience the supernormal range of human spiritual life and then comes back with a message" (POM 152).Campbell further contends that

The usual hero adventure begins with someone from whom something has been taken, or who feels there's something lacking in the normal experiences available or permitted to the members of his society. This person then takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost or to discover some life-giving elixir. (Power of Myth 152)

Campbell separates the hero's quest into three stages (based on Jung's idea of the Night-Sea-Journey) in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The three stages are 1) Separation or departure; 2) Trials and victories of initiation; and 3) The return and reintegration with society (36).

The separation, also described as the call to adventure, begins with the hero being prompted that some kind of a change is necessary. Sometimes, the prompt comes in the form of a blunder, which "reveals an unsuspected world, and the individual is drawn into a relationship with forces that are not rightly understood" (Hero 51), and leads to what can be described as "the opening of a destiny" (51). Campbell elaborates on this idea by stating, "the familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for the passing of a threshold is at hand" (Hero 51-2). The separation is a stage that creates a great deal of anxiety for the hero. He embarks on a journey toward the unfamiliar, and the "archetypal images are activated, symbolizing danger, reassurance, trial, passage, and the strange holiness of the mysteries of birth" (Hero 52).

The next stage of the hero's journey is initiation. In this stage, "the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms" (Hero 97) and must undergo a series of trials. The trials of the hero are the stories around which myth are written. Myth abounds with "miraculous tests and ordeals" (Hero 97) where the hero is "covertly aided by the advice, amulets, and secret agents of the supernatural helper whom he met before his entrance into this region. . . . it may be that he here discovers for the first time that there is a benign power everywhere supporting him in his superhuman passage" (Hero 97). The initiation is the stage in which all of the hero's "adventures" take place.

Only when the hero completes his initiation can he bring what he has learned back to his home. This stage is called the return. Campbell says, "when the hero-quest has been accomplished, through penetration to the source, or through the grace of some male or female, human or animal, personification, the adventurer still must return with his life-transmuting trophy" (193). Sometimes the hero refuses to return. In other cases, his return is made possible by what Campbell describes as "rescue from without" (207), in which the "world may have to come and get him" (207). The most common stage of the return is what Campbell calls the "magic flight" (196). In this stage, if the hero has accomplished the deed and has the support of the guardian of his prize, he returns to society with that guardian's help. If, on the other hand, the hero has gained his prize against the will of the guardian, the return becomes "a lively, often comical, pursuit" (197). The return, just like the separation, must be accomplished by crossing back over the threshold and into society. The hero balances himself between two worlds-that of his society and that of the supernatural from which he is to emerge-in order to bring the message of his quest back to his people. This stage, in Jungian psychology, is called individuation. The psyche has recognized and battled with the Shadow, faced the Anima and Animus, been assisted by the Spirit, and ultimately achieves balance by means of bringing together the conscious and the unconscious (Symbols of Transformation 301). Joseph Campbell states that the "end of the hero's journey is not the aggrandizement of the hero" (POM xiv), rather, he must bring back that which he learned in order to serve others with wisdom and power.